In 2006, I set out to establish a writer’s work space in Austin patterned after the venerable Writers Room and the then-new Paragraph in New York City. We called it Scribe, The Writer’s Studio. We weren’t able to make it fly, but while we were trying, I did write three issues of the Scribe newsletter, which I’ve excerpted below. I interviewed authors and listened hard at conferences. The idea was to talk about not just writing but the writing life.
In This Issue:
Inspiration + Perspiration
Janet Evanovich and Edgar Week
In April, Scribe’s own Jane Sevier traveled all the way to New York City to attend the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week Symposium, held as part of a week of celebrations surrounding the annual Edgar Allen Poe Awards, which honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television, and film published or produced each year.
A panel featuring MWA President Janet Evanovich, bestselling author of the Stephanie Plum series, and her agent, editor, and publicist headlined the day-long symposium. Evanovich agent Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, advised aspiring authors to remember that in commercial fiction, the idea—the story—is the paramount. “A good story by a so-so writer could end up as a bestseller,” Gottlieb said. He also said that new writers are often easier to sell because they have no track record, by which we take him to mean no bad track record.
When considering a manuscript, Jennifer Enderlin, Evanovich’s editor at St. Martin’s Press, says she looks for characters, concept, conflict, and, most of all, voice. “Mechanics can be taught, but voice is unique,” Enderlin said. “Janet thinks about every word on every page. Every sentence does a job.” Evanovich chimed in that writers should let their voices development naturally, rather than trying to copy another’s voice.
For publicist Dori Weintraub, Janet Evanovich is a full-time job, and that job entails expanding her author’s reader base. According to Weintraub, working with the big booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders is the best way to grow an audience.
Evanovich herself admits she’s a workaholic. She’s at her desk at 5:30 in the morning, and except for a midday exercise break, she doesn’t stop until 6 in the evening, when she has dinner with her husband. By 7 p.m., she’s back at it, meeting with her daughter Alex, who is webmaster for www.evanovich.com. They refresh the site every month to keep fans coming back.
Evanovich also sends out postcards for each new book, distributes a semi-annual newsletter to fans on her mailing list, and still manages to fit in a book tour or two. This year, Evanovich has seven—yep, seven—books coming out, including a nonfiction book on writing due in September. What keeps her going?
“She works so hard because it takes so long to get there,” Gottlieb said of Evanovich. “You have to keep working to nourish your career and grow it. An agent is an encourager and caretaker of an author’s career.”
“I have the keys to the candy store,” Evanovich said. “It took me 10 years to get published. I started thinking about what I can give to my audience, not what they can do for me.”
Reading About Writing
Is your plotting plodding? Texas writer Julie Wray Herman, author of the Three Dirty Women landscaping mystery series, suggests picking up Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens. Lukeman guides you in creating compelling characters with rich histories and exploiting suspense and conflict to punch up your plot.
In This Issue:
Spotlight on Sandra Brown
Sandra Brown is all Texan. Born in Waco and reared in Fort Worth, she worked as a model at the Dallas Apparel Mart and as a TV broadcaster. In 1981 in the spare room of her Arlington home, she started writing novels on an electric typewriter set on a card table.
Brown began her career writing category romance, moved to romantic suspense, and finally switched to straight suspense. Publisher’s Weekly has said, “No one does steamy suspense like Brown.” Her early influences were British espionage writer Evelyn Anthony, Anglo-American novelist Taylor Caldwell, and playwright Tennessee Williams.
“Tennessee Williams because of the Southern influence and the façade of respectability hiding all that decadence,” she says. “His personal relationships…I think he did family relationships on the rocks really well. If you watch or read his plays, they really cut to the bone. They’re almost painful to watch.”
Three years after she launched her writing career, Brown leased an office so she could go to work every day. Having an office made it official that she was working and not to be disturbed. Home was the haven at the end of the workday, and Brown says she needs that separation.
“My favorite day…is being alone at my computer with my characters for hours of uninterrupted time. I love telling the story. I love being there…. I can come out 10 hours later just euphoric. What I don’t like is the business and the busyness. I love the writing.”
It’s difficult to believe that the perennial bestseller could feel insecure about her work, but Brown says she does, especially when she’s starting a new book. She agonizes over the plot before she starts. If plotting isn’t hard, she believes, it probably isn’t good. She thinks about the initial conflict, the main characters, how to tighten the conflict along the way, and how it will ultimately be resolved. Then she writes the first draft.
“Don’t wait for the confidence to do it,” she says. “If I did that, I’d never get out of bed in the morning. You’ve just got to do it.
