By Amy Wilkins, Harlequin Digital and Carina Press Acquisition Team
This weekend I posed a question to the Twitterverse: “Does anyone under 40 actually use the word ‘blouse’?” I asked because I was in the midst of reading a contemporary submission in which the heroine, in her mid-20s, was described repeatedly as wearing blouses. I’m 25 and I never use that word, especially when describing my own clothes, and neither do my friends. The word “blouse” conjures up images of Working Girl-era office fashion with shoulder pads and frilly neck-ties.
The response from my Twitter followers was a bit mixed. Many said they used the word. A couple girls in who specified they were in their 20s agreed with me it that the term was old-fashioned. Some were undecided but gave links to stores and designers who used it on their websites. Strangely enough, I also heard Heidi Klum say blouse on Project Runway later than night.
So I had to concede that “blouse” wasn’t as out-of-date as it seemed to me (ah, the wisdom of crowdsourcing). But there was a bigger problem: “blouse” was just one of many outdated references in this manuscript. Even worse, this was the second contemporary submission in a row I passed on because it felt old-fashioned and stale.*
No one would deny that details matter. They make the difference between a wallpaper historical and a well researched novel, great world-building and a clichéd paranormal universe. And it’s just as important that contemporaries have the ring of authenticity and freshness.
Contemporaries are supposed to be set in this time, with heroines women can relate to. I can’t relate to a supposed modern woman who wears clothes that sound like they came off the Dynasty set (even worse than the dreaded blouse: “slacks”. Sorry Angela!), name-check TV shows that haven’t been on the air in a decade, and go to concerts from musicians even older than that (think Duran Duran…).
Out-of-date references tend to make the whole book feel stale. Do you want to give the impression that you pulled out a dusty old manuscript and sent it to a publisher without any self-editing or revising?
Other factors that can make a contemporary feel “old” to me include:
– Overlooking the necessity of safe sex (and characters who show zero concern about the consequences of not using any kind of protection).
– Lack of technology. That’s not to say your manuscript should be packed full of brand names and specific models of computers, cell phones, etc., that will likely be obsolete (and, er, outdated) in a couple years. But if your high-powered lawyer hero doesn’t have a computer in his office or a cell phone, that’s an issue.
– Being afraid to make characters swear. Has a stalker just trashed your heroine’s apartment? A gentle “Oh, dear!” won’t cut it.
So before you submit that contemporary, please take the time to make sure it suits your target reader and characters’ ages, jobs and lifestyle. Or take a crack at writing a 1980s-set “historical” romance. Who knows, it may be the next big thing!
*Note: to my knowledge these were original, unpublished manuscripts, not previously published books that the author had the rights reverted, which Carina Press also accepts as submissions. Dear Author has an interesting post on updating republished novels, including Carina’s reissues of Jennifer Greene’s backlist, from a couple days ago that’s an interesting read as well.