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You Can’t Do That!

A funny thing happened on the way to publication: I got a truly up-close look at the difference between a “guideline” and a “rule.”

I’m what you would call a Golden Heart success story. Not just because I finaled, won, and sold – but because I sold to a publisher I would have never submitted to if it weren’t for the Golden Heart. And I would have never submitted because I thought my book violated the publisher’s guidelines.

When Harlequin Enterprises created their Love Inspired (LI) line, they did so with the intent of selling their books in both regular retail stores and Christian bookstores, so they determined the books would follow a set of content guidelines acceptable in even the most conservative of Christian bookstores. Check out the writers guidelines on the eHarlequin site, and you’ll notice the LI lines have the longest, most detailed guidelines of all the category lines.

My Golden Heart book deals with a hero suffering from PTSD and in danger of becoming an alcoholic. He’s not there yet (my book did not cover enough time to explore that in a realistic way), but everyone can see what his future will be if he doesn’t change the direction of his life. As such, he drinks, rather heavily, for the first 2/3 of the book. According to LI’s guidelines: “Christian characters in the stories may not consume alcohol, play cards or gamble.”

I spoke to several LI author friends at the RWA conference. When I told them about my book, they all agreed it sounded like it strayed too far from LIs guidelines to be viable there. It would be one thing if I could make his problem with alcohol part of his past, but to have it happen for most of the book, with him drinking right in front of the readers … well, that was another matter.

After the awards night, I got emails from editors asking if they could see the book. One of those editors was from Harlequin’s LI. Um, okay. I didn’t see a sale there in my future, but hey, Mama didn’t raise no fool. When an editor asks to see your book, you send it, right? But I made certain to send along a SASE for the rejection that was sure to follow.

I never got the envelope back, and if you want to see how my hero deals with his developing drinking problem, you can buy the book in August. You see, at the end of those long guidelines, there is one additional sentence: “Exceptions can be made but they must be approved by an editor.” And the editor thought the hero’s journey from alcohol abuse to faith worked.

I never set out to be “edgy.” I never set out to see how many “rules” I could break or what I could get away with. I only determined to tell a story about a character who faced tough issues and choices, the same kinds of choices faced by real people every day. And along the way, I learned something – when you are true to your characters, when you write a book with strong, realistic conflicts, an editor might decide to publish that book even if it stretches the boundaries of the publisher’s guidelines.

What about you? Do you follow the guidelines or do you stretch them? What can you offer a publisher that will have the editor making that exception to the guidelines?

30 responses to “You Can’t Do That!”

  1. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, CJ! Every person I know who has gotten published has told me they’ve broken one ‘rule/guideline’ or another. Bob Mayer’s advice at his 3-hour Warrior Writer workshop at the NJRW conference was “Break the rules, but first know what the rules are and WHY you are breaking them.” There has to be a good reason, not just because you feel like it or it’s easier to write the book that way.

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Laurie, you mentioned the authors told you they broke “one” rule/guideline. Maybe that’s part of the key, too. Stay close to what readers want and publishers buy while taking a risk in one area that gives your book just that little bit of freshness.

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  2. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Thanks for this post, CJ. The line between rules and guidelines can be quite fuzzy. I think there is a world of different between flagrant, in your face rule breaking and being true to your character’s journey and an certainly glad your were true to yourself and your character. Sometimes you have to color outside the lines.

    Congratulations, again, on the sale.

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Thanks, Gwyn. As a writer, I wish the line weren’t so fuzzy. But as a reader, I’m glad it is since it keeps the genre fresh.

      If only there were a crystal ball that would let us know which risks would be rewarded.

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  3. Diana Layne says:

    thanks, CJ, that’s an amazing story. Also gives lots of food for thought, who knew?

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Heh. Obviously not me. You know, I almost didn’t enter that ms in the GH. And then I almost didn’t bother to send it in because it was so rough yet at the deadline.

      I sent it overnight FedEx, and I thought I was crazy for forking over another $50 in mailing costs (on top of the $50 entry fee). When I got the call that it finaled in the GH, the first words out of my mouth were, “That’s the wrong manuscript!”

      I still shake my head some days.

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  4. Tina Joyce says:

    What a great story, CJ. It’s good to know the walls of that particular market may be a little wider than I thought. Super congratulations on the sale; it sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful book!

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    • CJ Chase says:

      It’s been one of the fastest growing segments of the market, so perhaps that’s a reason the parameters have expanded. (Or was it the other way around — that expanding the parameters beyond traditional inspirationals has brought in additional readers? Interesting question. Chicken? Egg?)

      I’ve been surprised (in a good way) in the past few years at some of the changes I’ve seen inspirationals. (An example, main characters who are Catholic or Orthodox instead of them all being Protestant, like in the past.)

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  5. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    First of all, yay on your sale. The road to redemption sometimes takes a dark path. So I’m glad you’re able to tell you hero’s story.