“Every day I go to work, it’s a new world. There’s a lot of fear that all the talent I had the night before, the bad plot fairies came in the night and took it away.”
Brown owes her publisher a book a year. Her deadline is in March, so she’s already started her next book. She spends several months doing the first draft, which goes to her editor for discussion of its strengths and weaknesses. The second draft is where she says she really does her crafting. She goes over and over a scene until she’s perfectly satisfied with it. Then, for the third draft, she looks at pacing. The fourth draft is for polishing, and then she’s done, but it takes her a year.
For each of her books, Brown has a background story of how the idea first came to her and how she developed it into a plot. There isn\‘t a pattern. Sometimes the story begins with a character, sometimes with an issue or subject that interests her, sometimes with a snatch of song lyrics or a snippet from the newspaper. At other times, she sees a scene or hears dialogue in her head, and the story begins with that.
“Weird things happen that you couldn’t make up,” Brown says. “One time I was watching Phil Donohue do a show about transplant patients, and I remember distinctly the guests talking about being imbued with the characteristics of the donor. I asked myself, ‘What if you hated the donor of your heart?’ The result was Charade.” Brown is known for creating strong characters and evoking rich settings.
“I don’t flesh out characters ahead of time,” she says. “When I start out, I have an idea of what I want that character to be like, but they introduce themselves to me as we go along. They reveal their characteristics to me. They reveal if they jingle their keys or whistle absent-mindedly.”
Climate and setting should also be characters in the book, Brown feels. She does onsite research for each of her books, and her husband, who has a background in TV production, does videos of her settings. Brown’s books are set primarily in the South. “I’m so at home in that environment. I know the people and the culture and how they think. I know the food. It’s more comfortable for me. It makes for less exotic vacations, though.”
What advice does Brown have for other writers?
“It’s important to read and read,” Brown says. “Even a book you’re not enjoying, you should read it to figure out why you don’t like it. Then you’ve got to write. “You can attend conferences, join writer’s groups, but you can only doing it by putting words on paper. There are no short cuts. You’ve got to spend hours and hours alone in a room. It’s hard work.”
On August 15th, Sandra Brown’s 66th novel, Ricochet, hits bookstores. Publisher’s Weekly has given Ricochet an industry-coveted starred review, and Brown’s fans know it’s probably destined to be her 55th New York Times bestseller. Yep, she’s already had 54.
So, Ya Wanna Write for Pictures
For as long as there has been a Hollywood, in the movie business has drawn writers there. Novelists, playwrights, and throngs of others who think they have a screenplay in them, or at least a little TV movie. Among the more-famous who answered Tinseltown’s siren song are F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. You may know that Faulkner wrote the screenplays for “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep,” but did you know he also worked uncredited on movies like “Gunga Din” and “Mildred Pierce”?
But if you’re not a William Faulkner or a William Goldman, and you itch to write for Hollywood, novelist (The Last Prophecy) and screenwriter (“Dirty Deeds”) Jon Land has advice for you. Think independent.
According to Land, 70,000 books are published a year, but only 500 films are made. The big studios turn out just more than a third of those. The rest are independent productions. So if you want to break in writing movies, pitch your product to independent producers.
“Don’t even start with the studios,” Land says. “Studios may option 20 films but make only 2. To get to the Holy Trinity—talent, funding, and distribution—independent producers need scripts. They won’t pay you unless they get the Trinity, but it’s the best way to break into the business.”
Because most independent producers don’t have the development funds the big studios have, Land recommends you also think high concept and low budget. “In movies, it’s about getting the movie made,” Land says. “You’re writing a screenplay so you can get a movie made. The longer you can stay in one place, especially an interior space, the lower the budget.”
When Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell were tossing around ideas for features they could film in one room to fit their $600,000 budget, they came up with the story for the 2004 hit “Saw.” Two men are trapped in a room together, and one of them must kill the other to escape. High concept, low budget.
A less-grisly example of that combination is “Zathura.” Known for action blockbusters like “ Jurassic Park,” “Mission Impossible,” and “Spiderman,” screenwriter David Koepp no doubt had a lower budget in mind when adapting the Chris Van Allsberg novel for the 2005 children’s movie. About two brothers who play an antique space adventure game that plunges them into its world, “Zathura” is set in the young heroes’ house, and almost all the action takes place inside it. Remember, interiors are less costly to shoot.
Land says independents are more likely to listen to your ideas and to hire you to do rewrites, which are usually done for the budget. Just be prepared for your favorite line or scene to get cut.
