Perfecting Prose – What I learned from being a RITA finalist

Earlier this year, I received a thrilling phone call notifying me that my debut book, A Tailor-Made Bride, had finaled in the RITA®  category for Best First Book. Was I ever excited! Then people started asking me about why I thought my book made it to the finals. My first reaction was – How can I possibly know? Contest judging is so subjective. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that even though I didn’t have direct feedback from the RITA judges, I had feedback from other judges—readers. So the tips you’ll find here today, are based on what I have gleaned from the comments of readers and reviewers.

Characters impact readers more than plot.

“What amazing characters… I loved Jericho and Hannah. It was as if they were real people.”

“Her characters live and breathe, not only within the pages but long after the cover is closed.”

“Her characters were flawed in ways that made them endearing and gave you a vested interest in their individual quests for happiness and fulfillment.”

My goal in designing main characters is twofold: have every woman who reads my story fall in love with the hero, and have every female reader wish to be the heroine. In order for me to accomplish this, as an author, I need to do exactly the same—fall in love with my hero and live vicariously through my heroine. If the characters aren’t real to me, they won’t be real to the reader either. So what makes them real?

  • Use Deep POV  Spend time in the character’s head. Express his thoughts directly using language that matches his personality. Show his reactions and emotions instead of explaining them to the reader. Give him a distinct narrative voice.
  • Use Contrast – My hero is a grouchy, set-in-his-ways livery owner, but that crusty exterior hides a soft heart that leads him to perform acts of kindness when no one is looking. His words might sound arrogant, but his actions show his inner goodness.
  • Give them flaws to make them real. Give them quirks to make them unique. Give them noble motivations to make them likeable – Hannah was living her dream of opening her own dress shop, but she struggled with her lack of business savvy when customers were scarce. Her quirk – she’s a 19th century fitness maven with a daily exercise regimen that most folks scoffed at. As for motivation, she wanted to have a successful shop, but not at the cost of being a stumbling block to others. Her ultimate aim was to use the gifts God had given her to serve her community, not simply to support herself by making a good living. Giving her a more noble motivation increased her likeability even when her stubbornness and pride led her into trouble.
  • Have well-developed secondary characters – Many readers have asked me about turning A Tailor-Made Bride into a series because they found themselves so attached to the town and its characters that they wanted more. What a fabulous compliment! Even though secondary characters don’t have their own POVs, make them memorable and real to the reader. Make them quirky and fun, or have them tug on the reader’s heartstrings. Use them to open the eyes of your main character when he/she is struggling to come to grips with a specific truth. But remember, their purpose is to enhance the story of the hero and heroine, not to steal the show.
  • Use dialog as a romance tool – Witty dialog is something I greatly admire in novels and strive to incorporate in my own. My favorite way to use it is between the hero and heroine as they fight against their attraction. Let them tease, flirt, and spar with each other as a way to build romantic tension. Sometimes having a character be audaciously honest can be a delightful surprise. One of my favorite scenes from A Tailor-Made Bride uses this technique. Hannah has learned Jericho’s true name and is teasing him about it.

He prowled forward, jaw clenched so hard, his facial muscles ticked. “The name’s J.T.”

“No,” she said, tapping her chin as if pondering some great mystery. “Those are initials. Your name is Jericho.”

Wiggling his fingers to keep them from curling into fists, J.T. reminded himself that she was a woman.

“Are you purposely trying to rile me?” His voice rumbled with menace, warning her against such a dangerous path.

An all-too-innocent smile stretched across her face. “Why, yes. Yes, I am. Is it working?”

Deepen Your Spiritual Theme with Layers

“Besides a beautiful romance, this story has take-home value in it that made me stop and reflect…The characters grew not only as individual people, and as a couple, but as children of God as well.”

“…you will also find the Lord’s “thumbprint” on every page. Her words ministered to my spirit in such a deep, penetrating way.”

“…while the book is highly readable and enjoyable, it is also thought-provoking. I found myself pausing time and again to reflect on my own life, particularly as it relates to God’s purpose for me.”

  • More than skin deep – On the surface, the key spiritual message of A Tailor-Made Bride seems to entail the issue of beauty vs. vanity. However, if you look deeper, you’ll see that the true message is about balance, unity, and opening yourself to God’s truth even when it goes against long-held beliefs based on personal experience.
  • Complicate things – Another aspect that I believe made my theme unique was that I allowed both characters to be right. Both had a biblical foundation to back up their position, and as I wrote their story, I found myself agreeing with both sides. The true issue is not who is right and who is wrong. The true issue is how can we treat each other with love, even when we disagree? And can we set our dogmatism aside long enough to see if there is any truth to be gained by pondering the opposite perspective?
  • Sprinkle other spiritual truths throughout the story in addition to the main theme – In real life, we rarely deal with one issue at a time. So in addition to the beauty-vanity theme, I also sprinkled in thoughts about running a business as a person of faith, using gifts to serve others even when the service goes unnoticed, and reaching out to the outcasts among us. Remember, however, that story rules. Never incorporate a spiritual thread simply to teach your readers a truth. Everything has to spring naturally from the characters and the plot, otherwise it will come across as preachy.

