Advice from the Archives: I Can Relate to That!

birgitdavidtoddphoto-200x133by Birgit Davis-Todd, Senior Executive Editor, Harlequin

I can relate to that….  It’s a familiar phrase to many of us and something critical for authors to keep in mind when writing a book and hoping to land a contract.  Consider your audience—the reader.  Sure, you want her to read and enjoy your story but more importantly you want her to think… Hmm, I can relate to that.

So what does that mean for the writer?  At Harlequin we are looking for relevant editorial content.  Relevant means the language, the characters and the plot all must feel as if they are part of the world we live in today.  These elements can’t come across as old-fashioned in your manuscript.

The very words you choose to tell the story should reflect what is mainstream to most people.  In particular beware of dialogue that not only doesn’t fit but feels dated.   I came across this in a recent submission from a writer.  The heroine says to the hero, “Surprise!  I bought you the latest record album from Nirvana.”   Doesn’t that make you cringe?  Far better for her to say she “bought their latest CD,” or better yet “downloaded it from the internet onto his iPod, “ as a special surprise.

Character development is also key to ensuring your story is relevant.  Give your characters names, occupations and interests that will engage readers because the elements feel real and identifiable to them.  Do you prefer to read about someone called Margaret or Trinity?  Do you prefer to read about a secretary or a web designer?  Do you want to read about a bird-watcher or a snowboarder? See the difference?  (Apologies to any real-life bird-watching secretaries named Margaret out there!)

Creating a plot that is both fresh and relevant is another critical step on the road to publication.   You may have developed fun, fascinating and identifiable characters but now the relationship between them has to play out in the basic plot.  Beware of the trouble many new writers fall into—the plot becomes a series of dates for the couple, which can be pretty dull to read about.  Far better if the plot revolves around the heroine who has impulsively signed up for online dating and the cubicle-mate hero gets a full recap of these dates even as he is attracted to her himself.  See the difference?  Most people can relate to online dating and have probably taken the plunge so this resonates.

One last thing?  Relevance does not mean putting strong realism in every book you write.  Your story must have realistic elements that readers can relate to and make sense of in their world.  But there’s still room for fantasy, drama and intrigue in the stories we want to see. The challenge is to write stories that will make readers think, “Yes, this is my life.”  Or better yet—“It could happen to me.”

What story are you currently working on?  Are you struggling with a character or plot that lacks relevance and want some feedback?  I’d love to hear from you.