Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Leigh Michaels and The Mistress' House

Donna: Pirates, set down your tankards and help me give a big bawdy welcome to today's guest, Leigh Michaels.  She's got some stories to tell us about the romance writing world, and I convinced her we wouldn't get too rowdy.  I know, I know.  That's always open to interpretation.  Welcome Leigh!

Leigh: Hi, Donna! Thanks for inviting me to stop by Romance Writers Revenge! Let me grab a cup of virtual tea (oh, heck, it’s virtual – make that a rum) and settle in for a chat.

Donna: How did you get started in romance writing?  And how is it different now than when you started?

Leigh:  I wrote my first romance novel when I was 14 – I knew SO much about love that it should have been a short story instead of a book. Mercifully, I maintained enough common sense to burn that book and the next five, before I submitted a manuscript to a publisher. I was very fortunate that the editor who picked up my first manuscript from the slush pile was the legendary Jacqui Bianchi of Mills & Boon, who loved my main character enough to write an insightful letter about where my book fell short. After two rounds of revisions, she bought that book, and I then wrote 80 sweet traditionals for Harlequin Mills & Boon.

Back then, editors still had time to help shape authors. And the books were different as well, with more room for setting and atmosphere. Now the books are shorter, and it’s more important to focus on the hero/heroine and get the action started right away.

Donna:  80 books?  *faints*  Tell us about your latest book, "The Mistress' House".  Is this your first historical?

LeighThe Mistress’ House is my first historical romance. I’ve enjoyed reading about and researching the Regency period since I was a teenager, and the time finally came to tell my own stories about aristocratic lords and ladies. This book actually started out to be a short story – only it kept getting longer, and then the characters introduced me to their friends, and suddenly I realized I was writing three intertwined stories, all of which happen in a love nest in London.

It’s a different sort of book – not an anthology, but a set of stories which all wind together – so I was fortunate to find both an editor (Deb Werksman of Sourcebooks Casablanca) and an agent (Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency) who believed in the story and helped to bring it to readers.

Donna:  It sounds delightful, and I'm looking forward to reading it. You have a nonfiction book called On Writing Romance and you also teach classes for Gotham Writers. 

What would your students say is the best advice you give them?  What is the advice they have the hardest time following?

Leigh:  I’ve been teaching romance writing in person and on line (Gotham Writers’ Workshop, www.writingclasses.com) for years, and about 30 of my students have gone on to publish their own books (mostly romances) with commercial publishers, so I’m quite proud of that record. When one of my students gets The Call, I feel like a grandma – I get to brag about the cute baby without having to do any of the hard work.

On Writing Romance actually started out as a self-published manual that I handed out to my students, and then Writers Digest Books picked up the text.

I hope the best advice I give students is that persistence is just as necessary as talent to make it in this business. I see a lot of good storytellers who give up – but the ones who keep at it, honing their craft and learning with each project – and being willing to do it over and over again – are the next generation of published authors.

The hardest advice to follow? Turn off the internal editor and just put the butt in the chair and write. (And yes, I have trouble following that advice myself some days!)

Donna:  I love that you're a book grandma!  My first contact with you was during last year's "Chase the Dream" contest online.  How did the contest first come about?

Leigh:  Since author Rachelle Chase credits my class at Gotham and a win in Lori Foster’s writing contest for her success, she decided to give back to others by offering a free on-line writing contest. I was intrigued by the idea and asked if she’d like to have a co-sponsor. The big win is that all the finalist entries are read by a panel of editors and agents, and many of our finalists have been offered agent representation and/or publishing contracts as a result of the contest.

DonnaIt was a great experience, and I apologize if I crashed the website servers by constantly coming over to check the comments on my entry!  *blushes*  If you didn't care about selling a book and could write whatever you want, what would it be about?

Leigh:  Exactly what I am writing! I’ve always been intrigued by the Regency period, and I wrote The Mistress’ House first and foremost for myself. I’m really lucky to have found an editor and agent who agreed it should have more readers than just me.

