A Day in the Life of a Romance Writer — Q&A with Paula Roe
Harlequin author Paula Roe talked to an audience of romance readers and aspiring writers at Penrith Library about the glamorous life of a romance author, from royalties to rolling over in Russia, before taking questions. And we had a LOT of questions.
This is not a word-for-word transcript of everything Paula said. I had to paraphrase and summarise just to keep up, but I tried to keep the spirit of what she said. Any mistakes are mine.
Paula started off with a few facts about the genre. Romance is the largest selling fictional genre in the world. Australia doesn’t keep many statistics, so we have to rely on the American figures. There were 9000 romances released in 2009, and readers spent $1.3 billion on them.
Harlequin Enterprises is largest romance publisher in the world, releasing 110 books per month in 28 languages over 106 continents.
Why is romance so popular?
(This was a brainstorm with audience participation. Between us all we came up with things like characters, storyline, action/adventure, guys, the happy ending.)
It’s the fantasy element, getting away from everyday life. Real life is real enough.
I started writing more as a reader. Most authors will tell you they started as readers. I started with Enid Blyton, among others. I read Watership Down in fifth grade, for which I was told off by my teacher, who thought the book was too old for me. In high school I started getting into Captive Bride by Johanna Lindsey from the school library (her first book published). The librarian either loved the genre or had no clue about the book, which had the heroine being kidnapped and there was a forced seduction but also a happily ever after. I learned more about history from historical romance than in school.
I was one of those readers who said, ‘I’m never gonna read Mills & Boon—they’re rubbish!’ So I should apologise to my publisher.
I wrote my first romance when I was 15-16 and it was very much like Captive Bride, but I shelved it. I got a job and had a kid, but kept writing. I finished two books, one of which was an ode to Nora Roberts, and it was appalling. It was my learning book. And I wrote a Harlequin aimed at Temptation. I sent it and dreamed of how I was going to spend the advance. Six months later, it returned with a ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and the reasons why. I thought I couldn’t write, so I moved on.
I did creative writing at TAFE and learned ways to write, but it wasn’t romance, it was things like haikus, but it reminded me I loved genre fiction. I found RWA two years after they formed and I went to their first conference. I rang Lynne Wilding, who is a lovely woman, and told her who I was and what I was doing and asked if I could go. She told me they’d love to have me attend. I started volunteering for them, and 15 years later, I’m still volunteering. I got to meet editors, published and unpublished authors. At this time, I’m still writing, not thinking they were good. I entered contests, got rejected, took criticism. I won the next contest and thought that meant I would get published, but like next week. It was 15 years ago.
I learned what the genre was, what was expected of the writing: HEA, overcoming adversity, battling for love. A few contests and years later… Finally in 2006 I finalled in all five or six contests I entered that year. Editors were seeing it and asked for more, but I never finished anything. Ultimately I was published as a result of a contest. I was more realistic than to expect a million dollar advance. September 11, 2007 I was published, so I was probably the only person who was happy that day.
I consistently publish a book every ten to twelve months. I’ve gone through seven editors, three lovely editors, three senior editors and it wasn’t because I was driving them out, it was due to staff turnover. I’m a full-time writer and mum. I earn way less than as a computer and software trainer, but I don’t have to buy suits and make-up. I get to work from home. I could work in my pyjamas, but I don’t really like to do that. My computer organises me. It tells me when to eat, when to pick up my child. I communicate via computer. It goes on at 7am and off at 9pm. When it crashes, I’m lost.
Life intervenes, but I try to write five days a week. I also design websites on the side for a few clients each month. I speak at conferences. Most people know me through the internet, rather than in person. I go to a writers’ group and a retreat. When you have a family, you need a life sometimes.
I’m a Borders bestseller in the US and I get asked to speak in local areas. I live frugally, but every school holidays, I take my son somewhere, usually within Australia because his passport has expired.
It can work if you quit your job, but most authors have working husbands and stay with their job for a while while writing.
The advance for Harlequin is $5k-10k split into three payments over up to two years when the book is published. Some authors don’t earn $5k a year, but some are lucky in bidding wars and can make six figures. This wouldn’t be typical.
I have no formal uni qualification in writing. I know those who do, and it sucks the love of writing out of them. I did year 10 and don’t have my HSC. I did well in government jobs, but what tipped the scales from reader to writer wasn’t like a lot of people say, ‘This book is terrible! I could do better.’ It was, ‘I love this book so much I want to write one!’ I had a desperate need to write.
I don’t think in terms of writing better than someone else. I love writing and hope others love to read.
Q: Are there royalties?
Yes. You don’t sign the rights over to the publisher. They negotiate for rights, so they will give you a percentage of their profits from the countries they sell you in. As an example, let’s say they give you a 10k advance (it may not be that much), but after you sell that much, we’ll pay you a royalty. I get statements in April and Oct for the previous six-month period from Harlequin.
My books have been published in Russia where they add ‘-ova’ to your name. I’m Paula Roeova. Elizabeth Rolls is Elizabeth Rollsova.
Q: How are they translated?
