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Author: Iola

I provide professional freelance manuscript assessment, copyediting and proofreading services for writers of Christian fiction and non-fiction books, stories and articles. I also review Christian novels at www.christianreads.blogspot.com.

How Many Chapters Should my Novel Have?

Dear Editor | How Many Chapters Should my Novel Have?

How Many Chapters Should my Novel Have?

This is a new question. I’ve often seen people ask how long their novel should be, and I have covered typical word counts in a previous post.

How many chapters in a novel? I've often seen people ask how long their novel should be, and I have covered typical word counts in a previous post. Click To Tweet

But chapters?

I don’t think readers care how many chapters are in a book. What matters to readers is the chapter length and content, because that’s what affects the reading experience. Long chapters where nothing seems to happen gives the reader the impression the book is long and boring … and that’s not a book they’re going to keep reading.

Chapter Length

How long should a chapter be?

That depends. Along with long sentences, long paragraphs, and long scenes, long chapters give the impression of a slow-paced story. If you’re writing in a character-driven genre like historical women’s fiction, then you might be happy for your readers to feel the story is slow-paced and meandering.

But if you write thrillers, you’ll want short chapters. Short scenes. Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Because short and sharp feels fast.

Chapter length is also driven by scene length.

A scene is usually from the viewpoint of a single character, and takes place in a single time and place. A good scene shows the point of view character working towards a short-term goal (that usually contributes towards their overall story goal as a character). This scene may be followed by some self-reflection from the character (the sequel), or by a transition to another time, place, or viewpoint character.

So how long is a scene?

A scene is as long as it takes to introduce the Goal, provide Conflict, and show the Outcome. A lot of authors aim for 1,000-word scenes, perhaps because that’s their daily writing target. You can go shorter or longer, but if your readers are used to 1,000 word scenes, then longer scenes may feel like they are dragging. At any rate, most of your scenes should be around the same length (plus or minus twenty percent), with perhaps a few very short scenes in high-action parts of the novel.

Sequels should be shorter—as short as a sentence or two, and probably no longer than a couple of paragraphs. They are usually interior monologue, and longer sequels are therefore prone to turning into telling.

Jack Bickham says a good scene will do two or more of the following:

Provide information to the reader.
Drive the plot forward.
Deepen characterisation.

For more information on the scene and sequel method, check out this post.

The next logical question is this: how many scenes per chapter?

Some books have one scene per chapters, while others have two or three. I’d caution against having more than three scenes per chapter, as that can give the reader the impression the chapter is taking forever and the book is dragging – short scenes and chapters give the feel of a fast pace, while long scenes and chapters lead towards a slow pace.

The number of scenes per chapter might also be a function of genre and the number of point of view characters. For example:
  • Romance novels often have two point of view characters, with the hero and heroine each being the viewpoint character for around half the scenes. As such, it might make sense for each chapter to have two scenes, one from the viewpoint of each main character.
  • Romantic suspense novels often have three point of view characters: the hero, heroine, and the antagonist. The antagonist doesn’t get as many viewpoint scenes as the hero and heroine. The antagonist’s scenes may be short—because their purpose is to ramp up the tension rather than drive plot or build characterisation. As such, a typical chapter might have two longer scenes (e.g. from the viewpoint of the hero and heroine), or three shorter scenes (one from each viewpoint character).
  • Thrillers often have four or five viewpoint characters. Of these, two or three are likely to be minor players, and their scene count will reflect this. Each chapter might therefore have scenes from the two major characters and one of the minor characters. Or the chapters might alternate, with one being from the viewpoints of the major characters, and one from the minor characters.
How many chapters should my novel have? That depends on your genre, scene length, and other factors. #WriteTip Click To Tweet

These are broad guidelines—the best chapter structures will depend on your genre, your plot, and your characters.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to scene and chapter length.

Except one: don’t bore your readers.

The Importance of Revision and Self-Editing

The Importance of Revision and Self-Editing (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

Why do authors need to know how to revise and self-edit?

Doesn’t the publisher edit?

Yes, they do. At least, the good ones do. (I’d steer clear of any publisher that doesn’t edit … or charges you for editing. But that’s another conversation).

If the publisher is going to edit your manuscript, why do you need to edit it first?

If the publisher is going to edit your manuscript, why do you need to edit it first? Because you only get one chance to make a first impression for agents, publishers, and readers. #EditTips #AmEditing Click To Tweet

It’s a cliché, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. You need to make it count—which means presenting the agent or publisher with the best possible manuscript. Don’t destroy your chances by submitting something that’s less than your best.

Traditional Publishers

Publishers, like most businesses, are under pressure to produce financial results. Editing takes time, and time is money. Few publishers can afford to sign an author with a great idea but poor writing.

Publishers do edit. Publishers know authors make typos. They know we all have writing glitches or concepts we never grasp. Publishers understand that. But publishers want to work with manuscripts that have been written and edited well enough to enable them to assess the plot and characters, to judge the overall saleability of the story. They don’t want to be wading through complex and convoluted sentences that seem to say one thing but could say something different entirely.

Literary Agents

In fact, many publishers (especially US and British publishers) don’t even consider direct submissions from authors. They only accept submissions from reputable literary agents. Agents are paid on commission, usually 15% of the author’s advance and royalty. It makes sense that agent want to work with competent writers, as they get paid for selling manuscripts to publishers, not for editing those manuscripts in the hope of making a sale. It’s going to be easier to sign with an agent if you have stellar writing and self-editing skills.


What if you intend to self-publish? Then you definitely need an editor … and not just a proofreader. Traditionally published books will typically go through three or four rounds of editing: developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

Most editors charge by the hour. Some quote based on a word count or page count (a standard manuscript page is 250 words). Even if they’re quoting by the word or page, they’re budgeting on editing X words per hour or Y pages per hour so they earn their target hourly rate (and we’d like to earn more per hour than our teenagers earn at McDonalds).

