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Heart & Craft
Bestselling Romance Writers Share Their Secrets with You
By Valerie Parv
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Valerie Parv
All rights reserved.
with the times
First, a confession.
My writing muse and I have a love/hate relationship.
Oh, it wasn't always so; when first I started to write I adored it, and religiously stole time from a busy life to scribble. I bubbled with (mostly) silent excitement whenever I could find the time to sit down with my pen in my hand. In those days I couldn't type, and the only office I had was the dining table, but the thrill of seeing the words that seethed around my brain transmitted onto paper made up for cramping fingers and a sore back.
In those days I knew nothing about the publishing business, nothing about writing a novel. My only source of information was a book called Teach Yourself to Write. I studied the grammar section most intently. It's long gone now, and I have no idea who the writer was, but I salute him or her — my first inklings of professionalism came from that book.
But what I did have was a huge enthusiasm for reading romances, and a burning desire to be able to reproduce the intensity of the experience for my own pleasure. I didn't think of actually finishing a manuscript, or sending it away to see if I was any good at what I was doing.
So for the next ten years I wrote by hand on lined college paper. And wrote. And wrote ...
I had no idea of just how much I didn't know. I didn't plot. I didn't need to worry about finding the perfect final sentence for a book, because I never finished a manuscript. When things got to the point where I had to actually come up with reasons for my characters' actions, I lost interest, ruthlessly abandoned them and started on the next exciting couple who were urging me to tell their story.
This meant that although I had lots of practice in writing the beginnings of books, I had none at all when it came to ending them — something I still have problems with. I wish I'd practised that more.
Without realising what I was doing or attempting to analyse techniques or methods, I tried to reproduce what I loved about the books of my favourite writers, such as Anne Weale, Violet Winspear, Celine Conway and Essie Summers, a grand New Zealand writer. Before I'd ever heard the term I dreamed up alpha heroes and gave them spirited heroines, I wrote — for pages! — of the scenery in my country, and I tried with everything in me to achieve the exciting emotional tension that I enjoyed so much. Character arcs? Never heard of them. Archetypes? Well, I knew about them, but certainly never understood that they had any relevance to what I was doing. I was just having the most enormous fun in what was probably the longest and least useful apprenticeship any writer ever had!
And then my husband suffered a heart attack, and while he was recovering he suggested I finish the book I was working on and send it off. So of course I did. I got a friend to type it, then packaged it up and sent it off to the address at the front of the books I enjoyed the most — those published by Mills & Boon.
Query letter? Synopsis? I'd never heard of either.
Miraculously, my book was accepted with a few revisions — mainly making sure I kept religiously to the heroine's point of view, because that's what readers wanted in those days. Oh, and I had to cut out a couple of sunsets and quite a bit of rather evocative descriptions of scenery that had no action in them, and so weren't telling the reader anything beyond that I liked the New Zealand countryside.
Because of the twelve-hour time difference between the publishing office in London and New Zealand, the acceptance arrived in a letter, which was how all communication was conducted. Even airmail took a week — one way. Everything was done at a distance.
Elated, all my dreams, hopes and yearnings achieved, I wrote another book. It was accepted too. Such excitement! But I kept my day job as a remedial reading teacher. For the next five years I just went on doing what I'd been doing before — although, looking back, I realise now that I was forming ideas of structure, and that I'd always known that a novel went nowhere without conflict. And I continued to read romances — and every other form of literature — voraciously. I even dimly recognised that I had a voice that was unique to me.
Mills & Boon was the perfect publisher for a total amateur. At that time they didn't send out copyedits or galley proofs, which made life very simple. They published the books all over the world and I wasn't expected to help sell them. Blissfully ignorant of such mundane things as publishing schedules and marketing concerns, I went on writing. No one ever mentioned a deadline. If there were bestseller lists, I hadn't heard of them.
(Computers? I think that right then there was only one in the world, and it took up a whole city block somewhere in America.)
After two years of royalty statements, I realised I was earning as much from my writing as I was from teaching. If I gave up teaching — by then a part-time position — I could write more books. So I resigned.
But my book production didn't increase. I treated my writing as an exciting hobby that earned money. It was far too easy to waste time doing the activities I'd neglected for years, and of course there were other distractions — ones I was only too pleased to indulge. Unfortunately, I still believed that real writers waited for inspiration to strike — and I was having too much fun as a stay-at-home person for my muse to get a look-in.