DonnaWho is your favorite character of the ones you've created?

Leigh:  In The Mistress’ House, my favorite character is Georgiana, who surprised me on almost every page. She was supposed to be a demure little damsel, but she turned out to be sassy and determined and original, and she made me laugh.

DonnaI'm glad she made you laugh.  Sometimes my characters' surprises can be maddening.  So tell us.  What is your writing process like?

Leigh:  I start each day with email and classes, just to keep on top of what my students are up to. Then I read what I wrote on the previous day and polish up the last scene or two, which moves me back into the story. With the last few minutes of the writing day, I try to move ahead with a very rough outline of what comes next, so that on the following day I’m not starting with a blank page. It’s very tempting to stop at the end of a scene – it’s such a good feeling to have finished something! – but I find it’s deadly to getting started again the next day.

Leigh, thank you so much for all your great insights.  While you refill your tankard, I'll remind the pirates to go to www.leighmichaels.com for info on Leigh's backlist as well as the numerous classes she offers.

Leigh is also giving away TWO copies of The Mistress' House today.  So now is the time to ask some questions about writing in general, and writing romance in particular! 


2nd Chance said...

Aye, the virtual rum is wonderful and puts the virtual tea to shame!

I'm pleased to hear that my writing routine - shut up, Donna! - is similiar to yours. (Well, it would be if I actually followed the guidelines I set for myself and got off the internet more.)

How do you manage to not spend hours with the demon internet?

And feel free to toss all innder critiques and editors to the kraken! He loves 'em!

Chris Stack said...

Donna and Leigh, thank you for a great interview.
Leigh, it sounds like your day is very busy and quite filled. Do you set aside a certain amount of time per day to focus on your writing and how long does it usually take to write one of your books?

Bosun said...

Good morning, Ms. Michaels and thanks so much for joining us today. I knew you'd been writing for some time but 80 books. Wow, that's amazing. And thanks for giving back and teacher those of us still learning the ropes. The generosity of writers like you is one of the best aspects of the Romance genre.

How much of a book do you know before going in? Which I guess is my way of asking if you're a plotter.

Will you be offering any workshops at Nationals? I see you're going to be part of the M&M conference, but I'm not sure I'll make that one. I am trying.

Donna said...

LOL, Chance -- what? I didn't say anything! I think my writing routine is similar to yours right now, so I'll be happy to hear someone else's productivity techniques. :)

Donna said...

Terri, you're right about the generosity of romance writers. I'm still in awe of that.

Marnee said...

Welcome aboard, Ms. Michaels!

80 books is amazing. And 6 Rita finalists? Even in my wildest dreams I can't picture that kind of success. And how many hours at the keyboard that represents. :)

I'm working on a historical right now. Were there any challenges to writing a historical you didn't expect? Any things you enjoyed?

Donna said...

*refills tankards for everyone*

I forgot to ask Leigh which time zone she lives in. LOL So we can finish getting the hotties spiffed up before she gets here. :)

Hellion said...

This is a GREAT interview. Thank you, Leigh; and thank you, Donna, for luring her to the ship and keeping Jack locked up--he wouldn't have asked any of these insightful questions.

Do you have a particular romance trope you enjoy writing more than others? And frequently, writers often say they have a "Core Story" that is the theme for their books, no matter how different the books are--do you have a core story, and if so, what is it? And most importantly--though it seems you have the tricks down for making sure you can stay in your story to write: brief read, slight edit, writing a brief outline of the scenes for the next day--you say there are days when this doesn't work. What do you do to bring yourself back to the keyboard? How do you recharge?

Donna said...

You guys have some kick-ass awesome questions today!

*scribbles* I'm stealing, er, LIBERATING these for future interviews.

Cassy Pickard said...

Leigh and Donna- great interview. I confess I'm tired though just reading it. I look at my meager seven books sitting in my file drawers and can't imagine having written as many as Leigh. This is inspiring! Thanks for sharing.

Leigh Michaels said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, pirates! I will be a few minutes getting you all answered, from my cozy chair here in the sub-zero Central time zone... Brr! (Another hot rum, please?)