Question for you: So when you think about your favorite books, the ones that linger in your mind long after the last page is turned, what is it about them that impacted you most? If you were a contest judge, what would you be looking for?

20 Replies to “Perfecting Prose – What I learned from being a RITA finalist”

  1. Great info, Karen. I like how you used your reviews and a snippet of your great dialogue to illustrate your points, showing us in addition to telling us the craft tips.

    I thoroughly enjoyed A Tailor-Made Bride and was thrilled to see it nominated for the RITA.

    1. Thanks, Keli. It was such a thrill to receive that nomination. I hope to see your debut listed there next year! 🙂

  2. It’s the characters I think that trump it all. When I want to reread a book, it’s to spend time “with them” so I’d say your biggest gem of wisdom is “fall in love with hero/want to be heroine.” That’s also when I know it’s a good book, when after reading it, days later I’m wondering what the characters would be doing now—that’s the sign of an excellent book.

    1. So true, Melissa. We need to have an exciting plot to keep things moving, but without characters that the reader cares about, even the most fast-paced plot will fail to entrance. There are certain books that have stayed with me years after reading them. Usually it is a particular scene that lingers in my mind because it was so compelling. But it is the actions and motivations of the characters not the external plot that make them so powerful.

  3. Thanks, Karen, for these feedback comments on your novel. I’m impressed that readers (and other writers) would take the time to make comments so you must have good rapport with them and/or a compelling ability to generate responses.

    The section on flaws/quirks/motivation caught my eye; it sets characters apart and when done right, captures authentic characters. My posting on my blog regarding an unforgettable character attracted considerable interest a few months ago. See
    Wish you the best.

    1. Thanks for stopping by today, Samuel. Creating memorable characters is such an essential piece of writing a novel. We want them to be memorable, thought-provoking, and relateable so that readers not only connect, but remember them long after the book is finished.

  4. Thanks for a great post, Karen. I’m keeping it for reference and will probably refer back to it many times as I’m currently editing my novel. Great examples. Congratulations on your RITA nomination! That’s so wonderful.

    1. Thanks, Sherri. There is always more to learn, isn’t there? Even things I thought I knew, I find I have to remind myself of so that my writing doesn’t get lazy. Wishing you the best with your editing. It can be a difficult process, but it is so worth it in the end.

  5. Thanks…this helped. I neither read nor write romance, but your point about letting both sides be right and demonstrating how we all have to live together is well taken. Thanks.

    1. Thank, JoAnne. I’m glad you were able to draw some parallels to other genres and life in general. I appreciate your comment.

  6. For me, characters and dialogue rule. I started out writing my first book with lots of telling and internal musings, etc. and after months of edits and critiques my writing has metamorphosed into character-driven novels with dialogue. And I enjoy what I’m doing now more than ever. I don’t believe that plot rules, though there are those who would disagree.
    Thank you for your insightful explanations.

    1. Hi, Patti. As with everything there must be balance between plotting and characterization. But I think characters are key since they impact every aspect of the story. Different genres have different emphases – suspense/thriller is more plot driven for example – but even then, the reader has to care about the characters to enjoy the plot. On the flip side, we can have engaging characters, but if the plot bogs down, the reader will lose interest. A great novel emerges when there is a happy marriage between the two.

    1. Thanks, Katie! Hope those edits go well. It’s amazing how much they help polish a manuscript. I know yours will be a gleaming gem when you are finished.

  7. Another keeper post from the WSWC!
    I read A Tailor-Made Bride and one of the things I liked most about the book (just one of the things, mind you) is that both characters were right. Usually there’s a “this character’s right and this character’s wrong” set up in a novel. It was intriguing to see how you’d settle the whole “but both characters have their points — and I understand where they’re coming from!

    1. Hi, Beth. Having both characters be right was one of my favorite elements in this story because it reflected real life to me in such a powerful way. There are always two sides to an issue, and I had fun exploring the good and bad that comes from that.

  8. Congratulations on the RITA nomination! I’m so happy for you. This was a wonderful post. Thank you for taking the time to help us see specific crafting ideas that will help us grow as writers.

  9. Hey there, Karen,
    I think it’s all about character. I know when I’m reading a novel I love I can’t wait to get back to see what “they” will be doing next. And when I finish the book there is a continuing feeling of wondering what those characters are up to even though I know they don’t really live, they live on in my imagination. A keeper post for sure.

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