However, I began to be assailed by a feeling I was uncomfortable with — guilt, because I wasn't writing. I tried to ignore it. As a teacher I'd been proud to be professional, but I'd never thought of professionalism in relation to writing. About the only professional advance I made was to learn to touch type — fast, and very badly. Actually, I never thought of writing as a career — it was a joy, a wonder, an invitation to my too-vivid imagination to let rip whenever my muse made an appearance. Which she was doing less and less.
Then my editor came to New Zealand for a visit.
I don't think I've ever been as excited as I was at the prospect of this meeting. By the time she arrived I hadn't slept for two nights. And she, after surviving a trip in a tiny plane and a landing through a hole in the clouds at our tiny country airport, introduced me to a few alien concepts.
One was that publishers actually had some idea of what they wanted their writers to produce. Another was that it was a good thing for writers to produce regularly and as frequently as they could. This, my editor explained, built name recognition. It simply hadn't occurred to me that part of a writer's success in category fiction was providing a regular supply of new books to keep their name before the readers.
Discussing my writing with my editor made me realise that yes, actually, I did have a career. People in that office on the other side of the world were seriously depending on me to write books. It was a scary thought.
However, shortly after that I made the acquaintance of two other romance writers who lived reasonably close to me — both of whom were infinitely more knowledgeable about writing and the romance publishing world than I was. Thank you Helen Bianchin and Daphne Clair. Drawing on their knowledge and experience, I began to learn something about the process of getting a book out to its readers.
To my shock, writing for the sheer joy of it, without thought of selling or even being read by anyone, began to fade once I realised that others were depending on me to produce books — in other words, when what had been shameless self-indulgence turned into my job. This meant I had to work out ways to continue pro ducing without that initial carefree pleasure. Perhaps it's just as well I didn't understand until much later how precarious a writer's career could be. Appreciating just how difficult writing to a deadline often is might well have curbed my spontaneity. I might have been more than a little put off to realise that every writer is only as good as their last sales.
But all these revelations were in the future, and I had other things to think about ... I had just got my first computer!
At first I considered computers to be nothing more than glorified typewriters, until I was persuaded, by my husband and a charming salesman with a penchant for chocolate fish, to try the very first Macintosh. Love at first sight! However, I was warned by my editor that the London office wasn't computerised, so the manuscripts still went off in the traditional way, although courier services were making the turnaround time a lot faster.
Meanwhile, things were happening elsewhere in the world. In the early eighties readership in North America boomed, and another publisher decided to enter the scene, launching Silhouette Books. The new authors were mainly North American; their fresh voices appealed to me — and to other readers — enormously.
Feminism was on the rise, and when women changed their attitudes men were forced to not only accept that, but to do the same. My heroines and heroes changed accordingly; avenues opened up for heroines, and men — even romantic heroes — had to learn that they could no longer get by on their alpha qualities and a strong protective instinct. They couldn't just bark out orders and expect them to be obeyed. Heroines no longer felt obliged to conform to societal pressures to seem demure and compliant. While they had always been determined to do what they thought was right for them, they now had far more choices and more freedom.
As a writer I wanted to indicate that the balance of power had shifted, while still keeping the tension strong and powerful and the love story as riveting as ever. Because I tend to write instinctively, this proved challenging. Instead of just sitting down and writing without boundaries, I had to think hard about what I was doing.
Complicating this was a discovery: when reading the new North American writers I was intrigued by their depictions of the hero's internal struggle.
TENSIONS AND JOYS
For decades the sole point of view in a romance had been the heroine's, and for a very good reason — writing from a single point of view is a valid and useful way to increase tension to a sometimes almost unbearable level.
As a reader, I relished the tiny, fascinating clues that revealed the hero's building love for the heroine. Seeing his actions from the heroine's point of view only, coloured by her insecurity about this growing attraction, her wonder and confusion about her growing love and the 'does he, doesn't he?' push–pull of emotions, had added enormously to the intensity of my reading experience. As a writer I found this slow, incremental way of building character and tension a joy to create.
He flashed her another fierce glance, then smiled, reached for her hand, and tucked it beneath his own on the wheel, only releasing it when they reached the small town on the way home. Lexie let it rest in her lap, oddly chilled by the subtle rejection ... what if he was ashamed of wanting her?
Innocent Mistress, Royal Wife
Poor Lexie! I resisted including the hero's point of view for a long time. However, once I took the plunge I found I enjoyed writing from his angle. When well done, it gives extra depth and texture to a novel.
The questions Rafiq couldn't ask nagged at him. Had [Lexie] responded to Gastano with the same wildfire passions she'd revealed in his own arms?
