Turns out, you can judge a book by its cover. In August, Harlequin Desire has a new cover look, and the stories are getting bolder, too. SYTYCW will be checking in with Desire all month, starting today with a Desire editor roundtable. Watch our video introduction, and read the full transcript of the discussion that ensued.
Make a Date with Desire
SYTYCW Editor Roundtable
Stacy Boyd: Hi, my name is Stacy Boyd. I am senior editor with Harlequin Desire.
Charles Griemsman: And I’m Charles Griemsman, editor with Desire.
Tahra Seplowin: And I’m Tahra Seplowin. I’m assistant editor with Desire, and fun fact, I’m also with HQN and Graydon House.
SB: I started in 2010, which is actually after Charles. I think he’s the person who’s been on the line the longest.
CG: Yeah, 2009 for me.
SB: And we actually first both came from Special Edition. So we came from home and family into passion.
CG: Yes… step up.
CG: No, nothing against Special Edition.
SB: No, we love Special Edition.
TS: And I started in 2014…I think.
SB: Yeah, if I could remember dates, then I would be in better shape.
CG: Speaking of dates, this is Make a Date with Desire month, and Stacy’s gonna tell us what that’s all about.
What is it that defines Desire? What does it mean that stories are getting bigger and more dramatic?
SB: This is our refreshed look for Desire debuting on the shelves in August. August 1 is when our ebooks come out. And the second Tuesday in August is when our print books hit the shelves. So, you should see bolder looks and snappy copy. And the stories inside are going to be more dramatic as well.
So, we want to talk about what does that mean, more drama in Desire? I would say the very first thing, even though we’re saying more drama, is that the emphasis in the story is still on the romance. The romance drives the plot. Still always passion and desire. But that said, we’re looking for a bigger world for our heroes and heroines. We want to see dynasties, loyalties, friendships, partnerships, families. It’s a world beyond just the hero and heroine, and we as readers get a sense of where they belong in the world.
Charles: We’re actually filming this a little early, in July, so we don’t have the August books on hand yet. We get the books when the readers get the books. But I’ll show you one of the books I worked on from July—it’s The Forbidden Brother by Joanne Rock. It’s part of a larger miniseries she’s doing but these three books have secondary characters with scenes in their POV. They’re not necessarily going to get their own romance but there’s an arc over the next three books that’s fascinating and all these family secrets come out. It’s very exciting. Then she’ll have another book in August called Wild Wyoming Nights, and then in September, One Night Scandal tops it out at the end, which blew my mind. It’s interesting because it really still has to be focused on the romance but there’s all this other stuff going on. So I don’t know how she did it and kept it under fifty thousand words, which she did for each of these books. But that’s the trick: making the story bigger but keeping the word count the same. That’s one of the challenges.
TS: Very, very tight pacing and plotting. Another great book that Stacy’s been raving about to all of us is The Baby Claim by Catherine Mann.
SB: Yeah. Joanne and Cathy are actually critique partners so maybe they’ve been learning together. But Cathy was our first author to do subplots and secondary POVs in the line and she did a fantastic job launching her Alaskan Oil Barons series with The Baby Claim. It is so dramatic. There is so much action even just in the first chapter. We did a reader roundtable at the office and I think everyone at the table said this one we want to read all the way to the end. So we’re hoping that’s what it’s going to feel like every time a reader picks up a Desire.
And while we’re talking about these secondary character POVs and subplots, it doesn’t have to be three or four books. You can have a subplot in just one book as long as it’s not overtaking the romance. Maureen Child’s book, Bombshell for the Boss, has a subplot with the brother within that one book. And it’s really just that one book. It’s a standalone. So I think you can get this drama and bigger world even if you’re not doing connected books, too.
CG: But it’s always good to keep the potential for connections in there. Always have an eye on that secondary character who’s going to get their own romance.
SB: Oh, absolutely.
TS: Readers love to follow characters they fell in love with in the first book over the course of several others because it creates more of an environment. A home for readers to open the book and get lost in something that they know they loved once. They’re ready to return and see all their favorites again.
