Time travel with me, if you will, back to 2006.
I'm living in London, working at a job I love. But I've always wanted to write. My genre of choice is romance, a genre I've loved since middle school when my allowance was one Harlequin category romance a week (true story). Then in September, Avon announces the first FanLit: an interactive writing contest, in which the editors give the prompt for a chapter of a historical romance novella, writers submit their takes on the prompt, and after two rounds of voting a winner is chosen.
I. Am. Hooked. Soon, I am scribbling down words every free moment I can find. Chocolate pots and creamed herring and feathers and strange things happening at midnight consume my thoughts, thanks to the creative elements we must include in our chapters. When work sends me to Cannes, France for a trade show, I beg off after-dinner drinks so I can return to my hotel room to write.
For the record, the bars and nightlife in Cannes are amazing.
No, I didn't win. I finalled only once out of six chapters. But I had a most excellent time participating.
So many amazing women were part of the first FanLit. Courtney Milan. Tessa Dare. Manda Collins. Erica Ridley. Tiffani Clare. Darcy Burke. Carey Baldwin. Many, many more. I was five time zones away so I wasn't very active in the contestant forum, but I learned so much (when I wasn't in awe of the company!)
Fastforward to 2015. I'm living in Los Angeles, and I'm still writing between work assignments. A post on Facebook flies by: Avon is holding a new FanLit contest! I catch the announcement late. Only two days left to enter the first round. I throw together a first chapter heavy on backstory and "As you know, Bob" dialogue. It's no surprise when I finish far, far down the list in the voting.
But once again: I. Am. Hooked. Mostly because, just like the first contest, I learn so much about writing and engaging the reader.
In the first chapter, my lesson was to plunge right in. Give the characters obstacles right away, in the here and now. Anne-Marie Rivers did a beautiful job throwing all sorts of stumbling blocks in Our Heroes' paths: He kissed her then left her behind for ten years without a word! She's now engaged to someone else! And that someone else bears a scar from a duel fought with the hero over the heroine's virtue! All delivered in a yummy souffle of bright dialogue and skillfully drawn characters.
When the second chapter came around, I was stuck - yet again - on backstory. But...but...if the Duke of Highclyff and the Earl of Wakefield fought a duel with pistols, why does the Earl have a scar on his face as if it came from a sword? Why is Felicity's and Wakefield's engagement a secret? Why? Why? Why? So again, I wrote another chapter full of "As you know" dialogue, although I do like my backstory (you might see it someday! But hopefully not in, um, an expository form). I finished in the middle of the pack.
What I learned from Eve Marie Perry's brilliant Chapter Two: it's the characters, stupid. And the dialogue. And originality. Eve's chapter zips and zings. It's creative and charming, with more than one surprise for the reader. I dare you not to ship Pierre the capuchin with Birdie's hat.
In the third chapter, Our Heroes were in a hot air balloon. This set me to research. And research. And research. I now have scads of notes on Montgolfier vs. Charliere balloons, should anyone need them. I researched wind speed and how long it would take to travel by balloon from London to Brighton. I researched how 19th century balloons ascended and descended.
I finished in the top ten, but not the top five.
Liana De la Rosa's lyrical, heartfelt winning Chapter Three taught me readers want to feel for the characters, to be swept away. This chapter was our first chance to see why Felicity and Highclyff once loved each other, and perhaps still do. Felicity could come off as unsympathetic as, after all, she was dallying in a balloon with Highclyff while engaged to another. But Liana made her a heroine to root for.
The fourth chapter assignment: the Black Moment. All had to appear lost for Felicity and Highclyff. We were also tasked with getting them out of that balloon while including a locked door.
So I took the lesson from the first chapter: throw obstacles in the way. I took the lessons from the second chapter: focus on dialogue and (hopefully) unexpected twists. I took the lesson from the third chapter: try to make the reader feel.
So I wrote a chapter in which Highclyff and Felicity finally clear the air, only for new problems to be revealed. I focused on what each character wanted, and why those wants were still in opposition to each other. But I hopefully left enough room for Our Heroes to have the happy ending they deserved (and which Cheryl Tapper gave them in her winning Chapter Five, in her witty, wonderful style).
I was shocked and awed when my Chapter Four won, and I am still gobsmacked. The writers in this contest, whether their names are on the cover or not, are all extremely talented. I learned from each and every one of them, and I am so privileged to be in their company.
I have no doubt the Avon FanLit Hall of Published Alumni will only continue to grow!
Other tales from behind the scenes of Avon FanLit:
A DUKE TO REMEMBER is available in digital format for FREE! Yes, FREE!