Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing Romance: An Interview (And a Giveaway!)


Like many English majors, I was brainwashed in college against reading any genre fiction. Growing up as a reader has involved letting go of that arbitrary prejudice and learning to enjoy a variety of genres: in the last year alone I've read a fantasy, a mystery, several YAs, and a thriller. Excellent writing exists across genres, and the tagline “literary” is no guarantee of artistic merit, much less reading enjoyment. This week, I’m delighted to introduce our readers to Gabi Stevens, author of the Time of Transition series, classified as “paranormal romance” and described by one Amazon reviewer as “a mix between contemporary romance and Harry Potter.” (Ms. Stevens has also kindly offered a book giveaway: see end for details.)

Q: When you tell people you write romance novels, what kind of reaction do you get?

A: Here are some of the actual quotes I’ve received and the answers I wish I could say in parentheses:
“When are you going to write a real book?” (As opposed to the fake one you’re holding right now?)
“When are you going to write something serious?” (You mean the ones that leave you feeling like you need Prozac?)
“How can you write such trash?” (I’m sorry you have such an opinion on novels celebrating love. How sad you’ve never experienced it.)

Here are some of the more positive ones:
“Oh, I love trashy novels.” (Then you won’t like mine because it isn’t trash.)
“Did your husband pose for the cover?” (Sure, because a middle-aged engineer is just who readers want to see.)
“Is it based on real life?” (Yes, just like Agatha Christie’s many murders and Stephen King’s encounters with preternatural beings and events. What part of fiction don’t you understand?)

I have to say that those reactions come from non-romance readers. People who read and enjoy romance are excited to meet an author. I’ve never had anything but a truly wonderful experience with readers. And it’s a large community. Romance comprises the largest segment of the fiction market. With sales exceeding 1.3 billion dollars in 2010, romance beats the next largest segment (religious/inspirational) by nearly 600 hundred million dollars.

The word is getting out however. There are now academic conferences on the romance novel, books on romance (Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan), articles and web sites.These examples are only a small sampling of information on Romance. Romance Writers of America (RWA) is a national organization with over 10,000 members with local chapters across the US and online.

Q: For a genre that has such strong and enthusiastic support, romance seems awfully misunderstood. What would you say is the most common misperception about this genre?

A: I’d like to address three misperceptions actually. The first is that writing romance is easy. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Authors who have never attempted it seem to think that they can pop out a romance novel in a weekend. Sorry, folks. We study our craft. We worry about characterization, plot, theme (I’m giving a talk on theme this summer at the RWA national conference in Anaheim in July), story arc, turning points, wordsmithing, conflict, etc. What one discovers if one studies the market, editors, and agents is that romance authors, especially the members of RWA are better prepared than other authors. They understand the business and the craft side of writing. Be prepared to learn a lot before you write romance.

The second is that the books are formula. And here it is: a romance is the story of two individuals in a central love story with a satisfying ending. Okay, genre romance tends to have the HEA—happily ever after, and that’s what people object to: that all the books are the same. What non-romance readers don’t realize is that the novels aren’t about whether the two characters get together; they’re about how the two characters get together. Within the genre are such varied subgenres as historical, which has its own subgenres such as regency, British, Scottish, western, medieval, etc; contemporary; romantic suspense; paranormal, including vampires, werewolves, ghosts, time travel, sci fi, and my own, fantasy; inspirational; category; and single title. There are light romances and dark ones, humorous and serious, short and long. One last thing about formula: I defy you to name a genre that isn’t formulaic. When was the last time you read a mystery where the detective ends the book by saying, “Oh well, I couldn’t solve it. Better luck next time”? A better word for formula is reader expectation. All genres, including literary fiction, have reader expectations, and if those expectations aren’t fulfilled, the book fails.

The third misperception is that romance novels are all about the sex. Porn for women. In my last book, As You Wish, the story is told in 306 pages. Of those, ten pages describe sex. That’s approximately three percent of the novel. And the rest is describing the characters’ clothing. Just kidding. There is an actual story. (I know. You’re shocked.) Depending on what type of book you pick up, the level of sensuality and the amount of sex will vary from having events occur behind closed doors to explicit erotic romances. And besides, what’s wrong with sex?

Q: As a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s (quite sexy and wildly popular) Outlander series,  I wholeheartedly agree! Next question: In researching sci-fi and fantasy, I discovered a number of rules, such as “each magical ability must come at a cost.” Each genre has such properties and peculiarities: what can you tell us about the romance genre?

