Last year, after reading loads of buzz online about a couple of Harlequin Superromance authors, I bit into my book-buying budget and ordered about a dozen Superromance novels.
Why was this expensive? Because they wouldn’t ship to me in London, so I had to have them sent to my parents’ house and then reimburse my mom for shipping a big heavy box to London.
Oh God yes!
Thanks for being here, Sarah!
Thanks for inviting me. I always love talking about writing and reading – two of my most favourite things in all the world.
1. In addition to writing romance, you also write for TV, including the insanely popular Australian soap Neighbours. What skills have you developed through writing scripts that carry over into writing novels? And what’s the craziest storyline you’ve ever developed for Neighbours?
I actually credit Neighbours with helping me develop me the story chops that led to me getting published. Before I’d worked on the story table, I had made something like 8 different attempts at writing a romance novel, all of which had been rejected.
Then I worked at Neighbours and helped plot a long term, slow burn romance between two of the characters and I suddenly understood what I’d been doing wrong.
Working on Neighbours also taught me to love planning and plotting my books in advance. A lot of romance writers are “pantsers” – ie they write by the seat of their pants and what happens next is as much of a surprise to them as it is to the reader. But Neighbours taught me to love thinking about the story and teasing out the nuances of the story before sitting down to actually write it.
It also taught me to love thinking about character. I always try to build layered, multi-dimensional characters who feel real and who you can believe existed before they walked onto the set (or onto the page) and who will continue to exist after the show ends (or the last page is read). That’s something we spent a lot of time on on the show – talking through who people were and what they wanted and what their strengths and weaknesses were before throwing them into the mix.
As for the craziest storyline… I wasn’t actually working in-house at the time, but I can remember there was a storyline where Paul Robinson, the show’s current big baddy, and his daughter, Elle, arranged to have one of the other character’s delivery van blown up. I’m actually not sure if that story ever made it to air – my memory has become a little hazy over the years. As storylines go, it was a little out there for a show set on suburban cul-de-sac. But I guess far weirder things have happened on Desperate Housewives!
2. I’ve recently transitioned from working full time and writing during every spare minute to writing full time (with no pay, so far). I’m always amazed by full-time writers who can cut through the thousands of distractions—like the urge to spend the day dancing around the living room, or answering the siren call of the world’s best hot chocolate from the café next door—and just write. How do you do it?
For six year after I graduated from my BA in Professional Writing I worked as editor of a trade magazine. That taught me the discipline of sitting down and writing. No matter what. I had deadlines, and even if I didn’t want to write about the latest release in hammer drills, I had to. Then I wrote in-house for Neighbours and Shortland Street, an NZ soap, and that taught me the discipline of writing fiction to deadline.
As lovely as it is, writing is my job. I have commitments. Goals I want to achieve. Stories I want to tell. I don’t wait for the muse to arrive – I don’t even know if I believe in muses – I apply my backside to the seat and write, pretty much no matter how I’m feeling.
I do find the increasing distractions of social media etc a problem, however, and my current battle is finding a way to balance having an on-line presence with staying focussed on my own stuff. Some days I find the internet so distracting I wish it had never been invented! And other days I am researching something or connecting with other writers and readers and I bless it wholeheartedly.
3. Your Superromance novels often feature women who are ultra-capable. They run businesses, fix up crumbling buildings, and kick ass in the courtroom, but they also pretty much suck at relationships. Your heroes are equally strong men but they’re usually happy and confident in supporting the heroine’s dreams. Do you intentionally play with the traditional roles we sometimes find in romance?
The short answer is no, I don’t. I think these themes are probably more reflective of the time I grew up in – I’ve just turned 40 – and the mindset that has engendered in me than any conscious intention on my behalf.
When I was growing up, no one ever said I couldn’t be anything. Lawyer, doctor, politician, fire-fighter, astronaut – I honestly felt as though all those options were open to me. Mind you, I only ever wanted to be a writer, but still! I think women are incredibly strong and resilient and smart, and I like to write about women with dreams – whether it be the dream of restoring an old theatre or becoming a mother or building a small business.