2nd Chance – I keep a timer beside my computer – a mechanical one that makes a soft-pitched but annoying little tick as it counts down the minutes. I don’t always use it, but the constant reminder of time passing helps to keep me focused. And I find that Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die website – http://writeordie.com – is a wonder for getting me started when I don’t want to write. Set the time, choose the consequences, and dump the internal editor long enough to get 500 words on paper. It’s always a bad first draft, but no worse than when I spend all day crafting those same 500 words.


Leigh Michaels said...

Bo’sun – aren’t romance writers amazing? They’re by far the warmest, most supportive, most helpful group of people I’ve ever met.

I’m more a pantser than a plotter. When I start a book I know who the main characters are and what the initial external conflict is. I usually know if someone’s got a big secret, and I have the general outlines of the happy ending figured out. The rest pretty much happens along the way. Now that I’m writing triple stories, with three heroines and three heroes, three conflicts, and three happy endings, I’m doing a lot more plotting up front!

At the moment I’m not planning on going to Nationals this year. I will be in San Francisco in April to do a program for the SFA-RWA chapter, and I’ll be in Springfield Missouri in July for the Ozark Romance Authors conference, as well as at Moonlight & Magnolias in October.

Donna said...

Leigh, welcome! I'm sure we can pop some more rum into the microwave. (We have ALL the conveniences here on the good ship Revenge!)

I've heard of Dr. Wicked's Write or Die, but never tried it. Now I'm thinking I should give it a try.

Leigh Michaels said...

Hi, Marnee – Thanks for stopping by!

Yes, six RITA finalists – but no gold statue. For a while there I was the Susan Lucci of the RITAs, always nominated but never a winner. :-) You know what, though? I’ve always thought that being named a finalist is the real win. It’s a big honor, and which of the five or six good books wins in the end is a matter of the judges’ personal tastes.

Out of curiosity, I just did the math – 80 sweet traditional romances is almost four and a half million words, without even figuring in the historicals or the non-fiction. I think I feel a nap coming on...

As for the challenges of historicals – there was a snag on every page, something I didn’t know and had to stop to figure out. I mean, how did they manage to sneak off alone, when a lady had friends and family and servants watching all the time? That’s how The Mistress’ House came to be – what’s the point of being a wealthy earl if you can’t have a private spot to indulge yourself, right?


Bosun said...

And Cassy has seven books. Wow, I'm feeling like quite the underachiever today. LOL!

Leigh - Does this mean the three stories in one is something you're going to do more of? And all that research and finagling (sp?) of society rules are two of the many reasons I couldn't take on writing historicals. So many tricky hoops to jump through. I commend all who do it.

I really want to make M&M this year. Several of my friends are going and one of our honorary pirates is an officer in that chapter. Must work this out.

Do you have any tips or tricks for revisions? And what's up next?

Leigh Michaels said...

Hi, Hellion – I think we all have core stories we like more than others. One of mine is marriage of convenience, and the Regency period is such a good time for that, since there were so few choices for women.

I’ve just realized, however, that my heroines actually battle against the MOC convention instead of giving in to it. So I guess I’d have to say that my core story involves a group of strong women who deal with reality and make it work for them, even when Society has other ideas for how their lives should turn out.

Usually when I have trouble getting back into a story it’s because I’ve taken a wrong turn – let a character say or do something that pulls us out of the story – or because I just don’t know what comes next. So the first move is to back up and see where the glow went away, checking each action and line of dialogue for something that violates character or hurries the story along. The second move is to brainstorm – the good old What If...? and backwards plotting devices to see where the story is going.

Sometimes I take the whole manuscript onto the treadmill with me, because when I’m walking I can’t stop to make notes, and read the whole thing. That often reminds me of threads I’ve let drop and gets me started again.

And that Dr. Wicked thing – it’s radical, but it really does work. :-)


Leigh Michaels said...