A: If you are writing for the romance market, the book must have a couple and a happy ending. A book can be romantic but not be a romance (think Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele), or have a happy ending and not be a romance. Otherwise the parameters are wide open. I would contend that the best romance novels hold their own against the best novels in any genre. Yes, there are bad ones, but, really, every genre has bad ones. Great romance novels are sublime, just as any great novels are. Books one considers great comes down to taste (after grammar, sentence structure, etc.). We all have different tastes, which is as is should be. I would hate to have only one type of book to read. If you want to learn more about the genre, do check out rwanational.org. And if you’re planning on writing a romance novel, love them. It’ll show up in your writing if you don’t.

Q: When one of my manuscripts developed a strong romantic subplot, I went to the library and checked out a few books on writing romance. I think this is one thing that sets romance apart from the other genres: non-romance writers can turn to this genre for ideas on their own plots, because so many novels have a romantic element. This can't really be said for westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.

A: The point you bring up is why I find the critics’ and (snobby) readers’ reaction to romance so baffling. Love is such a central and deeply ingrained human emotion. So many, many stories focus on love of all kinds. So many great books have strong romantic subplots—look at Stephen King’s latest book, 11/22/63. Suzanne Brockmann gave a keynote speech that I was privileged to hear. She left us in tears. In the speech she said, when the towers were falling on 9/11, people didn’t call their banks, or their businesses. They called their loved ones to say that they love them. JK Rowling’s great villain (Voldemort for those of you living under rocks) is defeated because he cannot understand love.

Q: The process of deciding which genre to write in is rather mysterious to me. I am still genre-hopping, myself, trying to find the best fit. I've toyed with YA, fantasy, historical fiction, and that vague category known as "women's fiction." Paranormal romance is such a specific subcategory: what led you there? Is it because that's what you enjoy reading, or was it something else? 

A: I loved reading since I was tiny, and romances specifically since I was 16 (I can still distinctly recall the first romance I read. My mother gave it to me—Johanna Lindsey’s Captive Bride. The second one I read was Kathleen Woddiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower. Woddiwiss’s book is widely acknowledged as the birth of the modern romance novel and changed women’s fiction forever). I also have a degree—two actually—in literature. I’ve always preferred genre fiction or 19th century fiction, and, well, one can’t write 19th century fiction in the 21st century, can one? Paranormal romance is a logical choice for me because I’ve studied the Grimm fairytales extensively, and many of the books I loved as a kid were paranormal—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Borrowers, The Phantom Tollbooth, the E. Nesbit and Edward Eager books, etc. (Just stop me now.) I’ve always loved mysteries as well, and went through a long period of reading horror, and still love science fiction. But romance remains my favorite and I have written historical romance as well under a different name.


The greatest thing about being unpublished is that you can genre-hop. You have the freedom to write whatever you wish. Once you sell a book, the publisher will want to see similar books from you. That doesn’t mean that you can’t someday write in other genres—many authors do—but bottom line is that writing is a business once you’re published (and should be before as well) and some of that freedom disappears.

Q: One thing my writer friends sometimes say is that they won't, or can't, consider themselves Real Writers™ until they get published. When did you first self-identify as a writer?

A: I finished my first manuscript after five years of picking it up and putting it down. It was a hobby, nothing more. I was still so far from being published, but having finished a manuscript was such a thrill, I immediately started on a second. Only after finishing my third did I really consider that writing was something I could see myself doing as a career. At that point I started a fourth manuscript, actively sought an agent, and joined writers’ groups.

While getting published is certainly one of a series of steps with different goals, I believe you must identify yourself as a writer before that event. Why? Because if you aren’t taking yourself seriously, taking your craft seriously, making goals for yourself, then you won’t get to the step of publication. Even before I was published, my kids knew that when I was writing, I was working. My husband respected my need to spend money I hadn’t earned from writing on writing. Because I was a writer. After publication, you’re just a published writer.

Q: What was the process of getting your first novel published? For example, was it the first novel you'd actually written, or did you have abandoned projects? How many queries did you send out before you got a bite, and how did you decide which agents to contact?

A: The first novel I sold was in fact my first manuscript, but it’s not that simple. I went back to my first manuscript and rewrote it after my fourth manuscript. And revised it more times than you can count. So really, it no longer resembled my first manuscript by the time I sold. I definitely have unsold manuscripts (three complete, four partials). They aren’t abandoned—due to changes in editors, the market, different stages in my career, they remain unsold or unfinished, but definitely not abandoned.

Once you’ve decided what type of novels you write, the agent search can begin. There are all sorts of databases to explore—on line and off. Make sure to do research. You don’t want to send a children’s book to someone who doesn’t represent that genre or fiction to a non-fiction agent. Look at the acknowledgments and dedications of books you love. Very often the authors will mention their agents. And join a writers’ group. Talk to other writers and find out their agent stories.

