So You Want to Write
So, you want to write. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
How do I start a story? Every novel is different in some ways, although I
never start writing the actual novel until I have the characters clearly delineated
and the plot worked out. I cover pages and pages and pages of paper working
out the plot, taking this turn and then that. What if this happens . .
. then following it to an end and saying, no, I don't like that. Okay, what
. and so on. And I don't start writing until I have the plot worked out
to the very ending.
I do plan. I do outline. Yes, I do a lot of work before I start writing.
But that is just my way. Not all writers follow the same patterns of writing.
Not that the final novel will follow the outline. The outline is organic
and grows and mutates as the novel develops. Sometimes characters just don't
what you want them to do. A character will say the oddest thing at the
time and . . . wham! The book takes a turn I hadn't expected.
But the initial idea? Well, that's also different fore very novel. I do a
lot of reading in the area of history and biography. I read everything from
letters, autobiographies, court cases, trial transcripts - you name it,
I read it. I watch a lot of movies (particularly old ones) and get ideas from
or characters. I love the movie Target with Gene Hackman. I loved the idea
that as the protagonist in the movie he is a quiet, unassuming man, happily
married and working as a car salesman. His son thinks he's a joke - dull,
boring, dead from the neck up. But when his wife is kidnapped when on a trip
Hackman and son go there to find her. And then the tables are turned. Turns
out Dad was a CIA operative during the Cold War. Has the connections, the
training . . . A variation of that character became the main character in
Name (April '99) B under a quiet, gentle, unassuming surface, is someone
else entirely. My mother always warned me about the quiet ones__
And because I'm an historical author, I know my history. I grew up in Britain
and I still travel extensively in England to research my time period -
Georgian and Regency England.
Now to Strangers at Dawn (Nov '99): I was reading about a Scottish woman in
the early 1800's, Maggie Smith, who was put on trial for murdering her husband.
the body was never found and she was acquitted. That started me off on the
at Dawn story. The trial is over and the woman does not want to be found.
But someone wants to find her very badly.
My own feeling is that the best teacher is to read, read, and read -- not
just for pleasure, but to analyze how the books work. What is the setting?
the plot. Examine the overall structure of the plot. How does the writer
introduce the characters? How is the conflict dealt with? Is there an intrigue
as a romance? And also read in the areas that interest you. Read biographies
of everyone and anyone. Real lives are rich sources for writers.
And write. Every day. You may want to keep a journal to record your interior
journey - your thoughts, your hopes, your prayers, your dreams - think
on paper. Learn to shut off that internal editor who says - "What a load of
rubbish! How could you write that? - and learn to trust your creative impulses.
Two very helpful books about writing in general are The Screenwriter's Workbook
by Syd Field which, although for movies, I think you will find very helpful
with regard to structure and pacing, and The Writer's Journey by Christopher
Vogler which deals with the mythic structure for writers. Kathryn Falk
Times has also written a book about Writing a Romance which has some
very helpful sections.
Check your local library for titles. And you might also check the internet.
There are several internet sites that deal with writing in general
and writing romance in particular.
Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Thornton
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How to Write a Romance and Get it
The questions I'm most frequently asked by unpublished
romance writers go something like this:
- What writing tips or advice have you for a writer
who is just starting out?
- What about publishing my book once it's finished?
should I send it to? How much money can I expect to make?
about agents -- should I try to get one, or should I save myself
the 15% commission?
For what it's worth, here's what I have to say:
If you are
an unpublished romance writer, you should lose no time in becoming
a member of Romance
Writers of America. This worthwhile
association is made up of both published and unpublished writers.
In the States, they
have local chapters that give support to local members. Their monthly
newsletter has articles on how to write, as well as the business
aspect of writing,
e.g. which publishers are looking for what kind of books and which
editors you should send you manuscript to. You'll also learn what
to look for in
a good agent and how to approach one.
Once a year, in July, RWA hosts
a national conference with workshops for writers at all stages of
their careers. You'll meet other writers
in the same boat as yourself. Many, many editors and agents attend
and if you want to (and most unpublished writers do), you can have
an appointment with them where you can try to sell your book and
Even if you can't make it to the RWA conference, you can still order
the audio tapes of the workshops and the best tapes to order, if
you're trying to sell a book, are the ones where the publishers tell
what they are looking for and to whom you should send your manuscript.
you see, it really is worthwhile to belong to RWA. Their address
Romance Writers of America
13700 Veterans Memorial, Suite 315,
Houston, TX 77014
I wish I had known about RWA when I was writing
my first book, Bluestocking Bride. But I didn't. I did everything
the hard way. For me, it worked,
and my first book sold almost right away. Here's how I learned to
write and here's how I got published.
I read voraciously, and as I read, I analyzed why some romances appealed
to me and others did not. I soon realized that there were two elements
I liked in a romance (apart from appealing characters, which all
writers strive for). I like humor and I like conflict, not small
something shattering that will keep my "hero" and "heroine" apart
to the very last page. Appealing characters, humor, heightened emotions,
drama -- that's what I strive for. But other writers may strive for
something quite different.
Write what you like to read" is the best advice I can give you.
you know what appeals to you, you'll know what you want to write.
You'll discover your favorite authors and you'll find yourself saying
is good. I really like this. But if I were telling this story, I'd
tell it in a different way."
That's how I found my "voice," that
indfinable something that makes a writer different from other writers.
Bluestocking Bride was finished, I had the problem of deciding which
publisher to send my manuscript to. There were, at that time,
about half a dozen publishers publishing Regency Romances, but only
and NAL, were publishing Regencies with explicit sensual passages
in them. So, I sent my manuscript to Zebra and NAL, and one other.
I didn't have
much hope of getting my "hot" Regency published with this last
publisher, and I was right. Back came a rejection letter saying that
they were looking for more "romantic" regencies. So that left
Zebra and NAL.
I got back a form letter from NAL saying that they
did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I learned afterwards that
my manuscript had ended up on the wrong desk. If I'd known which
editor to send
it to, at least
it would have been read. If I'd been a member of RWA, I would have
known the current editors' names. But I didn't know about RWA. I
any published authors. I was doing everything "blind."
always be grateful to Zebra Books for giving me my start. Wendy McCurdy
was the editor who found my book at the bottom of the
slush pile (those stacks of unsolicited, un-agented manuscripts that
on the floor of every editor's office). Wendy moved to Bantam
Books, and was my editor there for a number of years. I consider myself extremely lucky
to have had an editor of her caliber. Wendy has since left Bantam, and my new editor is Shauna Summers.
Luck, as you'll discover, plays a big part in the success of an author's
career. Being at the right place at the right time can make all the
difference in the world. So don't give up. Don't let rejections get
your down. Your
luck might change just around the corner.
Did I have an agent when
I sold my first book? No. But I wish now that I'd had one. Contracts
are tricky things to negotiate. Then
there's the problem of planning a career, step by step. The right
agent can be
a tremendous help if you know how to work with one to your advantage.
My agent is Robyn Rue, and I thank my lucky stars that she accepted
However, getting a good agent isn't always easy when a
writer is just starting out. Once you are published, you have a much
better chance of being taken seriously. I know, I know, it's a vicious
won't look at your manuscript unless you have an agent, and many
agents won't take on an author until she/he is published. This is
where RWA can
help. They know which agents are looking for new authors. They also
publish a booklet on agents, with names and addresses, and with all
kinds of useful
information on them.
I wish I'd known all this when I was starting
And now on to money. How much can you expect to make with
your first book? I have no idea. Writing isn't like other careers
is a minimum and maximum salary scale. RWA can help you here again.
out a "Rate the Publisher" survey
which shows average advances for the kind of book you may be writing.
Agents have this information
too. Without my agent, I wouldn't know what I was worth. Of course,
good agent, Robyn thinks I'm worth far more than I'm being paid!
hope this is helpful. And I hope you have as much joy in your writing
as I have in mine – not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears!
good luck and success in your writing career!
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© 2008 Elizabeth Thornton
What's on the Horizon
I write big, juicy historical romances for a living.
My first novel was published in 1987, when I was the pastoral assistant
Presbyterian Church, Winnipeg.
When my congregation heard that I'd published a book, some thought I'd written
a Greek commentary on one of the books of the New Testament; others thought
I might have published my prayers or, more doubtfully, my sermons. To put
it delicately, they were surprised when they learned the truth.
I was surprised too.
I'd never seen myself as a writer of popular fiction.
It didn't fit in with my notions of what was a proper career for
me; it didn't fit in with how
God had called me over time to use my gifts in the service of the Church.
plan to become a writer. It just sort of happened. At forty-six years old,
I wrote my first book on what I thought was a whim, after attending a seminar
at the church (which I had arranged) on preparing for retirement. "If
you want to take up writing or piano playing or gardening when you retire," said
the speaker, "do it now or you may never begin." So I did.
I see that I shouldn't have been surprised at this new and vast horizon
that suddenly opened up before me. As I plot the turning points
my life and journey of faith, I see that I've been taken by surprise by
many twists in the road that have led me to new horizons. Coming
to Canada almost
thirty years ago with my husband and three young sons was just such a turning
point. It opened up possibilities we would never have considered in our
native Scotland. Though we had been active in the Presbyterian
Church all our lives,
we found ourselves attending Quaker meetings, and for our first seven years
in Canada, we were members of the Religious Society of Friends.