Cassie – NEVER let yourself think that seven books is meager! Good heavens, girl... that’s something to be very proud of. Not everyone has more than one story to tell – or the willingness to keep on going, finding new stories and telling them over and over until they’re the best they can be.

Sometimes I have students who can’t seem to understand that writing is like tennis. You don’t get to be a good tennis player by reading Sports Illustrated, or watching coaching tapes, or buying tickets to Wimbledon. And you don’t get to be a good writer by reading books about writing, or by listening to how other writers do it, or by reading good books – though of course all those things help. You learn to play tennis by taking the racquet in your hand and getting out on the court, day after day. And you learn to write by writing.

Seven books is special. Take a bow, Cassie!


Leigh Michaels said...

I really like the format of three heroes, three heroines, three stories in one. It’s a technique that’s used a lot in TV shows and movies – several separate threads going on at once, with the camera shifting from one to the next in rapid succession. The threads always have something in common, a theme or lesson that we may not see till the end of the episode.

So I’ve adopted that model for books – three stories with a connecting theme. In my second historical, Just One Season in London, the theme is family – the young Viscount Ryecroft has a gorgeous sister, but he can’t afford a Season for her. He’s looking to marry for money so his sister Sophie won’t have to. Sophie is willing to do whatever it takes to save the family estate, but if she can’t even get to London, she may not have the option of wedding a rich gentleman. And their mother will do anything to secure the happiness of her children – and I do mean anything!

Then in the third book, the three heroines are all caught in difficult circumstances, but instead of drinking tea and weeping they seize the opportunity presented by a country-house wedding to make their lives better.

In the two books coming up later this year, the three stories are going on all at the same time, and there’s sometimes a question of who will end up with whom... which is fun, too.

Revision suggestions: I always have to give myself time and distance before I can see the story clearly, and then I do the treadmill trick – reading the whole thing through without stopping – before I do anything at all. I have a tendency to want to do major surgery when all that’s really needed is a hot compress in just the right place, so I’ve learned to stop and think before revising. Something else that works is highlighting the different parts of the story – dialog in one color, introspection in another, narrative in a third, and so on – so I can look at whether the flow has changed. If a story gets heavy into introspection, it slows down, but this technique shows that and then I can shift thoughts into actions.

Donna said...

Leigh, you've got so many great suggestions here. I'm trying to pick them out so I can use them on my own WIP right now. I like the idea of highlighting the different parts of the story in color.

And I am trying to remind myself about "learning to write by writing". Are you sure I can't learn to write by whining? LOL (I seem to be doing a lot of that the last couple days.)

I have a few manuscripts that I love, but are probably going to be part of my writing apprenticeship, rather than my backlist. LOL Some days I feel like I'm the person in charge at the Island of Misfit Manuscripts. But I'll try to think of them as "Not A Good Fit Manuscripts" instead. :)

Janga said...

Thanks for a terrific interview, Donna and Leigh.

One of the reasons I shy away from every idea that surfaces for a historical is that the world building seems overwhelming. Leigh, how did you find the world building for your historical stories as compared to what you needed to do for your contemporary romances?

Leigh Michaels said...

Well, Donna, whining can be very therapeutic. :-) But it doesn't get the words on the page, so definitely whine for five minutes and then go back to writing!

I'm often asked if I regret burning those first six manuscripts. I don't, because letting go of the paper set me free from the notion of trying to revise those words. The good stuff in those early efforts -- and there was some good stuff -- stayed in my head and I used it later, in other books. But I wasn't stuck in trying to fix the things that would never have worked.

Hope this helps you!

Donna said...

LOL, Leigh -- I am a firm believe in "whine therapy". And "wine therapy". . .

I think the question from Chris up there may have gotten stuck in the spam filter for a bit -- so I'll re-ask it -- how long does it take you to write a book? And do you write a certain amount every day?

Hellion said...

So the first move is to back up and see where the glow went away, checking each action and line of dialogue for something that violates character or hurries the story along. The second move is to brainstorm – the good old What If…? and backwards plotting devices to see where the story is going.

I feel like we got Obi Wan on the ship. I totally get this; I do this (and usually feel bad about it because I typically let it go on too long and have to back up a ways before I am out of the hole.)

Leigh, please promise to visit us at least once a year and dazzle us with your brilliance. We need you, Obi Wan!

Hellion said...

It’s a technique that’s used a lot in TV shows and movies – several separate threads going on at once, with the camera shifting from one to the next in rapid succession. The threads always have something in common, a theme or lesson that we may not see till the end of the episode.

Braiding. FRIENDS used to do this technique all the time; and I loved it. I was always amazed at how they managed to tie everything together out of what seemed totally unconnected (at least at times.) And in 22 minutes, no less.

Bosun said...

The first MS I tried to write was never finished and never would have worked. After three years, I had to let it go. (Oddly enough, it was titled Letting Go.) But that MS attempt taught me a ton about plotting and what worked for me and what didn't work in a book, period. I haven't burned it and I still feel kind of bad for the characters left in limbo, but it served its purpose.

I've heard of the highlighting many times but not tried it. And I can't do the Write Or Die thing because I'd be furious with the consequences. The laptop would go out the window and then where would I be? LOL!

Janga - You and me both. I can't make my brain step back in time to create those great historical settings.

Leigh Michaels said...

Oh, Janga, world-building is tough. At least with the Regency there is a lot of material out there to help (loads of good reference books about the period) but the downside is that readers already know so much that any errors magnify. Making up a fantasy world is tougher in some ways (having to start from scratch) but at least nobody can argue with the author's choices...

I used the same philosophy with the historicals that I always did when choosing details to include in the contemporaries. What does the reader need to know? What does she want to know? What does she already know, so I don't repeat that but add to it with some significant detail that helps her see the picture?

I remember one contemporary where my heroine walked in on the hero tycoon's butler ironing his morning newspaper (heat sets the ink so it doesn't rub off on fingers). That was a detail I found in an article about becoming a butler, and I thought it was a telling bit of information because it showed the contrast between the characters. (The heroine's best trick with an iron was making a grilled cheese sandwich.)

With the historicals I try to do the same thing -- not just add detail but make it significant in terms of emotion or character-building or contrast.


Bosun said...

...not just add detail but make it significant in terms of emotion or character-building or contrast.

As a writer who isn't exactly detail oriented, I love this idea but I lament ever being able to do it at the same time. And I never knew that about ironing a newspaper. My iron is mostly just a paperweight.

Now I need to think about this before the next pass on the MS. Hellie is right, you're like our Pirate Obi Wan.

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Leigh Michaels said...

Yeah, I'm thinking of getting myself a big old glass with "Whine Connoisseur" etched on the side...

Ah – braiding! Now I know what to call it; thanks!

Sorry for missing your question, Chris. I used to write three or four books a year, short sweet traditionals of about 50,000 words each. The historicals are longer; I wrote three 90,000-word books in 18 months, but I don’t recommend the pace. One book a year would be much more relaxing!

Writing is my full-time job, so everything else gets fitted in around it. When I’m deeply into writing a book, I usually write four to six hours a day. Early on in the process it’s much slower (my husband says I’m like getting a train out of the station – it takes a lot of force to get all that baggage moving). Toward the end it’s much faster; I might write the last fifteen thousand words in a week. And I tend to revise in long sessions just so I can keep the whole story in my head at the same time.

Donna said...

Leigh, you are going to be the "book grandma" for all of us pirates now! Your advice makes so much sense. I'm sure I've heard similar things before, but they are sinking into my brain in the right places today.

And boy, I seriously NEED a grilled cheese sandwich now.

Hellion said...

my husband says I’m like getting a train out of the station – it takes a lot of force to get all that baggage moving


Bosun said...

That statement could be applied to me. Except in regards to exercise. Which explains the oversized caboose.

Leigh Michaels said...

Awww, that's so sweet! Nobody's ever called me Obi-Wan before!

I'd love to come back anytime. You guys are seriously addictive -- I'll just tell my agent that I couldn't do the proposal today because I was having too much fun playing with the pirates.