So the more work your novel needs, the longer it’s going to take to edit, and the more expensive it’s going to be. That’s why it’s important to learn writing craft and learn to self-edit.

Here are nine free or low-cost alternatives to help you learn to self-edit and reduce your need for paid editing #AmEditing #EditTips Click To Tweet

Let’s look at some of the free or low-cost alternatives to help you learn to self-edit and reduce your need for paid editing:

Read Craft Books

Read books on writing craft. Read to learn, and never stop learning. (You can also mix this up with reading blog posts and reading about publishing and marketing—two more subjects you’ll need to master.)

Work with a Critique Partner

Many authors work with one or more critique partners, often swapping a chapter at a time. You revise and edit their chapter or manuscript, and they do the same. This is a great option, as long as your critique partner knows the craft of writing fiction—otherwise they could be giving you bad advice.

Work with Beta Readers

A beta reader is a volunteer who reads you full manuscript and offers feedback on specific issues. Some authors use beta readers for the final proofread, after the copyeditor has covered the manuscript with (virtual) red pen. But it’s more common to work with beta readers before the manuscript goes to an editor. After all, there is no point in polishing a novel with underlying plot or character issues.

Enter Contests

Contests are a cost-effective way of getting feedback on your writing. Most contests for unpublished writers offer feedback from the judges. Even contests that only judge the first five or fifteen pages can be useful, as most recurring writing issues show up in those early pages.

Judge Contests

You don’t have to be a great writer or self-editor to judge a writing contest—many contests are actually looking for reader judges.

If you’re a new writer, then reading a published novel with judging criteria in mind is a great way of learning what agents, editors, and publishers consider important in a novel, and will help you with your own writing. If you’re a more experienced writer, then judging is a great way of giving back to your favourite writing organisation!

Hire a Writing Coach

Some writing coaches have expensive packages, but many charge by the hour. You can learn a huge amount in a couple of hours when the coach is specifically focused on your writing.

Hire an Editor

Freelance editors don’t always charge hundreds or thousands. Most charge by the hour, and many will offer a free sample edit. Many will also agree to edit a sample of your manuscript (e.g. the first 5,000 words) for a reasonable fee. This won’t identify overarching plot or characterisation issues, but will show you your writing strengths, and the areas you need to work on.

Take a Course

I’m a big fan of Margie Lawson’s online training courses (www.margielawson.com), and credit Margie’s Deep Editing techniques with helping me with my contest wins. There are other great options out there: Author Accelerator, One-Stop Shop for Writers, and My Book Therapy, to name a few. Also check out the Romance Writers of Australia OWLs and the RWNZ webinar recordings.

Attend a Conference

Attending a conference is a great way of learning more about the craft of writing. It will also help you connect with potential agents, publishers, critique partners, beta readers … and freelance editors.

No matter how you plan to publish, it’s in your best interest to learn to edit your own work.

It will reduce your overall editing costs and will improve your chances of attracting the attention of your dream agent and publisher.

I’ll be sharing my top tips over the next few months.

All You Need to Know about Reviewing Online

Reviewing 101 | All You Need to Know about Reviewing Online

All authors want book sales. They also want book reviews (especially Amazon reviews), because readers use reviews in making their purchase decisions, and because advertisers like BookBub look at reviews and ratings before deciding whether to accept an advertisement.

I’ve been actively reviewing books online since 2011, and I now have over 1,000 published reviews (I think. I don’t keep count). During that time, I’ve met a lot of other book reviewers online (and I’ve even met some in real life). I’ve learned a lot about reviewers, reviewing, and I’ve also written a lot of blog posts on the topic.

I’ve also seen (and responded to) dozens if not hundreds of questions about reviewing. Today I’m collating the most common questions I’ve heard about online reviewing into a single resource post.

First, what makes a good book review?

There is no one answer—I’ve found most reviewers try to write the kind of reviews we like to read.

Should Authors Review?

Maybe. Authors should read, but I don’t think they should necessarily review every book they read. However, I do believe that when authors review, their reviews should always be honest. After all, potential readers might be reading your reviews. This can leave author-reviewers with a dilemma: to review, or not to review?

Authors also want to know how to get reviews.

The answer is both simple and not simple: ask. I go into more detail in these posts:

Many authors ask book bloggers (like me) for book reviews. I share my top tips in How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews. Some authors ask their street team or influencer team for reviews. That’s fine, but authors (and reviewers) need to know the difference between Reviewing, Endorsing, and Influencing: Understanding the Difference.

Most authors want reviews on Amazon, because Amazon reviews can help sales and promotion in general.

But many authors find their influencers or street team can’t review on Amazon—or that their reviews are deleted.

Why Can’t I Review on Amazon?

The most common reason for not being able to review at Amazon is that a reviewer doesn’t meet Amazon’s minimum purchase requirement (currently USD 50 per annum at Amazon.com, and a similar amount at other stores). A (Not So) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon details the history behind the purchase requirement.

Another reason Amazon declines (or deletes) reviews is because they have determined that the review either doesn’t meet their reviewing guidelines aka community guidelines, or because they have decided the review is promotional content (which is prohibited).

The final reason Amazon sometimes declines reviews (or delays posting the reviews) is because Amazon favours Amazon Verified Purchase reviews (i.e. reviews of products purchased on Amazon), and sometimes restrict the number of non-AVP reviews. This favouritism shouldn’t come as a surprise—Amazon is a sales site, not a review site. In Amazon’s words:

We may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behavior, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience.

So if your street team can’t review and they have spent more than $50 on Amazon in the last year, it could be because Amazon has decided their review is promotional, or it could be because there aren’t enough AVP reviews.

I’ve also noticed that Amazon take longer to approve reviews with images than straight text reviews, but they’ve approved reviews with images which include my blog address. This is curious, because reviewers can’t include non-Amazon links in their text reviews.

