Sunday 14 February 2010


Bit of a coincidence this. The other day, fably successful romantic novelist, Katie Fforde, started following me on Twitter, and I was duly flattered. Then I thought, hmm, what I don't know about writing romantic novels could be written on the Great Wall of China and leave no space for a postage stamp, so why don't I ask her to answer some questions on my blog, just for you? So I did and she said yes with the suspicious alacrity of a writer who ought to be writing and desperately isn't.

And then I realised that it was nearly Valentine's Day and that there was therefore no better time to schedule such a post than today. So, this comes with love from me to you. (Of a strictly cerebral and platonic nature.)

NM: Nutshell time. Romantic fic? Can you define it in one?
KF: It's impossible to define modern romantic fiction in a nutshell.  It's a very broad genre and it just won't fit!  There must be a romance but it doesn't have to be absolutely central. It can be like a golden thread that winds itself through all the other elements making sure it all ends in a satisfying conclusion.

NM: Tell us how you came to be writing it? What drew you to it?
KF: I found myself writing romantic fiction because it's what I like reading.  Although I'm very happily married, I do miss the chase, the romantic moments, the 'will he, won't he' part of it.  I think readers like reading it for the same reasons.  I've never really wanted to write anything else although I do enjoy other genres.  But for me, there has to be a bit of romance.  Fortunately lots of novels that are classed as crime, for instance, do have this.

NM: What misconceptions are there about writing romantic novels?
KF: The biggest misconception people make is that it's easy.  Take Mills and Boon novels, for example.  They are short, about half the length of a mainstream novel, and they publish a great deal of them each month.  (I made this mistake although I did love them too).  People think they could knock one off in a long weekend.  English teachers on holiday together think, after a few glasses of wine, 'we could write one of these, easi-peasi' and then write a pastiche.  (How do you spell that, ed?)  [Just like that, Katie! Not sure about "peasi", though... NM] I failed for eight years, although I did do it because I really wanted to, not because I thought I was clever, and learnt my craft through doing it.  

NM: What's the biggest mistake that stops a romantic novel being accepted for publication?
KF: With mainstream romantic fiction the problems tend to be the same as with other genres, the most common being lack of narrative thrust.  Page-turnability is what all novels need.

NM: How has it changed in recent years? If writers haven't read modern stuff, what mistakes might they be making? (Apart from the big mistake of not reading it in the first place.)
KF: The main difference between romantic fiction now and say 25 years ago, was that then heroines tended to be beautiful and were rescued by heroes.  After Bridget Jones (and I have to say here, I came before the lovely Bridget!) heroines became more real, more like women we recognise.  My heroine had to lie on the floor to do up her jeans, Bridget constantly weighed herself.  Real women do these things. [Indeed they do - how very observant you are. NM] In the old days they were far too unworldly to care about such things.  You still get perfect women in books but I find them a bit dull.

NM: Of all your books, which one would you most/first recommend for an aspiring romantic novelist to read?
KF: It's very hard to say which one of my books I think would be of most help to an aspiring author.  However, Living Dangerously, my first published novel, does show that I tried to write for Mills and Boon for many years, I think.  The hero appears on the first page (as he does in later books, but not always) and there is a bit of heroine-rescuing.

NM: What's the market like for this genre now?
KF: I don't know about the current market in the US but in the UK, romantic fiction is strong.  In times of recession sales of lipstick and chocolate remain boyant.  To quote Matt Bates, of WH Smith Travel, romantic fiction is chocolate. [Oooh, we relate to this, don't we, people? NM] It is an escape from the real world to somewhere with sexier men and better restaurants. [Take me to this world. NM]

NM: Tips, please, teacher.
KF: My absolute top tip is hard to take up just now!  It's to join the Romantic Novelists Association of which I'm currently the chair. The trouble is, our wonderful New Writers' scheme is always oversubscribed.  You have to get your application in on the 1st of January.  Check out the website!