It depends on the country. Some countries like Germany follow the story. Some conservative ones remove sex scenes. I knew published authors who I could ask about my contract and what it means.
A lot of publishers won’t accept authors without an agent, because they want to sort the wheat from the chaff. More than 50% of submissions they get are inappropriate for their line. Every month Harlequin gets 5000 submissions and that’s only in London. There’s also New York.
Q: Did you get a lawyer for your contract?
It was an American contract, but many people here don’t understand US contracts like the authors who have signed them and know. I suggest joining a writing association. If it’s an Australian contract, Australian agents would be helpful. If you get an offer, usually you can get an agent to offer to read your contract for you.
Q: What’s the hardest bit?
Deadlines. I don’t get the time to tweak every single line. My first book was done in ten years because people left their jobs, but the second was six months. I had to finish in two months because I faffed around.
Q: What is a comfortable time?
Ten years. I was told I needed to write two books a year because it’s Harlequin. I wouldn’t say I thrive under a deadline, but I suppose I do. My fourth book was 40k words, written mostly in threeweeks due to my fear of not meeting my deadline and them thinking I was a bad author who couldn’t meet her deadlines. I was up ’til 3-4am, but I like to write to 10.30. I had a deadline on a Friday, so I emailed New York knowing they’re busy on Friday with meetings and stuff, saying, ‘Can I submit on Monday?’ And that is Tuesday over here, so I have another four days.
I have a book going about a cop, but have to add more hot sex for Desire. I have to remove annoying secondary characters because it’s already 60 000 words, which is too long.
Q: Could you write another book with what you remove from this one?
There was a line called Special Edition in America, but here it’s called Special Moments. I wanted to keep my cop and single mum, but it won’t be for this one. I asked my editor if I could write for a home and hearth line because I have partials under my bed that could be for a Superromance. One was 200 pages. I need to rework the synopsis and hopefully it will be accepted.
I started with this (romance). When I was 14 I wrote historicals because that’s what I knew until I discovered contemporary, which has different scope, voice and stories.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
Big W. Everywhere. Newspapers, magazines. I rip out the pages and have folders and folders of houses I could see people living in. I overhear people talking on the train, I get ideas from dreams. One was in 1997, a bomb disposal expert in Chicago. Santa was on the roof and, I dreamed, was a bomb expert with a cute cop telling me not to go in. The subconscious just as you’re about to fall asleep can give you some great ideas. I have a notebook and iPod Touch next to my bed so I can email myself. Some are weird, but most are good. Stuff from news, like Wikileaks, a disgruntled employee put a virus in the computer system of the company he was pissed with. I can spend all day on internet research, until the computer tells me to go pick up my child. No writing done all day.
I have notebooks, labelled and sectioned, by the bed, in the car. My best notes are on my iPod or the computer.
It’s like author Eugene Ianesco said, ‘Writers don’t get vacations, they’re either writing or thinking of writing.’
Ideas are easy, turning them into stories is hard.
Q: What do you think of ebooks?
It is huge and when it started, it was sneered at because the quality was awful, but there’s been an influx of good writing, mainly in erotica. Readers will buy and read voraciously in that, but it’s becoming mainstream, like with Carina Press. They’ve seen small publishers making lots of money.
My royalty statement shows what I sell in print and ebooks. The backlist is going electronic. My ebooks are only about 1% of what I sell in print. Megan Hart is very prolific and makes a really good living. But Harlequin is watching Carina Press to see where it’s going. With ebooks you get a high royalty but no advance. Most publishers give 6-10% of the book’s RRP, ebooks is 60%, Amazon give 70%. Writers get their rights reverted after seven years and then self-publish through Amazon.
I have a friend with 7-8 ebooks, but is now getting a print book for the first time (Maggie Nash).
Q: How much time do you spend in research?
I guess, a lot. If it’s for something specific, say a house, I would do that before I start writing. I leave gaps if I don’t know. I want to leave comment flags, but I really research it on the spot. Most places my books are set in, I’ve actually been. Or there’s Google Earth. Most of the stuff I want to do, research is only a small part. When I write I think more of dialogue and plot. If I wrote a historical there would be more research to find out when I want to set it. I have shelves of history books that I haven’t read in ages but I think I need. Most people use the internet, but I have stuff you wouldn’t find online.
Readers want to know you know your stuff. For example: What was the most expensive car in the world? Is my hero that ostentatious? Does it have a push button start?
I write what I know and I know a lot about conflict and love gone wrong and love gone right and arguments and birth order. I love Lie to Me. I’m constantly watching TV for ideas.
Q: Do you know what is appropriate for the genre?
I know what I can get away with from reading in a line or genre. My editor gets a synopsis so he knows the direction, even if things change, as long as they don’t change too dramatically and you get your HEA. With Desire, because it’s highly sensual and provocative, you had to have two full sex scenes. Then new guidelines said you didn’t, but you had to know what readers expect. Leave the bedroom door open so readers can experience it all. In my fourth book, I thought my male editor would think it was TMI, but he said it was an excellent scene. It’s easier to take stuff out than to add emotion where it’s needed.
