In this exclusive interview, Choc Lit authors Rhoda Baxter and Jane Lovering tell us how they write their successful romantic comedies. It takes inspiration, they say, dedication – and an awful lot of chocolate Hobnobs*! Avoiding any kind of housework helps, too.
Tomorrow, they’ll be revealing all at the beautiful old Grange Hotel, York, in their romantic-comedy masterclass – but, for now, they answer 10 burning questions – personal and professional.
(* Note from blog ed – other chocolate-biscuit brands are available…)
1. Rhoda and Jane – welcome to WriteStars’ blog! First, you’ve both written many books, where do you find inspiration for your plots and characters?
Rhoda: Everywhere! Everything I read or watch or see goes into the bank so that I can pluck bits out when I need to. It’s like the Pick’n’Mix counter. You grab a character trait here, a plot idea there – shove it all in a bag and shake it together and see what happens.
Once you have a main character and a scenario, everything else grows from that. I’m not huge on plotting, so I end up letting the characters get on with it and then edit later. My characters have their own ideas. I sometimes pretend they’re mine.
Jane: It’s really hard to say! My head is full of such random stuff, I’m sure it sometimes just throws things at me to see what I’ll do with it. Like Rhoda, I don’t really plot (although I am one hell of a schemer..mwhahahahahaha … sorry) I sort of start a story with a couple of people, a vague idea of a few things that might happen to them, and usually a dog or something, because dogs are great at plot-driving, and then I lie back and think of England while they all do their thing on the page. Some days later I wake up and look at it, and it all seems to have worked out. No idea how it happens. I suspect magic and kittens, actually. Well, dogs, anyway.
2. Do either of you suffer from writer’s block? And, if so, how do you deal with it?
Jane: Oh I get that all the time. Usually because I’m trying to write too much, too fast. I am of the opinion that there are only so many ideas that one head can hold, and I sometimes try to overdo things on the writing front whilst trying to keep ideas about work, or gardening, or sometimes housework … oh all right, I’m lying about the housework thing… Writer’s block is just too much in the head at once. I’ve usually managed to cure it by stopping thinking about writing and doing some reading instead. But not housework. Never that.
Rhoda: I haven’t had full-on writer’s block. If I’m stuck on one project, I can usually work on something else and then return to it when things are better. For the really bad days, there’s chocolate. My chocolate consumption is inversely proportional to how well the writing is going.
3. You have both either won or been shortlisted for prestigious awards – what do you think judges look for in a winner?
Rhoda: Ah, if I knew the answer to that, I’d win all of the awards! There are basic criteria – strong, confident voice; believable characters; a beginning, middle and end; the ability to show not tell – all the things you’d expect, but the rest is subjective. If you’ve got a story that is basically sound, the rest depends on the judges’ preferences. I’ve never been a judge, but I imagine it gets really difficult to choose once you’ve got down to the shortlist. It’d be like trying to guess the winner of the “Great British Bake Off”.
Jane: Well, that’s totally dependent, isn’t it? What is the competition, who are the judges? Different judges like different things, and different competitions have varying aims. All any writer can do is produce their best work, poke it in front of the judges, and hope for the best. There’s no magic answer. You might have written a cracking story about a broken marriage, it might be brilliant and the most fabulous story ever, but if, on the morning of the judging, one of the judges has just been left by his/her partner, your story might be too close to the bone for them to bear.
Do your best. That’s all the advice I can ever give. Only not relative to housework. Ever.
4. What do you think makes a reader pick a certain title off the shelf and buy it?
Rhoda: As a reader (all writers are readers too, right?) I’m more likely to buy books by authors I’ve read before. I rarely buy books that I haven’t heard of through book blogs or via friends, and on the rare occasions that I do, I’m influenced by the cover and the blurb. I’m lucky. My publisher (Choc Lit) does beautiful covers. I have been known to be swayed by the title too. Despite being a bit of a cake fiend, I rarely buy novels with baking related titles.
Jane: How do I choose a book? Familiarity, I think. Either with the title, or the author (because other people have told me about it, or I once saw it mentioned on Twitter). Like Rhoda, I don’t often buy books I’ve heard nothing about, although, like her, I can be swayed by a lovely cover. As to what makes other readers pick up books … I think an intriguing title is probably the main one. Anything with the word ‘Secret’ in it seems to be popular.
5. When did you know you were going to be a writer?
Rhoda: I was about eight and I read somewhere that my favourite writer (Enid Blyton) had died years before. I looked up at my bookshelf with its many, many Enid Blyton books and thought ‘she’s dead, but her books are still here’. Then I thought ‘I want to do that’. I’ve been learning and practising how to do that ever since.
Jane: Always. I have always had an unshakeable knowledge that one day I would write books, from the moment I could read. I don’t even remember learning to read, it was as if I was born reading and writing – which would totally have terrified the midwife, so I probably wasn’t.
6. Were you immediately drawn to romantic fiction, or were you tempted by other genres – horror, say?
Rhoda: I’ve always been a bit partial to romance (not necessarily comedy). I started off writing women’s fiction and tried hard to write ‘serious’ fiction. My first critique from the Romantic Novelists’ Association pointed out that I had a naturally comedic voice which was fighting to get past the serious tone and suggested that I try writing something funny next. I did and it was like removing a straitjacket!