Other tips: get together with other writers.  Talk about your craft, read books on writing, read novels in your chosen genres, but most of all, WRITE!!!

Do edit, cut and fiddle about if you want. [Ignore that answer, pupils. You have to edit, cut and fiddle. A lot. It's a rule. Katie is far too successful to need to do things like this but we all do. OK?]
Thank you, Katie. Apart from that dangerous piece of advice at the end, we're really grateful to you for taking the time, especially on Valentine's Day, when you are supposed to be dreaming of sexier men and better restaurants, even if you are happily married.

BTW - there's another interesting interview with romantic novelist, Christina Jones, on the Literary Project here

As a little thank you to Katie, I am delighted to give a loud plug for two books: Living Dangerously and Loves Me, Loves Me Not, the anthology which Katie edited and which includes great names to learn from, including Joanna Trollope, Katie Flynn, Rosie Harris and many more.

As for me, I'm away to flutter my eyelashes, and fall at the feet of any man who will arrive at my house with arms full of red roses, sparkly wine, chocoolate and a voucher for LK Bennet.

Meanwhile, the main message I took from Katie's words was the one about narrative thrust...

29 comments: said...

Thanks, Katie, that was really interesting - I must confess I don't read romance, but I think my prejudice is due to an assumption that it will be the same stuff my gran used to read - I can see that I'm very wrong about that! I might just dip my toe in the water now...

Jane Smith said...

So much fiction can be classed as romance now: it's great. Because I think we all like a bit of romance in our lives, and in our books, too. Even the tough blokey ones among us.

This is a good interview, Nicola. Thank you for agreeing to it, Katie.

catdownunder said...

M & B is like that cheap waxy Easter egg chocolate. Katie Fforde is more like good Swiss chocolate.

Glynis Peters said...

I enjoy the old and new style of romance.
Loved the post and have 2 new books to go on my wishlist,thanks.

Unknown said...

I corresponded with Katie umpteen years ago and found her to be very approachable and helpful.
If you're reading this Katie, then thanks a lot for encouraging me back then - it must have worked as I'm still at it and moving ever closer to the dream!

Insightful interview.

SF said...

I don't read the genre, but last year I saw a lecture by Australian romance writer Anne Gracie, who sells oodles of books in the US. But even though she outsells most of our prominent authors, she said she never gets a mention in the top-earning Aussie authors lists! Bit of literary snobbery going on there.

She also said that it's not as easy to write as people think, and that Romance readers are a savvy audience -- they're often 'literature' readers, but 'in a different mood.'

Great interview and post.

Dan Holloway said...

The changing nature of the main character in Romantic Fiction is fascinating. I remember reading, as a postgrad, De Rougemont's Love in the Western World, all about how the Tristan Myth infected Western literature with Neoplatonism, and there's certainly an extent to which "old-fashioned" RF represents some kind of aspirational paradigm, and it's great to see a shift towards embodiment, an aspiration based upon identification (shifting from an "if only" escapism to a "just maybe" almost-realism).

What you haven't mentioned, that frequently surprises me, is the voraciousness and omnivorousness of RF readers - I guess it's therr in the numbers of titles produced, but RF readers are also at the forefront of efiction consumption.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks Katie for giving us a look inside the reality of writing romantic fiction.
We all like a bit of romance in our lives and the snobbery that often puts down romantic novels is plainly ridiculous.
Getting published is never simple and those that say - 'it's only romance' or ' it's just for children' or 'it's that silly SF/ fantasy stuff' - usually discover if, they ever try, that good writing is hard work and difficult to get right (in any genre).

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

That was a really fun interview, I liked hearing the perspectives on romance then and now:-) And I agree, its not easy to write at all.

David John Griffin said...

I found this an interesting interview, although personally, I haven't read any romantic fiction.

A thought crossed my mind and I wondered if the definition of chicklit was romantic fiction for a YA audience?

Daniel Blythe said...