    I’m in the same boat, CJ with a request from Harlequin Spec. Edition from a contest. It’s a place I never would have submitted to. This is my third time around getting a request from one Harlequin line or another with three different manuscripts. I don’t write for the Harlequin market. I just write what’s in my head. Sometimes I think my Mama did raise a fool. But I did go through and replaced some questionable language. I toned down the love scenes and I let the editor know I’d be willing to consider other compromises if she liked it. Am I hopeful? Yes. Excited? Yes. Pinning all my hopes on the request? No. I feel like Bart Simpson touching the hot stove burner over and over again – ow, ow, ow – and expecting a different result each time. Maybe I should have sent a SASE.

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Oh, Kelly, your comment about perhaps Mama did raise a fool made me laugh. I have turning point in this book (it would be a spoiler to say what) that I thought might turn off editors/readers. When I plotted it out, I kept saying to myself, “You really don’t want to sell, do you?” And the editor specifically mentioned that plot point as something the worked.

      When I sent mine in, I put the same caveat in my cover letter — that I hadn’t written the manuscript with LI specifically in mind, so I realized there might be things that would need changed.

      And my only major change is the length. Yeah, turns out word count is a “rule.” I sent in an 82K manuscript for a line with a 70-75K word count, so I have to cut 7K words.

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Oh, and I meant to say good luck, Kelly — but I was chuckling at the time and forgot to put it in the other post.

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    • liz talley says:

      Nope. That is how you sell. You write the story without paring it down to a particular market. Write the dang story. Then if an editor has interest, decide if their “paring’ or “vision” works with your vision. Then make the changes. Hopefully, they won’t be too far from your story. And if they are, you can let the opportunity slide knowing that the changes would have gone against what you wanted as the artist.

      I think I’ve seen too many people worry about the market for their book. Write a good story with good conflict and fabulous characters and the rest will work itself out.

      Good luck, Kelly.

      And double congrats on the sale, CJ!

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  6. rita says:

    Congrats CJ. Your story is an excellant example to never give up.
    thanks.

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  7. Hope Ramsay says:

    CJ,

    Many, many congrats on the sale. Since I hung with you a lot during RWA, I know how torn up you were about your hero’s faults, and I’m so happy you found and editor who could see beyond the guidelines. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens.

    I think I was one of those people who told you to hang in there. Since my book broke a few rules, too.

    I truly do believe that if you have writing talent and tell a great story from the heart, the guidelines become completely irrelevant.

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Those words by the fountain were encouraging, Hope. I hope next year I can do the same thing for some writer who’s been on the brink for a while but feels like it just won’t happen.

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  8. Kate Parker says:

    Great tale of perserverance, CJ. I can’t wait to read your story. It sounds “meaty” which is something I look for in romances.

    And I’ve long believed there are many more rules in entering contests than there will ever be in publishing, because editors are professionals who understand the power of a gripping story, whether it follows the rules or not.

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  9. Elisa Beatty says:

    Such a great story, CJ!! (I think the blog is having “issues” again…I found it really hard to get in. I hope people make it here today to read this!)

    It’s so good that you didn’t sabotage yourself by NOT sending the full to Love Inspired. I think a lot of people would have just said, “oh, damn, what would be the point” and not try at all.

    I’m so so glad your book sold and will be out within the year!!! congrats!

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    • CJ Chase says:

      And here I thought maybe no one liked me.

      I did wonder if I was crazy for sending it in. And she wanted it snail mail, so I had to pay postage on the whole thing. Fortunately, I’d heard (via a well-placed source) that the editor had judged the GH. So, I figured if that was correct, the contents couldn’t be a total surprise.

      And there’s probably a lesson in there for anyone who finals in the GH. We don’t know who has seen our mss. A lot of time we gripe about it (figuring we don’t know who has already “rejected” it). But it can work the other way, too.

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  10. What a fantastic post, CJ!!! I always stretch the guidelines as far as I think I can and hope for the best. You know that saying, It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. That’s me. LOL

    Congrats on the sale again!
    ~D~

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  11. Anne Barton says:

    CJ, reading your post gave me goosebumps! It’s easy to be discouraged by rules/guidelines/requirements but you proved that a great story trumps everything. Congrats, and I can’t wait to read your debut novel!

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    • CJ Chase says:

      Oh, yes, Anne. Sometimes when those risks don’t work, it can be so discouraging. (Anyone want to read an historical set in the really, really early colonial period??? ‘Cuz editors sure didn’t — and I’ve always thought it was one of my best.) But I have no doubt you WILL get there, too.

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  12. gillian layne says:

    CJ, I am a huge fan of inspirationals, and want them to be realistic, along with romantic and lovely examples of faith. Good for you, and I cannot wait to buy your debut. 🙂

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    • CJ Chase says:

      I read some inspirationals years ago, and I didn’t like them. They just didn’t feel real to me. (My mother, however, loved them. Maybe it was a generational thing.) I’m glad the inspirational market has grown and matured to where it is now.

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  13. Elise Hayes says:

    CJ–what a great story! I don’t often pick up inspirationals, but I have enjoyed the ones I’ve read. And you’re quite right about contests opening doors we authors might never have thought to open ourselves. My GH final was also requested by an editor to whom I would have never though to submit, and while that didn’t result in a sale, I did receive some of the most useful feedback that I’ve yet received on the book!

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