As for the queries themselves. . .I always laugh when an article appears about a best selling book and the writer drags out the number of times the author was rejected. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was rejected sixty times and people are shocked by that number. I’ll tell you right here, that number is common and higher numbers are just as common. The opportunities for rejection abound. In one of my outings in this business, I was rejected closer to eighty times. What I give Ms. Stockett credit for is perseverance. My first agent gave me the following words of wisdom: There are three elements in a successful writing career—luck, talent, and perseverance. Of the three you need only two, but one of them must be perseverance.

Q: Regarding famous rejections, like Kathyrn Stockett’s and JK Rowling’s: I, too, have marveled that so many agents could turn down such obviously well-written manuscripts. Is there really such a glut of fabulous fiction out there that agents can afford to be so choosy? Then someone pointed out that these manuscripts may not have been nearly so polished when the authors first began pitching them. Perhaps the rejections came with feedback that helped the authors slowly revamp their stories into the current bestseller incarnations. What are your thoughts on that?

A: Frankly, editors and agents don’t have the time to give much feedback these days. Your manuscript has to be almost publishable when it comes across their desk because they don’t have the time to teach you. There are exceptions of course, but really you have to know the craft before you think of submitting. Learn, learn, learn. Write, write, write. This doesn’t mean that my agent or my editors haven’t helped me, but I do know the craft.

A large number of competent manuscripts cross editors’ and agents’ desk these days, and I can’t think of a worse adjective than “competent.” They want a manuscript that sings. And a manuscript that sings to one editor won’t to another. So much is subjective.  So editors and agents choose what they like. I’ve heard enough editors and agents say exactly those words—they choose what they like—that I absolutely believe it. I also believe most of the stuff that hits their desks is terrible and not ready for publication. Not to sound mean or superior, but a lot of writers have an unrealistic opinion of their abilities. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn; it just means they aren’t ready.





Gabi Stevens writes paranormal romances. Her next book, Wishful Thinking, is the third book in a series featuring fairy godmothers and will be released April 24, 2012. The first two books, The Wish List and As You Wish are available now. Gabi would love to share her books with new readers. One lucky winner will receive a copy of The Wish List  and another will receive As You Wish Just leave a comment here and a way to contact you. Winners will be chosen March 1.

You can find Gabi at www.GabiStevens.com, www.GabiStevens.blogspot.com, or on Facebook or Twitter.

29 comments:

  1. Wonderful interview! And I can vouch for Gabi being an amazing writer. I've been a fan since her first book!

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  2. Thanks to Sister Stephanie (this time I got it right!) and to Gabi Stevens for an entertaining and useful interview. I have a lot of respect for paranormal romance, and that Hawthorne quote was right on target, writing “easy reading” is never easy. I am glad that Ms. Stevens was able to run the gauntlet of the publishing world and survive it. But it’s sad that good novels are still unprinted just because of subjective reasons and agent’s personal prejudices.

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  3. YES!!! Finally someone stands up for romance and clarifies all the misconceptions! Ms. Stevens is absolutely right, so much "high literature" is about love!!

    80 rejections? Very inspiring.

    And I absolutely loved this: "One last thing about formula: I defy you to name a genre that isn’t formulaic. When was the last time you read a mystery where the detective ends the book by saying, “Oh well, I couldn’t solve it. Better luck next time”?" Ha!

    Thanks, Sister Steph, for an informative and entertaining interview!

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  4. Excellent interview - really enjoyed it! However, I already have all of Gabi's books. ;-)

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  5. Great interview! It was filled with tons of amazing insight. I need a mug that reads: Easy reading makes for darn hard writing.

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  6. Sister Stephanie,

    This was quite the insightful interview! I always like to hear an author talk about his/her craft and her road to publishing. She's right in saying sixty, eighty, or even a hundred rejections is not unheard of, and most likely the norm in any writer's querying process. And it does take perseverance, like Gabi said. Otherwise, we'd never get anywhere as writers! It's also good to hear that sometimes that first novel does get sold! (Of course, with many alterations along the way.)

    I know I'm a Sister and that probably excludes me from winning a copy of the book, but I'm going to put my name into the hat just in case there's a chance!

    Mary Mary

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  7. What a wonderful post. I'm with you all the way. Romance writing has come a long way. It speaks to our lives.

    If I should be so lucky to win a book, my email is: den.covey@gmail.com but as I live in Australia I'm probably eliminated already, lol.

