Interview and Writing Tips

—by Mary Buckham

Mary interviews Susan's for her September 2007 newsletter.

1. Best writing advice you ever received?

Four things. First, if you can quit, then you should.

Second, persistence is essential.

Third, "spaghetti against the wall" -- i.e., toss stuff out there and eventually something will stick (or whack the right editor in her face at exactly the right time <g>). Or, to put it another way, luck comes to those who put themselves in its path. Yes, I've heard all the advice -- from the one extreme of "ignore the market and write the book of your heart," to the other extreme of "target what the specific lines are buying right now." But, basically, I think you just need to do what feels right for you, and keep on doing it and sending it out. Paying too much attention to the market is crazy because you haven't a clue what the publishers are thinking. What they're publishing now is what they bought a year or more ago. What they're buying today isn't necessarily what they'll buy tomorrow. For example, I sold my first book to a line that didn't exist when I started the book or when I pitched it and was asked to submit.

The fourth, and most important, bit of advice is to believe in yourself and enjoy the process -- that's what it truly means to be a writer. That's what you need to keep returning to, every time you get a rejection or suffer another setback. Don't get obsessed about numbers. People ask me how long I've been writing and I can't tell them. They ask how many completed MSs I have, and I don't know. How many words/pages do I write a day? Haven't a clue. It's not important. What's important is, I'm a writer, I believe in myself as a writer, and I keep writing. But, just because I don't quantify things, it doesn't mean I don't keep track at all. I have a lovely turquoise notebook that sits on my desk, in which I make brief notes of all the writerly stuff I did that day. It's a reinforcement, on a daily basis, that I'm living the writer's life.

2. What do you know now as a writer that you wish you had known when you started in this career?

Mmm, that's a tough question. I can't really think of anything, but I do know something I'm glad I didn't know in the beginning, and that's what a tough road it can be. I'd gone to law school, had scholarships, built a good career. I figured I could apply the same principles to writing, and I'd sell a book. Nope, it doesn't happen that way. You can work like crazy, learn everything in sight, practice and produce, and still not sell. For years. It's WAY tougher to be a published writer than to be a practicing lawyer (or pretty much any other profession). I don't know if being aware of that would have discouraged me in the beginning, but by the time I figured out how hard it was going to be, I was already hooked and there was no backing out. And that brings me back to that bit of advice about believing in yourself and enjoying the process. That's what gets you through the rough times.

3. How would you define the differences between Erotic, Erotica, Romantica and simply a HOT book?

Toni Blake's article in the June RWR nailed it, as far as I'm concerned. She did a brilliant job (which means, she sees it the way I do <g>). The biggest distinction I see is between romance and erotica. We in RWA all know how we define romance -- the story is in large part about the growing relationship, and about how the heroine and hero are challenged and grow and change as a result of meeting each other and caring about each other -- and they end up together in a happy ending that the reader believes in.

Erotica is more the story of a woman's (or a man's) journey, in terms of their sexual awareness, and finding out the role their sexuality plays in their life. Erotica may have one or more romances and it may or may not have a happy romantic ending (or a happy ending at all), but the romance isn't the story. Erotica, to me, is a branch of women's fiction, because I see women's fiction as being about a character's journey.

Then there's the question of heat level. To me, erotic romance has a higher degree of explicitness, and longer and more detailed sex scenes, than "sexy" or "steamy" or "hot" romance. It still has all the character growth and emotion of a sweet or hot romance, but the bedroom doors are blown open.

An erotic romance or a hot romance may be a typical romance with a higher heat level, or it may have a "sexy premise." An example of the latter is my Awesome Foursome series. Each of the couples comes together for what they think is going to be just a fun, sexual fling, and each sets rules to govern their sex life (e.g., in HOT IN HERE, Jenny, who has identity issues, sets up a rule that she and Scott will enact each other's sexual fantasies -- and though she doesn't realize it, this is her way of avoiding being her real self with him and letting him into her real life). Of course, as the sexual relationships continue, the couples start to connect on a really intimate level and fall in love, which means they have to confront their personal issues and their conflicts (e.g., Chinese-Canadian Jenny is falling for a white guy, and that's an utter taboo in her very traditional family).