For more information, check out:

Here are the highlights:

  • Only Amazon customers can review on Amazon, and most Amazon sites have a minimum annual spending requirement.
  • Amazon do not permit paid reviews. Payment includes refunds, discounts, or entry into a contest or sweepstakes.
  • Amazon does not providing a free book “in exchange” for a review—that’s payment. Instead, authors can provide a free book and ask for reviews.
  • Reviewers who received a free book must disclose the fact as per both Amazon and Federal Trade Commission guidelines.

Common Author Questions About Reviewing

Is there anything else you’d like to know about reviews and online reviewing that I haven’t covered or linked to above?

Can I use flasbacks in my novel?

Dear Editor | Can I Use Flashbacks in My Novel?

I’ve recently worked on a couple of novels that used a lot of flashbacks to “show” the character backstory to the reader. This got me thinking: are flashbacks a good way of sharing backstory?

Should authors flashbacks?

I’ve talked about backstory before, about the need to keep backstory to the back of the story, or to marble it in to the present story. I’ve also talked about showing, not telling (and why it’s not a good idea), and how to identify telling.

Tip: sharing backstory is generally telling.

Some authors know this, so they use a flashback as a way of showing the character’s backstory. But flashbacks aren’t always the best approach either.

So can authors use flashbacks in their novels?


But only when a flashback is the best way to share backstory. And only when that backstory needs to be shared.

In Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Nancy Kress gives two reasons you might consider including backstory:

  • If the character history is so complex that the only way it can be portrayed is through backstory.
  • If the backstory itself is so funny or eventful that it will fascinate readers.

In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends writing in full the key scenes which have turned your character into the person they are at the beginning of your story. I suspect this is one of the dangers of using the Story Genius method: writers are tempted to include these backstory scenes as flashbacks, because they have written them and because Lisa Cron says:

… many of these scenes will appear in snippets and flashbacks in the novel itself.

However, she also says the scenes themselves aren’t included in the final novel. Information from them might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks points out the danger in the Story Genius approach:

There is a risk if you choose to craft a detailed backstory ahead of time. By writing and investing a lot of energy in a backstory, you’ll be tempted to use too much of it.

I think this is the trap many new authors fall into with flashbacks.

They’ve written the scenes and want to share the information. Scenes are showing, not telling, so it must be okay. Right? Wrong. Flashback scenes aren’t necessarily the best way of showing this information.

In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Brown and Dave King say:

Flashbacks are not recommended, as it brings the story to a halt, which can make the present-time story hard to follow.

Valerie Parv agrees, in The Art of Romance Writing:

Flashbacks are risky. The essence of good storytelling is to make the reader want to know what happens next, so an excursion into the past can slow down the story.

Sol Stein asks the following questions about flashbacks:

  • Does the flashback reinforce the story in an important way?
  • Is it absolutely essential?
  • Can the reader see what’s happening in your flashback?
  • Is the opening immediately interesting or compelling?
  • Is the reader’s experience of the story enhanced by the flashback?
  • Has the flashback helped the reader feel what the character feels?
  • Is there any way of getting the background information across without resorting to a flashback?

How do your flashbacks rate against Stein’s questions?

If your flashbacks fail Stein’s test, then you probably don’t need flashbacks. But you might still need to include some or all of that information, to provide your readers with the backstory they do need to know to best understand the present story.

Backstory, flashbacks, and back flashes: what are they, and which is right for your novel? #WriteTip #WritersLife Click To Tweet

In Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, James Scott Bell talks about marbling backstory into the novel. He also suggests using a back flash rather than a flashback:

Back flashes are short burst in which you drop information about the past within a present moment scene. The two primary methods are dialogue and thoughts.

If you have to use flashbacks, then:

  • Ensure the flashback is motivated by something in the present (e.g. going swimming could trigger a flashback about swimming as a child).
  • End the flashback by coming back to the initial trigger.
  • Ensure the flashback has a direct impact on the events in the present.
  • Only use a flashback when you can’t use a back flash (i.e. marble in the backstory).
  • Include the flashback as part of a sequel, not a scene. Scenes are about action, and even flashbacks which are shown, not told, are inaction—they are the character remembering a past event.
Should you use flashbacks in your novel? Here are five tips to writing a great flashback. #WriteTip #Flashback Click To Tweet

We expect scenes to have action. Interrupting an action scene to deliver a five-page flashback (however exciting) is as annoying as interrupting a scene to deliver a five-page info dump or five pages of barely relevant interior monologue.

Instead, include the flashback (or interior monologue) in a sequel, a quiet time where it’s believable that the character is reminiscing about past events and their effect on the present.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by scene and sequel, read Plot: Scene, Sequel and Summary).

Also, don’t begin with a flashback. Readers need to care about the character in the present before we can care about them in the past. The one exception to this is starting with a Prologue—in which case the question becomes whether you need a Prologue, or whether than information can better be shared as part of a scene or sequel.

Flashbacks can be perfectly good writing. But they must be used with care.

If they’re not necessary to move the story forward, then they should go. Remember, kill those darlings!

12 More Popular Romance Tropes

12 More Popular Romance Tropes

Last week, I introduced the concept of tropes, and discussed ten popular romance tropes.

Today I’m introducing more popular romance tropes, and giving some examples.

Best Friend’s Sibling

The hero falls for his best friend’s (usually younger) sister, or the heroine falls for her best friend’s (usually older) brother.

This is similar to the Friends to Lovers trope, as the hero and heroine usually have a preexisting relationship through the best friend/sibling. The two often get together after one returns to their hometown (e.g. during an illness, after the death of a family member, after a relationship or marriage breakup, or after serving in the armed forces).

Ugly Duckling

The unattractive heroine finds true love after undergoing a makeover and emerging as a physical beauty.

This can be a difficult trope to make work as a writer, especially as a Christian writer. Readers don’t want to read about a hero who is so shallow that he isn’t interested in the heroine except for her looks, which means the hero needs to see and want a relationship with the heroine even before her transformation.

While the Ugly Duckling is usually the heroine, the story could be twisted so the hero gets the makeover, as in the show Beauty and the Geek. However, the same challenges still stand: readers are not going to relate to a heroine who doesn’t value the inner man.

Other Man/Other Woman

This is similar to the Love Triangle. The hero and heroine meet and start a relationship, which is disrupted by the reapperance of an ex. This could be an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, an ex-fiance, or an ex-spouse. The ex makes it clear they want to get back together, which often scares off the current partner. The main character has to chase off the ex and convince their new love that the ex is history.

The challenge with this trope is similar to that of the Love Triangle: if the OM/OW is a likeable character, then some readers will want them to get back together. But if the OM/OW isn’t likeable, the readers wonder why they got together in the first place and question the judgement of the heroine/hero for ever being with that person (especially as the OM/OW often ends up being a cheater, drug addict, or other miscreant).

Example: Central to Nowhere by DJ Blackmore

(One tip I’ve heard for authors writing Other Woman: don’t make her completely unlikeable, because your readers and publisher might decide she needs to be the heroine in your next book.)

Marriage of Convenience

The hero and heroine agree to marry out of necessity, then fall in love. This is a common trope in historical fiction, where it can be that the couple are brought together by tragic circumstance (e.g. a widower wants a mother for his children) or forced together by awkward circumstances and cultural norms (e.g. in Victorian times, couples who spent time alone together without a suitable chaperone were often forced to marry to protect her reputation. Or, at least, that’s what fiction would have us believe).

Example: Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke

Secret Romance

The hero and heroine meet and start a relationship, but keep it secret from friends and family for some reason. This isn’t such a popular trope in Christian romance, probably because Christian readers don’t like to see characters lying to each other or to their family and friends without good reason.

Example: Romeo and Juliet

Love at First Sight

The hero and heroine meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. In real life, some people believe in love at first sight, but others say it’s not possible: that love is a choice, or that love grows as two people develop their relationship. They say love at first sight is attraction at best (and more likely lust), as we can’t truly love someone we don’t know. As such, Love at First Sight has to be managed carefully in Christian romance.

Reunited Lovers

A couple are separated by forces outside their control—overbearing parents, an accident, a war. In some historical romances, one character travels (e.g. to America), promising to send for the other but something goes wrong. Anyway, the two meet again, years later, and have the opportunity to rekindle their relationship.


Two strangers are trapped together in an elevator or a snowstorm (or anything that forces the hero and heroine to spend time together with no interruptions). They form a relationship, continue that relationship after they are rescued, and live happily ever after.

Example: Danger in the Shadows by Dee Henderson

Mail Order Bride

Mail order bride stories are typically set in the American West, between 1870 and 1900. Women were scarce, so men would advertise for brides, correspond with them, then pay their train fares from some eastern city to the West. As such, it’s a marriage of two almost-strangers in the nineteenth century of online dating.

Example: Escape to the West series by Nerys Leigh

Opposites Attract

Two people who appear to be polar opposites are attracted to each other, and have to work out if their relationship can overcome their differences. This is a popular trope, as opposites give instant conflict … which means plenty of external tension.

Example: Then There Was You by Kara Isaac

Bad Girl/Boy

The “good” character (often the heroine) is attracted to someone her parents or friends consider to be an inappropriate choice—the “bad boy”. This gives two levels of conflict—the hero may have to convince the heroine he’s “good enough” (or vice versa), and they both have to convince others that their relationship can succeed despite their differences.

Example: The Masterpiece by Francine Rivers

Soul Mate

The hero and heroine are destined to be together by fate/the gods/some other external and usually supernatural force. If either the hero or heroine is in any other relationship, it is destined to fail. The Soul Mate trope is common in urban fiction or paranormal romance, where it seems that all good werewolves and many other werebeings readily accept that they are somehow supernaturally linked to one other being.

This is an uncommon trope in Christian fiction, perhaps because it shows a preference for predestination vs. free will, and modern Christian fiction tends to avoid such theological questions.


The advantage of using tropes is that readers are familiar with them and often have favourite tropes they will read over and over. The disadvantage of using tropes is that readers are familiar with them, and can become bored because the trope is too predictable.

One solution to this problem is to twist tropes (e.g. have a male Ugly Duckling), or use multiple tropes. Many of the tropes do work well together. For example, a Fake Romance may be coupled with a Belated Epiphany, where the fake relationship comes to an agreed end, then one main character realises s/he actually does love the other.

Can you think of any romance tropes I’ve missed? What’s your favourite romance trope?

10 Popular Romance Tropes

10 Popular Romance Tropes (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

Most genre fiction uses some kind of trope as a shorthand way to hook a potential reader. So what is a trope?

What is a Trope?

Tropes are plot devices, characters, images, or themes that are incorporated so frequently in a genre that they’re seen as conventional. (Source: Reedsy)

Many genres have tropes. For example, consider any Star Wars movie. They all use The Chosen One trope—a main character with some kind of natural advantage that enables them to defeat their foe. Annikin Skywalker has The Force. Luke Skywalker has The Force. Rei (not Skywalker … yet) has The Force. And that enables them to defeat the evil around them. Okay, so Annikin then joins the forces of evil, but that sets up Rogue One and the second (first?) trilogy of movies.

And we’re still waiting for the end of Rae’s story, but that’s another trope: Good Defeats Evil (even in the face of unbelieable odds).

What is a romance novel?

A romance has to end with an “emotionally satisfying ending”. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a romance (according to Romance Writers of America, and romance readers everywhere). Most readers take this to mean a “happy ever after” (HEA) ending, although some general romances will have a less final “happy for now” (HFN) ending.

Below, I’ve listed some of the common romance tropes along with a brief definition.

Note that in Christian fiction, any reference to “lovers” is meant in the Victorian sense, not the modern sense! Also, Christian romance is always hero and heroine, and it’s implied that the “happy ever after” ending is “will you marry me”, not “do you want to move in with me and my teenager and our new puppy” (which sounds to me more like live-in unpaid housekeeper than forever love).

Yes, some Christian romances have a “happy for now” ending, but those tend to be stories where the hero and heroine hadn’t met before the story started, and which take place over a short space of time (days or weeks). In these cases, it’s not reasonable to expect the couple to be ready to make a lifelong committment, although the implication is that’s where the relationship is headed.

So what are some popular romance tropes?

Friends to Lovers

The hero and heroine are long-time friends, but come to realise their feelings are more than mere friendship. The challenge with this story is that one or both of the main characters wants to take the relationship to the next level but is afraid to make the first move because they’re afraid of ruining a good friendship.

This is one of my favourite tropes, both because it represents my own journey and because I think it’s important that marriages are built on a base of friendship and respect, not attraction and lust. This is especially true in Christian romance, where readers expect the characters to model Biblical values.

Example: True Devotion by Dee Henderson

Enemies to Lovers

The hero and heroine already know each other, but don’t like each other. Those reasons seem rational at first, but as the couple get to know each other, they realise they had a false impression of the other person. These stories don’t have the awkward “do I make a move and risk ruining a friendship?” question, because their is no friendship to lose. As such, they are often fun stories … especially as the reader knows the couple are destined to be together long before they work it out.

Example: Maybe It’s You by Christy Hayes

Unrequited Love

This is similar to the Friends to Lover trope in that the hero and heroine are long-time friends. The difference is that one has been in love with the other for a long time—often years. The story centres around the lover’s uncertainty over whether to tell the friend or not, and the friend’s slow journey to realising they see the lover as something more than a friend.

These stories can often be bittersweet, as one perfectly nice character has had to watch the person they love date other people, and sometimes even get married.

Example: Sweet on You by Becky Wade

Fake Romance

Two people fake a romance to satisfy some external plot point e.g. a character wants a date to a family function. The couple spend more and more time together, and eventually realise they love each other. This can be complicated when one or more of their family/friends knew it was a fake romance, so the couple then have to convince the unbelievers that their relationship is for real.

Example: I’m sure I’ve read books with this trope, but can I remember any? No. Can you?

Love Triangle

One main character is forced to choose between two possible partners. This can go two ways:

  • The main character has to choose between two wonderful people (so a perfectly nice character ends up getting hurt).
  • The main character thinks they’re in love with A (or is in an existing relationship with A), but is also attracted to B (who is much nicer than A).

The problem with the love triangle is that if you’re not careful, half your audience will be convinced the story ends with the wrong couple getting together.

Examples: Last Summer by Brandy Bruce

Forbidden Love

The hero and heroine meet and fall for each other, only to find there is some external reason why they can’t be together. This could be a family feud, religious differences, or racial differences (especially in historical fiction, where there were often laws prohibiting interracial marriage).

Note that Christian romance readers expect the hero and heroine to both be Christians, so a romance between a Christian and a non-Christian would fall into this category, and readers would expect the non-Christian to have become a Christian before the end of the story.

Example: Romeo and Juliet

Secret Royal/Billionaire/Star

A regular member of the public meets and falls for a member of royalty, a billionaire, or a famous actor or sportsperson without knowing who they are. The Secret person likes being treated as a person instead of as a title/wallet, and the two start a relationship. There is the inevitable dustup when the regular Joe/Joelene finds out their partner’s true identity before they can get their happy-ever-after ending.

It used to be secret millionaire, but a million dollars doesn’t sound as impressive as it used to!

Example: Managing the Rock Star by Emma St Clair

Secret Baby

A woman falls pregnant but never tells the father that she’s had his baby, usually because they are somehow separated and she never gets the chance. Months or years later, they meet again and the father works out his ex had his baby and never told him.

I went through a phase of reading and enjoying secret baby romances, but then the improvements in technology and social media made it harder to believe that the woman couldn’t tell the father she’d had his baby. This meant she hadn’t, which meant she had to have a good reason for not telling him … and many didn’t.

Example: Return to Baragula by Mary Hawkins

Belated Love Epiphany

One main character realises they love the other after the other character has left the city or country (who left because they realised they were the victim of Unrequited Love). This epiphany is followed by the late-to-the-party main character chasing the other through the airport or across the world to declare their love.

Example: Close to You by Kara Isaac

Second Chance Romance

A couple break up for actual reasons (as opposed to being separated for reasons beyond their control), then meet again months or years later, discover they still have feelings for each other, and try to rekindle their relationship. This usually means they have to work through whatever obstacles prompted them to break up in the first place … and sometimes some new obstacles as well.

Example: Sweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter


So there you have ten popular romance tropes. I’ll be back next week with more. What are your favourite—or least favourite—tropes in your favourite genre?

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant.

We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Marketing 101: Book Cover Design

Marketing 101: Book Cover Design

Some proverbs or old sayings are eternal (like the Book of Proverbs in the Bible). Some have less longevity … like this old saying:

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

That might have been true when all books were hardcovers with little more than the title and author name. But in the modern age, the book cover is valuable marketing space—the book marketing equivalent of a highway billboard.

Because we do judge books by their covers. I’m a freelance editor, so I’d like to be able to say that the most important aspect of a book is the writing and editing. But that’s not what I think.

Observing as a reader and potential buyer, I have to say that the most important aspect is …

Cover Design

Why? Bad or insufficient editing can be so annoying that readers react by not finishing the book, leaving critical reviews, or not buying your next book. Even worse, they may report the book to Amazon as being of poor quality, which leaves the author rushing to find and make sufficient changes that Amazon accepts the book again.

But all that assumes the reader has picked up the book (or downloaded the Kindle sample). And they won’t do that if they’re not attracted by the cover.

It’s Not About You.

True story:

An author posted her book cover in a Facebook group. She may or may not have been looking for feedback (the group allows book cover posts if people are looking for feedback, but not as a new book cover announcement). Anyway, the group offered her feedback on how she could improve the cover. Several people commented that the cover image didn’t look professional, and didn’t reflect the genre.

It was good feedback. But the author rejected it: her son had painted the cover image, and she loved it.

That was her mistake. Whether you like the cover isn’t important. It’s a bonus if you do (of course), but if you’re the only person who loves your cover, it’s likely you’ll be the only person who wants to by your book. Because cover design isn’t about the author.

It’s About the Reader.

Cover design is about the reader.

And not every reader. Just as no book will appeal to all readers, no cover should appeal to all readers. Your cover needs to appeal to your target reader. (You do have a target reader, right?)

So your book cover has to be designed to appeal to the kind of people who read books like yours.

More specifically, cover design is about genre.

It’s About Genre.

Your cover needs to look like the covers from the leading books in your genre. You need a cover that functions like a freeway billboard: the reader who’s skimming past will immediately know the genre and know whether it’s a book they might be interested in.

Not like a black cover with yellow writing I saw recently. It was for a young adult Christian novel based on the story of Daniel. I shows the cover to a couple of friends without telling them the genre, and they couldn’t even tell whether the book was fiction or nonfiction, let alone the genre or target reader age.

Your book needs to blend in to the Amazon shelf as a book that looks like it belongs. You don’t want to be the author of the book that stands out because it looks wrong. That’s like turning up to school in a blue dress and realising the school uniform is brown. You stand out, and not in a good way.

At the same time, you want your cover design to be unique.

You don’t want to use the stock image of the 1880s woman in the blue dress peering through the curtains out the window. Or the stock image of the woman in the white dress and hat holding a tea cup and saucer. Both are lovely images, but they’re overused.

Hint: if you’ve seen the image on a cover before, you don’t want to use that image. It’s overused. Keen readers in your genre will recognise it … and possibly ignore your book because they think they’ve already read it.

Check out the books in your genre. Know the trends. Follow the trends enough so your book fits in, but not so much that it looks like every other book in the genre. Brand your book covers, so people who see a thumbnail in passing on Twitter will stop and click, because they recognise the cover.

It’s About Brand.

Here are a couple of examples: Rayne Hall and James Scott Bell both write books about writing craft. Rayne Hall’s books on writing craft are consistently branded:

Books by Rayne Hall

James Scott Bell’s books are not:

James Scott Bell writes great content—probably better content that Rayne Hall. But the branding isn’t consistent, which makes his books harder to spot in an overcrowded online store. And even harder to spot on social media.

The same holds true for fiction covers. The best fiction cover shows the genre clearly, and is consistent across a series, or across all the author’s books.

Know the Trends

Book cover trends change. You’ll need to watch the trends and update your covers accordingly.

For example, Robin Jones Gunn’s Glenbrooke series has been through at least five cover designs since Secrets was first published in 1995:

If you want to learn more about cover design without actually becoming a designer, then you’ll need to watch the trends. I have two favourite places to watch cover design trends:


Amazon is the world’s biggest bookstore, which means it has the world’s largest selection of covers, old and new. Check out the new releases or the Top 100 books in your genre for ideas.

The Book Designer

Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer has a monthly cover design contest, showcasing submitted covers along with a brief critique about what’s good or bad.

If you’re traditionally published, then you may not get a lot of say in cover design.

But you need to know enough so that you (or your agent) can go into battle if the publisher gets it wrong. And publishers do get it wrong: the ugly black and yellow cover I mentioned above is a cover from a small traditional publisher.

If you’re self-published, then you have complete control over your cover design.

Complete control to get it right … or wrong. My advice? Make sure you find a cover designer who knows your genre (e.g. one who has designed covers for other authors in your genre), and follow your designer’s advice. If they tell you yellow on black isn’t a good look, then they’re probably right.

What cover design tips do you have?

Should I Pay to Contribute to an Anthology?

Dear Editor | Should I Pay to Contribute to an Anthology?

Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed various legitimate and less legitimate ways authors are encouraged to spend money. Today we’re discussing anthologies.

First, what is an anthology?

An anthology is a collection of short literary works chosen by a compiler or organiser. It may be short stories, plays, articles, poems, songs, excerpts, or a combination of those.

Anthologies can be an excellent way of getting early publication credits, as you only need to submit a short piece of work, not a full novel.

The most famous anthology series is probably Chicken Soup for the Soul. It publishes several anthologies each year, each 101 stories on a specific theme. Stories must be non-fiction, no longer than 1200 words, and not previously published. Contributors receive $200 per story, plus ten free author copies and a discount on additional book purchases.

If you’re interested in Chicken Soup for the Soul, click here to check out their current topics under development.

Chicken Soup for the Soul has the qualities of a good anthology:

  • The stories are curated—not everyone who submits a story gets published.
  • The books are professional.
  • Authors are paid.
  • Authors receive some free copies of the book.
  • Authors have the option to buy additional copies of the book at a substantial discount.
  • The authors are not required to contribute towards the production or marketing of the book.
There are other kinds of anthologies which don’t meet all these standards, but which are still reputable anthologies.

Charity Anthology

While I’ve never participated in an anthology, I have friends who have. There are some up-front costs with producing an anthology, such as cover design and editing. There may also be some promotional costs (e.g. advertising or a website).

If the anthology is being organised by an individual or organisation, then the organiser might pay these up-front costs and be repaid from sales of the anthology, with profits then going to the named charity.

If a group of authors decide to create a charity anthology, then they may be asked to contribute towards the production costs (and may or may not be repaid these costs). Or they might each arrange and pay for their own editing, and find someone who will donate a cover design.

In either case, the aim is to keep costs down to maximise profit and therefore maximise the donations to the charity.

Contest Anthology

Some writing contests publish an anthology of the winning entries.

The Stories of Life contest costs AUD 10 to enter, which is used to fund cash prizes of $500 and $250 in each of the three contest categories. Shortlisted entrants in each category are published in an annual anthology at no additional cost—editing, cover design, formatting, printing, and all other costs are borne by the contest organisers. Contributors each receive a free copy of the published book, and some have the opportunity to further publicise their work by appearing on a local radio show. Contributors do not receive a royalty payment. I assume all royalties go back into a central fund to pay for the production of the next book.

FaithWriters also publish an annual anthology of approximately 100 of the best submissions to their weekly writing challenge. Anyone can join Faith Writers and enter the challenge, although only paid members can enter every week. Again, there is no additional cost (beyond the cost of Faith Writers Gold membership), but contributors don’t receive a royalty.

Box Set Anthologies

Many self-published authors participate in multi-author box sets as a way of introducing their work to new readers, or as a way of hitting a bestseller list (e.g. New York Times or USA Today). While the specifics of each box set vary, there is generally one author who leads the project and sets the rules. These will include the overall box set theme and manuscript length, and may also include cover design, editing, and formatting.

Each author is responsible for their individual expenses (e.g. cover design, editing, and formatting). They may also contribute to a joint fund if some expenses are to be shared (e.g. advertising, or design of the box set cover). The lead author will usually collect all royalties and distribute them to the participating authors, as per the agreed contract.

However, there are other ways of managing a group anthology, as Carole P Roman explains in this blog post about her experiences as an anthology participant and organiser:

Vanity Anthologies

Unfortunately, there are also vanity anthologies targeting Christian writers.

The 2019 Women of Purpose Anthology from Higgins Publishing aims to encourage women to “step out in faith even if they face rejection”, and offers participants the opportunity to become a “Best-Selling Author” and to receive profit of 100% of personal sales. All they have to do is submit a “pre-edited inspiring story of 1000 words” … and a minimum of $250 “registration”.

There are some early red flags, like the suggestion to use Grammarly.com “to edit your story to 100% accuracy.” Well, no. While Grammarly is no doubt better than Word’s spellcheck, it’s not as good as an actual editor. To suggest otherwise is akin to serving a burger patty when the customer asked for steak.

The minimum purchase is 25 books at 40% off the retail price (which is $25). So after paying a minimum of $250 to be in the anthology, authors must spend another $375 on books to sell to recoup that up-front cost. Or you can elect to pay $450 up front, and receive 25 “free” books. The most expensive package is $2,500, which gets you 200 books plus matching bookmarks, postcards, and a “retractable event banner”.

No. Just no.

I don’t take issue with paying for necessary production costs, such as editing, cover design, or even copies of the book. But the costs should be reasonable … and $2,500 for 200 books plus $100 worth of (unnecessary) promotional materials is far from reasonable.

Especially when you compare that to Chicken Soup, who pay all the production costs as well as giving each contributing author a small payment. Or paying $10 to enter the Stories of Life contest. Or a little more to join with friends and create an anthology which benefits a charity you all care about.

Have you every contributed to an anthology? What did it cost, and what were the benefits?

Dear Editor | Should I Pay an Agent or Editor to ... ?

Dear Editor | Should I Pay an Agent or Editor to … ?

Over the last few months, I’ve come across several people asking if they should pay an agent or editor or publisher for X or Y or Z. Today I’m answering some of these questions.

Should I pay an agent a reading fee?


The Association of Author Representatives clearly state that literary agents are not to charge clients or potential clients for reading or editing their work.

For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients a fee for reading and evaluating literary works

Literary agents are paid a percentage of the advance and royalty they negotiate on your behalf when they sell your book to a traditional publisher. The industry standard is 15 percent. Many agents negotiate that the publisher will forward them the full advance or royalty payment, and the agent will then check the royalty statement, take their 15%, and forward the balance to the author.

Kathryn Kristine Rusch recommends negotiating that the publisher make two payments—15% to the agent, and the remainder to the author. I suspect more authors will be asking for this split after the recent case where author Chuck Palahnuik was virtually bankrupted when his agent’s accountant embezzled the funds.

Not all publishers pay advances—if that’s the case, the agent gets paid purely on royalties. Either way, the agent gets paid a proportion of book sales. That’s it.

Should I pay a publisher a reading fee?

Again, no.

Reputable publishers make money by selling books. Period.

Yes, there are a lot of up-front costs in owning a publishing business, even a small press.

If a publisher doesn’t have the resources to read submissions, then they should close submissions for a period (as many do).

Otherwise it would be all to easy for a publisher to charge prospective authors a reading fee. (I’ve seen $35 discussed in Facebook groups). They could turn that into a profit centre. There is also no way to tell the publisher actually read your submission. They could just take your $35 and send back a form rejection letter or email.

Yes, it takes time for publishers to read and assess submissions, and time is money.

Some even pay readers to go through the slush pile. But this is a cost of publishing. If publishers don’t have the time, they can say they only accept submissions from literary agents, or close submissions for a period.

If you download Christian Publishers: A Guide to Publishers Specializing in Christian Fiction, you’ll see I divide out those publishers which are accepting submissions from those who only accept agented submissions. Unfortunately, the high-profile publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions.

(If you want to know how to find a Christian literary agent, check out this post: How do I find a Christian Literary Agent?)

Should I pay to have my manuscript edited before I submit to an agent or publisher?


Some agents also moonlight as freelance editors. I’m in two minds about this. I can see the appeal in using their skills to earn a little money on the side. I can definitely see the attraction for unpublished authors. After all, paying an agent to edit your manuscript gets you in front of an industry insider, which might be the vital step you need to be offered agency representation or a publishing contract.

However, this goes against the AARs ethical standards:

The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works … the term “reading and evaluating literary works” includes providing editorial services with respect to such works. The term “charge” includes any request for payment.

So an agent can moonlight as a freelance editor … but not for current or potential clients.

Also, I read endless blog posts about how busy agents are: how many submissions they have to review, how many  manuscripts they have to edit, how many contracts and royalty statements they have to review. If they are so busy, they should be spending their non-working hours relaxing, not moonlighting in a job that’s so close to their day job.

I’ve also heard of publishing house editors undertaking freelance editing work.

Many publishing houses outsource their editing to freelance editors. While hiring one of these freelancers should get you a high standard of editing, a freelance editor isn’t likely to have any influence with the publishing house.

Working with an editor for a publishing house might give you some advantage, but there are potential disadvantages. While publishing house employees aren’t covered by the AAR, they are covered by their own employment contracts, which may well prohibit taking outside paid work.

What about freelance editors? (Like me).

If you’re serious about getting represented by a literary agent or being offered a contract with a major traditional publisher, then you need to make sure your submission is the best possible standard.

That may mean getting input on your writing before submitting. That input could come through beta readers, critique partners, contest judges, or a freelance editor.

This doesn’t have to be a full edit: it could mean an assessment of your full manuscript. It could mean copyediting your first couple of chapters, or it could mean assessing your opening chapters to identify any recurring writing issues.

If you’re interested in finding out more, email me via the About page.

Should I pay to enter a writing contest?

That requires a longer answer, and will be the topic of next week’s post.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments.

Do Authors Have to Blog?

Dear Editor | Do Authors Have to Blog? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

Writers are an odd bunch. I’ve come across many writers who are more than comfortable with the idea of writing a 90,000-word novel, but have palpitations at the thought of writing and publishing a 500-word blog post.

These authors often ask the same question:

Do Authors Have to Blog?

My answer? Maybe. But maybe not.

If you’re a non-fiction author, then you do need to blog. It establishes your expertise in your specialist area, which will build credibility.

But you might not need to blog if you’re a fiction author. Many established authors don’t have a blog on their website. Others do, but blog only a few times a year (usually to promote a new release). Some blog on group blogs.

Do fiction authors have to blog? And what should they blog about? #Blogging #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Click To Tweet

Fiction authors may still need to blog.

If you’re aiming for a publishing contract with a major traditional publisher, then you almost certainly need to have an author blog and post regularly. Social media expert Edie Melson points out that regular blogging shows industry professionals you can write to a deadline and produce quality work. Melson does point out that blogging isn’t a way to sell books, but does provide a way of connecting with readers.

What if you’re aiming to self-publish?

Then it depends. Self-published authors need a website and an email list, but blogging? It’s not the most important part of a website—that would be your About page, and your Books page, because those are the pages readers are most likely to be looking for.

Do you enjoy blogging?

No? Then don’t start a blog. You want your blog to show readers an interesting person they want to know better. That’s not going to come through if you think blogging is a chore on a par with cleaning the toilet (or whatever household task you loathe most).

Can you commit to regular blogging? Will you?

Will you commit to a regular blogging schedule, including writing, editing and publishing a new blog post at least once per week for at least the next six months? No? Then don’t start a blog.

Don’t I have to blog to sell books?

No—even a strong blog might not help you sell books. Think of Mike Duran. I often share his posts  because they are thought-provoking and relevant and he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions about Christianity and literature. But he writes Christian horror, and while I think his blog is great, I’m not interested in his fiction (sorry, Mike).

Anyway, no one is going to be interested in your blog if it’s a constant infomercial (let your Home and Books pages do the selling).

Okay. I’m going to blog.

If you enjoy blogging and can commit to a regular schedule, then maybe blogging is for you. Now your choice is between blogging on your website, or blogging as part of a group blog. Here are some I read regularly:

If you blog on your own website:

  • Be regular. Blog at least once a week, at the same time and on the same day each week. Announce this on your About page. Don’t overcommit yourself: if one good post each week is all you can manage, then blog once a week.
  • Be intentional. Choose a topic or theme, and stick to it. If you don’t know what your theme might be, Jeff Goins has a 12-part free email course that might help you.
  • Don’t put blogging ahead of writing your book. If blogging is taking over your writing time, you might need to reconsider how regularly you blog.

If you post on a group blog:

  • Get your post up early. The earlier, the better. It saves the blog organiser the last-minute stress of wondering whether they need to find a filler post if you miss your slot.
  • Ensure your posts fit the blog. Some group blogs have different themes for different days. I find a set theme makes it easier to write a post. Ensure your posts are consistent in length and style with those of the other contributors. This doesn’t mean letting go of your unique author voice, but it does mean making sure you’re not posting deep theological treatises when everyone else is posting about their cute pets (or vice versa).
  • Put blogging ahead ahead of writing your book. You’ve made a commitment. Keep it. If you need to step back from contributing, contact the blog organiser and work out a mutually agreeable schedule. Don’t leave your blogmates in the lurch.

What do you blog about?

This is the more difficult question.

If you write non-fiction, blog about subjects related to your book (or even blog your book).

It’s not so cut and dried if you write fiction, especially if you’re not yet published. You want to your blog to appeal to your target reader—it’s a place for your potential audience to get to know you better, so write to appeal to that audience.

Do Authors Have to Blog? Tips for fiction and non-fiction authors #Blogging #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Click To Tweet

What subjects are your readers interested in?

Rachel Thompson and other blogging gurus suggest picking four or five topics and blogging about each once a month. Topics should be:

  • Something you’re interested in, so you can bear to write about them each month.
  • Something your target reader might be interested in. There is no point in building an audience of manhwa (Korean manga) fans if you’re writing inspirational women’s fiction.

Your blog needs to serve your reader, not you. What questions are they asking?

This doesn’t mean you can’t post about your writing—you can, but in a way that’s relevant for your target reader. For example, you could post:

  • Short stories (so they know your writing style).
  • Reviews of books in the same genre (because you want your blog to attract readers, right?).
  • Movie reviews in your genre (because readers are fans of story, and movies often have great stories).

Once you’re published, you can add book-related content, such as:

  • Character information, maps or related plot information.
  • Questions for book clubs.
  • Outtakes or deleted scenes (maybe).

The Novel Marketing Podcast has a useful episode on what novelists can blog about.

One last tip . . .

If you do choose to blog, ensure your blog integrated into your website (so your blog is a page on your website, not a completely separate site). Your blog is where you’ll start connecting with readers, through regular blog posts, so don’t confuse potential reader by having two sites.

Do you blog? How often? What do you blog about? What hints to you have for your fellow authors?