Have you always written romance?
I’ve tinkered with poetry and film scripts and stage plays in my time (arts student…no surprises there) but since I’ve been writing fiction formally I’ve focussed on romance. Its what I grew up on and its what I like to read. I love the relationships between people and I do love an optimistic ending.
I still ‘see’ books very filmicly which helps me to create very rich, vivid, visual stories.
What’s with the ‘nature-based’ thing?
I’ve always loved wildlife and wild places. When I left uni I wanted to be a natural history documentary maker to share with the world what I found so engaging and special about our natural world. When I worked in the film distribution industry I really connected with the BBC/Discovery wildlife product and then when I went to work at a Zoo I found myself communicating about nature in a different way.
For me, wild places and wild creatures are a third character. The characters’ relationships with nature are as important and their relationship with each other.
And, purely from a marketing perspective, nature-based is a comfortable and enormous void in the marketplace and a natural-fit niche for me.
What is your writing process?
I’m what we call a ‘pantser’ – I write by the seat of my pants. I usually have a super clear idea of the opening of my books (usually tossed up by my subconscious in day dreams) but from there the book is as much of a discovery for me as it is for the reader. It can take me a couple of chapters to get into my character’s heads and so I’ll constantly go back and streamline what has come before as I get to know them better. Often major character traits will come to me three quarters of the way through the book, and synergistic connections will bubble up out of my brain without me meaning for them to be there, so—again—I go back and weave all of that through.
I’m a very fast writer but a slow editor.
Ideally (for me) the creation of the story happens kind of as a braindump and then it’s all about shaping, shifting, strengthening, polishing.
Who are your favourite authors?
Tough question. I have fairly diverse reading tastes (when I get time to read).
I have 39 books on my to-be-read pile and most are by authors new to me (experiments). Somewhere in there could be a stand-out favourite, if only I could get to them. (The greatest tragedy about becoming a writer is so little time to read!)
I’m fairly partial to series so that’s always a good clue as to who I like. Looking over at my more recent bookshelf I can see a lot of Denise Rossetti, JR Ward, Deanna Raybourn, Stephenie Meyer, Tony Park.
Over on the older bookshelf I see lots of Sara Douglass, Orson Scott Card, Angela Carter, JK Rowling. Ooh, the audio series ‘Tales from Lake Wobegone’ by Garrison Keillor.
One of the downers in being an author is that you necessarily get too much information on the politics of particular authors. So there are some names on that list that—while I adore their stories/worlds—I’m not a fan of their politics. Too much information can spoil a good author for me.
How has your previous studying/working history helped you understand fiction?
Uni: I studied film, theatre and creative writing at Uni so got a solid foundation in commercial communication there (though only film would admit the commercial potential). Story structure, narrative, importance of symbolism… All of it has given me an almost subliminal appreciation for structure and theme.
Advertising: Advertising is basically build on the premise: ‘Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.’
This applies to commercial fiction. In fiction you foreshadow the coming conflict(s), you deliver the conflict and then in the resolution of the conflict you tie everything up for the reader and help to connect those final dots. It’s basically the same communication principle in a different guise.
(Oh, and I learned how to be a wordsmith in my ad years. And the importance of not being a tosser.)
Film Distribution: how product distribution works in a sale or return business; marketing, sell-in, sell-through. That’s come in amazingly handy for the book industry. Also how important perception is in marketing terms.
Zoo: other than really developing an eye and ear for a good wildlife story and getting lots and lots of nature writing experience, the Zoo was also the place where I learned to present to large groups. Public speaking. That has worked for me a thousand times over.
Is the glamorous life of an author everything you imagined?
I do try to imagine what a glamorous life might be like when I’m scraping cat poo off the bottom of the shower-recess or trying to pick eviscerated Kleenex from my washing.
There are elements of being an author that *should* be glamorous but I just don’t buy into all of that. I flew to New York to attend a conference in a flash hotel and take part in a book signing in Times Square. Certainly sounds glamorous but it was just a work obligation in disguise. And it cost a fortune. So that’s never glamorous.
Ask me again when I’m rich and famous. I’ll let you know.
You’re very prolific. Is that an important part of the business?
For me, getting established as a new author in what is a very crowded field, reader recognition is my most powerful tool. Volume is my greatest friend.
Royalty rates and advances for authors are not all that high, and so the compounding effect of multiple releases is necessary to put food on the table.
Writing commercial, category romance it is possible to write a good book that will sell well in three months and produce four a year. But the trade-off is that you have virtually no other life. That’s a sacrifice I was willing to make to get established.
There is no ‘formula’ per se (a great cliché of the romance industry) but there certainly are genre conventions (like the reveal at the end of a murder mystery) which combine with the broader conventions of narrative fiction (eg: three-acts, inciting incident, quest, climax) to mean that every book starts with a certain amount of predetermined structure. That helps with volume because I’m not starting from zero with every book. But the challenge for me lies in crafting a story within that which is fresh and innovative. I like to push boundaries and go where others may fear to tread. I have my publisher’s complete trust in that regard and they have a very honed understanding of what their reader-base will tolerate.
My goals as a writer is to make a living at this but also to bring in new readers and to convert existing ones to a more ‘meaty’ type of story.
You’re passionate in defence of your genre. Do the cliché and myth about romance irritate you?
The Romance Writers of Australia invented an award specifically to acknowledge those members of the media who were prepared to look beyond the cliché and write something intelligent and well-researched, specifically to counter the amazing ignorance and laziness out there about this industry.
I have been amazed at the number of reporters who have strong opinions about romance and yet have not read one in twenty years—or at all!
They bandy about terms like ‘bodice ripper’ (which is not only about the most insulting thing you can say to a professional author of romance but also incorrectly applied to all romance when it’s genesis was in a particular sub-genre) and ‘formula’ and talk about ‘churning out’ and ‘slapping together’.
There is some kind of unspoken law that says a work of literature has no value if you haven’t bled tears over it for four years, starving in your garret. The fast and furious turnover in romance is reflective purely of the voracious demand of readers. Paying readers.
Author, Marian Keyes, famously said ‘if there were a group of men writing thrillers who had the same impact around the world they’d be celebrated’. Yet readers and writers of romance are quietly sniggered about. (Or not even quietly, because that would demonstrate a level of respect that we are simply not afforded.)
Romance is the highest grossing single fiction genre in the world, a multi-billion dollar industry, it employs thousands of women authors, it meets the reading needs of tens of millions more. The world best-seller lists are top heavy with romance titles. Publishers will draw out any hint of a romantic thread in order to be able to put a new release on the romance shelves because they know it will sell its socks off.
The average reader of romance is not—contrary to how the media like to portray them—lonely, under-educated, spinsters with nine cats. The highest single demographic sector is educated women in stable relationships. (Can’t comment on their cat-numbers–I myself, as a reader and writer of romance, have a poor cat ratio of just one).
The majority of women aren’t reading romance to compensate for a pathetic, empty life. They’re reading to supplement a real one.
So yes, I’m passionate about people giving the genre and its purpose the credit its due. I’m not rabid about it because that would just feed yet another cliché (that of the cloistered, somewhat neurotic romance author), but this job and this industry are my profession. I take my work, my success—mybusiness—very seriously.