SB: Yeah, and I would say two other things that we’re hoping that really define the new drama of Desire would be having hooks or a premise that really raises your eyebrows. It feels exciting and maybe a little shocking and a little naughty. Sort of what we’re calling the soap opera feel. And within our allotted word count, lush detail, so the reader really feels like they’re there. Those details just bring everything to life, so you know how it feels, how it looks, how that hero is making everything intense, so that lush, over-the-top detail is really important.
CG: I always bring up how we’re filming in July. But we’re also editing for books in January, February and March right now. So, my author that I work with, Cat Schield, has a book coming out in February that I just edited. It’s called Revenge with Benefits. And the title kind of says it all, I think–the book lives up to the promise of the title. It is that kind of shocker. The heroine is undercover to get revenge by proxy, she’s getting revenge for another person on the hero’s sister. But it’s so twisted—you don’t know who’s getting revenge on whom at certain points. They think she’s working for one person but she’s not, she’s working for the other—it’s mind-blowing but it’s also still very focused on the sexiness and the romance.
SB: And I think that’s exactly what we’re looking for.
There seem to be some standard tropes for Desire. What’s the key to doing “the same thing” differently in each story?
SB: I would say the author’s voice and style really set the stage for difference. I’ve always heard that you can’t really steal an idea because everybody’s going to execute it differently, and I think that’s the truth. So just having your own unique style, being very conscious of your voice and working on that craft is going to automatically make you sound different from everybody else. And then of course having surprises and twists in the plot, which can be more challenging maybe than having your own voice, at least for me. I don’t easily think of surprises and twists when my authors come to me and say how can I make this better? I say, “I’m sorry, let’s brainstorm.” I’m not necessarily the idea person for that. What about you guys?
CG: I’m trying to think of examples where it’s a standard trope but it really gets blown away. Let me think about that.
SB: We have quite a few examples. I think one of my favorites recently was Lauren Canen’s twist on amnesia. And the story is now called…what is it called? I shouldn’t have brought it up if I couldn’t remember the title! ***SPOILER ALERT*** Because in house, we were calling it The Replacement Wife. Because the twist is that the heroine has amnesia but she’s been hired without remembering to be a guy’s replacement wife and they fall in love and she reveals the truth at the end. ***END SPOILER ALERT***
CG: So, basically, Stacy is having amnesia. It’s contagious from the heroine of the book, which is called Stanger in His Bed. It comes out in September.
SB: There. Thank you, thank you!
CG: The amnesia is over. We’re all better. And it’s coming out in September. Yeah, that book, well, hopefully we didn’t give away too much. But yeah, it’s twisted.
SB: Yeah, and I think that the book I mentioned earlier, The Baby Claim, also has a twist where we’ve done a lot of secret baby stories but in this particular one it’s unclear if the baby is connected to the hero or to the heroine, and that is part of the question that runs through the first book. So I’d say that’s a twist on the secret baby theme.
TS: I think a really good way to do it as a writer is to read books that you love that bring something fresh to the genre that you feel you haven’t seen before. Study what tropes are in it and take a good hard look at why it felt different from other books that have the same tropes. Ask yourself, how can I learn to do something similar with my work? That’s a good way to do it. Because what might be a fresh twist for one of us, the other person might completely see coming.
SB: That’s true.
TS: So a lot of it is dependent on what you love to read. Don’t forget to study other books, especially ones that you loved and are on your keeper shelf, because there’s a reason those books are magic for you and for other readers and you want to learn to create your own brand of magic like that.
CG: Speaking of secret babies, what’s up with secret babes and pregnancies? For a while, there were a lot of books in Desire that had this trope in the story. Are we still doing those? Well, I know the answer, it’s a leading question.
SB: Yes. We are still doing pregnancies, secret babies, secret children. We’re doing a lot less of them than we were in the past. We’re trying to take advantage of our new, more dramatic style to use hooks that we really haven’t used before, things that, like you said, twist up the hooks that you’re familiar with. So we have even a little light love triangle in one of Katherine Garbera’s books, Craving His Best Friend’s Ex. Yeah. So it’s twisting it up and taking advantage of new hooks that we haven’t tried and adding variety to our lineup.
CG: Yeah, that book! I keep saying “twisted” but that one too has a crazy twist! A really, really interesting twist in there.
What about a submission makes you keep turning pages?