I always hate what I write on Dr Wicked -- but it's true that even if it's crap, we can edit it. Can't edit a blank screen. And sometimes it's just as valuable for character development -- instead of trying to write story, pull up Dr. Wicked and write about the character instead. Because I can't stop to analyze and question, what comes out about the character is often more real.


Scapegoat said...

Wonderful interview and amazing tips Leigh! Welcome aboard and please come back and share your wisdom often.

I'm taking notes!

Donna said...

Leigh, we won't tell on you! Pirates' honor! LOL

I like the idea of using Dr. Wicked to write about the character instead, to get some ideas about their development. Mmm.

Donna said...

I guess everybody's writing feverishly somewhere! Awesome. :)

Leigh Michaels said...

I hope I was an inspiration to get back to those characters and crack the whip!

Bosun said...

Sorry, dreaded day job got in the way. You'd think these people pay me the way they expect me to work.

I could try the Write or Die for that sort of thing. I'm diving into plotting a new book (I'm a total plotter) and some free-flow character development couldn't hurt.

2nd Chance said...

I looked at Dr. Wicked...what a diabolical site! I like!

Bosun said...

OMG! I just used the Editminion app (is that an app?) over there and it's amazing. Apparently, I used the word "to" a bazillion times just in my first five pages. BUT, I have no adverbs. Ha!

Only 5 instances of passive verbs, which is actually good for me. My gosh, that is a wonder!

2nd Chance said...

Oh, apps like that are so evil and addictive! Don't get hooked on it, Bo'sun!

Bosun said...

Once it points these things out, then I know what to look for. It doesn't fix them for you, just smacks you upside the head with them. I may do a longer snippet from the middle to see how it turns out, but not too much after that.

Incredibly helpful tool though.

Leigh Michaels said...

Oops. That would have been "addiction"....

Donna said...

I didn't realize it had all those tools. I think they might scare me. LOL I've got to check it out.

Leigh Michaels said...

Glad to pass along a new addition to you all! :)

Bosun said...

Thanks, Leigh! I admit, I avoid that site normally. LOL!

I'm torn between being happy knowing what to fix, and scared knowing how MUCH I have to fix.

Scapegoat said...

I WILL NOT go look at all the shiny apps...I've just thrown away my planning binder...

Oh, but they are so shiny and will help me procrastinate some more...


Seriously though they sound very helpful. AFTER I finish writing.

Bosun said...

I was about to say that, Scape. This is definitely something I wouldn't use until the thing was done. Holy heck, that would tie me up during the rough draft.

Leigh - Do you have any advice for writers approaching the dreaded query phase? Anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?

Liz Lipperman said...

Great interview, you two. Leigh, I can't even imagine what it's like to have 80 books out there with my name on them. I'm freaking out with one.

The Mistress'House sounds really intriguing. Although historicals are not the genre I usually read, this is definitely one I will try.

Great cover, BTW.

Janga said...

Thanks for your generous responses, Leigh. This was better than reading a craft book because it was the info we most need to know.

Leigh Michaels said...

We have so many more distractions tempting us these days, with the email and the shiny apps and and the fun software... sometimes it's more temptation than we can bear, so maybe setting that timer and playing for a bit is a healthy option. Sort of like having a bite of cake now and then makes it easier to turn down than if you've sworn off it forever.

Querying -- try out the query on a friend who doesn't know anything about the story; she can tell you whether it makes sense or if you still have loose ends and unanswered questions.

And think back-cover blurb -- the easier you can make the editor's job (to convince the acquisition committee, and later the reader, to buy the book) the more likely she is to ask to see more.

Liz, that first book is a super achievement -- and since cozy mysteries are right up my alley, I'll be looking forward to reading yours.

Seriously, pirates, this has been the best fun ever. Thank you all so much!

Bosun said...

Thank YOU. Not only to you offer great advice, but you say it in a way that makes it so easy to understand and apply. Do come back whenever you like, and I'll be picking up your new book this weekend.