That said, I’d love to write a mystery or something sci-fi orientated one day.
Jane: I started writing hard sci fi. I morphed into romance quite early on (I like romance because falling in love is the one experience that all humans tend to have in common, even if they only love their cat, or Hobnobs, or trifle). I do sometimes toy with other genres, but, even then, there tends to be a romance at the heart of it. That’s what’s so good about romance, you can write horror or Gothic or sci fi, but still have the essence of the story be about two people (or robots, or zombies or teaspoons) falling in love during the story.
7. How can romantic comedy be used to great effect within other genres?
Rhoda: Romance tends to wind its way into all kinds of genres. Wanting to be loved is a fairly basic emotion. As for the comedy aspect – funny isn’t the same as fluffy. Comedy can take you to really dark places. Light moments can help provide contrast and make the dark moments sadder, bleaker or scarier. If you don’t believe me, watch ‘Breaking Bad’. Jane and I both write about dark themes (bereavement, depression, psychosis, emotional abuse – we’ve written about them all!). The touch of comedy stops the stories being so bleak that I burst into tears.
Jane: Everyone has been in love with someone (or something) so romance is relatable. Is that even a word? It doesn’t look right. Anyway. Romance is something all people either have felt or want to feel, and it’s the same with comedy. Everyone has laughed, everyone has found something funny. So, if you combine the two, you can get the reader to follow you anywhere, even into some pretty dark places. Sometimes the reader doesn’t realise how dark the place is, they are too busy relating to the ‘falling in love’ part and laughing at the funny bits. Then, WHAM, you can hit them with some deep stuff, and they will still be there, laughing and then thinking…’hang on, where am I now? What is this place?’ . And then you can take them by the hand and lead them gently out, sighing at the romance and still (hopefully) laughing, while having had a bit of an experience.
8. You’ve created a lot of workshops and masterclasses. What made you decide to work together?
Rhoda: We met at an Romantic Novelists’ Association conference where we drank too much wine and Jane told me a hilarious story about a bat. And we live relatively close to each other (close in Yorkshire terms – meaning we’re about two hours apart! – and realised that we both found it annoying that all the writer’s workshops and courses we wanted to go to were down south. We wanted to provide something similar in North/East Yorkshire. One day, I’d love to run writing workshops that people can come to every week – like they do with exercise classes.
Jane: It wasn’t that hilarious, that bat story, was it? I think the wine made the hilarity a little more noticeable …. Rhoda and I get on really well, and are geographically only one range of hills and some sort of town-stuff apart, and we both write for Choc Lit; we have a similar sense of humour (honestly, just mention Uttoxeter to her and see what happens …) so it seemed natural for us to work together. Paired teaching is nice for the participants – two different views on writing can be more useful to some people than a didactic approach, and it enables us to say ‘this is how I do it, but this is how she does it – it’s a different way, but it still works’.
Plus, we both love Hobnobs. I could never work with anyone who didn’t love those biscuits!
9. What are the most important lessons a romantic-comedy writer can learn? Can anyone do it?
Rhoda: It helps to have a naturally funny voice but even if you haven’t, you can learn to add comedy. The trick is to know how to write funny scenes without trying too hard.
Jane: I think anyone can learn to do it. Particularly if they come to our workshops (that wasn’t too overt, was it?). The most important thing is to balance the romance and the comedy, so that you don’t end up with a book that is really funny but the romance feels incidental, or too romantic so that the humour doesn’t feel natural. Life itself is funny and sad and horrific and fluffy and dramatic; if you can balance all that together in one book then you are doing pretty well.
Oh, and when Rhoda says it helps to have a naturally funny voice, I think she means writing voice. Not like you talk in a high, squeaky voice with involuntary quacks when you pronounce your ‘R’s. That doesn’t help your writing at all, although it might help when you come to market your book.
10. What’s the best piece of advice you can offer a fledgling romantic-comedy writer?
The same as for any writer. Read a lot. Write a lot. Read in the genre you want to write in, so that you absorb the conventions and can figure out what works and (more importantly) what doesn’t work. Writing takes practice and perseverance. So keep writing.
And stock up on chocolate Hobnobs – and wine. You’re going to need them.
Jane: Don’t worry, we have plenty of Hobnobs, I’m just sitting in front of them. Protecting them. From…err… anyone who might want to hurt them. Yes …
And, as Rhoda said, all writing advice is the same, whatever genre you want to write in. Read. Read everything and anything. And then write. Then read some more. Join a writing group if you can find one, because feedback is important – it’s easy to believe that you’ve written a ground-breaking new novel that covers themes no-one has ever thought about before; but it takes a writing group to tell you you’ve written a shaky version of ‘The Thorn Birds’.
Oh, and don’t forget, always carry a corkscrew!
WriteStars: There’ll be plenty of biscuits and other refreshments at Rhoda and Jane’s brilliant masterclass, tomorrow, in York. Plus lots of inspiration and personal feedback. Can’t wait!