The thought made his fist clench. Watching the way the golden lamplight shifted and shimmered across her bent head as she carefully sorted the chessmen, Rafiq wondered again if his objectivity was being hijacked by his response to her.
Innocent Mistress, Royal Wife
Of course there's the reverse too; clumsily done, using more than one viewpoint can slow the pace unbearably by delivering information the reader has already discerned from the hero's actions and body language, his tone of voice and his conversation.
As well, the advance of technology has made writing more difficult when it comes to plotting. I found the advent of mobile phones particularly irritating; if people could be in constant contact, some of my most cherished plot points failed entirely. Fortunately the network didn't cover every part of New Zealand (it still doesn't) so I could work around that, but it was the change of attitude in the characters that challenged me as a writer.
One thing that hasn't changed is that I'm an organic writer.
TO PLAN OR NOT TO PLAN
Writers are divided into two main groups — those who plan their books and those who don't. I don't. And it's not a matter of choice. I can't plan my books. I call myself an organic writer. This means I start each manuscript with a couple of names, a setting, a house, and a dim idea of the conflict — or the 'source of tension', as Daphne Clair and I decided it should be called after reading one too many manuscripts marred by the writer's reliance on misunderstandings and bickering to keep the two main protagonists out of each other's arms.
And I have been known to change everything — especially names — halfway through a book if it's not gelling for me.
Quite frequently I only discover the fundamental source of tension — the back story that has scarred the hero, or the decision made in the heroine's youth which prevents her from trusting any man — when I'm well into the book and know more about my characters. Often that means I have to go back and rewrite large chunks of the preceding manuscript to fit in with this new knowledge.
So for me, each new manuscript involves a huge amount of rewriting because I tend to wander off down interesting byways that eventually turn out to lead nowhere. It's an inefficient way of working, but it's the only way for me, because one of the things that keeps me going is my eagerness to discover what happens next.
Once, early in my career, I did plan a book. I read an article by a writer I respected which implied that sitting down and trusting to the muse was a very slack, unprofessional way to tackle writing; it was easier and far more efficient to plot out a book before you actually started to write it. And to show you how simple it was, this writer outlined the process step by step.
I'm a sucker for lists. This looked not only simple, but fun, so I tried it.
Simple? Ha! Crushed to discover that it was incredibly difficult for me to think up plot points and character arcs, I realised that the only way I got to know my characters was by writing about them. As in writing the actual book ...
However, I persevered until eventually I had a rough chapter-by-chapter breakdown — only to find that after all the angst and hard work, I couldn't write the wretched book because I already knew what was going to happen. For me, writing according to a plan was like painting by numbers — no freedom and no room for creativity.
To other writers, my way of producing a book sounds like a recipe for disaster. And until I worked out for myself that my muse lives in my keyboard, my lack of system slowed my production enormously. It took me quite a while — a matter of years, in fact — to understand this.
But although I'm a slow learner, once the lesson is learned it sticks. I now know that as a professional writer it's no use waiting for inspiration to strike, for the muse to come visiting. I have to go out and hunt her down.
I also wish I'd found out much earlier in my career that although I don't actually seem to be awake until a couple of hours after I get up and drink coffee, this is my best writing time. When I'm writing a book, I get up at five each morning and write until seven, walk the dog and the husband for an hour, skim-read the newspaper and do the cryptic crossword, then go back and write until midday. Under this regime I can produce twelve pages of rough draft each day.
Very rough draft. Turning it into a publishable manuscript involves using a freelance editor with a picky mind and, on my part, lots of heavy-duty rewriting and editing. So much so that, by the time I finish the manuscript and send it away, I'm so weary of it that I never want to see it again.
Well, not until the six author's copies turn up in the mail!
TRY DIFFERENT METHODS
As a writer, you should certainly try different methods of producing a book. Discard the ones that don't work for you. Don't listen to anyone who says that their method is the only way to write — or even the best way to write. If you're convinced you're a planner, sitting down at the keyboard and winging it, as I do, will result in nothing but confusion. Plan away.
However, if you're an organic writer, don't try to force yourself into the straitjacket of a plan — and don't let anyone imply that you should.
And keep trying new things, without being discouraged if they don't work. Making collages of characters and backgrounds works brilliantly for some writers. It doesn't do anything at all for me — although I do have a wall in my chaotic office where I can pin photographs of scenes and people I find appealing. I might look at it constantly as I write — or I might never glance its way during a whole book.
Excerpted from Heart & Craft by Valerie Parv. Copyright © 2009 Valerie Parv. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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