    Denise

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  8. I will be happy to send international, should you win, Denise. And Mary Mary, I don't see why you can't be included.

    Thank you all for the wonderful response.
    --Gabi

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  9. I want to thank Gabi again for doing this informative and fun interview: I know I'm really intrigued about her series, and will definitely be checking it out! It must have taken an amazing amount of patience and determination to get through 80 rejections without losing hope: maybe if we all adjust our expectations and just *assume* that's what'll happen, we'll get disheartened less easily.

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  10. Great interview, thanks Gabi and Stephanie!
    Kristi B.

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    1. Kristi B--Random.org chose you to win one of my books. Contact me at GabiStevens at gmail dot com

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    2. Make that GabiStevens505 at gmail.com (Hey, I just turned in a manuscript and the brain is fried)

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    3. Gabi, I just wanted to thank you again for sharing your thoughts in this interview, and now that I read The Wish List, I had to read the interview again! The book snagged me with the first page, and I couldn't put the book down until I was done. I haven't had that much fun reading a book in a while! My kids can attest to the fact that while I was with them all weekend long, I never went anywhere without the book, just in case I could sneak in a few more lines. It was like savoring a fine wine, while lounging in the spa. Lovely! Thank you so much for the book, and I very much look forward to reading more of your work!

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  11. Enjoyed reading about writing and most of all, about the determination and grit it takes to keep going in the face of rejection. Thanks for such an interesting interview from Stephanie and Gabi. Inez

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  12. good stuff! and thank you for addressing the misconceptions of the romance genre, as well as the publication process. indeed, rejection is not for the faint of heart!

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  13. Hilarious answers about the "common questions" romance writers get. I was lucky that my graduate program covered 2 weeks on romance writing, and we all had to read a mills and boon... after which I discovered I quite like romance novels. The best stat we heard was that most people who read romance are actually highly-educated professional women, like lawyers, doctors etc. Good stuff :)

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  14. Hi Gabi,

    I can hardly wait to read the latest installment in the series. It really is annoying when some consider romance books to be "trash". They are far from being that and it takes a lot of guts as well as determination to get published. I am proud to be among the group of people that read romance books!

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  15. Glad I stumbled across this! Wise words, and isn't it so frustrating when people who have never read your book think it's okay to compare you to the heaving bosoms school of romance writing--thinking it's a compliment! Especially when it's your own family.
    Having been around for (ahem) a while, I remember when "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women" was published. We were so sure this very intelligent book would change people's minds. Sigh.

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    1. "I remember when "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women" was published. We were so sure this very intelligent book would change people's minds. Sigh."

      I wonder if the Popular Romance Project will make the breakthrough with regards to changing attitudes:

      The Popular Romance Project will include four ambitious, high-profile, carefully integrated programs:

      * a feature-length documentary (working title: Love Between the Covers) for international television broadcast, focusing on the global community of romance readers, writers, and publishers

      * an interactive, content-rich website created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, allowing the website’s users to see romance novels in a broad context across time and place

      * an academic symposium on the past and future of the romance novel hosted by the Library of Congress Center for the Book, and

      * a nationwide series of library programs dealing with the past, present, and future of the romance novel, plus a traveling exhibit, organized by the American Library Association.

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  16. I love your books. I happened to be in Albertson's and saw "The Wish List" last year and it sounded good. I read that book in one night!! I have been a romance book lover since I was in middle school. I had problmes with reading(which we have now discovered I was not interested in what they were trying to make me read)but when I found romance books, I was suddenely reading all the time. I love how romance books can take you out of the mudane world we live in bring you to a wonderful fantasy. I know I will be a lifelong reader of romance, and I look foward to more to come from Gabi Stevens!

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    1. Above comment is from me. Somehow I messed up who its from

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  17. I liked this article very much - and I confess to being one of those who always outwardly viewed romances and "not serious" literature. I've decided in my dotage that I don't really care if what I'm reading is "serious" or not, just so long as it's engaging, Ms. Steven's reading influences as a child match my own, and her description of her approach to romances are helping me see the errors in my previous ways and I'm anticipating reading her work. Thank you for sharing this!

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    1. "I've decided in my dotage that I don't really care if what I'm reading is 'serious' or not, just so long as it's engaging." I must have reached my dotage early (I love that word!) because I agree. :)

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    3. Pam you've won a book. Contact me at GabiStevens505 at gmail dot com

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  18. Great interview. I had no idea this was Julia's teacher. Although I haven't read the books, I am intrigued.

    Linda vanDyck

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  19. Hi guys! Gabi drew two winners and I will be letting them know how they can get their books. Thanks to everyone who participated in this discussion!

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