So, those are my definitions. But then there's the issue of publisher labeling. For example, my books are no steamier than many Bravas, but the line I'm writing for, Aphrodisia, is branded erotic romance whereas Brava is just branded romance. And within the Aphrodisia line, there's a huge range, including ménages, male-male sex, bondage, anal intercourse, shapeshifter sex, etc. -- whereas my books are pretty tame: one guy, one girl, lots of fun, and some experimentation but nothing terribly kinky. Mine are all romances, but not all the books in the line are, in the sense we in RWA define romance, with a happy romantic ending. Publishers and authors are blurring the boundaries right now, and some readers are confused and unhappy because they're not always getting the book they expected. On the other hand, a lot of readers are thrilled because they're discovering wonderful books they might not otherwise have tried.

 

As for erotica, there's a big range in heat level as well. Even though the story involves a sexual journey, erotica books don't necessarily contain a lot of explicit sex scenes -- but some contain lots. Just take a look at Harlequin Spice. The covers say "an erotic novel" and the variety in that imprint is huge.

You mentioned the term Romantica. As I understand it, that's a term that Ellora's Cave calls their own. As far as I can see, it pretty much means erotic romance the way I've defined it above.

My advice to readers these days is, either be willing to experiment or, if you're not, pay careful attention to what you're buying. As well as reading the back cover copy, read a bit of the story (if you're buying online, you'll find that many author websites, such as my own, have excerpts) and/or read review quotes. And don't blame the authors if you get a book you weren't expecting! In most cases we have virtually no input in terms of the cover art or back cover copy. We definitely aren't trying to deceive readers into buying something that's beyond their comfort level.

4. Favorite childhood book?

How young a child? The ones I remember loving were the Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Hardy Boy books, and anything with horses (the latter still applies!). Yup, I was a tomboy. Then as a teen I adored Frank Yerby's romantic, sexy adventure stories (definitely moving out of the tomboy stage at that point <g>). When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, that became -- and has remained -- my favorite book. Atticus Finch is my idea of a hero. Not perfect, but damned appealing. True moral integrity. And the way Gregory Peck played him in the movie embodied the character perfectly, IMHO. Sigh... OK, I'll pull myself out of that pleasant little daydream and get back to the interview.

5. Any tips for upcoming and newer writers on how to network and get your name known beyond local writing organizations?

The very first step, if you're pre-published, is to think about your name. If you network and promote under one name then end up being published under another name, how much of that promo will transfer over? Then, once you know your name, an easy thing to do is write articles for your Chapter newsletter. Research writing topics, write about special areas of knowledge or expertise, do book reviews, etc. If you produce a good article, there's a good chance it'll get picked up by other newsletters. The Romance Writers Report publishes articles by pre-published and newly published authors and it's great industry exposure. Go to conferences and make a point of talking to new people rather than hanging out with your friends from home (for us introverts that's tougher than getting a bikini wax, but honestly, we need to do it -- and the funny thing is, most writers actually are friendly and if you ask them what they're writing they'll go on about it forever <g>). If there's an opportunity to volunteer (e.g., at RWA National), take it. Offer to present workshops -- it's tough to get in if you're pre-published or brand new, but easier if you have a special area of expertise (e.g., medical, historical costumes, police procedure). Join Chapters that aren't local -- e.g., special interest ones like Kiss of Death (romantic suspense/mystery), Hearts Through History (historical) or Passionate Ink (sexy) -- and participate, volunteer, write articles, maybe teach online courses. Put up a website as soon as you have a good reason for doing so and the money/time to do it. If you have tons of spare time, you can always have a blog, go on MySpace and Facebook, and so on.

But always be aware, this is time away from writing. Your first job is to write the books and your second is to sell them to an editor. Networking can help (e.g., a member of an online critique group may be so impressed with your work that she'll refer you to her agent or editor -- then the agent/editor may go to your website and read an excerpt), but it's definitely not the only, or even the best, way of selling your work.

6. What are your upcoming books?

Books 3 and 4 in my Awesome Foursome series are coming out this winter from Kensington Aphrodisia. TOUCH ME (September) is the story of a stressed-out lady lawyer who meets a laid-back massage therapist called Adonis who touches her in all the right places <g>. In SHE'S ON TOP (February), a woman with body image issues hooks up with her first love, a magic-fingered pianoman, to create sensual body music that releases all her inhibitions.

7. How can readers find out more about you and your work?

Visit my website at www.susanlyons.ca. Or email me and ask: susan@susanlyons.ca.