Q & A Part II: Jane Austen’s “Romantic” Possibilities and Limitations

Jane Austen has consistently provoked strong emotions, and among writers who deal in romantic love, they have not always been positive. In 1848, three decades after Austen’s death, newly-published Charlotte Bronte called Pride and Prejudice, “. . . a commonplace farce; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck . . .”

Bronte-esque

Is this what Bronte was hoping for?

Well, given the radically different approaches of these writers it’s not so surprising to see the disconnect, but it’s as good place as any to open the second part of the Q & A with our modern romance writers.

Question 3: What in Austen has your romantic-writer-self either used or discarded? Are there aspects of Austen that I have overlooked that may have provided an enduring template?

Jenna Da Sie: I’ve used Jane Austen’s pattern of main characters meeting and taking a dislike to each other in the beginning. Sometimes my characters realize they care for one another or there is attraction near the beginning/middle but are too scared to voice their opinions out loud. So, I think [modern romance writers] each take a little bit of Austen  make it our own.

Barbara Burke: I’m always getting in trouble with my editor for leaving it to the reader to use his or her imagination (or at least that’s the way I interpret it when I’m facing edits and feeling grumpy). She’s constantly writing little notes in the margin that riff on the theme of ‘tell me how that makes him/her feel’. . . No, I expect you to put yourself in his or her shoes and figure it out. That way we can all come away with something different from the story. However, that’s not the modern method, even though it’s what Jane would have done. Also, I’m a huge fan of dialogue. Keep your clothes on and get to know this person.

Kate Robins: What I love most about Jane Austen’s novels is her incredible dialogue. Since she wrote in the omniscient POV, her character’s dialogue was the best way to show the reader who they are and how they will react in a challenging situation. I think she does this better than any other author I’ve ever read.

I strive to capture that wit and the intended meaning with every word my characters speak. And I thought eliminating author intrusion was difficult! Clear, concise, and realistic dialogue is a critical part of creating characters and an author cannot go wrong studying Jane Austen’s work.

Robin St. Croix: Pride and Prejudice is such a rich and complex novel that more than 200 years later, it still evokes an emotional response in the reader. We react to every single character – even Mr. Collins who is a complete idiot. We hate Wickham. Lydia is annoying. Bingley and Jane are none too bright, but we love them anyway. And on and on the list goes.

Love stories are powerful things. They speak to our need for human connection and intimacy. There’s a huge market for books that skim romantic relationships on a superficial level. In fact, sales of modern romance novels are keeping the publishing industry afloat. However, there’s a need for books that dive deeper and have higher stakes.

Carolyn Parsons: I think I employ all Austen’s patterns in different places and at different times. I certainly wouldn’t take any of them off the table. And a happy ending is a must in a romance novel.

Question 4: What other 19th century writers had a great impact on the genre which would become romance? Which books from that era are your favourites and how do they influence your work?

Carolyn Parsons: Beyond Austen, the works of the Bronte sisters come to mind when I think of romance precursors. But neither of them impresses me in the way Austen does.  I’ve never read them after studying them in school. I read Austen frequently.  Other authors of the 19th century that I enjoy and consider most influential—Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde– are not precursors to the modern romance writer but had an impact on my work.  I am first and foremost a poet so my writing tends to be far more poetic than Austen’s. I am a huge fan of the Concord transcendentalists including Emerson, Louisa May Alcott as well. I certainly tend to think of myself as a romantic writer as much as I consider myself a writer of romance.

Barbara Burke: Sir Walter Scott immediately springs to mind if looking for a contemporary of Austen’s. I would say Diana Gabaldon is a direct literary descendant of his (not to mention our own Kate Robbins).  I don’t think kilted heroes have ever been as popular as they are now. I’m a big fan of Ivanhoe (my daughter is even named Rowena and though she wasn’t named after the character in Ivanhoe that might be where I learned to love the name because it’s not exactly common in Canada), which is actually medieval, also a popular time period for modern writers. Do we even have to mention the Brontes or is that blindingly obvious? I’d say Scott and the Brontes were the ones with the greatest influence on later generations, but there were bucket loads of romance authors in the nineteenth century, like Mrs. Gaskell or Disraeli to name just two who were famous at the time, who might have had an indirect influence on the genre.

Jenna Da Sie: I think Charlotte Bronte, Lucy Maude Montgomery, and Emily Bronte along with Jane Austen have had a great impact on the genre. I know Anne of Green Gables was written much later, but Lucy Maud Montgomery did a wonderful job interspersing romance throughout everyday life. Anne disliked Gilbert from the very beginning but in the end, love won out. I think all these authors have influenced me in some way. I love to read and always reread the classics. 

Kate Robbins: While Jane Austen has certainly had the biggest impact on the format of the modern romance novel, other authors from the 19th century have greatly influenced the genre as well. One cannot discuss this impact without including the words of the Bronte sisters, specifically Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Though darker, the primary theme in these novels is still a love story. Other novels like Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy seem to follow this dark path just staying shy of the HEA, while Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South works hard to give the hero and heroine everything their heart desires in the end.

In all of these books, the reader roots for the hero and heroine and their HEA, though that may actually mean something different in each case. But there is no doubt they belong to one another and in that sense has helped shaped the format for today’s romance novel.

Thanks to these talented authors. Check out their work!

Kate Robbins is the author of the Highlands Chiefs series.

Barbara Burke is the author of the regency romance Recompromising Amanda and the WWII romance Not2Nite.

Jenna Da Sie is a California-based romance writer completing her regency romance novel.

Carolyn Parsons is a Canadian author whose latest novel is Charley through Canada.

Robin St Coix is the author of Masquerade, a novel in twelve parts.

Don’t forget the New Hook Contest in the previous blog!

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Jane Austen: Romance Author or Anti-Romance Author?

Sweeping moorlands, craggy mountains, and kilts fluttering in the breeze. These images could not be farther from Jane Austen. In fact Austen rarely “engaged the senses”  – that single most oft-repeated advice to the modern author, romance and otherwise. Yet, in some crucial ways, Austen helps us define the ingredients of the English-language love story. For instance, her novels are models of symmetry and resolution (the famous happy ever after, for instance) and she explores the psychology of romance in a way that left a recognizable path over which others would follow.

Jane Austen portrait

In this first in a two-part series, five modern romance authors — Jenna Da Sie, Kate Robbins, Robin St. Croix, Barbara Burke, and Carolyn Parsons  — each tackle the question of how we understand Austen in terms of her influence on the modern genre of the romance novel.

Question  1: How might Jane Austen be a precursor to the romance novel as you write it?

Kate Robbins: It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are some of the first romance novels of the modern age. However love stories have been around for as long as people have been sharing tales and embellishing the details.

The thing about her novels that makes them stand the test of time is that struggle between the hero and heroine with the promise of the Happily Ever After (HEA). Surely half way through Pride and Prejudice, few could see how Lizzy and Darcy would ever find common ground, yet Austen shows us time and again that no matter what the stakes, love will prevail in the end. The fact that the number one requirement of a romance novel today is the HEA, illustrates her impact on the genre.

Jenna Da Sie: I’ve always been taught to write what you know and all Jane Austen’s characters play out within the realm of the possible. She wrote about the behavior between parents and their children, the dangers and pleasures of falling in love, making friends and discriminating between those who mean us well and those who may not.

There is a clear relationship between Jane Austen’s works and modern day historical romances. Everything that I’ve written has had happy endings, love that overcomes hurdles and many other situations that happen in everyday life.

Jane Austen defined a structure. We all write for the happily ever after. Just as in Pride and Prejudice my novel starts with the main characters having an aversion to one another and in the end find out they are actually attracted to one another.

Barbara Burke: If it weren’t for Jane Austen there wouldn’t be regency romances — So asking this question is like asking a staunch Roman Catholic how God might be a precursor to the world! Georgette Heyer came along in the twentieth century like Jesus and started a whole religion (subgenre) around her worship. Though JA created the template she was actually a contemporary writer, not a regency writer.

Robin St. Croix: It’s important to recognize that in contemporary fiction there’s a distinction between romance novels and love stories. If you look at the Amazon category list, the term romance has taken on a very limited definition. The books tend have simple story lines (i.e. no sub-plot) and half-dressed men on the covers. The lovers are kept apart by nothing more than a bad first impression. Authors think they’re writing a heroine who is prejudiced like Elizabeth Bennet, and a hero who is proud like Mr. Darcy, but they’re not. In modern storytelling, if you want to a book with more oomph, you’ve almost certainly got to head over to the women’s fiction list.

Carolyn Parsons: One similarity is in the creation of rules of engagement. The era plays a role in the navigation of love in the Austen novels with rules determined by society.  In modern times they’re often author-created, but they still exist. By creating and employing rules (usually self-imposed, e.g. a character has decided never to  marry or the lovers live in separate cities and neither can move) the modern-day romance writer mimics Austen.  Navigating these rules and occasionally breaking them creates the tension required to keep a reader engaged.

A second similarity is that she, like the modern-day romance author, brings them close, where they both see the possibility and then creates a situation that blows things all to hell, usually in the form of contrived misunderstandings between the characters. This is followed by despair and a feeling that all is lost. Eventually resolution is found and she brings them to their happy ending(s) in the same way a modern romance writer does.

Question 2: How is she an anti-romance writer? Little physical description of heroines or heroes, except in the vaguest terms, little sensory description of anything. The success or failure of romantic couplings on character strengths or flaws, not physical desire.

Barbara Burke: Bite your tongue. We fall in love with the mind, not the body.  Having said that, there probably isn’t a lot of room in the modern romance world for a writer who emulates Austen too closely. People seem to want their love scenes very graphic and physical these days. I expect if she were alive today she wouldn’t be considered a romance writer – with her penchant for analyzing social mores and interactions as they play out against the background of the central romance she’d probably be classified as a woman’s fiction author, whatever the hell that means.

Carolyn Parsons: One notable difference is that she pays a lot of attention to several love stories at once.  In a modern romance, there is one central romance. Any hint of another romance is taken off into another book altogether which creates many of the series so popular among romance readers today.  Unlike modern romance writers Austen spends a great deal on all the potential couples in her books. Jane and Bingley get a great measure of attention in Pride and Prejudice as do Maryanne and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (and then eventually Colonel Brandon.) This leads to another exception…Maryanne’s great love is not the love she ends up with.  Another huge difference is the ages of the characters. Austen’s characters are often teenagers. (Maryanne Dashwood is just sixteen). I consider the Austen novels to fit into the women’s fiction genre far more neatly than they do into the romance genre in many ways though mostly they stand alone and fit into modern literature as simply a literary novel.

Kate Robbins: She is [an anti-modern Romance writer] in the sense that she wrote in omniscient point of view (POV). Romance writers are highly criticized today if we are not deep into the character’s POV with no author intrusion whatsoever. This you will not see in a Jane Austen novel. She is always telling the story resulting in a disconnect between the reader and the characters.

Take the first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Who is telling us this? Lizzy? Mrs. Bennett? No. Jane Austen is telling us this. Incidentally, this is my favourite first line of any book I’ve read.

Jenna La Sie: Jane Austen never wrote love scenes into her novels, the couples always just got together in the last few pages. I think that would be considered anti-romance in the way today’s romance novels are written.

In today’s romance the main characters would meet and dislike each other, but there would still be an attraction between the two of them, either the man or woman noticing. When Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth he strongly dislikes her and says so: “…till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. . .”

More to follow. In Part II as we discuss the other 19th century influences on the romance novel and other ways that Austen herself may have impacted the genre. Thanks to our romance authors (links below) for these insights!

Kate Robbins is the author of the Highlands Chiefs series.

Barbara Burke is the author of the regency romance Recompromising Amanda and the WWII romance Not2Nite.

Jenna Da Sie is a California-based romance writer completing her regency romance novel.

Carolyn Parsons is a Canadian author whose latest novel is Charley through Canada.

Robin St Coix is the author of Masquerade, a novel in twelve parts.

Writing Contest: “New Hook” Update

Are you preparing for the 2017/18 Instant Hook? Good! There are some changes though in keeping with the theme of the history of fiction.

The main one is this: your extract no longer has to be from the very beginning of your novel, but the work must be some kind of ‘riff’ on classic or previously published work (in the public domain). Could be anything from a Helen Fielding-like romp on 19th century literature to a work which uses a Shakespeare play as its template. Your entry could even be a riff on a poem if you like, though, of course, the entry itself must be prose. For the sake of clarity, please state on the entry itself the title of the classic work as well as the title of your entry. Here, below, are the rules:

 

  • The awards are open to anyone who is over 18 at time of entry.
  • The submission must be sole-authored, in English, and no more than 250 words.
  • It must reference, though character, situation or plot, a literary work in the public domain.
  • The extract may have been written for the competition or may be part of a manuscript already completed. But it cannot have been published, and cannot have been accepted by a publisher at time of entry.
  • These awards are open to new or established, already-published, authors (it does not have to be a first novel).
  • This is a blind-judged competition. HB Creativity must not have seen any part of this novel prior to entry; it must not be a work for which I personally have provided tutoring or editing services. I cannot absolutely guarantee I will not recognize a writing style, but I must not recognize the writing, the characters, or the plot.
  • Please use 12 Times New Roman font and double space your entry.
  • Send your entry by mail only (no emails please) to Paul Butler, HB Creativity, 8 – 121 Silkstone Road West, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, T1J 3Y6 (make sure you have “Paul Butler, HB Creativity” as well as the address) with a postmark date no later than December 31, 2017. Winners will be announced in March 2018.
  • Please do not put your name on your entry! Enclose in a separate envelope your name and contact (email and phone), plus the title of your entry. This envelope will be opened after the winners have been decided. Along with your name and contact please indicate whether you wish to receive our bimonthly INK STAINS news bulletin.
  • There will be a one-time email to entrants to announce the competition winner. There will be no advertising of any kind on this email. If you do not wish to receive this email, please indicate this on your entry.
  • Do not send your only copy. Copies without sae cannot be returned. If you do not want your entry returned, it will be shredded and recycled.
  • There is no cost to enter.
  • There is no residency or nationality requirement.
  • Copyright remains with the author. We may ask for permission to publish an extract of the winning work on this website but this will not be done without the author’s express permission. Withholding permission will in no way invalidate the entry or disqualify it from winning a prize. By entering you merely give permission for me to use your name and the (provisional) title of the work.
  • One winner will receive a cash prize of $250.00 (Canadian).

How to Write a Romance, Q and A with Three Experts, Part II

Welcome to part 2 of the Q & A with three highly successful romantic novelists: USA-Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs author, Kate Robbins and bestselling YA author-turned romantic suspense writer, Robin St. Croix. This round is a free for all. Any or all of the authors were invited to answer any given question.

Question: cough …cough…do I need actual sex in my novel? In mainstream fiction the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene or perhaps even an ellipse, something that justifies leaving the scene and returning when it’s over. It looks to me that if people do make love in romantic fiction, then it’s erotica; the reader expects to take part directly. What are the potential hazards? What words must be avoided? How do you get the right tone?

ROBIN: I’m also going to challenge you on your point that “the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene.” That may be your personal instinct, and it’s certainly true of the English literary classics I studied in university, but in modern fiction it’s all about the story itself and not about society’s comfort levels or censorship. In my opinion, if sex serves the story then it needs to be there, if not, it’s gratuitous and should be edited out. Of course, there’s a whole industry built around erotic shorts that proves me wrong, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Speaking of erotica … I think you’re referring to what we in the biz call “heat levels.” A sweet romance (where there’s one peck on the cheek at the end of the book) would be a 1, whereas erotica is a 5. So it’s not whether characters have a romantic relationship, it’s whether they’re holding hands or swinging from the ceiling. Romance is a very wide genre; there’s dozens of subgenres and different heat levels within each one. With romance, the reader only expects one thing: a happy ending. (More on this below).

A note of caution here: if you set your readers up for a steamy sex scene and then don’t deliver, you’re dead in the water. You cannot leave the reader listening at the door. You must bring them into the bedroom with you and allow them to live vicariously through your characters.

