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!