SB: I love a really good opening line. Maybe editors say that all the time but in some ways I feel like a submission lives or dies by that opening line and paragraph. I’ve read much further on a good opening line than I might have if it didn’t have one. And the other thing I look for is that I want to connect emotionally right away. So it doesn’t have to be the romantic conflict or the sexiness necessarily but I have to connect to one of the characters and understand what they’re after and care about finding out how they’re going to get it. I want that right away, especially for Desire. Now I kind of want that in every single book that I read even when I’m not working but especially for Desire because our word count is so tight. What about you guys?
TS: I mean, strong writing for me is what immediately leaps off the page and has me keep reading. I’m not quite as first-line obsessed as you are (laughs). But I agree with your comment. I need to have at least one character that I’m immediately rooting for, that I get what they’re freaking out about or what they want to go after, what motivates them, excites them, terrifies them. If there’s something that I’m emotionally engaged with I will keep reading because I want to know what happened to that character. Really strong end-of-chapter hooks are really important for me, too.
SB: That’s a good one, yeah.
TS: Because it tells me that the writer understands how to build suspense in the plot and how to raise the stakes for the characters and then deliver what’s being promised in the next chapter. I think that’s really important. Like you said, we have a very tight word count and we need to know that you’re able to develop everything in that word count. And so related to that, fast pacing that doesn’t sacrifice character development is important. It can’t be so fast that you’re missing the emotional parts but it needs to be very crisp and very well plotted so that it keeps moving and there aren’t any slow parts. Because anything that’s too slow can be cut to make room for a more important scene later on.
CG: Yeah, for me, I’m just thinking of a particular submission right now that I asked the author to revise, and I will probably be running across Stacy’s desk any minute now.
TS: We’re all ready to sit on Stacy’s desk, and be, like, “I really want to buy this!”
CG: Fingers crossed. The thing about this story is that every time I read the chapters, I just can’t stop turning the pages. I’m not sure—not much is going on but I am really rooting for the characters and I’m really interested in how they’re interacting and the subtext of what they’re talking about in terms of the romance. It’s just really engaging to me. So there’s this emotional component. Whereas sometimes I’ll read a book, not necessarily for Desire, and there’s a lot happening and that’s what keeps me turning pages. But I definitely second the emotion about a strong chapter ending or even to a certain extent scene ending because it shows you know how to build the rhythm of the story. You build up and then you deliver, build, deliver.
TS: And the dialogue needs to feel natural. I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but a really great way to test it out is to read it out loud.
What are some common mistakes you see in submissions?
SB: Slow pacing. Because we have that tight word count we were talking about. So you really have to get into the action right away. And for me, I see typical plots, the kind of plots, like, yeah, that’s exactly what our readers are looking for but there’s just no X factor. Whether that’s a voice or something very different about the story, something that’s going to make that particular marriage of convenience or secret baby or whatever stand out on the rack next to all of the other ones that we already have in the lineup.
CG: Also be careful with secondary plots. We’re talking about a bigger world and having these secondary characters’ POVs but make sure that the romance remains central. Don’t get too bogged down in the plot. It’s a tricky balancing act sometimes. For me, too, the characters’ motivations have to make sense. That’s a common thing—where suddenly they’re really acting in ways you can’t imagine characters in their circumstances would act, even if they’re crazy in love. Just make sure that it all makes sense, where the characters are coming from.
TS: It needs to be organic. If we’re reading dialogue or reading a scene that’s solely for the purpose of moving the plot along, you can tell the difference. Would the character really say this or is this just happening because the author wants to make a point?
SB: And the characters you’ve built will have different motivations from other characters so it has to be integral to what they want and what their choices would be based on their backstory.
TS: And I think one of the #1 mistakes that I see is that we can usually tell if a writer has never read category romance before or if they used to read it a long time ago and haven’t read our newer ones. So we strongly, strongly suggest that you always read the recommended books that we have on our Submittable page that we update regularly to get a feel for what we’re buying.
SB: And if you can’t read the whole book, then you can read the first few chapters on Amazon.
TS: You’ll learn a lot about the pacing and the characters and what we’re looking for. So we really suggest you do that.
SB: And we do have a free Try Harlequin book on TryHarlequin.com.
What is your favorite part of the job, or a fun fact?