Finally, to answer your question … nope, you don’t need to put sex in your romance if you don’t think it’s warranted. Sweet romances don’t contain sex but instead focus on the relationship between the main characters.

Here’s the thing about sex scenes … they are brutally difficult things to write. No one will believe that until they try to write one – and I’m guessing you’ve tried already which is why you’re asking the question! Here’s why they’re hard … sex is not the kind of thing that lends itself well to running commentary. We do it. We don’t describe it. Ok, sometimes there are words … but try writing them out. They look ridiculous in black and white, don’t they?

Love and sex are all about emotions and sensations, not words. Throughout history mankind has been trying to articulate the emotion of love, but it’s beyond words. With sex scenes, there’s the immediate problem of vocabulary … we all know what the parts are called, but use any term – Latin, colloquial, slang, euphemism … at best they look out of place on paper. At worst, they’re laughable. My solution? Focus on the anticipation.

KATE: Just as there are authors who have comfort levels with sex, readers do as well. In romance fiction there are what’s called steam levels. They go from one, which is very sweet, maybe a peck on the cheek or everything happens behind closed doors and is referenced after the fact—to five, which is very descriptive and may require a new headboard. 😉

I think it all comes down to the author’s comfort level. There’s an audience for all steam levels, thankfully. Romance readers know what they like and gravitate toward authors who can deliver. 🙂

The correct tone will flow from your characters. If mine want raunchy sex, I let ‘em have at it. I am pretty sure in all cases, I have let my characters guide me in terms of the nature of they sex they enjoy, i.e. when, where, positions, etc. I am bound to a certain historical era and so therefore the words I use must have been used at that time. Etymology dot com is a great tool for this purpose.

Steam level will determine the words you use as well. A level one will be very mild with no explicit language. Level five? You can let your imagination run wild. My romances are a level four. 🙂

Question: Is romance escapism? And if so, is it helpful to make a list of the kinds of things that readers are escaping from (in the hope I can avoid replicating them!)

ROBIN: Yes, romance — like every story in every genre regardless of discipline — is escapism. Why else would a person pick up a work of fiction if not to escape into that world for a little while? Why watch television, go to a movie or the theatre? We do these things to relax, to get away from the pressures of the daily grind for a while. If we didn’t want a break we’d read non-fiction, watch a documentary or the news…Nah, you don’t need to make a list. You instinctively know what the pressures are.

KATE: A romance novel has one rule: it must have a Happily Ever After (HEA). Your characters and the unique balance of romantic conflict between them will make it unpredictable. Thinks like the internal versus external conflict and black moment will define your romance novel and set apart from others.

VICTORIA: Romance is total escapism. It’s one of the reasons why I read it. I didn’t know this about myself until my grandmother died. She left me all of her romance novels, and I read every single one of them. That’s what opened my eyes about the genre. I’d been full of the misconceptions non-romance readers have about this genre. You know, that’s it formulaic, easy to write, sexist, and porn. That’s not true at all. Romance novels may be easy to read, but that’s a testament to the writing of the authors. We write books that are enjoyable and accessible for all readers. As for making a list to avoid the things that readers want to escape from, I don’t think that’s necessary. Because of the HEA necessity of the genre, you can deal with loss, heartbreak, violence, etc. because the reader will finish that book feeling like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I personally don’t read romances where characters lose a child or have miscarriages, but that’s because it’s a personal decision of mine. Plenty of other readers love those story lines, and it’s important for those books to be written. Think about how you can craft a story with those elements that will ultimately leave the reader feeling hopeful at the end.

Question: Do I need a happy ending? And if so, how can I avoid making it predictable?

ROBIN: YES! Happily Ever After (HEA) is what makes a romance a romance. If the characters don’t get together in the end, even if your magnum opus is worthy of the Nobel Prize, it isn’t a romance. It’s something else.

It’s not predictability you want to avoid, it’s cliche. That’s another very difficult thing about writing in the romance genre because frankly, it’s all been done before! The best advice I can give is to read as much as you can in your particular sub-genre of romance so that you know what’s on the market already. Then spend time innovating your ending. Innovation requires creativity. This is where you earn your paycheque. Your readers know that the characters will get together. What they don’t know is how. Give them a spellbinding how.

Question: Do romance characters move towards self-knowledge? Are there things about themselves they conceal from themselves?

ROBIN: Of course they do! The characters in a romance novel are no different than any other character in any other genre. Usually we (as readers) want our heroes to grow and develop from the beginning of a story to the end, but not always. Exhibit A: James Bond.

Thinking that romance is a genre of wooden, two-dimensional characters is where writers get themselves into trouble. They crank out a tired story, slap it up on Amazon and then wonder why it isn’t selling. There are a lot of poorly written romances on the market. I won’t argue that point. There are a lot of poorly written books in every genre on the market.

This is not amateur hour. The mark of a professional author is that he or she can write in a saturated genre while still innovating the characters, plot and ending payoff of the story. That’s not to say every book has to be “War and Peace” (or “Lolita” or “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”). A well-written beach read can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.

VICTORIA: I think all characters must change somewhat in a book. That’s the nature of a relationship, isn’t it? To learn things about yourself and figure out how to be with someone while being true to yourself. There’s always an element of personal revelation there, where you learn something about yourself you might not have known. There are always parts of our personalities that we don’t realize about ourselves. It’s the same for our characters. A character in a romance novel is not some mythical-being unlike other characters. Characters are characters, regardless of the genre, with all the complexities that come with them. Some romance novels are plot driven, while others are character driven. So the stronger the character you create, the stronger your book will be in the end.

Question: Where did this genre come from? I think about The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, sometimes credited as the first Gothic novel. It’s way too dark to be classified “romance,” yet the pacing and the lurid power seems to have opened the door which later became romance. I also think of Emily Bronte and Charlotte as possible forerunners, particularly in the depictions of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester.

ROBIN: Love stories have been around since time began. They predate the written word. If you want to know the first English novel to be considered a romance, I couldn’t tell you. But the genre itself comes from the fact that we’re human, and there is nothing more human that the desire to love and be loved.

KATE: One can look back through literary history and see romantic stories in many places including Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology. Romance is something we have always held in fascination. The likes of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have certainly added new elements to old stories as well. I read somewhere that Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca has been considered the first ‘modern’ romance, birthing the currently perceived genre. I don’t believe it is possible to narrow it down to one book, however. What a shame to leave out the wonderful additions given to us by Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, Eloisa James, and Jude Deveraux. Elements like author intrusion accepted from these amazing authors 30 years ago are now unheard of and so the genre continues to evolve. The rise of ebooks and self-publishing have made it much easier for authors to get their books in front of readers and so the market has never been more flush with variations and new sub-genres. I think there’s never been a better time to be a romance writer. 🙂

Thanks to these terrific writers, Victoria Barbour, Robin St. Croix and Kate Robbins for their generous and thoughtful answers. If you want to know more about romance writing, take a good look through their websites and pick yourself a few of their books!

How to Write a Romance: Question and Answer with Three Experts

Welcome to the first in a two-part Q & A with three terrific writers, USA Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs historical romance writer, Kate Robbins, and bestselling Young Adult writer and about-to-be romantic suspense author Robin St. Croix. I am seeking expert advice on how to turn my battered fiction brain to the art of the romance novel.

First the background to my quest: Several years ago, I had an unnerving experience at a book signing. It was a large box store with a reputation for moving huge amounts of books, so I was grateful my publisher had booked me. Under the iron roof and the fluorescent lights there was more of a bustle than usual. I was excited by the possibilities.
And scarcely had I sat down at the end of the book aisle, but a large bristling mob of buyers — mainly female, I noticed — had gathered around my table. Who would have known I was so popular?

Actually I wasn’t.

Behind my table were shining copies of a book I hadn’t heard of, but the frustrated mob of buyers clearly had. I was sitting between them and the novel they craved. Before long I was being mobbed, and not in a good way. One lady literally shoved me aside as she reached over me for her copy. Another knocked me on the forehead with the spine of her  purchase. My (unused) signing pen skittered along the concrete floor and I was obliged to negotiate feet and shopping cart wheels as I retrieved it — to little purpose as it turned out.

The book, if you hadn’t guessed by now, was Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t try pressing the title hoping to find a link. I haven’t added it. Am I bitter? Yes.

At the time I was flustered. No doubt the literary snob in me came to the surface as a muttered something less than generous about the likely contents of this most popular of works. But something else happened too; somewhere in the dim inner recesses of my mind a faint voice had begun to chime: if you can’t beat them, join them.

Well not everyone admires Fifty Shades of Grey, although who can blame any of us for envying its success? And a number of very talented writers have turned their hands to the romance genre. Among these are some remarkable success stories who produce some excellent writing. I recently asked advice from three of these literary uber-achievers.
My first question is to bestselling author Victoria Barbour who scored big with her e-books even before Against her Rules and Hard as Ice became available in print format.

Question: I’ve started a romantic novel and I thought everything was going fine when I noticed I’ve given my heroine a mysterious love interest, a disinterested current boyfriend and an alcoholic ex-husband. I was aiming for romance, but I seemed to have crash-landed into the foam of a kitchen sink drama. And my heroine might be a little too sour, a bit too disappointed.

How do you keep things uncomplicated, yet interesting? And (related question) how complicated does my heroine’s life have to be before it gets . . . well, just too messy?

Victoria’s Answer: That sounds like a romance I’d love to read! And so would many other readers. There’s a misconception about romance that it has to be simple and uncomplicated. There’s only one hard and fast rule about romance and that’s the mandatory HEA (Happily ever after.) The key to complexity is believably. Readers identify with believable characters. They need complexities to be real.

Complicated is great as long as it’s not convoluted or contrived. I never try to keep things neat and tidy. The stories I write come from what is keeping me entertained as a storyteller. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too messy…. as long as you can make it all come together in the end with a positive resolution. Her whole life doesn’t have to be perfect, but the relationship should make facing the rest of her challenges easier. Jaded heroines are great, especially if they do so with sassy and wit and strength. I’ve learned that you can’t please all readers. I’ve created characters that some readers haven’t liked at all. But I don’t regret that because those were the characters that the story needed. If you feel your story is getting too bogged down in tropes think about the heart of the story you want to tell and let that help you rise from the foam of your soapy drama.

Now I turn to bestselling author of award-winning Highlands Chiefs series, Kate Robbins:

Question: What about place? Your novels have sweeping landscapes, rising mists. I’ve set my novel in Mount Pearl — just joking . . . But my setting is indeed urban and contemporary. Yet the romantic dimension still has to be there. How much do you think my story could have in common with the historical romances you have perfected?

Kate’s Answer: A good setting is important in all fiction. In some cases it can be considered an additional character when it helps shape the plot. In historical romance, the key element, besides the romance, is the history and as such things like setting, clothing, and manners add a certain charm to the story. Breaking through strict propriety in the medieval era adds another layer of challenge for the H/h’s romance to blossom. Part of the fascination of historical fiction is readers get to learn what life could have been like during a certain time frame they find appealing.

In your case, being contemporary and urban, on the surface I would say the location and time frame are miles apart, but that should not matter if the romance is front and centre and the setting plays a role in the plot. Your characters may have barriers that their place and time present making it unique to them and allowing their story to stand apart from others in the contemporary genre.

Newfoundland set romance novels are a new beast, thanks to trailblazers like Victoria Barbour. I see them as a great opportunity to expose contemporary romance readers to a great location with a unique set of challenges simply based on where we live. And really, that’s part of the beauty of living here. We are the best kept secret in the world for a good reason.

I think your setting and era will be a large part of your novel and I very much look forward to reading it.

Next I turn to a bestselling YA author who will soon release a very intriguing series of romantic suspense novels under the name, Robin St. Croix.

Question: I’ve always admired your organizational skills. I know you have character maps and graphs and so on. In the past I have always avoided this to an almost superstitious extent. If I write it down, I always fear, it’s pegging a character too much and robbing him/her of independent life. Do I have to cast this superstition aside? Is planning more of an integral part of “genre” fiction than it is in mainstream or “literary” fiction?

Robin’s Answer:  Yes, I am freakishly organized. It’s a running joke between myself and Victoria Barbour. For me, having outlines is more about me and the kinds of stories I tell, and less about the genre in which I’m writing. I tell big stories with twisty plots. My YA series is one over-arching story told over 9 full-length novels. My romantic suspense novel “Masquerade” is one story in 12 parts. If I don’t map out what’s happening, my books will wander and the reader will lose interest. I have to know what the breadcrumbs are and where to drop them so that my readers can savour the endings. It takes time to write these big stories. There’s no way I can remember all the details without outlining.

For other authors, outlines don’t work at all — they find them restricting. (Although in certain sub genres of romance restriction is an asset.) In the end the only thing that matters is that you have a good story that readers enjoy. How you get there is entirely up to you. If you want to try mapping though, I highly recommend “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne. It was developed for book editing, but works as a brilliant planning tool. (For an overview of what “The Story Grid” is all about check out Shawn’s YouTube videos. He also has a podcast)

The most important thing is that you have fun writing it. If it’s fun to write, it will be fun to read.

Great answers, all! In the next blog, I will talk to Robin, Kate and Victoria about how to handle a sex scene, the importance of escapism, and the origins of the romance novel. Stay tuned!

Ink Stains for May

 

Alumni News

There is so much good alumni news that I hardly know where to start. We will begin with competitions just won, then with new book publications already on the shelves, and then move on to upcoming book publications.

Competition Winners

Congratulations to Bridget Canning whose short story Colleen’s Birthday was a winner in the short fiction category of the 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards. This comes on the heels of some impressive recent short story publications (see previous posts).

Congratulations also to Jiin Kim who won in Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters  Awards non-fiction prose category with The Cheater. Jiin is a many times winner in the Arts and Letters Awards.

Recent Publications

Congratulations to Eric Colbourne. His new book Dancing on Air: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death penalty in Newfoundland (Friesen Press), is now available in print and e-book. Eric’s case-specific research and broader understanding of the politics of the death penalty is presented in an extremely compelling narrative.

Keith Collier has released Cold Seasons a mini-collection of short stories as a Kindle e-book on Amazon. This is an exciting project from a fine new writer whose fiction has been published in such journals as The Newfoundland Quarterly.

Congratulations to Valerie Francis. Crossing the Rubicon, book one of her Nature Knights her fantasy adventure series, has been released and is ready for download! Valerie is an exciting new voice in children’s literature. The Nature Knights series is for kids aged 9 to 12.

Congratulations to Kate Robbins whose historical romance novel, Enemy of the Highlander, third in the popular Highland Chief Series, has been released and is doing a roaring trade.

Coming Soon!

Fierce Ink Press will publish Amanda Labonté’s Call of the Sea in November 2015. Alex, a Newfoundland boy, has been haunted by siren song as long as he can remember. When his twin brother is mysteriously lost at sea, disappearing from a boat without so much as a ripple, it is up to Alex to find him. Call of the Sea is a terrific debut full of the restless poetry of adolescence.

Congratulations to Gerard Doran whose exciting novel, A Stroke in Time, about the legendary 1901 Outer Cove Regatta winning team, will be published by Flanker Press in time for the 2015 regatta. Gerard has woven a stirring tale about the determination of the human spirit and the power of community.

Congratulations to Tara Nanayakkara whose poignant and richly-layered follow up to the moving Priya’s World – Dawn of a New Garden – will be published by Inanna Publications in 2016. Priya, in the midst of mourning, finds herself wrenched between her Canadian upbringing and her Sri Lankan ancestry.

Congratulations once more also to our winner of the 2015 Instant Hook Literary Contest. For those who missed it first time Marianne Jones won for her entry The Book of Common Prayer.The runners up: Jenna La Sie for Hope and Loss and Deborah Hedd for Truck-Driving Girl. Watch these names as you will hear from these fine writers in the future!

A limited number of new participants will be accepted into the 8-Week Novel Writing Workshop Series before the end of May. Email paul.butler@nl.rogers.com or call 709 640 9440 for more details.

