The Contemporary Romance Writers Chapter is thrilled to have Peter Senftleben, Associate Editor at Kensington Books, here today to share his expertise on contemporary romance! 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 Peter has laid out here for writers at all levels. Afterward, stick around for Q&A with Peter. Post your questions as a comment and he’ll be available to answer.
Peter Senftleben is an associate editor at Kensington Books, where he is managing his own varied and distinguished list. He joined Kensington in 2006 after sharpening his editorial skills and red pencil while working at literary agencies. A graduate of Tulane University with a degree in chemical engineering and math (yes, math), Peter occasionally indulges the numbers side of his brain with a challenging Sudoku puzzle or by baking, but he can more often be seen watching trashy television shows.
Peter is currently acquiring many types of fiction; his interests include: mysteries, thrillers, psychological suspense, literary commercial fiction, all subgenres of romance at all heat levels, gay fiction, horror, and new adult. Peter is often drawn to quirky, offbeat projects with distinctive voices, stunning writing, realistic characters, and stories that will make him LOL (literally), cry in public, scare the bejeezus out of him, or engage him so deeply that he skips meals. He does not want to see anything with terrorists of any kind.
by Abigail Owen
CR: What do you think a great contemporary romance must have?
PS: For me, it’s not that different from other romance subgenres. I want characters who have great chemistry, whom I like and want to see together, and who face realistic obstacles, either internally or externally. I still see a lot of romances where the things keeping the main couple apart feel forced and/or easily overcome, and that doesn’t make for a very interesting story to me. I’m also a sucker for sharp banter, but that depends on the tone of the book. I love when I’m nearing the end of a romance and I start to believe that there’s no way this couple will end up together—even though I know they will; if you can make their black moments so deep and dark that I question a happy ending, it makes the resolution so much sweeter.
CR: What influences your decision to read a submission most (ex. topic, a great query letter, synopsis, it varies)?
PS: The query letter is still very important because I just don’t have the time to read even a few pages of every submission I get. (Some agents and editors differ on this, so make sure to check submission guidelines!) For contemporary romance especially, I hope to see some sort of hook in the query that will set it apart from all of the others that are already on the shelf, on my list, or about to come out. I also like to get a sense of the voice, if possible, and the conflict(s) the characters will face.
CR: What are the most common mistakes you see in submissions?
PS: Most often, the mistakes are technical: head hopping, tense switching, grammar. I also see a lot of stories that have no real conflict, or the stakes are so low that it feels like there’s no conflict. And that leads to a boring read, which no one wants. Another frequent issue is stilted dialogue, which is especially noticeable in contemporaries.
CR: Is there anything about a story itself likely to turn you off on a manuscript, even if the mechanics are quite good?
PS: For a romance, there are a lot of clichés or overused plot devices. It’s one thing to consciously, purposefully tackle a trope from another angle, but it’s another if I can predict everything about it. That’s a sign of an author who hasn’t read widely in the genre, which is very important in setting oneself apart. Outside of that, there are things that are simply distasteful (on the page rape, child abuse, that kind of thing) and will turn me off. (Coincidentally, that might also be connected to not being well-read and knowing what flies and what doesn’t.) I have personal taste quirks, too, like alphahole heroes; I understand how readers can like them, but they’re not for me. Ditto anything religious and preachy; Christian and inspirational romance is a huge category, but that’s not what I enjoy.
CR: What is a typical day in the life of editor, Peter Senftleben?
PS: Email, email, email, Twitter, email, meeting, sign off on stuff, email, Twitter, email. LOL
Seriously, there’s really no typical day. A lot of it is spent doing whatever needs to be done to meet the next deadline: write an art sheet, fill out a title information sheet, put a manuscript into production, review revisions, look at copyedited manuscripts, tweak cover copy, provide information to other departments. Most of the day is answering emails from agents and authors—managing everything that’s going on—and meeting in-house about different aspects of the books. Today I got to choose a model for a cover photo shoot. There is almost NO actual editing, or even reading, done in the office unless I’m lucky and have some free time. So I read submissions on the subway to and from work, often for a little bit at home at night, and edit at home on the weekend.
CR: Do contests and/or conferences result in a lot of contracts for you? Or is it about the same as standard submissions via email?
PS: No, unfortunately, they don’t. I’ve only signed four authors I’ve met at conferences, in the eight years I’ve been going. I always hope to find more, though! I haven’t done the math, but comparing in-person pitches to unsolicited queries, it might be a similar percentage.
CR: What are the best and worst parts of your job?
PS: The best part for me is working with writers to make their work even better. I get immense satisfaction from helping authors polish their books. The worst is seeing books that I absolutely love either get bad reviews or not sell well. It can be very frustrating when an account carries so few copies of a book that it’s nearly impossible for readers to even find it.
CR: Before acquisition, how important is a writer’s platform to you? To publishing houses?
PS: For fiction, it’s not that important. Of course, it helps if an author is a known name or has some expertise in an aspect of what she writes, but I’m not going to turn down a great project simply because an author is new and doesn’t have an established audience already. There’s plenty of time between acquisition and publication to cultivate an online presence. It’s much more important with non-fiction, though.
CR: What is on your wish list of story types to acquire at the moment?
PS: I’ve been on a suspense/thriller/mystery kick lately. I’m also interested in more romantic suspense, too. I really want to see more romances, either contemporary or historical, in a unique setting. Contemps with non-white characters would be great, too, as would more LGBT romance—but I’m very picky about the portrayal of any minority characters.
CR / PS: Goofy Speed Round (Try to limit each answer to 1 word only.):
- What turns you on? Wordplay 🙂
- What turns you off? A lot!
- What is your favorite word? Please
- What is your least favorite word? P***y (the synonym for cat)
- What sound or noise do you love? Rain (or the ocean)
- What sound or noise do you hate? Loud talkers
- What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Pastry chef
- What profession other than yours would you NOT like to attempt? Sky dive instructor
- What is your favorite swear word? All of them strung together!
- What is your favorite food? Lasagna, pizza, sesame chicken, nachos, cheese, chocolate. Not all strung together.
Thank you so much for stopping by Peter, we really appreciate it and hope you’ll come back soon!
Now, let’s bring on the Q&A. Writers, post your questions for Peter as a comment and he’ll be available to answer.