All Is Revealed
In last week’s post, I gave you two clues. With only one accredited class in genre writing under my belt, and a dozen creative writing classes that came nowhere near 221b Baker Street, how did I write five successful romantic suspense novels? I never thought about how until I read an article written by British crime novelist Catherine Aird in the March 1983 issue of The Writer magazine, titled “Planning and Plotting the Detective Story.” I found it years after it was published, while I was preparing a workshop about writing romantic suspense for my local Romance Writers of America (RWA) chapter. The article focused on beginning mystery writers, which most of my audience would be, so I read it—and was gobsmacked. Somehow, while writing my romantic suspense novels, I’d managed to nail every point on Catherine Aird’s outline for constructing a detective story right on the head. I was stunned. How had I done that? If the clues I gave you led you to deduce that I learned by— #1—Reading the novels I swiped off my mother’s TBR pile, and #2—Writing umpteen zillion novels of my own, childish and godawful as I’m sure they were, then— You are this week’s Hercule Poirot. My “teachers” were the authors my mother loved to read. My “class” was writing all those girl and a boy and a horse novels, and practicing what I’d absorbed about plotting, planting clues, creating suspense and foreshadowing from novels like Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart, and Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt. (My favorites from my mother’s TBR pile.) Every writer I know learned to write the same way, first by reading. If you don’t read, you can’t write. Period. Full stop. This is not open for debate. This is a truism of the universe, right up there with the sun rises in the east no matter where you are on planet Earth. You’ll recall from the structure posts I wrote for the August blog that I learned to write Regency romance the same way, by reading hundreds of Regencies. Lesson #3: Write what you love to read. That’s the best writing advice ever. Your brain is a sponge. It soaks up everything you need to write stories like the ones you love to read. A computer comes equipped with Random Access Memory, and so does the human brain. When you’re ready to start “practicing,” the RAM in your brain will spit out what you need, when you need it. If you love to read mystery and you’ve read tons of murder mysteries, cozies, romantic suspense, detective and crime novels, then you’re ready to start writing. Like the Prego spaghetti sauce commercial, everything you need is “in there.” Trust me—you know more than you think you do. This is what William Faulkner says: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” Will your practice be perfect? Initially, no, but you’ll know enough to start playing around with story elements and learning the best ways to put them together. The more you practice, the better you’ll get, until the day comes when your writing is good enough to snag an editor. That’s what happened with Like A Lover, the book I started in the romance class. It was far from perfect, but it earned me a sale and an editor. Three, actually; that’s how many editors I had for that book. I learned something from each one that improved the story. From Editor #1: Don’t give every character in the story first names that start with the same letter. From Editor #2: End every chapter with a hook to draw readers into the next chapter. From Editor #3: Vary the pacing. Follow a high action scene with a slower paced scene to give readers a chance to catch their breath. Those women knew what they were doing, let me tell you. Like A Lover won the Best New Romantic Suspense Author award from Romantic Times Magazine. I flew to New York with two writer friends to attend RT’s annual convention and receive the award. It’s 21” tall and looks like a bowling trophy. On the base suspense is spelled s-u-s-p-e-n-c-e. You just gotta love a misspelled writing award. I wrote three category length romantic suspense novels for Velvet Glove, then moved on to Dell to write The Dreaming Pool, a mainstream romantic suspense—with a girl, a boy, and a horse. This is my 100% sell through, and I have the royalty statement to prove it. Boy, do I wish I still had all those and a boy and a horse stories from my childhood. Reread Lesson #1. Next came Remembrance, the novel with the creative writing class scene in chapter 13. My agent sent the book to every editor in New York. They all loved it—I should frame the rejection letters—but none of them could buy it because it didn’t fit a category. Lesson #4: If a publisher can’t slap a label on the spine, Mystery, Suspense, or Romance, they won’t buy your book. My agent and I were bereft, but we sighed and put the book away. At a writer’s conference a few months later, I heard Susan Shephard, an editor for Harlequin Temptation, announce the creation of a new line designed specifically to publish books that the editors in her Toronto, Canada office loved but didn’t “fit” any of Harlequin’s other lines. The name of the line was Editor’s Choice. The next day I called my agent, and she sent Remembrance to Susan Shephard. She loved it and bought it for Editor’s Choice. I wrote 6 books for Temptation. Three of them were RITA finalists: Remembrance, Aftershock, and Nightwing. All of them are romantic suspense. Lesson #5: Never, ever, give up on your book.