Vikki Moynes, commissioning editor at Viking, which is an imprint of Penguin General, works on commercial and upmarket fiction – from laugh-out-loud romcoms like Emily Henry’s Book Lovers to intoxicating, compulsive tales of deadly secrets like Heather Darwent’s The Things We Do To Our Friends.
Here, she shares what she looks for in a romance novel, and her top tips for debut authors.
What are romance editors looking for?
Think of yourself as a reader of your own book – if you were reading a blurb, what would make it a must-read? “First and foremost, I’m looking for the hook – something that feels unique and engaging. This is how I know I can get readers to be as hungry to read it as I am,” says Vikki. “A sense of plotting is also an absolute must. I want to be taken in by the tale the writer is weaving. I read so many books that it’s very hard to surprise me, so when it happens that’s a surefire way to catch my attention!"
Lastly, characters are especially important. “I’m also searching for writers that understand their characters intimately, who can bring them to life and make me care about them too.”
Vikki's top tips for writing a romance novel
1. Create off-the-charts chemistry
The fundamental thing for a love story is the connection between the two main love interests. It should be clear to everyone, but them, that they are meant to be. Your readers need to be aching for them to just get together already!
2. Rework the classic tropes
While there are certain beats and plot arcs that nearly all romances need to hit, writers that can put a fresh spin on those tropes are what always catches my eye.
3. Sweep the reader off their feet
Essentially a combination of the two above points – while we all know they’re probably going to end up happily-ever-after, you need to take the reader on an emotional journey, so they fall in love with each of the characters as much as the protagonists do with each other.
4. Add (at least) a hint of passion
From a flickering candle to a full-blown wildfire, no love story is complete without those all-important scenes where the two people you’re rooting for finally get together. The setting and build-up are key in making the wait worth it for the reader!
How are 'love stories' categorised in publishing?
"Love stories could fall into pretty much any category, as the simple act of falling in love is so universal and fundamentally human," says Vikki. "The love between two people can be so multifaceted: platonic, parental, familial."
Genres are a simple shorthand to clearly explain to readers what they can expect from the reading experience. Some readers know they like certain genres, so it helps to categorise books in this way, especially in bookshops, libraries or online. Things are rarely ever as straightforward as that in reality though – often novels sit across multiple genres, for example, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is simultaneously a murder mystery, a love story, and a coming-of-age tale.
Editors know their readers extremely well, and it can be instinctual when reading a new submission. "When I’m publishing books under the romance genre, that’s generally because I feel the hook would appeal most heavily to a core audience who reads romances," says Vikki.
"These readers tend to like novels which centre around two characters who fall in love and end up in a relationship – they want to feel the sexual tension, the angst, and be swept off their feet along with the protagonists."
The hook is your one-line pitch that gives editors and booksellers the unique selling point of the story – the thing the plot hinges on. Getting it right is a key thing to work on, and something you should keep revisiting during the writing process. You can also gather honest feedback on the hook from people you feel would be the target audience – do they ‘get’ the book straight away? How does it make them feel? Can they envision where it would sit in a bookshop? This can all be useful to help refine before sending it to agents and editors.
Trust your voice
Getting published can be a long journey, and understandably quite daunting, but editors are very aware that your book is incredibly special to you! Vikki says, “Don’t give up – so much of getting published is finding that person who connects with your novel as much as you do – a bit like dating to find your one true love in a way! While it can be a hard slog to find that right editor, it only takes one, and will all be worth it when you do.”
Feeling ready to start writing your own romance novel, or finesse work you've already started? Head over to WriteNow to submit your application before midnight on Sunday 8 January 2023.
This year's WriteNow is open to submissions of romance fiction, love stories, family drama, comedy, and crime and thriller
Hero illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin