Sunday, 29 August 2010

Workshop with Kate Walker

My lovely friend Sally went to a workshop last week with prolific Mills and Boon writer, Kate Walker, and very kindly wrote up her notes for this blog. If you are wanting to write longer fiction, womag stories to serials to pocket novels to M&B romances seems a natural progression. Many thanks to both Kate and Sally for this very informative article. If you are inspired by this and want more, do visit Kate's website and consider purchasing her book, A 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance.

Kate Walker’s Workshop

I promised womag I would write a report of my recent visit to Kate Walker’s M&B workshop in Doncaster. As we know many of you who write for womags are also interested in writing romantic fiction, it seemed appropriate. (I met a couple of womag fans there too. Hi girls!)
Kate Walker has been writing for M&B for 25 years, and is one of their top-selling authors. If you read her novels, such as The Good Greek Wife?, you will clearly see why. She is a writer at the top of her craft. That after 25 years she can still write a novel that has me weeping into my tea is, I think, proof of that.

As I don’t want to infringe on any copyrights, I’ve done this in my own words as much as possible. So if I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented Kate in any way that is entirely my fault and not down to her excellent teaching. I should also say that everything I say here is said much better in Kate’s book, 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance (Studymates – ISBN 978-1-84285-131-9 – this book is out of print at the moment as it’s undergoing a revamp but I bought a copy at Kate’s workshop and it is definitely worth having). Also these notes aren’t necessarily in the exact order Kate gave them to us. They’re in the order I remember them, though I have tried to stress her most important points.

Kate’s started with these essential points:

TANR – There Are No Rules

IAITE – It’s All In The Execution

Don’t Imitate – Innovate – in other words, don’t try and write like other M&B writers you’ve read. Use your own voice.

Give the readers what they want – The reason M&B novels are still selling over 100 years after they first started is that they give the readers what they want, and if you want to be an M&B author, you too need to give the readers what they want. This may also mean, assuming you’re lucky to be picked up by M&B, that you will also have to be willing to change with the times, and tailor your novels to the current requirements.

Do read M&B novels, and lots from different imprints, to get an idea of the many different types of story there are.

Kate mentioned those who dismiss M&B romances as ‘formulaic’ (and especially those who think that one writer programmes a computer, churning out novels under different names!). Whilst she accepts that different imprints have different expectations, this is because the readers pick them up expecting a particular type of story. The reason M&B is so popular is because they know what to give their readers. But there is no formula that will create the perfect Mills and Boon novel. However, she advises that there is a framework around which all the books are built.
“getting to know you”+
Lowest point (black moment)+
Happy ending
= Romance

Kate defined: ‘What Is A Romance?’

“A romance novel is the story of a man and a woman who, while solving a problem, discover that the love they feel for each other is the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime – leading to a permanent commitment and a happy ending.”
She made a distinction between a novel that contains a romantic element, and a novel that is all about the romance. M&B novels tend to be all about the romance, though there are some lines such as historical and intrigue where there is another storyline running alongside the romance. These tend to be 70k words, whereas the M&B modern romance lines are only 50k, and are predominantly about the romance.

Kate also said that she chose the word ‘problem’ rather than conflict, because some new writers make the mistake of thinking ‘conflict’ means arguments all the time. She discussed a regular newbie error, where the hero and heroine are screaming at each other all the way through, and only decide they’re in love right at the end. Or where the hero is an utter pig for most of the time, and then only in the last chapter(s) do we realise he’s a nice guy really and that everything he’s done has been for a reason. She stressed the importance of ‘getting to know you time’, where the conflicts are perhaps put aside for a short time, and the hero and heroine begin to learn that their first impression of this person might have been wrong.
She listed the four key elements in order of importance:

A man and a woman (character)
A problem which threatens to keep them apart (conflict)
A once-in-a-lifetime love.
A permanent commitment and happy ending (HEA)

Kate says that character is the most important, and that any conflict must arise from the characters, not vice versa. The hero and heroine realise they are the love of each other’s lives, and there must be a happy ending. It is what the readers of M&B novels expect when they pick up the novels. Again it’s something that’s worked for M&B for over a hundred years, so shouldn’t be knocked.

But it is the characters that matter the most. The heroine needs to be someone the reader (mostly female) will relate to, and the hero a man the reader would want to fall in love with. However, she stressed that whilst the hero may often be described as tall, dark and handsome (apparently they don’t like blonde heroes in some parts of South America), it’s worth remembering that he is being seen through the heroine’s eyes. So he may not be the tallest, most handsome man on earth. But to her he is. I was able to give an example of this from a Penny Jordan novel I’d recently read (The Sicilian Boss’s Mistress), where the hero is terrified the heroine will be attracted to his elder brother. When the heroine meets the elder brother, she concedes he is very handsome, but it is the hero who fulfils her spiritually, intellectually, sexually etc etc. Therefore the hero is the most handsome man in the world for her.

Setting is also important, but Kate says not to make the mistake that all M&B novels have to be set in exotic places. She gave the example from one of her novels where the very rich hero from a tropical climate is stuck in a cottage in the British countryside, where it’s tipping down with rain. What’s important is the effect the setting has on the characters. Are they out of their element? Are they trapped where they are? Even the most luxurious palace in the world can seem like hell when someone is going through an emotional crisis.

Novels must have a beginning, middle and end, and when submitting the first three chapters of a novel (or a chapter for the New Voices competition) it is a good idea to have an ending in mind. Kate gave the example of one writer who was asked for the full manuscript after M&B read her first three chapters. Ten years later M&B are still waiting. As Kate says, what a missed opportunity!

The beginning needs a good hook, and you should never end a chapter with ‘She turned the light out and went to bed’, as this is exactly what your reader will do. End each chapter with a cliffhanger, a closing remark, or anything that is going to want to make the reader carry on reading, even if she knows she has to get up with the kids in the morning.

Emotion is essential. Or as one M&B editor put it ‘emotion, emotion, emotion’. Again as with the conflict, this does not necessarily mean the heroine weeping and wailing all the time, or the couple arguing.

Dialogue is essential. Kate warned against great swathes of unbroken narrative. Narrative tends to slow the pace, whereas dialogue picks the pace up. She suggested a ratio of around 60% dialogue to 40% narrative.

Kate discussed the difference between the 'pivotal moment' (as asked for in the New Voices comp) and the 'black moment'. She explained they could be the same, but for her the pivotal moment is the point at which things change, so in a romance this might mean the heroine realising that far from disliking the hero, she's actually in love with him. The black moment is the moment at which everything seems lost. Perhaps she believes he doesn't love her and that they're never going to have a future together.

We had the chance to ask Kate some questions, and one I asked her was about my trio of sexy northern brothers. Kate kindly suggested I waited until M&B were interested in publishing me before I did that, as such series tend to be by invitation, or something you can pitch when you are established. However, and this is an important point, if you do pitch a series, they want the whole lot at once. This is because they’ll release them at one a month, as readers don’t like to be kept waiting ages for them. So for your first submission, or your competition entry, stick to a stand alone title.

Writing Types - M&B provided a handout listing various types of writer, or traps to fall into. Do you recognise yourself amongst this lot?

The Free Spirit - who has no idea on what her story is or where she's going when she begins her book.

The Procrastinator - who 'writers herself in'. She spends two or three chapters unfolding a long, rambling back-story and setting the scene, and there's no romance or hero-heroine action in sight.

Ms No-Man's-Land who doesn't introduce the hero until chapter two ... or even later!

She Who Saves The Best For Last - and who clings to the assumption that readers (and editors) will be understanding and hang in there until Chapter Four or Five when her romance really gets going.

Me-Me-Me uses lots of descriptive narrative, choosing to tell the story and so inserting herself between the readers and characters, rather than letting characters speak for themselves.

The Party Animal - includes loads of minor characters - but who are the hero and heroine?

The Show Stopper thinks of a great opening line or paragraph and then ... her book goes downhill from there!

Many, many thanks, Sally, for this wonderful write-up. If Kate Walker ever heads south I'll be first to sign up for one of her workshops, which sound very inspiring. And I think I've been all of those writing types, at different times!


Quillers said...

Glad you like it, Womag! I hope it helps others too, but there really is no substitute for attending one of Kate's workshops. She knows her stuff!

Sally Zigmond said...

Thanks, Womag, Sally Q and Kate. An informative post for all writers of romance. Mind you, I'm still trying to work out what type of writer I am. A free spirit, I think, or rather, someone who gropes about in the dark for far too long!But there's a bit of all of them in me.

Quillers said...

Hello other Sally :-) I am a show stopper. I always think of a fab opening, then it goes downhill from there!

Annieye said...

A very informative post, Sally. Thank you for taking the time to share your notes.

Debs said...

A very informative post and one that I think can be helpful to anyone writing a romantic novel.


Patsy said...

Very useful - thanks!

Dolores Doolittle said...

Thank you loads, Womag and Sally Q - entertaining and hugely helpful