Can I just add that Katie is a true professional and lovely person - and once came to a Creative Writing group in North Sheffield I used to administer for Age Concern, for no reward other than the appreciation of her fans!

Daniel Blythe said...

Her new publishers have done a really good job on re-packaging her backlist too, with that "softer", rustic, not-quite-chicklit look.

I wonder why we men don't read romance as much? Thanks to my wife leaving them around I've read a couple of Katie's and one of Lisa Jewell's, which were good, and some Sophie Kinsella which was OK, and a Jenny Colgan which was awful, really dire.

But that's it - half a dozen romance novels in 20 years. And yet if you put a version of Katie's formula to us - a world like this one, only where the restaurants are better and the women are hotter - it should sound quite appealing. Maybe we find it in sci-fi and fantasy instead?...

Colette Martin said...

Oh what a great Valentine's Day post! Thank you both!

Shelley Sly said...

This is such an encouraging interview. Thank you, Katie, for your honesty and uplifting words, and Nicola, for posting this interview. As a romance writer, this is valuable to me. I'll be checking out Katie's books.

Unknown said...

That was so interesting, especially since a friend insisted recently that I had to read Katie Fforde - strangely, she said, "it's just like chocolate"...
I hope your chocolate (and roses, with man) arrived!
Great interview, thanks for sharing.

Nicola Morgan said...

How lovely that several of you are now planning to read some of Katie's books and other romantic fiction.

And very interesting how much chocolate imagery and analogy there is! Cat - good idea.

Yes, there's definitely literary snobbery going on, but the snobbery is also directed against crime fic, for example. Children's /YA authors have to deal with the same and it's bloody annoying! (As Linda says. Hello, Linda! Spot on!)

David - you said, "chicklit was romantic fiction for a YA audience?" No, I wouldn't say so! I think chicklit is just itself, though with some overlap to romantic fic. Certainly some teenagers might like it but it's entirely different from YA writing and no more or less appealing to them than eg crime fiction. Or have I misunderstood the question?

DanielB - very good question (re why men don't read romance or have the equivalent). Loved your idea of "a world like this one, only where the restaurants are better and the women are hotter - it should sound quite appealing" - I think you may be onto something there!

Colette, Shelley, Jane, Glynis, Col, SF, Frankie - thanks for your comments. Nicky S - lovely to see you over here.

Dan and Col - thanks for showing us that she's a nice person, too!

Jemi Fraser said...

I really enjoyed this post. I can't seem to write a darn thing if it doesn't have a strong relationship building element in it! To me, that's one of the most exciting parts of our lives - finding "the one". Thanks for the great interview!

Fiona said...

I've been lurking here for a while but this post has drawn me out of hiding.

I wanted to say thanks to Katie, whose books I love (though I seem to be in a minority as I loved the original, Penguin covers, especially the original Living Dangerously, which I still have).

I also loved that story because, for the first time, I found something with a potter as the central character! I, too, have a day job but ceramics is an escape and often features in my writing.

I am putting the finishing touches to a romance novel, and have often gone back to these books to look at how they are structured/paced and what makes them work. They also reassure me that it's possible to write about single women in their late 30s in a deeply romantic yet (dare I say it) commonsense story.

Again, thank you very much, Katie. I write in almost total isolation (I'm a Brit who's currently living in rural Tasmania) and it's wonderful to be able to read things like this. It makes me feel positive about pushing on.

CC MacKenzie said...

Thank you Katie, we all need a bit of romance in our lives!
Interesting you tried to write for M&B for many years. I think you said in the latest Writer's Magazine that attempting to write for them honed your craft, mainly because their requirements are so tight. But some of those M&B girls are wonderful, especially India Grey and Trish Wylie.

I tend to be a fan of the writer rather than the genre. Anything that's well-written will capture my attention.

Thank you Nicola for a great interview and post on Valentine's day!

Emma Darwin said...

