~ Interview by Laura Kaye
The Contemporary Romance Writers are thrilled to have Entangled Publishing editor Heather Howland here today to share her expertise on contemporary romance and consider YOUR pitches as part of our first-ever pitch contest. Instructions on the pitch contest are down below, but first please pull up a chair and get a pen and paper, because you’re going to want to take notes on the awesome and useful advice Heather has laid out here for writers at all levels.
Contemporary Romance: Welcome! Can you share what lines, imprints, or genres you edit at your publishing house?
Heather Howland: Thank you for having me today! Contemporary romance is my favorite genre, so I’m giddy about the opportunity to chat with authors who share my passion for the here and now. As for what I edit, I’m a Jill-of-all-trades kind of girl, so I work with all the genres Entangled publishes. Most of my focus is on the Brazen, Teen, Embrace (New Adult), and Select (single-title) imprints, though.
CR: In general, what’s the difference for you between a good submission and one makes you say I must acquire this?
HH: The voice. I know it terrifies authors when I say this, but I generally know within a paragraph whether I want to acquire a book. Within a page or two for sure. The query letter may wow me with the premise, but it’s not until I crack open those first pages that I know. It’s a pretty quick process from there. This is why I ask for the first 100 words in pitch contests. That’s all it takes!
CR: What do you think a great adult, new adult, or young adult contemporary romance must have?
HH: I’ll go into this more in my next response, but I’m a firm believer that the best contemporary romances pay as much attention to the details and world building as, say, an epic fantasy. Will you devote hundreds of pages to describing the world and the characters’ clothing? No. But savvy contemporary authors weave in just enough of those details to make their book really stand out. The challenge lies in the “how” of it.
CR: What do you think a writer needs to do in terms of story, writing, premise, etc., to make a contemporary story stand out?
HH: Standing out is all about the little things. Voice can hook a reader in an instant, but it’s the relatability of the characters and how they interact with their world that really draws us in. How you create relatability is in the details—descriptions of the characters and their particular quirks, how they see (and what they do with/within) the world around them, and the beliefs they stick to, no matter how obscure. If a character is relatable, we’ll believe anything they do because it makes sense. And while there’s a lot of focus on world building in the paranormal, fantasy, and futuristic genres, setting is just as important in a contemporary book. I find myself most engrossed in stories where the setting is practically a character in and of itself. The key is balancing these details with the story so you’re not bogging down your pacing. Word choice and actions convey tone and characterization better than a paragraph of description. Find that balance and master it.
CR: What are the most common mistakes you see in submissions?
HH: The #1 mistake I see is authors submitting manuscripts that aren’t ready, be it because they haven’t mastered their craft, or that they didn’t care enough to run even the simplest of spellchecks before sending it in. Beyond that, telling rather than showing. Sex for the sake of making a book sexy. Clichéd plot lines and characterizations that aren’t unique enough to draw me—or readers who devour hundreds of books every year—in long enough to want to finish the story.
CR: Is there anything about a story itself likely to turn you off on a manuscript, even if the mechanics are quite good?
HH: I have really specific pet peeves my authors happily tease me about on Twitter. If it’s easily fixable, I won’t let it stop me from acquiring a book I otherwise adore, but things like gore and zombies and sexytimes cleanliness issues (stop laughing, Laura Kaye!) are triggers for me.
I will say, Entangled has a pretty strict policy regarding infidelity in relationships. If you’ve written a book in which the protagonist is married (or even newly separated, but not yet divorced) and is looking to explore his or her sexuality, Entangled isn’t the right home for your book. Multiple partners outside of a ménage setting is also a no-go for us. Similarly, while we adore the wrong bed trope, if at any time it crosses the line to where someone accidentally cheats on their significant other, we’ll pass, even if the indiscretion leads the character to “the one.”
CR: What’s the best and worst part of your editing job?
HH: The best part of my job is the friendships I’ve formed with many of my authors. That may be odd to hear from an editor, but in an industry that often feels solitary, I think it’s important to build a community. I’m just as invested in their careers as they are—especially with the business model Entangled utilizes—and I love helping them succeed. The unending supply of fantastic books and discovering diamonds in the rough are equally thrilling.