I don't regard my sojourn with the Quakers as a detour.
It was a testing ground for my faith. It was also a time of great
spiritual awakening and,
a preparation for the next turning point in my journey when I became a
lay minister, specifically the pastoral assistant of First Presbyterian
I look back on those years as pastoral assistant as
some of the most rewarding of my life. I learned so much about the nature
I had excellent
teachers -- my minister, Dr. Bruce Miles, and the members of my congregation.
I discovered that God had endowed me with gifts that had been lying dormant
for years because I'd never needed to use them. I used them now in the
service of my church and fellow Christians.
At the end of ten years, I felt a sense of completion.
It was time to move on. On the edge of the horizon, I saw retirement
Writing was to
be my hobby, something I did in my spare time, in between being an elder,
on committees, visiting shut-ins, and helping out wherever I could.
in for a big surprise.
Retirement has completely faded from the
horizon. Writing is my full time occupation. Though I love what
I do, this is the most perplexing
I've ever taken
up because it's to the "secular" world. I'm not writing inspirational
romances for Christians. I'm writing commercial fiction to appeal to a
mass-market audience that is largely unchurched.
I'm in good company. The
late Dorothy Sayers, the creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries,
comes to mind, as does John Updike who writes
literary fiction. As we've said in our different ways, we're not Christian
We are writers who happen to be Christians. So don't judge our work on
its Christian content. Judge it as you would judge the work of a Christian
or a Christian artist. It should be the best of its kind.
Is this ministry?
I believe that it is. In my own case, I discovered, late in life,
a gift I wasn't aware I possessed until I began to use
it. I can
tell entertaining stories. And through them, I express the values I cherish
What's on the horizon? I don't know, but whatever it
is, I bet I'll be surprised.
"Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same
Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there
are varieties of working, but it is
the same God who inspires them all in every one." [ I Corinthians
12: 3 - 6. R.S.V.]
Copyright © 1999 Elizabeth Thornton
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Characterization: with the focus on the villain
In a novel, character is everything, the critics
say, and I believe them. Think of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with
the Wind, Jane Austen's
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Think of the
novels of Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Georgette Heyer, Dean Koontz,
or whoever happens to be
. These writers are as different as the stars in the sky, but they
all have one thing in common: they invariably give their readers outstanding,
characters and a series of emotionally charged scenes that linger in
the reader's mind long after the book is finished.
charged scenes don't come from thin air. They come from the characters
themselves, from their motivations, their flaws,
come from complications in the plot that send our characters into a
spin and bring out the best in them or the worst.
It is this integration
and disintegration of character that fascinates me, whether I'm
reading a romance, a murder mystery, a suspense novel,
or a work
of literary fiction. In my own work, every twist in the plot (and sometimes
I have complex plots) has only one function to impact on my characters
and get a reaction from them.
My characters are figments of my imagination.
Occasionally, I'll base a secondary character on a biography I'm
reading. Flynn in Dangerous
came from the memoirs of an eighteenth century footman; Amy Spencer,
in Dangerous to Hold, was based on the true
life story of a famous nineteenth century
courtesan, Harriette Wilson. But my knowledge of character comes, by
large, from my
experiences as a lay minister in the Presbyterian Church.
For a period
of eleven years, I worked in a large downtown church, and part
of my job was giving pastoral care to the members of my congregation.
was my great privilege to share in their joys and sorrows, their victories
defeats. I've seen the best in people, and I've seen the worst. I've
watched helplessly as people I cared about went to pieces under the
of their burdens, and I've stood in awe as others have picked up the
shattered pieces of their lives and become stronger because of what
I've seen good people go off the rails, and people that society has
written off make a miraculous recovery. I've known rapists and murderers,
and suicides. I've prayed with them and worshipped with them. But most
of all, I've learned from them. I've learned not to be judgmental.
the line separating good from evil is very fragile. Ordinary people,
nice people like you and me, have the capacity to live like angels,
but we also
capacity to do the opposite.
This is what I try to bring to the characters
in my books. Of course, the hero and heroine are destined to overcome
all the flaws in their
the obstacles in their path. Lucky them. But my poor villains, well,
my poor villains are destined to become villains.
They're not mad.
Somewhere in their past, they took a wrong turn, or they made a
choice that led to the disintegration of their characters.
have gone the other way.
So my villains are just ordinary people like
you and me. They can be any character in my story. I often don't
know who the villain will
I get to the
last act. He or she can be one of the nice characters or one of the
nasty characters. There are always three or four people I've set up
in my mind
as possible villains,
but only one of them will end up with a hidden agenda.
choosing ordinary people to be the villains has its drawbacks.
