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(editor's note: geared toward romance writers, but chock-full
of the basics for writers of any genre. R)



Rona Sharon

So you have written a fabulous romance novel and want to get it published…  What now?

You need to pitch it, query-letter it, outline it in a synopsis, properly package it — and sell it! This is how you do it…


Having been asked about every single step I took to sell my first book, I decided to lay down the basic rules that paved my road to publication for the benefit of those of you who are just a few steps behind me in getting your stories out there.


Be advised! This article is by no means comprehensive and does not exempt you from digging up the pertinent information by yourself — the information you need to take the publishing industry by storm. It is a shortcut, a few guidelines I learned the hard way because I had no one to tell me where and how to begin.

Most of the information I offer here is available on-line, in books, and in magazines. I am not reinventing the wheel but merely offering a few tips and enclosing my personally recommended list of research material at the bottom of the article.


However, you may find here a little piece of information that no one will tell you…


So, back to that fabulous manuscript you have just written:

I suggest the first thing you check is your format. My first manuscript was initially 820 pages long before it dawned on me to find out:


1.   The word count range publishers are interested in.

2.   How to estimate/calculate my manuscript’s word count.


The formula is simple:


Your manuscript’s page count X 250 (the average word count per page in a properly formatted manuscript) = your manuscript’s total word count (approx)


The average word count for a long romance novel is 100,000 - equals 400 pages.


Regarding format: If your manuscript is not properly formatted, it will smack of amateurism, and that will reflect poorly on you. Already you are competing against thousands of new and established writers — why spoil your chances with an unprofessional packaging?


You can find the proper format details in dozens of books, but here are the basics:


  1. 1’’ margins (top-bottom-left-right.)

  2. A header (0.5’’ from the top of the page) divided into 4 categories:


TITLE                CHAPTER #(in words)               YOUR FULL NAME PAGE#


  1. Double-space your paragraphs. (This is where I miscalculated. I wrote 400 pages, single-spaced. Properly formatted, the mountain I printed out the first time I got THE request to send out my manuscript did not look tempting to read at all. It looked like an atomic bomb. I sat gaping at it, horrified, and wondered — seriously! — how it would ever fit into a padded envelope, let alone into the little mass market paperback cover.)

  2. Each new chapter begins on a new page, on the 3rd double-spaced line. You underline the words Chapter One, drop down 2 lines and begin your chapter.

  3. Use the font Times New Roman (size 12) and do not try to squeeze in the letters or lines. Agents and editors will spot your tricks immediately. You don’t want to make a wrong impression right from the start.

  4. Justify your lines, unless the agent or editor you are soliciting asks you not to. Some books will tell you not to — I do. IMHO it looks better.


Know this? Okay, let’s move on.


Be a nerd. Go by the rules. Put a cover page, detailing your personal info (full name, snail address, phone numbers, and emails), the title of the manuscript, and the approximate word count at the bottom of the page. Use a fresh ink cartridge and good paper. Be neat. Be professional. Show them you are serious.


Next, I would recommend you go over your manuscript AGAIN. I can tell you — as an author and an avid reader — that your first page, your first paragraph, your very first line is crucial. Don’t slog into the story. Start it with a “slap-in-the-face” action. Yank your reader into the story and don’t let go.


In MY WICKED PIRATE, Lady Alanis is rudely awakened by her ship’s officer informing her that they are being attacked by pirates. He barely finishes his sentence and the cutthroats’ guns are roaring on the horizon, launching a broadside. Time to run! But we know this wicked pirate is so going to get her…


In ONCE A RAKE, Miss Isabel Aubrey dares to knock on the door of London’s most whispered-about recluse, a wounded cavalry colonel, a man she secretly fancied as a fifteen year old girl — and the butler slams the door in her flushed face! What’s next? It’s obvious she is NOT about to give up now, not after she has waited so long to see Ashby… What will she do? Find out!


When you will offer your readers a sneak preview at your novel, you will want to present the first chapter — logical, right?! IMHO, offering a second chapter hints at a slowly unraveling story, or worse — maybe the first chapter shouldn’t even be included in the book. Maybe this prologue could be told later. Consider that when embarking on your very first chapter…


Robert McKee, whose seminar I attended a few years ago (and which I strongly recommend to novelists) says, “Start from the middle.”

