Answering Your Writing Challenge Questions!

by Evan Yeong

I’ve been meaning to provide a little more insight surrounding the Writing Challenges that so many of you have gleefully elected to participate in, but felt like including my thoughts alongside a prompt would lessen their impact (or have them be overlooked altogether). That said, here are a few answers to questions that you may or may not have been wanting to ask!

Why the (shrinking) word count limits?

We start with the easiest question first, which has two answers.

The first cold hard truth is that, while we love reading your submissions, there are only so many hours in the day. For the Writing Challenges in which we had to determine a winner from even a dozen entrants, the thought of having to do so much reading alongside everything else was daunting (to say the least). Having set word count limits helped make reading submissions more manageable, as before some would run quite long.

That leads me to my second reason, which was to level the playing field. In the past I would specify a paragraph limit, but it didn’t make sense to me that some of you would write a neat, concise 325 or so words, with others clocking in at close to a thousand. Although some writers do opt to go shorter, having that ceiling means that no one has an advantage over anyone else.

Pictured: Writing Challenge submissions before word count limits.

Why all the stipulations?

It’s fun!

At least, I hope it has been. And while that’s certainly a contributing factor, what I really wanted was to make the Writing Challenges, well, challenging. Conjuring up a romantic New Year’s Eve scene is simple, but nixing the countdown kiss? Suddenly you’re forced to think outside the box. Historical Romance as the topic might be right in your wheelhouse, but what if all of the most popular eras are suddenly off the table?

I never wanted these challenges to be easy, because neither is writing good romance. Anyone can write about a couple falling in love, but doing it well is truly an art. My goal has always been to take away the obvious options and force writers to think and work harder, while still expecting them to focus on the relationship at the core of their story.

On top of that, I also try to be quite firm and unyielding when it comes to the eligibility of submissions, which has quite a lot of overlap with, and inevitably leads to…

Why are you being so strict?

One of the primary purposes of So You Think You Can Write has been to find and develop the Harlequin writers of tomorrow. A Writing Challenge once or twice a month is a fine way to hone your craft, but as someone who also does quite a bit of work on Submittable, I know how they can help you grow in another key area.

For those who aren’t in the know, at Harlequin we receive all of our submissions through a website called Submittable, and each and every series comes with its own landing page. Here‘s the one for Harlequin Heartwarming:

You’ll notice not only a word count (70,000 words), but also a number of key elements which include the heat level (clean, sweet, feel-good stories) and setting (North American small towns or close-knit communities within cities). 

The strictness with which I disqualify Writing Challenge submissions is also the same one that I have to use when looking at manuscripts and their accompanying synopses in Submittable. If a word count vastly exceeds (or falls below) the limit it’s rejected. The same for an otherwise fantastic story that takes place in the wrong setting, or is completely lacking the key hooks we’re looking for. In some rare cases we will refer writers to try submitting to a different (more appropriate) line, but in general we leave that up to them.

All of the information surrounding what we’re looking for is readily available and answers the majority of questions someone might have about our various series. Closely reading and, more importantly, following it tells us volumes about you as a potential Harlequin author. If you can take instruction at this initial stage that gives us a strong idea of whether or not you’ll be able to when being sent edits).

In many ways, this process is not unlike a job interview. After all, being an author is a job! First impressions are important, and the best applicants will have fully familiarized themselves with the listing, memorizing the tasks and expectations of the role. Because of that, when given the opportunity to ask questions they won’t waste them on information they were already given. Unlike actual job interviews you have multiple attempts, but why not make your first your best?

When is the next Writing Challenge???

I am fully aware that it’s been almost three full weeks since the last one, trust me. Normally they would be every other week, but I spent quite a lot of time putting together a rather long (and, I think, important) post on writing interracial romance, which shifted the calendar a bit.

We are back to our regularly scheduled programming next week, with one slated for this upcoming March 20th. As a bit of a reward for reading all the way to the end, I’m going to be taking suggestions for the next challenge! That doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily pick one, or that the prompt will be used in its original form, but I’m genuinely interested to see what you might come up with!

PS: If you have any other questions about the Writing Challenges, I’d love to answer them in the comments!

24 replies on “Answering Your Writing Challenge Questions!”

Well, I’ve got spring break on the mind, so what about…

Spring break challenge: At least one of the main characters must be traveling somewhere new for spring break where they find love.

I think this could be fun bc it’s open to so many scenarios and characters . It could be about people in college in the their 20’s on spring break, single parents on spring break w kids, grumpy locals, stuck in close proximity (cruise ship quarantine ), etc.

Hi Michelle! Now that the weather has started to take a turn for the better, I think a Writing Challenge based on such a lovely season is an excellent idea!

Hi Shadia! It’s been impossible to ignore recent news about what’s just been dubbed a global pandemic, so I think I’m leaning more towards a prompt that takes our collectives minds off of the real world for a spell- Thank you for your suggestion, though!

Related to spring break, the setting is an exotic local. One of the main characters has to be a local. Maybe the non-local is upset and is interacting to make a complaint.