I try to make my heroes like the good men I see around me – strong yet vulnerable, funny, sometimes infuriating, and always kind. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to work life out without an instruction booklet and I like my heroes and heroines to have areas of competency and confidence as well as areas in their lives where they feel they’re on much shakier ground. That’s certainly how I feel in my own life, anyway.
As for my heroines being sucky at relationships, sometimes it’s the hero who sucks! I tend to write about people in their 30s, and I figure that there has to be a reason that these two people are single as this stage in their lives. I always ask myself: have they never been in a serious relationship before? If not, why not? Was it bad luck, bad timing, or is there something in them that shies away from that sort of commitment? And if they’ve been in a serious relationship previously, what went wrong and what scars are they carrying as a result of what went wrong? It’s all grist for the mill.
4. TV script writing tends to involve a lot of collaboration and brainstorming. When it comes time to develop new novel storylines, do you have people you bounce ideas around with? Or is it more of a solitary endeavor?
When it comes to generating new ideas for books, mostly I work on my own with a big artist’s sketch pad and a pencil, jotting down ideas and drawing arrows and doodling and staring off into space. I get ideas from little snippets I’ve read in the paper or a real-life story I’ve heard or a film I saw.
I do discuss vague story ideas with my editor, Wanda, before writing them up because I like to get a feel for whether she likes them or not. So we will often brainstorm around the central idea of the book a bit and she always encourages me to look for a less-well-worn take on the usual tropes.
Joan Kilby, a fellow Super Romance author, lives nearby and I sometimes workshop problematic parts of a book with her when I’m actually in the throes of writing. And, probably most importantly, my husband is also a writer and he has helped dig me out of more story holes than anyone. He’s very, very good at story and character and he always pushes me to think beyond the boundaries of my original idea.
At the end of the day, though, books are very individual projects, and only the writer can push them forward. I might be inspired by something someone else says, but the idea has to become mine before I can write it – I’ve tried writing someone else’s story before and it doesn’t fly for me at all.
5. Your novel storylines always resonate with me because they focus on realistic conflicts and feature characters who make their decisions in a way that feels authentic. How do you keep yourself from going over the top? How do you manage the balance between characters who experience emotional gut reactions and who think through their problems rationally?
So often in romance novels things are not talked about or not done because the writer is holding off on having a confrontation or resolving an issue until the “black moment” near the end of the book. Sometimes that can feel very artificial and frustrating.
Whenever I’m writing up to a moment of high emotion or conflict, I try to stop and ask myself “what would really happen? Would I do this? Can I imagine one of my friends doing this?” Sometimes the answer to that question is yes and sometimes it’s no.
I have found time and again that having the confrontation at the point when it feels like a normal, rational person would have the conversation or confrontation often sends the book in a direction that steps away from typical romantic tropes. I always try to a capture the intensity of emotion as it happens in that particular moment – we’ve all had moments of absolute despair and desolation, after all – but I also try to balance that by showing the character’s ability to bounce back or laugh at themselves or to plan and plot their way out of a hole. Lying down and accepting the fate that life has handed you is not an option in one of my books. Not for long, anyway.
I think most people have a very powerful will to live and to thrive, and I like to depict both those moments of despair, but also those moments when we drag ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Time to pimp All They Need!
This was a tough book for me to write in many ways. For some reason, I really struggled to get a grip on it at the start – I wrote the first three chapters no less than four times! – but once I understood where I was going wrong I was off and flying.
I’m really proud of the end of this book. The way that Mel comes to her understanding of herself and the nature of her relationship with Flynn was very small by romance novel standards – no huge black hole or fight or break up – but I felt very strongly that her issues were her own and that whatever epiphany she had, it had to come from inside her. Or, as my editor so beautifully phrased it “it needed to be an inside job.” I think the ending is perfect for who Mel and Flynn are – but in the end readers are the ones who will be the judge of that.
If you like stories about people who feel as though they might be your friends, people with families and flaws and hopes and dreams, I hope you’ll get a chance to read All They Need. And if you find yourself liking Mel’s brother, Harry, you’ll be pleased to know I’ll be telling his story once I finish with my current WIP. I’m really looking forward to it because Harry is a fun guy with a bit of growing up to do – lots of potential there!
Sarah’s giving away two copies of All They Need. Leave a comment by Monday November 28 to enter!