What an interesting post. It seems to me that romance is one of the fundamental genres, like thriller: in romance the motor of the plot is 'Will they get together and live happily ever after?', in thriller the motor of the plot is 'Will they live and save the world/regiment/business?'. And an example of either can be uber-literary, drearily formulaic, a thumping good read, enjoyable competent... But in any part of the market, the reader's looking for reliable pleasures (and that's true at the literary end of things too, it's just a different set of pleasures); a book which they trust to do what they want and what it says on the tin. So learning a bit about what the pleasures are that your readers will be looking for is key to learning to write it.

Having said that, I'm interested that I'm very wary when someone describes what I write (so far) as historical romance. Partly because it's rarely purely historical - there's always some kind of 'now'. But also because although there's usually at least one 'will or won't they get together?' as a plot motor, it's not at all the only plot motor or the only concern. Quite often it's simply the skeleton for what I really want to explore. So to that extent 'romance' as a tag feels rather reductive, not because I scorn the tag but because it's sooooooo much not the whole story.

Oh, and talking of romance and on the assumption that quite a lot of people reading this will be, like me, a fan of Georgette Heyer, I should say that I've just heard a new biography of her, by Jennifer Kloester who wrote Georgette Heyer's Regency World, will be out next year, telling all the things that couldn't be told till everyone involved - including plagiarists - was dead...

Sally Zigmond said...

Emma Darwin wrote:

"...although there's usually at least one 'will or won't they get together?' as a plot motor, it's not at all the only plot motor or the only concern. Quite often it's simply the skeleton for what I really want to explore. So to that extent 'romance' as a tag feels rather reductive, not because I scorn the tag but because it's sooooooo much not the whole story."

How I empathise with that. My novel also has one 'will they, won't they?' plot-thread but is only one part. At first I resented it being described and promoted as a historical romance but now I happily embrace it if only to reach a wider readership. Which is why I have recently joined the RNA.

Daniel Blythe said...

Sadly, I think there probably is already romance for men. It's called porn. Unless anyone can cite male romancers to prove me wrong? (Maybe Mike Gayle, Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons...?)

Nicola Morgan said...

Dear All, Katie has asked me to thank you all for your lovely and excellent comments. She can't add a comment because her browser/whatever won't let her but she sends her good wishes and gratitude!

Emma Darwin said...

Re romance for men, a lot of men read it covertly - and write it too, if you looked in, say, M&B's archives of their authors' real names. Heyer, for example, had a big male fan-base. One judge left his entire collection of first editions to the library of his Inn of Court. And there was a touching piece in Slightly Foxed a little while ago, by writer whose father was a fan, and she suddenly realised how he - product of a typical mid-20th century between-the-wars upbrining - identified himself with the glamour and swashbuckle of her heroes as women do with her witty, self-determining heroines.

Daniel Blythe said...

Emma - good point. I know a lot of men write for M&B and indeed for the women's magazine short story slots - but they have to do it covertly, that's the key. Romantic novelist Emma Blair is a chap called Ian , isn't (s)he?

CC MacKenzie said...

Hi Daniel

You know, you would be surprised at how many men write or want to write pure romance?

Gill Sanderson is a successful medical romance writer (and male.) And I know of a successful critique group where a member has 'come out' and thrilled the other members to bits!! I have a strong feeling one of my group may have a penis too!

Oops Nicola, am I allowed to use the word? Smack me if not!!

I suspect there lurks a deep and strong romantic streak in more than a few male psyche's!!


Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. I really enjoyed it. Will you be doing more of these, Nicola?

Elizabeth Madden said...

I did have a wicked laugh about "narrative thrust" & wondered if I'd stumbled into a blog post about DHLawrence's work-lol! Seriously, though, interesting interview- Enjoyed!

Nicola Morgan said...

Lyuba - I was quite pleased by narrative thrust, too!

Helen - you mean interviews re other genres or other interviews re romantic fic? The answer to both is probably yes!