Don’t tell us how she buried her parents — show us how she behaves NOW because of her grief and hardship, how it influences her first important encounter with the man who will turn out to be the love of her life!

Let us wonder about the rest and just when we ask ourselves, “But why did she do…?” then you can tell us — and preferably the hero — the heroine’s secrets.

If we haven’t yet reached the point when we want answers — don’t tell us.


When you will reach the stage when you want to create a pre-release buzz for your upcoming debut book — yes, the moment will come!— you will examine your first chapter and think, “Hmm, I should have started it faster.” Because it will dawn on you that unless your story grabs readers from the start, they will not be interested in reading the rest of the book, even though it is fabulous.


Publishers offer an excerpt on the opening page of the book before the title page that is supposed to showcase the first kiss. A hot kiss is well and good, but if chapter one is a slow-paced turtle, readers might put the book down.


Ages ago writers could start their books with 50 pages of landscape descriptions, because back in those days, books answered people’s needs to travel when they couldn’t and to see things that they never would. Nowadays, we have TV, movies, internet, and very cheap airline tickets. We know a lot and don’t need long introductions. Readers zap books. Catch their attention fast and hold it with action. Don’t give them time to ask themselves, “Well, what comes next?” 


On the other hand, do not skip the “starting event,” the trigger, which Aristotle referred to as Deus-ex-Machina, “God in the Machine.” This event sets off the entire story. If you are writing romance, then your “event” is the first — or first significant — encounter between the hero and heroine, the one that launches the romance. We buy romances because we want to see the lead characters together! Give it to us with a slap in the face, or in the hero’s face…


Your next step is to make sure you did your job and penned down at least three acts: I. Beginning; II. Middle; III. End. It is the natural order of things.


Shakespeare wrote more, but never less. Writing two acts is… not enough. It means your outline does not have enough meat and perhaps should be revised.


Readers are smart ducks. They are always smarter than the author, just as the movie theatre audience is smarter than the director. How many times have you thought, “Gees, could they not tell this was a bad movie while filming it? So many great stories out there, and they waste millions on trash…”


Writers — and I am speaking from personal experience — tend to lose their objectivity in their own stories. It is like looking at a mirror. The person standing next to you sees a whole lot more and better than you ever will…


Try to improve your objectivity. If you hit a snag in the book you are writing, or when it’s done, put it aside for a while, go do other things, forget it for a few days, then go back and rediscover it. You’ll be amazed.  


Great! Your story is fabulous. The format is correct. No misspelling, no word confusion, good grammar. Your prose is delightful (and hopefully humorous.) Your vocabulary is diverse, fits the setting, and is not over the top.


What do you do with your masterpiece now?


You print it out and RE-read it! Just to triple-check yourself. Actually you do that every time you change a word or insert a comma. I once sent out my novel with a very interesting typo: “The couch trundled on the road…” Get it? I was aiming for a “carriage” and sent out a “sofa.” Ha, ha. Trust me — you do not want to lose sleep over stupid typos that make you look bad. Don’t expect your mistakes to be corrected by the publishing house. Their editors are human, like the rest of us. Sometimes they miss a typo, sometimes they insert one. Readers are not so forgiving. It is your job to proofread your manuscript up to the production stage.


Selling time! You have a number of options:


  1. Submit it to an official, well-known contest.

  2. Write a professional query letter to an agent, asking h/h to read your book.

  3. Pitch your book at a writers’ conference.



Since I never entered a contest, I have no words of wisdom to impart. It did write a few query letters. My final version — when I finally got the hang of it — got me tons of positive responses. Sadly, my manuscript was humongous, so eventually, even the agents who loved it sent me back to the “editing room.”


Here are a few tips on how to compose a professional “slam dunk” query letter:


  1. Make sure you know your specific reader’s query guidelines. Some agents will only read a letter. Others ask you to include three chapters.

  2. Your letter should be a single, nicely spaced page that includes your info, the date, the agent’s info, your pitch, and your signature. Don’t cram it and don’t exceed the one page limit. If you have no idea how a business letter should look like, consult a handbook that illustrates the rules of composing formal letters. No typos! No mistakes! It is a short letter. Make it perfect.

  3. Your subject line: It is important to state your subgenre — be specific.

i.e. Re: Query: Proposed: Long paranormal romance novel: Title

  1. First line: Your introduction line should tell the reader what you want from h/h. i.e. “Please allow me to present Title and ask whether you would be interested in reading my manuscript. Here is the basic storyline:”

    Do not waste your reader’s time or distract h/h from your pitch with stories about yourself, what your neighbor thought of your novel, or even with your background. If you do not have a PhD in literature, stick to the story — it is your first manuscript that you are selling, not yourself. Not at this stage, anyway.

  2. The body of the letter is your pitch. Make it short, simple, smart!

    Just tell the story. Do not embellish unless it is absolutely necessary. (i.e. — if your hero is scarred and it moves the plot, mention it; if he is scarred because you think it’s sexy — don’t mention it.)

    Your reader will devote about thirty seconds to your letter. He has probably read thousands like yours. Make your plotline stand out with action. Read book blurbs and make a study of them — what works for you, what doesn’t.

    You are summarizing a movie to your best friend, who has the attention span of a 3 year old, who is also a movie buff and has seen everything from Casablanca to Pirates of the Caribbean. Tell him the story in a way that will intrigue him and convince him — fast — why he HAS to go see this movie.

    But remember that you have to give agents/editors more plot than back cover blurbs reveal, because they want to know everything straight off. They are determining if your story is worthy of their time. Manuscripts take hours to read. They don’t care to waste their time on unprofessional novels.

  3. When you’re done, read your query aloud and time yourself. 250 words is your absolute limit. A good motto to adopt here is: “Less is more.”

  4. Do not forget to thank the reader for h/h time and express your hope to hear from h/h soon.

  5. Attach SASH if you want your material back.


Don’t send out queries to all the agents on your list all at once. Send five and see how people respond to your letter. All rejections? Improve your pitch and send out five more. IMPLEMENT what agents are kind enough to advise you to change.


A strong, professional query letter works! It CAN get you the agent that will get you the book deal. Don’t jot something down offhandedly. Improve and perfect. Give it to intelligent friends to read. Implement what they say, even if they are not “in the know.” They are readers — your future readers.

A professional writer should master all forms of “telling.” You should be able to tell your story in 10 words, in 25 words, in 50 words, in 100 words, in 250 words, in 500 words, in 5000 words (the dreaded synopsis,) and in 100,000 words (the manuscript.) You’d be surprised at the various lengths of pitches you will be asked to compose for different purposes: for agents, editors, ads, promos, etc.


And now, ladies and gentlemen — the PITCH!


Pitching someone in person is a scary endeavor. I should know; it did it. You find yourself worrying about your clothes, your hair, if your deodorant is fresh, etc.

Here are a few tips to successfully pitch your manuscript:


Compose a great pitch — short, simple, smart! — and make sure it fits the time limit you have. Don’t cheat. Speak normally when reading it aloud to yourself.

You’re probably thinking, “How do I do that? How do I know what to tell? My book is long and complex, with a gazillion twists and turns and details… How do I pick and choose?”

Let me offer you the best advice I ever got about pitching. The friend who offered it to me is a successful New York PR agent who never worked with a writer before. She said: “When we shoot a commercial, we summon hundreds of models and line them up side by side. Then, we walk by them swiftly, looking for models that could fit our concept. We know what we don’t need, but we don’t know exactly what we do need, so we look at everyone. The whole process takes seconds.”


She told me to lose all the unnecessary makeup and trimmings. If they don’t need a blond model, it doesn’t matter if he is wearing Versace. Agents know what they can and cannot sell to editors. So even if your demon angel is the sexiest thing ever invented in the history of paranormal romance, but your agent doesn’t think he can sell it to any of his contacts, no amount of sexy descriptions will help you.


The only thing that could help you is to tell the agent A STORY that will knock her socks off. Make her think, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Not exactly what I need, but maybe it is so fabulous… the plotline is so good…” Action sells; not descriptions.