Instant Hook Update and Other News

Dear HB Creativity Clients and Friends,

A quick update on the Instant Hook Literary Contest. We have a slight delay to allow the world media to refocus after the Academy Awards. . . Okay, okay, the real reason is the unexpected volume of entries and the need to do justice to each of them. The new timeline will see the winners notified and announced during March 2015.

In the meantime, please see the Alumni News, a World War One Symposium, Novel Writing Workshops updates and other items below:

Alumni News

Congratulations to Bridget Canning who has had one short story published with Galleon Magazine (New Brunswick) and another with Memorial University’s
Paragon Press. Bridget is a writer to watch out for!

Keith Collier has released Cold Seasons a mini-collection of short stories as a Kindle e-book on Amazon. This is an exciting project from a fine new writer whose fiction has been published in such journals as The Newfoundland Quarterly.

Congratulations to Kate Robbins whose historical romance novel, Enemy of the Highlander, third in the popular Highland Chief Series, has been released and is doing a roaring trade.

Congratulations to Gerard Doran whose exciting novel, A Stroke in Time, about the legendary 1901 Outer Cove Regatta winning team, will be published by Flanker Press in 2015!

Congratulations to Tara Nanayakkara whose poignant follow up to the moving Priya’s World – Dawn of a New Garden – will be published by Inanna Publications in 2016!

World War One Symposium

Anyone interested in the First World War should look at The First World War in Modern Thought Symposium from February 27 to March 1 at Memorial University (Grenfell Campus, Corner Brook). There will be many fascinating presentations. I will be reading from my novel Hero at the event.

Novel Writing Workshop Series

After a very busy winter, it looks as though some spaces will free-up starting in March for this one-on-one online course. Feel free to email me with queries should you wish to discuss reserving a place. See Creative Writing Courses and Endorsements for more details.

New Reviews of The Good Doctor 

This time from Historical Novels Review (U.S)

This novel is eloquent and mysterious in its turns of phrase and imagery. Paul Butler provides a deft framework wherein time shifts occur while at the same time providing continuous flow of characterization.

INK STAINS — UPDATED FROM JUNE

Dear HB Creativity clients and friends,

In the following post you will find a new Tutorial Service available to clients through Skype, the opening of the second annual Instant Hook Literary Award, updates regarding the Online Novel Writing Workshop Series and a Discussion Point on the pros and cons of getting friends to read and edit your work.

NEW TUTORIAL SERVICE

I am presently accepting bookings for one hour-long one-on-one writing tutorials through Skype.

The Process:

1. Make an appointment and exchange Skype details.
2. Send a work extract of one chapter and/or a brief synopsis three days or more ahead of the appointment.
3. List any questions including goals you would like to work on in the session. Either send them with your submission or ask them at the beginning of the session.

THE ONLINE NOVEL WRITING WORKSHOP SERIES

As of September 24, there are two places still remaining. Prearrange registration by emailing me at paul.butler@nl.rogers.com or calling 709 640-9440.

Online Course Description: This online series has helped in the completion of a number of critically and commercially successful novels (see Creative Writing Courses and Endorsements). There are eight units. Each participant presents eight short chapters of up to 2,000 words and receives in-depth feedback both in the text and in separate mini evaluations. These notes will cover plot direction, character development, prose style, theme, imagery, tense etc. Skype users can avail of live tutorials to discuss issues relating to plot, their working synopsis, or how their writing style and structure measures up to their ultimate vision of the work-in-progress. Luddites need not worry, however. Extra email discussions are encouraged and can easily explore the same questions. The course is one-on-one all the way and the focus remains on your desired working goals and on your manuscript-in-progress. Once you are aboard, however, and I have had a chance to sample your style, you may be put into contact, if you wish, with a small number of online participants whose writing in some way complements or contrasts with your own, thus helping you to further hone your own artistic goals.

Getting Started on the Online Course: The online novel writing workshop series is a carousel. Writers join with their work-in-progress, work away for the duration of the course, either complete a manuscript or take a break to join again later; in short, people come and go all the time. If you wish to sign on, send me an email at paul.butler@nl.rogers.com.

DISCUSSION POINT

Pros and Cons of Using Friends as Readers

Well, it seems straight forward, doesn’t it?

In favour: You need opinions and editing advice before you send your work away to a publisher or agent. You might not have the ready cash to employ professional editing or evaluating services. What could make better sense than getting feedback from the people already in your circle of family, friends and acquaintances?

In many ways, this does make complete sense. You need to know whether the plot grips or falls flat, whether it sags in the middle or fizzles away without warning, whether you’re putting up unnecessary barriers to reader involvement, or whether it’s just plain perfect the way it is (wouldn’t that be good?)

Against: But hereby also lies the first warning. If you want honest opinions from your friends, make sure you’re ready to hear them. It’s quite possible that a treasured companion likes and esteems you, but also thinks your writing well…sucks.

Are you prepared to hear it? Or will it damage your relationship? Even if they don’t think your work exactly sucks they might have been expecting something else. They might know a different person from the one who emerges when you put your fingers to the word processor. This can lead to disappointment and puzzlement on both sides.

Further they might find it more of a slog to read through your work than you had hoped. You might speak to them several times over days and weeks and get frustrated because they still haven’t got to that novel of yours, and they haven’t mentioned it either. It may be lying in the bottom of a cupboard somewhere and, if you’re not careful, you might start to resent this.

It’s much easier to talk to someone than it is to read their novel. It’s harder still to read a novel from someone who’s waiting to hear your opinion. So you shouldn’t take it personally, but then we’re all human…

But what if they love it? That would be great! …Wouldn’t it?

Against: Not necessarily. In all probability you have chosen a certain friend because the two of you are emotionally or psychologically cohesive. You feel the same way, like the same things, have the same little codes, perhaps the same sense of humour.

An overworked editor in a publishing house, a reviewer, or a random reader in a book shop has little in common with you other than an interest in the written word. If he or she is to enter into your manuscript with any sense of enthusiasm there must be something universally gripping about it, and it must continue to grip not only your friends but many other people as well. Don’t underestimate this requirement. A great many books compete for a reader’s attention. In order to hook a few, your book must have serious potential to appeal to many.

In favour: On the other hand you can never have too many proofreaders. While reading, your friend might pick up on typos and fluency issues. This is good news because a clean manuscript always stands a better chance of getting through a publisher’s first round. So even if you lose a friend you might gain an extra set of eyes!

But in all seriousness, whether to share a manuscript with friends or relatives can be a tricky question. There are a number of points on both sides and writers have their own preferences. So think it over.

OPPORTUNITIES

The Instant Hook Literary Award (2014)

Opened: June 1, 2014

Deadline: December 2, 2014;

Prize: $300.00 (Canadian)

Entrants are encouraged to submit the first 300 words or less of an unpublished novel. As the competition title suggests, the goal is to create an opening that commands attention, and makes the reader wish for more. For the sake of this competition, though, there will be no more; the word limit will be strictly adhered to, so the aim is to create an opening so intriguing, so compelling that it will promise a wealth of ingenious, absorbing, beautifully-written prose to come on its heels.

Sound like fun? Good. The exercise will make those creative juices run and give you something to work with for many weeks, months, and years afterwards.

Here are the rules; please read carefully!

  • The awards are open to anyone who is over 18 at time of entry.
  • The submission must be sole-authored, in English, from the very beginning of a novel, and no more than 300 words.
  • The novel opening may have been written for the competition or may be part of a manuscript already completed. But it cannot have been published, and cannot have been accepted by a publisher at time of entry.
  • These awards are open to new or established, already-published, authors (it does not have to be a first novel).
  • This is a blind-judged competition. HB Creativity must not have seen any part of this novel prior to entry; it must not be a work for which I personally have provided tutoring or editing services. I cannot absolutely guarantee I will not recognize a writing style, but I must not recognize the writing, the characters, or the plot.
  • Please use 12 Times New Roman font and double space your entry.
  • Send your entry by mail only (no emails please) to Paul Butler, HB Creativity, 49 East Valley Road, Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada, A2H 2L4 (make sure you have “Paul Butler, HB Creativity” as well as the address) with a postmark date no later than December 2, 2014. Winners will be announced in February 2015.
  • Please do not put your name on your entry! Enclose in a separate envelope your name and contact (email and phone), plus the title of your entry. This envelope will be opened after the winners have been decided. Along with your name and contact please indicate whether you wish to receive our monthly INK STAINS news bulletin (whether or not you wish to receive INK STAINS will not affect the judging of the competition).
  • There will be a one time email to entrants to announce the competition winner. There will be no advertising of any kind on this email. If you wish not to receive this email, please indicate this on your entry.
  • Do not send your only copy. Copies without sae cannot be returned. If you do not want your entry returned, it will be shredded and recycled.
  • There is no cost to enter.
  • There is no residency or nationality requirement.
  • Copyright remains with the author. We may ask for permission to publish an extract of the winning works on this website but this will not be done without the author’s express permission. Withholding permission will in no way invalidate the entry or disqualify it from winning a prize. By entering you merely give permission for me to use your name and the (provisional) title of the work.
  • One winner will receive a cash prize of $300.00 (Canadian), plus a sodalite keychain donated by Open Earth Designs. Sodalite is the stone reputed to give inspiration to writers. Two runners-up will receive a free hour tutorial (depending on location) in-person or over Skype.

ALUMNI NEWS

Congratulations to Marie-Beth Wright whose biography Grace Sparkes: Blazing a Trail to Independence has been published by Flanker Press.

Check out the chronicle of writer Juliette La Croix who is taking a road trip across Canada from St. John’s to BC with husband and children.

Congratulations to Heather Stemp. Amelia and Me has been named to the shortlist for the 2014/2015 Red Cedar Book Award!

Imminent release of Promised to the Highlander by Kate Robbins (Tirgearr Publishing, Ireland). This livewire author’s first novel, Bound to the Highlander, took amazon bestsellers lists by storm. Keep up with Kate through her blog.

Congratulations to Susan Sinnott winner of the Percy Janes First Novel Award, announced at the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters gala on May 3, 2014. Susan’s novel-in-progress is titled Just Like Always.

Congratulations to Jiin Kim whose entry, Team Photo, won in the non-fiction prose section of the 2014 Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards.

Congratulations to Michael Boyle whose Lament for the Letter P in Drummuck won in the poetry section of the 2014 Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards.

Idyllic Cottage for a Writers’ Retreat!

monas-cottage[1]

This lovingly-restored saltbox house in the community of Calvert on the southern shore — Avalon Peninsula, (50 mins drive from St. John’s) —
is ideal as a writers’ retreat and available for short or long term lease. Modern kitchen and bath, two bedrooms, plus deck and patio area with a view of the bay. Fifteen per cent off weekly or monthly rentals for HB Creativity clients!
Inquires at: mjkrossiter@gmail.com