In the first draft of my book, Dangerous to Hold,
my editor was aghast at my choice of villain. He was too nice, you see.
I'd involved her
really, really liked him. My readers would hate me, she said, for
him the villain. Would I please rewrite someone else into that part
secondary character a happy ending?
My editor thought I'd have to rewrite
the whole book but of course, that wasn't necessary because I always
have three characters in reserve
may be perfectly
nice, innocent people. Then again, maybe not. So, I did as my editor
asked. After all, I don't want my readers to hate me, and she's one
of my biggest
In The Bride's Bodyguard,
when my villain is in prison awaiting trial and he's visited by the woman
he loves, my editor
wrote in the
this is so touching." She was surprised that there was any good
in him, because he'd been portrayed as a nasty piece of work all through
the book .
But he wasn't all bad, and if the woman he loved had been a different
kind of woman, things might have turned out differently for him too.
In the next chapter, my hero wishes this villain could
die a thousand deaths for what he has done. And that is natural
too. Because of the
my hero's whole life has been ruined, or so he thinks. He has yet to
pieces of his life and become whole again. And only then is he free
to love the heroine with his whole heart.
Just a word about stock villains.
They have their place. Think of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy.
He's the villain we love to hate, though
think it's fair to say he is a stock villain. He's too memorable for
In my next release, Whisper His Name,
I've done something different with my villains. There are two of them.
One is in the
unmasked till the end of the book; the other is the stock evil figure
we love to hate.
His disintegration of character took place long before the book opens.
is a reluctant hero because she's just an ordinary girl, and she has
no choice but to take on this terrifying, cold-blooded killer . One
above herself and acts in heroic ways, the other character becomes
I don't often have villains who are without some redeeming
feature, but I was trying something new and I think it works.
to Darth Vader. He's my kind of villain because, at the very
end of the three part movie series, in almost the last film clip,
The same thing happens in Dean Koonz's The Watchers and
what a wonderful romance
that is! I wept when this disgusting, travesty of a thing, this monster
that Koonz had created, and made us hate and fear throughout his
indeed begged for, it's own death.
It would have been so easy for Koontz
to leave this monster as it was, something we all abhor. Instead, he
did the unexpected. He gave his
monster a soul,
and his book is so much the richer for it.
Sympathetic villains affect
me far more than the typically stock evil characters. They're not
all bad. In fact (shiver), they might easily
be you or me.
My point of view is illustrated perfectly in the climactic
scene of Tolkien's trilogy, Lord of the Rings.
Frodo, the hobbit hero, and Golum,
are climbing the mountain. Frodo's task is to destroy the ring and
the evil power that goes with it. Golum wants the ring for himself.
gradually, the heroic Frodo becomes seduced by the power of the ring.
His virtue begins
to crack. We know that if he succumbs to the ring's power, he will
become like the villain, Golum, a pathetic, self-absorbed creature
with no good
Frodo's struggle is touch and go, but eventually he
wins. He's still a hero.
And that's when I learned to pity Golum.
is easy because it's logical. Creating is quite different. I don't
think consciously about how my cast of characters will fit
I've described here. The goal of every author is to invent memorable,
sympathetic characters and involve them in a cracking good story that
will engage the
reader's interest from first to last page.
And that's what I try to
Copyright © 1998 Elizabeth Thornton
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The Great Escape
Critics of romances will tell you that romance novels and movies are a form of escape.
I would go even further and say that all forms of popular fiction are fantasies. Readers expect a happy ending or, at the very least, a satisfying ending where the characters learn from their mistakes and where there is hope for their future. Sadly, real life is rarely like this.
In romances, not only do readers expect a happy ending, they expect, as fellow Canadian author, Jo Beverley, puts it, a triumphant ending. And there will be you-know-what to pay if we authors cheat them of it.
That won’t happen because we writers are just as caught up in the fantasy as our readers.
Let me tell you about my readers. They are not, as the critics seem to believe, love-starved housewives trapped in boring marriages. They come from all walks of life. Some of them have it hard and some of them have it easy. Many of them have it all – the caring husband, the kids, the high powered career. What they all have in common is that the demands on them are sometimes overwhelming.
Stress, for today’s woman, is a fact of life.
When readers immerse themselves in a romance, just for a little while, they step into the shoes of a woman, our “heroine,” with whom they can identify, a vulnerable woman who finds the inner resources to face her problems (and the hero is the major problem), and overcome them.
Yes, Virginia, romances are tales of female empowerment.
Give yourself a mental break. Lose yourself in a romance. Afterwards, you’ll feel a whole lot better.
Copyright © 1999
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© Elizabeth Thornton, September 2008:
All Rights Reserved.