I have words I overuse, and they can be changed. But you have to know what’s expected from each line. Sometimes you can go outside the box and it works. RWA last year had a winner in a sexy Medical after being told Medical is sweet.
Q: Do you do talks on writing?
I teach workshops at writing conferences, and this year I want to teach more the writing basics. I want to do courses for the community college here. I’m going to Melbourne and doing one with a writing group and high schools where I know the teachers.
Q: Do you get cover input?
I know with ebooks you get more input, but with Harlequin you have to fill out an eight-page form with the hero and heroine’s nationalities, where they live and describe three scenes. The marketing people take it from there. They do photo shoots—there’s one on YouTube behind the scenes. It’s fascinating.
I got a German cover of my first book, it looks like they’re on a boat in the harbour instead of a hotel room. And the way they preserve modesty in the bath, they have shaped the bubbles to form a bra.
They take the photos and make it art. It also indicates the level of sensuality of the story. Before it would be based on the colour of the rose, but now they tell you on the front.
Marketing decides the titles. Harlequin is excellent with marketing because they know what readers want. Some are steering away from the ‘Virgin’or ‘Pregnant Mistress’ titles.
Overseas you can be sold as a two-for-one, so new authors can get sales up, but you have to share royalties. In Australia you get your own book.
Q: Did you name your books?
No. The Wife He Never Knew was changed to Forgotten Wife. The second was in a series with other authors and we thought about how to link our titles, but they got changed. His Secret Mistress was changed to Promoted to Wife, but in the book she wasn’t angling for marriage.
Q: How much work do you put into characters?
A lot. In romance your story is your characters. Goal, motivation, conflict. What do they want, why do they want it and what stands in their way? Basically what fuels a story, especially category where there’s no room for error. They’re designed to be read quickly.
I make Goal-Motivation-Conflict sheets and my editor has to know that I know what I’m doing. It can’t be something that can be resolved with a quick conversation.
Q: Have any of your books been released in audio?
I’d have to look into that. I know they’re starting to in America. Most Harlequin authors go into manga before audio. Some contracts allow the publisher to record a book without paying the author.
Q: Is it more work do part of the series than a standalone?
It was draining to do the series. I already knew the other authors and because they were so deeply intertwined in each other’s books there would be 30-40 emails each day. It was love-hate but afterwards we were so glad we did it.
Q: Do books in a series sell more than standalone?
Yes, my second book sold twice as many as my third, so you ride on the backs of others. The others had already published more books than me by that stage.
Q: What are the problems you get with sharing characters across books?
We had to write a 70-page bible with synopses and descriptions and research. (I had to research pink diamonds! ) Most of the time you get a series bible from Harlequin, but we wrote this one ourselves.
For Brenda Novak’s auction, we got about $200 for the bible and a bottle of pink diamonds perfume.
My hero was a character that was a bit mysterious in the other books before he got his story. I had to do a timeline so I could know where he was before my book.
Q: Do you use any special software?
Word. I create a sidebar, not with Chapter 1, Chapter 2, but a brief scene description. I use Dropbox, which is free. It holds like 1GB or something. I use an iMac around the house. There’s also an iPod app, so I can access everywhere instead of having to keep a flash drive.
I lost a USB drive but I’d backed it up onto an external hard drive. I don’t save on the computer because I lost my hard drive in a storm.
Q: How do you find an agent?
Originally it depends on where you want to sell. Helene Young sells to Australia and has an Australian agent. A bad agent is worse than no agent at all. You shouldn’t have to pay an agent—they take their cut from what they can sell of yours. Anna Jacobs writes for British market, so her agent is British. You can send a cold call letter, or meet them at conferences in pitch sessions. A lot of agents take online pitches. Some have query letter submissions forms online.
A decent agent would also have their client list on their website to advertise that they are selling. Many authors thank their agents in dedications, so you could look there.
Q: Do you have to write a certain way for overseas?
I write for the American market, but my agent can pick up on what is lost in translation. I’ve watched a lot of American TV. The British market translates well.
In the Australian market, rural sells.
A lot of the British Sexy authors have a different tone to the US. Even if an author’s voice is different you can identify the line by the tone.
Q: Have you ever written in first person?
It’s almost an unwritten requirement to write in third person. I have a few shorts going in first person. I adore first person. It has more impact. It’s different and you need to do things differently to be able to go back to what you usually do.
Q: Would you use a pen name?
For anything erotic, I’d change my name. I’d probably change my name for a book about a housewife body-switching with a Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera type.
Q: Do publishers not like authors writing different stuff under the same name?
Before you used to not own your name and the publishers encouraged pseudonyms. If you wrote for Christian or Inspirational, you could not write for Sexy.
It’s a matter of personal choice to use your name. A lot of erotica authors change their names.
By this stage we had run out of time for questions, so Paula gave away a copy of each of her books as lucky door prizes and she had lots of bookmarks and postcards waiting to be collected from her table before the library closed.
Paula Roe will moderate This Other Time and appear in the Category/Series panels at the Australian Romance Readers Convention in March. You can find her books at Fishpond, Book Depository, eHarlequin or your local library.