“Learning to let go is the secret of screenwriting,” he says. “You’ll have to figure out how to make your screenplay better. You need to be a good diplomat, a good politician. Your job is to write the best script you can with roles that actors want to play. It comes down to a great script and a great new idea or an original twist on an idea.”
And one last bit of guidance. Keep at it.
“Some of my scripts have been rejected dozens of times,” Land says. “We learn to deal with rejection, or we can’t be in the business.”
Reading About Writing
Shelves and shelves of books are devoted to how to write. Books on pacing. Books on plot. Books on point of view. You name an aspect of the writing craft, there’s a book about it. But if you want to learn what it means to BE a writer, to think like one, Austin-based novelist Jeff Abbott (Panic) recommends Dorothea Brande’s timeless Becoming a Writer. To learn more about why Abbott admires Brande’s book, click on the My Space blog link on his website.
In This Issue:
Spotlight on Mary Jo Putney
Award-winning romance author Mary Jo Putney has always appreciated the leap of faith. It has led her down more than one interesting path in her life.
At Syracuse University, for example, English major Putney dated a guy who was in industrial design and decided he was having more fun than she was, so she switched.
“I liked underlying patterns and the excitement of figuring out the right design,” she says. “Design is a lot like novel writing. If it’s well done, it’s invisible.”
After graduation, Putney lived in California for several years before spending two years in England as the art director of The New Internationalist, which covers social and political issues in developing countries and which she refers to as “left-wing.”
“They were great, idealistic people, and it was a fascinating, mind-stretching job.” Putney lived in the ancient university town of Oxford and worked in 10th century Wallingford in a 200-year-old house. Each day she drove the winding country roads in a ratty old Morris Minor wagon that had wooden ribs and “creaked like a ship at sea.” In the Morris, she explored as much of Britain, Scotland, and Wales as she could.
Those years immersed in British history and culture stood Putney in good stead when she decided to pursue her fantasy of writing and tried her hand at Regency romance.
“I’ve always liked a good relationship story, and I’ve always liked a happy ending. The year before I started writing, I discovered Regency romances in the library. I loved Georgette Heyer. I had lived in England, and I had a degree in 18th century British literature, I had a computer, and I thought, let’s see what happens.”
“The Regency drew me because it’s the dawn of the modern era but far enough away to still be glamorous.”
Putney’s first book sold quickly. Abandoning her design career as soon as she could afford to, she turned to writing full time and has never looked back.
Since 1987, Putney has published 31 books. She has made all of the national bestseller lists, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly. Five of her books have been named among the year’s top five romances by The Library Journal. The Spiral Path and Stolen Magic were chosen as among the Top Ten romances of their years by Booklist, published by the American Library Association.
A nine-time finalist for the Romance Writers of America RITA, she has won RITAs for Dancing on the Wind and The Rake and the Reformer and is on the RWA Honor Roll for bestselling authors. She has been awarded two Romantic Times Career Achievement Awards, four New Jersey Romance Writers (NJRW) Golden Leaf awards, plus the NJRW career achievement award for historical romance. Though most of her books have been historical, she has also published three contemporary romances.
In 2004, Putney once again followed her instincts when she launched her acclaimed Guardian series with A Kiss of Fate, the author’s first foray into fantasy.
“My concept for the series is to use real history, but with characters who are Guardians, members of ancient families who have great magical powers and who are sworn to do their best to preserve mankind from its worst impulses,” Putney says. “Since Guardians are human themselves, they make mistakes, but they do try their best. The tension between duty and love will be a running theme in these stories, and I’m really excited to be writing them.”
Putney says she’s a lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy and decided to write romantic fantasy because she felt she needed a change.
“I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy,” she says. “I can quote whole passages from Robert Heinlein’s books. When I came up with a Georgian world that blended fantasy and romance, it all fell into place. Fantasy elements add delicious freshness to classic historical romance settings.”
Putney’s latest book, The Marriage Spell, was released in June 2006 and received 4 ½ stars in Romantic Times Book Reviews. Although it is set in the Regency and is not part of her Guardian series, The Marriage Spell also weaves magic into the story’s historical tapestry.
Del Rey Books published her second Guardian novel, Stolen Magic, under the name M. J. Putney, and the paperback came out in July 2006. The third book in the series, which is built around the early days of the abolition movement in Britain, is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2007.
“I like to have stories that have strong themes so I can get on my soapbox. Our world is so stressed since 9/11. I think that’s one reason there are so many magical and fantasy books now. Jo Beverley says she thinks the upsurge in vampire stories is the appeal of immortality in the wake of 9/11.”