SB: My favorite part of the job working with Desire is really reading good stories. Because when I was little, I actually sent off for this crazy book that taught you how to be a reader for publishers. I think I was ten years old. I was like, ‘This was the best job!’ I didn’t actually become a reader then but now I read for a living.
And I do have a funny Desire story. Not too long ago we still printed out stuff on paper. And I had a manuscript I was working on and I got done with it. I didn’t need that paper anymore so I let my kids use it for scrap paper to draw on the back. And somehow, some of those scrap papers ended up in his backpack.
TS: Oh, no!
SB: And his pre-K teacher pulled the papers out and it was a sex scene, of course. She was raising her eyebrows and said, “I have to ask you about this paper.” And I was like, “You don’t understand, that’s for work.”
TS: I’ll go next. My favorite part is when I’m reading submissions and I find one that I’m so excited about that I run over to Stacy’s desk and I kind of sit on her desk and say, “Hey, Stacy, how’s your workload? Oh, you’re drowning? Well, here’s the thing. Here’s something I really want you to read.” And then, obviously if I get to offer on it, that’s fantastic. I also really like our title brainstorming meetings that we have once a month because they’re really funny. And we come up with a lot of titles that will never, ever see the light of day. I think we spend more time laughing in that meeting than probably anything else.
CG: And I can attest (to what Tahra just said). We’ve been having some technical difficulties, which will hopefully be edited out for the smoothest viewer experience possible. (Laughs.) But I can attest while I was trying to figure out the technology, Tahra was browbeating Stacy to buy an author’s project.
SB: And here I am, locked in the room!
TS: Maybe she’ll let me, and then I can tweet, This is the author I was talking about. But no pressure, Stacy.
SB: No, no, no.
TS: But there’s pressure!
CG: I like when I’m editing a book and it’s just so good it’s almost like just reading the book. It’s not like work anymore, it’s like pleasure. I love that.
TS: We can turn off that editorial brain.
CG: Well, hopefully the editorial brain is still working while I’m editing. (Laughs.) But there is a book, this one will come out in January 2019. It’s Yvonne Lindsay, Inconveniently Wed. As I was editing that book, it was just, like, this is such a good experience that it doesn’t feel like work. I like that, when work doesn’t feel like work.
SB: It’s fun.
CG: That’s a juicy book.
And one of my stories that I always like is the time a book that I edited, it was a Maya Banks book, Tempted by Her Innocent Kiss, which is now in ebook as Tempted, got mentioned in an episode of Modern Family. We all didn’t know what to expect—they said we might use this book as part of the storyline in the season finale episode, I think it was 2013. I went and looked it up today. At the time, I was with my friend and we’re watching, we’re not sure if it’s going to be in there, what are they going to say about it.
SB: My favorite part of that story is that they actually read pieces of the back cover copy that Charles wrote in the show. So he kind of wrote part of Modern Family.
CG: Yeah, when I went back and watched that today, I was, like, ‘oh my God, this is pretty hilarious.’ It was great. And it was a comedy show, but it was really respectful of what the book is about all while having fun. It was really cool.
CG: You know, we’re going to be doing not just this video but a month’s worth of posts on So You Think You Can Write for Make a Date with Desire, all August, with writers chiming in on all sorts of topics. So, stay tuned, and also sound off in the comments below if you have questions.
SB: We’re looking forward to seeing your books.
Titles We Currently Recommend Reading on Submittable:
- SEDUCE ME, COWBOY by New York Times bestselling author Maisey Yates
- SAVANNAH’S SECRETS by Reese Ryan
- THE BABY CLAIM by USA TODAY bestselling author Catherine Mann
- LONE STAR LOVERS by Jessica Lemmon
Additional recommendations from Charles and Tahra:
Charles: AT THE CEO’S PLEASURE by Yahrah St. John (January 2019)
Yahrah has written many books for Kimani. What I love about her Desire debut, aside from the 1,000% satisfying romance, is all the family drama, especially the incredible betrayal in the heroine’s backstory.
Tahra: THE BILLIONAIRE’S BARGAIN by USA TODAY bestselling author Naima Simone (June 2019)
This brand-new series revolves around three billionaires who, while trapped in a city-wide blackout, find the women who challenge them in ways they’ve never experienced before. Naima’s sizzling-hot tension is no joke, but the emotionally satisfying stories is what makes her an auto-buy!