After introducing yourself, tell your listener the title, the specific genre, the setting — briefly — and go straight to the story.
Pitch the spine of your storyline in 150 words or less (this should last one minute.) If you have more time, say five minutes, prepare a five minute pitch under the same guidelines. Remember, you are working from the very core of the story outward. The more time you have, the more you can elaborate — not embellish.


Know your pitch by heart and speak clearly. Be nice, kind, and polite. Thank your listener. Do not impose yourself, but do not run away either.


My first pitching experience will be forever burnt in my recollection. It was terrifyingly wonderful, like a roller-coaster ride. My voice shook, my hands were cold, I was sweating… Since then, I have pitched many different stories to my agent and editor — and you know what? You get better and better at it. So practice.


I cannot tell you the number of people I spoke with — and coached a little — at the RT convention in Houston. And it all boils down to this: Your lead characters ARE your story. We want to know: Who are they? Where/what are they coming from? What happens to them? What do they do about it? Hint at a HEA. That’s it.


The “who”, “where”, or “what” is your introduction — keep it short.


The “what happens to them” is the “starting event.” Robert McKee says that the “event” is an action that rocks the very foundation of a lead character’s life (think Bruce Willis) — negatively or positively. From this moment on, the protagonist will do anything to re-balance his life. If the hero meets the heroine and wants her, from this moment on he will do anything to possess her, in spite of inner and outer obstacles. If your setting sounds interesting and the “event” is very interesting — you’ve grabbed your listener’s attention. Now give them a satisfying line or two (depends on how much time you have) about the meaty middle, and finish it off.


The “meaty” part is the second act. For example, suppose the heroine is an abused wife that one day — triggered by the “event” — decides to leaves her abusive spouse and change her life for the better. The middle is her ascent to a HEA; it is lined with conflicts and obstacles. Okay, she left the bastard — what now? Where does she go? How does she survive? Whom does she meet? And what is the problem with the new and promising relationship? That’s your middle — here is where you “cinch” it.


In the manuscript, the problem is a series of difficulties that should become harder and harder, not the other way around. We want to see her overcoming tougher and greater obstacles while at the same time she is actually improving her lot and moving toward “the light.” The end is the final trial she faces and prevails over.


Now, how do you put this big chunk of middle into 20 words or less?

Pick her major second act crisis — she met this wonderful man but… he is this and that… she is this and that… Remember, if the “event” felt like a slap-in-the-face, kick-to-the-gut action, the middle is where you insert a little bit of drama. You’re building tension because this is what your book is really about, the reason your listener will ask to read the entire novel. He wants to find out exactly what your heroine is facing and how she successfully achieves/wins her HEA.


Robert McKee gives the perfect example of why the middle is actually what the story is about. The part that distinguishes the movie WITNESS starring Harrison Ford is not the good cop battling against crooked cops storyline — it is the part about a tough, modern day, big city cop coming to live with the Amish!


The story of our abused woman is not about why she left her husband — it is about her creating a new life for herself. How does she do it? What are her obstacles? How does she make it in the end and what are her rewards? Of course, it could be a different story about a woman trying to leave her husband. Stick to your game plan. Give the reader what he is expecting to get but NOT the way he expects it.


When you are pitching, let your listener know that your middle is what he expects BUT with a twist he hasn’t heard before. In other words — “same but different.”


There is nothing about human nature that is new under the sun. I read 70 bc Roman poets, and they sound like today’s columnists — good columnists. They tell men how to woe women, they tell women how to entice men. Same but different.


Give us “same but different” — and make it great!  


My list of Helpful Material:



Cover Image:  The Evan Marshall Plan for NOVEL WRITING, by Evan MarshallThe Evan Marshall Plan for NOVEL WRITING by Evan Marshall

This book has it all from beginning to end. Want to write and don’t know where to start, how to go on, how to make your book great? This book is excellent! The author also has a workbook in print and is working on developing a computer program for new writers. I can’t wait to see that!






Cover Image: You can Write a Romance, by Rita Clay Estrada and Rita GallagherYou Can Write a Romance by Rita Clay Estrada & Rita Gallagher

My best friend got me this book when I was writing my novel — and I will always be grateful to her. This book is a wonderful guide. It taught me the rules of proper formatting and directed me to the most helpful websites. The book is thin and concise and very helpful.