With Georgette Heyer, Putney lists Dorothy Dunnett, Robert Heinlein, and Mary Stewart as influences on her writing. Who does she read now? Lois McMaster Bujold and Catherine Asaro are two of her favorites.
“I was happy to hear that Dick Francis finally has a new book coming out this fall. He stopped writing for a while after his wife Mary died in 2000.”
Does Putney have a favorite among her own books?
“They’re all special in their own way. I suppose I’m especially partial to The Rake, One Perfect Rose, The Spiral Path. Every one is unique. It’s a relationship. I can’t write them if I don’t love the characters.”
As for her writing day, Mary Jo Putney claims to be “a slug” in the mornings.
“I read the newspaper over breakfast. E-mail gets me to the computer. Errands and exercise are late morning. Sometimes it takes all day to get the creative juices going in the evening. It’s amazing I ever finish anything!”
Just as it has altered so much of how people conduct business around the world, the Internet has affected Putney’s work. “The Internet is an amazing research tool,” she says. “though I still consult a lot of books. The Internet makes it too easy to drown yourself in research, and some of it isn’t reliable. I check references, look at other sites. You develop a smell test. As much as I like bound books, you can’t be sure they’re always right either.”
“I read a fascinating book about the telegraph called The Victorian Internet [Tom Standage, Berkeley Trade, 1999]. A lot of technological changes that transform the world have to do with communications.”
Does Putney ever consider giving up writing for the next challenge?
“I’ve still got stories to tell. One day I might stop and play with the cats and garden and travel. Writing is hard work. Evelyn Waugh said easy writing makes hard reading, and hard writing makes easy reading. You have to work at it. The better the writing, the harder it is. The absolute passion to write can fade later in a career, but I’ll always have my imagination.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the third Guardian novel, readers have more Mary Jo Putney books to look forward to next year. In January, NAL will publish Dangerous to Know, a volume that will include Putney’s first Regency, The Diabolical Baron, along with her one Western novella, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know.” Dragon Lovers, her romantic fantasy anthology with fellow authors Jo Beverley, Karen Harbaugh, and Barbara Samuel is due out in the March. The paperback of The Marriage Spell will probably also be out in the summer.
According to Putney, the romance genre has diversified enormously over the last twenty years and now has books to suit just about all tastes. Her writing has evolved as well.
“My writing has become tighter and my craftsmanship has improved,” she says. “No surprise there since at the beginning, I was writing purely on instinct. But the same themes and kinds of characters still attract me.
“To have a longer career in this business, you have to be able to adapt to shifting currents. It’s like the mastodon. You have to adapt or die. Anyone who has had a long career has had to go through a lot of changes.”
Adaptability is important, but be careful of chasing the latest hot trend in romance or whatever métier you choose, Putney cautions. It may not be hot anymore by the time you finish your book. Be aware of the market, but remember that your passion for what you’re writing is paramount. It’s better to create the next trend yourself.
“People who have an instinct for it, who write what they love, can create the next wave,” she says. “I’ve been in the front but not a pioneer. It helps if you have that kind of intuition. You can’t control it if you do. You just have to hope it doesn’t go away.
“You have to read a lot and find out what you have an affinity for. There’s no point in trying to write a mystery if what you love is romance. You’re better off doing something that you love, and developing your own unique voice.
“Finding your creativity is important. We need to have something that’s not just about the practicalities of life. You take care of the muse, and the muse will take care of you.”
Romance: B(u)y the Book
Take an fascination with romance, mix in a background in the formal study of literature, add a dash of zeal for promoting authors, mix well, and you’ve got book critic Michelle Buonfiglio. She was smitten with the genre at her grocery store’s book rack, when she picked up a contemporary romance novel that, she says, “rocked my world.”
That first love led to obsession and eventually to Romance: B(u)y the Book, her weekly, nationally syndicated literary review of romance fiction that also features author interviews and tidbits about the writing life.
“Part of the reason I created Romance: B(u)y the Book was to help authors—who can be kind of shy—connect with readers,” she says. “I’m not working on a novel myself because this project has grown so quickly and is so darn much fun that I’ve put that way, way on that back burner. I just love writing about romance and hooking up readers and authors.”
Buonfiglio writes four features a month, alternating historical and contemporary within as many subcategories of romance as possible. That’s four to choose from the hundreds she receives each month. Reviews rate each romance for overall quality, sensuality, and—the favorite here at Scribe—cover cheese. For example, her September 7th review gives Candace Hern’s Just One of Those Flings 4 1/2 stars overall, 4 hearts for sensuality, and zero cheese wedges for the book’s elegant cover.
Each week, she reads 7 to 10 books, beginning to end. How does she decide which books to review from the mountains she receives?