The worst part of my job is having to reject a manuscript. I’m an author myself so I understand how it feels to put yourself (because let’s be honest—it’s not your work, it’s you) out there, and be told you’re lacking. This is why I despise form rejection letters and try to add a sentence or two telling the author why the book didn’t work for me. I want authors to walk away from a rejection with something tangible to work with. I will form reject books so far outside what we publish that it’s clear the author didn’t put any time into researching our company, though.
CR: Before acquisition, how important is a writer’s platform to you? To your publishing house?
HH: It’s less important to me, personally, because I love to take new authors and turn them into bestsellers. That said, having a platform already in place is HUGELY beneficial to authors (and will save them time when I start prodding them to create one). I recommend you at least have a professional-looking website and a Twitter account that you’re using to interact with other authors before querying. Social media works best when it’s social, not promotional. Keep that in mind.
CR: Can you offer some encouraging words of advice to aspiring authors who haven’t received their first contract yet?
HH: Keep writing. And when you’re not writing, read everything you can get your hands on. It’s cliché, but the only way to understand your genre and improve your craft is to read and write, learn from every book you finish, and then read and write some more. Wash, rinse, repeat. The bonus? When you finally are offered a contract and the agent or editor asks, “what else do you have,” you’re prepared!
I also tell writers to write what they love. It doesn’t matter if there’s a market for it right now or not—there probably will be in a couple years, and you’ll be prepared. Editors (and readers) can tell when someone wrote a book because it’s what’s “hot” rather than writing what they’re comfortable with. A couple of years ago, authors flocked to YA. Now they’re flocking to new adult. Publishing is a business, yes, but it’s important to be yourself. Not all genres are for everyone.
CR: What is on your wish list of story types to acquire?
HH: Contemporary romance! I would love to see single-title contemporary in particular. Category romance is one of Entangled’s specialties so we’re always looking for those as well. My tastes tend to veer toward high heat levels (I freak out when an author slams the door in my face when I’ve gotten to what I anticipate being a steamy sex scene—I am the Brazen editorial director!), but I’m open to moderate heat levels as well. Sweet romance would be better suited to one of our other editors. I’m also not a fan of cozy mysteries, but there are plenty of editors at Entangled who are.
CR: Thanks for agreeing to do a pitch contest today! What genres, subgenres, and/or word counts are you open to considering?
HH: I’ll look at anything between 15k and 100k (top end negotiable based on the depth of the story—that’s pretty high for contemporary). If it’s not for me but I see potential, I’ll request it for another Entangled editor to look at. We recently absorbed our novella imprints into the larger full-length imprints (Flaunts became Brazen novellas, Flirts became Blisses or Indulgences, etc.) so if you’re pitching anything under 40k, I’ll be looking for series potential or a tie to a full-length series.
After years of editing in the legal, industrial, and technical sectors, Heather Howland packed up her desk and dove into her true passion—romance. Prior to teaming up with Liz Pelletier to found Entangled Publishing, she worked as a freelance fiction editor, as well as the acquisitions editor for a small romance publisher. She’s now the editorial director of Entangled’s bestselling Brazen imprint, and edits popular authors such as NYT bestsellers Katee Robert, Laura Kaye, and Tessa Bailey, USA Today bestsellers Cari Quinn, and Misty Evans, and up-and-coming rock stars Tonya Burrows, Nicolette Day, and Samanthe Beck. Heather holds a BS in creative writing and psychology, and enjoys mentoring authors through the writing and editing process. She’s always on the lookout for sexy contemporary romance and dark, twisty, psychological YA/NA.
Blog: http://editingcave.com/ (called Tales from the Editing Cave)
PITCH CONTEST INSTRUCTIONS
Authors are invited to submit their query blurb and first 100 words for Heather’s consideration. Also feel free to post questions to Heather, but please do so in a separate post from your pitch submission. The contest will run until midnight PST today, 2/24 – pitches submitted after this time will not be entered. Authors who Heather requests materials from will be announced within a week, so check back! And good luck!
Today’s pitch contest is open to everyone – members or non-members. But we invite non-members to consider joining our chapter so you don’t miss out on other exciting events and opportunities!
Please submit your pitch for Heather’s consideration in the following format. Please conform your blurb and story submissions to the below word counts.
Finished Word Count:
Maximum 200-word blurb:
First 100 words of your story: