An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Leslie Wainger
author of Writing a Romance Novel, For Dummies (John Wiley & Sons, April 2004)
By Doris Booth
WRITING A ROMANCE NOVEL, FOR DUMMIES (John Wiley & Sons, April 2004) is one of the year's best books about writing, especially for newcomers. Leslie Wainger, an executive editor for Harlequin/Silhouette, has been editing romance novels for 25 years. This clear, concise book is filled with detailed information about writing romance. Interestingly, much of what Leslie has to say applies to just about every other category of popular fiction, too.
In a recent exclusive interview with the author, we asked her some tough questions about her own journey to publication, and prompted her to reveal some insider tips about romance writing, which she freely shared. Anyone who plans to submit a commercial fictional work to an editor will want to know what Leslie has to say in her exceptional book. ". . . avoid foreshadowing. Let your reader experience events
as they occur because
they'll have more impact."
AUTHORLINK: What prompted you to write this book?
WAINGER: The publisher asked me to do it! Tracy Boggier, an acquiring editor at John Wiley, once worked at Harlequin and now acquires for the Dummies books. I saw her at a social event and she asked if I'd consider such a project. Once sold, Mike Baker in Wiley's Indianapolis editorial office became my content editor. Honestly, until then I had never really thought about writing a book of my own.
AUTHORLINK: You're a 25-year veteran at editing other people's novels. Was the sale automatic or did it take a little work?
WAINGER: Tracy had said that I'd need a table of contents, sample pages, and an outline to sell the idea to Wiley. I noodled the project around a lot before sending it to Tracy. It was important to get it right. The Dummies series has a very specific format. I had to work within those parameters, and that took a little time.
"You need to create a source
of emotional conflict and tension for your hero and heroine–something that exists separately from the specifics of the plot . . ."
AUTHORLINK: Did the Dummies format pose any special problems for you?
WAINGER: I wasn't used to writing in a modular style. Once we went to contract, I still had to learn to break up my writing into headings and subheadings. I also had to think about how my reader would read the book. For example, she or he might read the content in any order. Sections had to be cross-referenced. Mike was a great help to me in putting the work into the Dummies format.
AUTHORLINK: Did the format restrictions affect your tone?
WAINGER: No. From the time I handed in the first pages, Wiley liked my chatty tone. I wrote as if I were giving a bunch of speeches. When I speak, I chat from notes.
I knew that if I were too scholarly, people wouldn't want to read it. I wanted them to be carried along by the information. Friends say they can definitely "hear" me in the writing.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have an overriding mission?
WAINGER: I had an opportunity here to educate, to help people do it right, and I wanted to be sure I did that. Not everybody who reads my book will see a novel published, but I hope everybody can learn something from the book.
"If your opening doesn't grab
an editor's attention your book
probably will never see the light
AUTHORLINK: So, how long did it take you to finish the project?
WAINGER: It took me 2 1/2 months to write. I set a goal to write 10 pages a day on the days I wasn't working at Harlequin. Writing every weekend and on holidays, and taking vacation time, I would write 6-8 pages some days, and 15 pages on other days. I got used to the modularity as I went along.
AUTHORLINK: You manage to hold our interest throughout the whole book, and to answer some questions even a seasoned author may not know. How did you hold our attention?
WAINGER: I wanted to cover everything from setting up a home office to the complex publishing process at the other end. I'm not a rules girl. So, I didn't write from a set of rules. My main interest was to satisfy my readers' expectations. How would I satisfy them? If I gave too many rules, it might have been a boring book. My goal was to be directional rather than directive!
I wanted my reader to be happy at the end.
AUTHORLINK: What you have written will be helpful to more than romance writers, but to just about anyone trying to break into commercial fiction. Was that the goal?
WAINGER: It wasn't intentional on my part, but looking back, I think the book can be a good guide for anyone who writes book-length fiction, especially genre fiction. Writing good characters, facing the challenges of point-of-view, creating a strong plot . . . those are all elements that apply across the board, whether you're writing literary fiction or popular stories.
AUTHORLINK: Does much of what you say about writing apply only to writing for Harlequin, or does it work for any publisher?
WAINGER: Well, every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, no matter what publisher buys the work, though at Harlequin there are certain unique restrictions for category books.
AUTHORLINK: Please define what you mean by "category" or "series" books?
WAINGER: Category fiction, or "series" fiction, is a line of titles, usually put out in a series of four to six titles per month, all of them similar in some way, whether they're short and sexy, romantic suspense, or inspirational. All of the books in a "line" or series have the same number of pages and the same approximate word count. The books in the series have a similar look and feel. They have a strongly defined editorial personality. Readers go into category fiction with certain expectations. They pick up a book because it's a romance, and they want specific things to happen in the story. For example, they want the book to have a happy ending. That's the bargain they make with the author when they plunk down the money for the book. In a series book, they're also looking for the book to support the series personality, that secondary similarity I mentioned above.
Mainstream or single-title fiction gives the author more flexibility in story lines and lengths. Single-title projects are marketed as individual titles, and they don't have to meet such well-defined editorial requirements or fit a particular editorial format.