Cover Image: Business Writer's Handbook by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, and Walter E. OliuThe Business Writer’s Handbook by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Alred, and Walter E. Oliu

Don’t know how to compose business letters? This is the book for you. It contains all the rules you need to polish your professional correspondence.





Cover Image: Store: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKeeStory: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

I can’t rave enough about this book. In addition to teaching you quite a bit about writing well, it also covers the history of writing, offering endless examples from the world’s finest storytellers and the classic teachers. It is intelligent, informative, psychologically fascinating — you name it. It will open up a new world to you, guaranteed to kick your writing up a few notches!






Cover Image: How to Write a Romance, by Kathryn Falk (Romantic Times Magazine Founder)How To Write A Romance For The New Market and get it Published by Kathrine Falk  (founder of RT Magazine)

Reading this book will tell you straight off if you know what you are doing, egg you on, and help you hone your craft.






Cover Image: Agents, Editors, and You, the Insider's Guide to Getting your Book PublishedAgents, Editors, And You, the Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published

This book answers a lot of questions regarding the industry, things you should know as a professional novelist. I was particularly interested in learning how publishing houses work and what happens to my manuscript once it hits the editor’s desk. The explains the process in details.




Cover Image: The Evan Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published, by Evan Marshall

The Evan Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published by Evan Marshall

A must book! This book tells you everything you need to know about selling your book. Plus, it teaches you how to write a great, professional synopsis!





Cover Image: How NOT To Write a Screenplay, by Denny Martin Flinn

How NOT To Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn

Do not dismiss this book out of hand just because it centers on screenwriting. Remember the part about putting action into your very first line? This book can teach you a lot about moving the plot faster and better, especially if you are a novelist. It is short and brilliant.






Cover Image: Writer’s Guide to BOOK Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents 
by Jeff Herman
Writer’s Guide to BOOK Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents
by Jeff Herman

Basically, “yellow pages” for writers. It lists agents, editors, and publishers — the people you need to contact in order to get your book published. Get the newest edition, find the agents/editors interested in the type of book you just finished writing, and send them query letters. It works!




Cover Image: Writer’s Market – 8000 Editors Who Buy What You Write 
by Robert Lee Brewer, Chuck SambuchinoWriter’s Market — 8000 Editors Who Buy What You Write
by Robert Lee Brewer, Chuck Sambuchino


Another “yellow pages” book for writers. It tells you exactly what specific agents and editors are looking for. The lists that appear in this book do not always match the lists in the above book. Broaden your selection.


Cover Image: The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines 
by Tami D. Cowen, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders

The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines
by Tami D. Cowen, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders

This book offers a wide variety of typical protagonists. It is the only book on my list that I haven’t read. But I own it and plan on reading it soon.


Great technical guidebooks on how to correct your English:

Cover Image: The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, by Robert Hartwell FiskeThe Dictionary of Disagreeable English
by Robert Hartwell Fiske



Cover Image:  Grammatically Correct , by Anne StilmanGrammatically Correct
by Anne Stilman


Cover Image: The Elements of Style 
by William Strunk and E.B. WhiteThe Elements of Style
by William Strunk and E.B. White




Yes, I do own all of these books, and have read all of them but one, which I plan to read soon. And you should, too. Why? Because it does not matter how great a storyteller — or excuse maker *tongue in cheek* — you are (I have been one since learning how to speak). There is a HUGE difference between storytelling and writing a story. Each requires an additional set of skills. Learn your craft! Hone it!


Websites and magazines for authors:

Find out about contests, agents, conferences…

1.          www.writersdigest.comWriter’s Digest

2.          www.writersmarket.comWriter’s Market

3.          http://www.rwanational.orgRomance Writers of America


These books, the websites and their magazines offer information you need to write a solid novel and get it published. There are no shortcuts in today’s market. Some writers get lucky and sell their first book fast — but I bet they did the work. I know I did.

Good luck in selling your first novel! I can’t wait to read it.

   Rona Sharon

Copyright © 2007 Rona Shanon

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