I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone at SYTYCW and the Harlequin editors for offering the Writing Challenges. I have learned so much from them. I love the new word count limits and the restrictions are actually a fun way to challenge us all!
To go along with the traveling challenges – what if the traveler is returning home somewhat disappointed in their trip, only to meet the Hero/Heroine then?
Once again, thank you for all you do!

I LOVE the writing challenges! Writing something outside of my comfort zone, with a word restriction, and a deadline has been very helpful for me in my own writing. And I love the feedback from staff! So helpful.

Some ideas for future challenges:
. The first meeting of an arranged marriage, with a futuristic twist.
. Two androids fall in love and the only means of communication is ones and zeros (or some other limitation)
. A second chance romance between a couple who have been married for years and rediscover each other.

Hello Evan

I wanted to say thanks for the wonderful and knowledgeable article. I love the Writing Challenges. They are way fun! But as a writer I think words are and enjoyable way to use one’s time. You know what might be awesome to stretch people’s writing muscles. Poetry! I mean a romantic poem challenge with a word length might be unique whaddya say!

Hi, Evan! Yes, it’s me again. I promise not to get into a long conversation. Lol. I would love to see a challenge using older heroes and heroines. Maybe they meet in a social club, or maybe their kids introduce them, or maybe…??? P.S. Thanks so much for these educational and fun challenges. 🙂

I third that idea. From what I learn on these boards, one of your forgotten faithful reader groups is the over 50s. We are also aspirational and glamorous!

I love this idea Chrissie! I enjoyed Alaskan Hideaway by Beth Carpenter, which has an older hero and heroine. (True Love/Heartwarming.)

Hi Evan!

I have to say, your post on interracial relationships had me anticipating a challenge of a similar nature so I hope you continue on the in same vein as the Cultural Clash challenge.

I was surprised to see you mention that the purpose behind SYTYCW was to find and develop authors. In your time with Harlequin, have you been involved with anyone who has found success with Harlequin after participating in a challenge? I’m sure authors have participated before/after submitting a manuscript but I mean, organically being found and sought after just from entering the challenges. What an amazing story that would be!

Hi Jodie! To clarify, I meant more that the purpose of this site as a whole is to help find and develop promising Harlequin authors. The former refers to our writing blitzes and posts that address specifically what we’re looking for and how to submit; the latter is done via all of our writing advice and the Writing Challenges I’ve been doing.

Believe me when I say that I’ve been truly wowed by a number of Writing Challenge submissions. The fact is, however, that we don’t commission books. Even if we knew without a shadow of a doubt, from multiple consecutive stellar submissions, that someone was an incredible writer, we wouldn’t then ask them to submit an entire manuscript to us. That’s still a personal choice for every author to make for themselves. (There’s also the fact that a well-crafted piece of short prose doesn’t necessarily correlate to the ability to write a full-length series romance.)

Thank you for responding, I see what you mean and it makes perfect sense. I suppose I’ll have to bite the bullet and hit that submit button sooner rather than later! Looking forward to our next challenge. 🙂

I love to see a fish out of water theme. There’s lots of possibilities. If could involved a clash of social classes. Regional perceptions based on accents, looks. Opposing forces, perhaps a situation where the hero needs something from heroine but because of her background ( e.i Completing marketing companies, law firms)

This is another interesting and informative post. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to write these posts and comment on the challenges.

For future challenges it might be fun to have one where one of the characters reveals a secret to the other that would be unexpected and dramatically change their relationship (not secret baby though because everyone expects that). Or one of the characters tells the other a lie about themselves then gets caught in it–like the H/h tells the other s/he is an experienced skier and has to prove it on the big slopes. I love secrets and lies. They’re so much fun.

I totally agree! It was kinda unfair when some of us would comply exactly with what the challenge requested, while others just went on and on. The shorter versions are more of a challenge to get all the right/requested elements included. I do feel challenged and it makes me a better writer. So thanks to Evan and all the wonderful editors at Harlequin who work on the STYYCW challenges. You keep us on our toes!

Good morning to all,
Here is an interesting idea for a Challenge and it would require feedback/opinions.
This is two fold:
First: have the Hero or Heroine in a scene in which they must admit feelings for someone not the love interest that would in any other situation be like a declaration, but it leads to a decision or crisis for the main character.
The second part of the challenge is the feedback.
After the scene is read, the opinions of the editors and fellow writers must in their response must reveal which is more realistic for what line.
Thank you

In the vein of older age romance, what about a second chances challenge. Usually they’re a little older, but some of that depends on how old they were when it all started. 🙂

I am enjoying the challenges. This blog is the first place where I went beyond “I’m a writer” in my head and started letting others read what I wrote.

Well, I guess, since I was a 1st year university student and my English Lit professor told me I was a lousy fiction writer and should explore math and science anyway. But that was a LONG time ago and I’m in a second chance romance with writing right now. 😉

How about rotating through the Harlequin lines?
Romantic suspense, with a dash of humour.
Medical, heroine/hero doesn’t have a medical background, hero/heroine does.

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