"Another huge plus to writing
for series romance is that
it provides a great point of entry
into the business . . ."
AUTHORLINK: How did you come to learn the reader's expectations for category fiction?
WAINGER: Well, I'm not sure. It's one of those things I internalized way back in the dim mists of time. You look at letters from readers; you look at what sells. If you start getting too specific about the expectations you begin limiting yourself .But there are always things you know in your gut when you're reading a manuscript.
AUTHORLINK: So, are you really talking about romance as "formula writing?"
WAINGER: Some people call it formula writing. I call it satisfying reader expectations, because there are vast differences between one writer's voice and another's. They each animate their characters differently. If three authors each write a "secret baby" book, for example, it's not like looking at three tubes of toothpaste, where you have the same basic thing, only one's minty and one's got colored stripes. Every author puts a substantially different spin on that same common plot element, the secret baby, which is why I say the word "formula" doesn't really apply. Just satisfy my original expectation and you will make me happy! But each story will be unique to those characters. There will always be variety, because stories are not toothpaste. You might say that romantic suspense is formula writing, since you can expect not only a happy ending but also a solution to the mystery, but it's the different journey each book takes you on until you reach the end that keeps the books from being formulaic. There are big differences in the story execution. Yes, the writer gives you certain things, but what she or he gives you is unique every time.
AUTHORLINK: Surprisingly, you say if the reader pauses to admire your prose, then you've pulled him or her out of your story and away from your characters. Isn't prose important?
WAINGER: Ultimately prose is important, but you can have a beautifully written story with no life in it; it's just boring. I'd like for the writer to create energy and enthusiasm in the story. Anyone can learn to write better. The craft can be learned. Art cannot. The craft can give you only the building blocks. It's up to you to add the heart! Bring me the magic. That's what I am looking for.
AUTHORLINK: Why do so many bad books get published?
WAINGER: Nobody sets out to publish a bad book. Somebody, somewhere liked certain things about the work. Between the moment of acquisition and actual publication so many things can happen. A book comes in late and there's not enough time to edit it. An editor leaves and a new one doesn't have the same skills. Not every editor is equally fabulous. Editors have different tastes, just like readers. One editor will hate something I love. I might look at a bestseller and say I don't like it. But it's partly a subjective judgment. I can point to a book and say this is wrong or that's wrong. I can say somebody should have fixed that. But the real question is whether the reader got what they wanted.
The same is true in movies. I'm not a big fan of certain kinds of very broad comedy, but there's a viewership that loves them. The reviewer's job is to say, "This book or movie had certain goals. Did it meet them? Did they satisfy the target audience?"
"If you remember only one
thing, remember this: Give
the reader what she wants
or find another career."
AUTHORLINK: Why are people not reading as much today?
WAINGER: I wish I knew. A lot of teens and twenty-somethings who grew up reading are not reading now. The world is a different place. I believe computers are a huge part of the reason we're not reading. My 20-year-old nephew lives on the computer. He can carry on six or eight conversations and tasks simultaneously. These young people carry out their whole lives like that. Computers have usurped a huge amount of our time. Many of us can read a book and watch TV at the same time. But we can't do that with computers. Computers use up our creative time and energyenergy we might have put into reading. So that's one reason, though I'm sure it's not the only one.
AUTHORLINK: Are there any answers?
WAINGER: People of the generation coming up right now lead scattered lives. They're looking for jobs, running around with friends, living a fractured, high-energy, self-oriented life. My hope is that as they get older they'll get married, have kids, and change their daily rhythms. As the generations shift, hopefully, reading will come back into their lives.
AUTHORLINK: How did you get into publishing?
WAINGER: It was dumb luck. I had moved back to the New York City area (from the Midwest), with my then-husband. I had received my bachelor's and master's degrees in English. Publishing was a goal for me, in large part because it was one of the few industries where my degree would matter and I could satisfy my interests. When I started hunting for a job, one of my friends from Cornell University knew an editor at Silhouette who needed an editorial assistant. I applied, and when she offered me the job I said, "Yes!" in a heartbeat.
"Every writer was a first-timer once, and many still admit to first-timer-style jitters with each
new book. But those jitters don't need to hurt you . . ."
Wainger's Book AUTHORLINK: What is your greatest frustration with publishing?
WAINGER: I am frustrated that I can't stand in the stores and make people read stuff that's good! I had to learn that though I think a book is fabulous, I (and the author) have to let it go. We put the book out there, but we can't make people read it.
AUTHORLINK: And your biggest joy . . .
WAINGER: My biggest joy is working with the authors and books; being part of that process; knowing something's good before anybody else knows it; putting out something I love!
AUTHORLINK: Will you write another book?
WAINGER: I can't imagine what else I could write, but I can't rule it out.
AUTHORLINK: What are you most hungry for as an editor?
WAINGER: Publishing is a hungry, bottom-line business. I'm always looking for really good authors, good voices. At another level, though, I always have to look at what will sell in the marketplace. My job is to balance the two, and I hope I'll never stop trying to get better at it.