“I choose a book because it’s immediately entertaining and the writing tells the story from the first,” Buonfiglio says. “The writing must stay consistent throughout. Everything’s there for a reason. Nothing—not dialogue, not sensuality, not plot gap—stops the work cold.
“Why do I say the writing ‘tells the story’ rather than ‘the writing is good?’ Because sometimes the story is so accessible—makes so much sense, is so engaging, so romantic, so well-plotted, and so on—that the writing doesn’t have to be utterly sophisticated to make the thing work. I’m going to tell the viewers about those, too.”
Buonfiglio says she often considers a novel that’s been sent by an author she’s met or one who has contacted her directly.
“They’ve reached out,” she says. “I’ve never featured a novel for that reason, but it’s gutsy and has helped bring some really good ones to my attention.
“It’s horrible when I really like someone, but their book isn’t right for the column at that time. Mostly, a book doesn’t get featured because I think the author can do better. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending. I truly understand the heart, sacrifice, and everything that go into writing and getting one’s book published.”
In addition to her column, Buonfiglio also writes a blog, Romance: By the Blog. Check it out September 18–22 for what she’s billing as “Back to School Week,” when she’ll have scholars from Princeton, Fordham, and DePaul blogging about romance.
What Makes a Great Hero?
Alpha male or beta? Younger or older? Richer or poorer? There’s a longstanding debate in the industry on what makes an ideal romance hero. Romance writers wrestle with creating strong heroes that their readers can fall in love with, just as their heroines do.
Scribe asked two of Austin’s bestselling romance authors, Julie Ortolon and Julia London, just what makes a hero great. Here’s what they had to say.
In fiction, as in life, we admire people for their strengths, but we connect with them through their weaknesses. Whether we love them or revile them depends on how they deal with those weaknesses. In creating a great fictional hero, you have to give him enough larger-than-life strengths to make the story exciting, but you also have to make him vulnerable. It’s the vulnerabilities that make readers root for him. And, of course, for tight storytelling, your hero needs to face his greatest fear to win the day.
USA Today bestselling author Julie Ortolon is known for writing contemporary romances that are both humorous and poignant. Catch up with the latest from Julie at www.ortolon.com.
I think a great hero encompasses the best characteristics of man. He’s not flawless, but his true and good characteristics shine through his flaws. He is aggressive but kind, powerful but gentle, lustful but reverent, fearless but circumspect. He is a guy’s guy but can adapt to any social situation he’s put in. He gives as good as he gets from life, is generous to a fault, and wants, in his heart of hearts, to mate for life with one special woman and create a family in his image that will live on long after he is gone. It never hurts if he is handsome and sexy but blissfully ignorant of that fact. And above all, a great hero adores women in all their many forms—fat, thin; tall, short; dark, light; sexy, not so much; bewildered, kick-ass—you name it, if it is woman, he adores her.Julia London is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of historical romance fiction and contemporary romantic comedy. Her next book, The Perils of Pursuing a Prince, will be released Spring 2007 from Pocket Books. Visit Julia at www.julialondon.com.
Reading About Writing
Austin’s own Julie Ortolon reminds us that keeping your inner life healthy is as important as polishing your craft.
“There is an endless number of books to help writers learn the craft of writing. If you want to write and stay sane, however, it’s mandatory to balance books on craft with books on how to cope with the writing life.
“One book I keep on my night stand like a bible is Dennis Palumbo’s Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. As Gary Shandling says in his cover quote, ‘Every writer should have a shrink or this book. The book is cheaper’.”
The Road to Romance
Each year, romance fiction accounts for almost 55 percent of all popular mass market fiction sold and almost 40 percent of all fiction period and generates more than $1 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) in sales each year. If you’re interested in writing romance, take yourself as quickly as possible to Romance Writers of America, one of the most professional writer’s organizations on the planet. RWA has 9,500 members (1,600 published in book-length romance fiction) and 144 chapters worldwide, including a chapter right here in Austin.
RWA provides networking and support to writers at every stage of their careers from absolute beginners to multiple New York Times bestselling authors. It’s a homegrown organization, founded in Houston in 1980 by 37 charter members.
In July 2007, RWA’s 27th annual national conference will be just up the road in Dallas. This year’s conference in Atlanta offered workshops on everything from how to prop up the sagging middle of your manuscript to how to dispose of a corpse to the ins and outs of publishing. And each year at the national conference, RWA announces the winners of its RITA (for published authors) and Golden Heart (for unpublished authors) Awards, the Oscars of the romance industry that recognize the achievements of writers in almost as many categories as the Academy Awards.