Saturday, October 10, 2009

Welcome Susan Mallery

I’m a conformist. I tend to live by society’s rules. I don’t try to sneak 12 items into the 10-items-or-less lane at the supermarket. I wash, rinse, and repeat. I never eat yogurt past the "Use by" date. But when it comes to fiction, I can be a rebel.

When someone says "you should never," my hackles go up. There is no "never" in my professional vocabulary. Anything is possible when the characters are properly motivated. Every action serves the greater good, the story. In fact, flying in the face of those industry "nevers" often makes for the most fascinating stories.

I recently read BLUE-EYED DEVIL by Lisa Kleypas. Lisa is another writer who deliberately breaks the romance novel rules, and her books are terrific. (She’s also so beautiful that I want to hate her, but she’s delightful. Nice, friendly, funny.) In BLUE-EYED DEVIL, the heroine kisses the hero early on and then marries another man. She becomes someone else’s wife, and the hero doesn’t make another appearance for several chapters.

"You can’t do that!" the rule followers might gasp.

But in order to understand the heroine’s motivation through the rest of the book, in order to truly grasp her internal conflict, it was absolutely essential that the reader experience this period of her life with her. Backstory would not suffice.

So Lisa made the best choice to tell the story she wanted to tell. And it became a riveting story that I loved.

I made a similarly rule-thwarting decision when creating the Lone Star Sisters series. The villain of the first three books became the hero of the fourth book, HOT ON HER HEELS, which will be released in a few weeks.

"You can’t do that!"

Sure I can. The story I wanted to tell was about the healing power of love, about how finding family can transform a man. That meant that Garth Duncan had to be a true villain in the first three books. His bad deeds couldn’t all turn out to be a big misunderstanding. Garth did some horrible things to his half-sisters.

The challenge for me, then, was to bring readers along on this journey. To dole out the details of Garth’s life at just the right moments, so that readers would move through the series from hatred toward him, growing empathy, and finally to love. I had to show Garth learning, growing. By the time readers turn the last page of HOT ON HER HEELS, they need to feel certain that Garth will never hurt anyone again. Love has disarmed him.

So by all means, tell the story you want to tell. Break the rules you want to break. Of course, you do need to accept that your book may be harder to sell when you break the rules. Lisa Kleypas and I have a track record. We’ve proven ourselves enough over the years that our editors are willing to let us take a few more risks. I will suggest, too, that if you want to break too many rules in one story, you should consider that you may not be writing a romance novel. That’s okay – just something you need to consider before trying to sell your book.

Let’s get a lively discussion going. Tell me about some of the so-called rules that drive you nuts. Have you broken these rules, or have they been broken by a writer you admire? How did it turn out?

The Lone Star Sisters Series published by HQN. The fourth, HOT ON HER HEELS, will be released this month. See more of Susan's work, including excerpts and blurbs at her website


Susan Mallery said...

Good morning! Just popping in to let you know that I'll be in and out all day. I'm at the Emerald City Romance Writers Conference in Seattle. (Having a great time!) Whenever I can, I'll sneak away to check comments and respond. Looking forward to a lively discussion!

Alice Anderson said...

You have a thing about turning a villain around don't you? You know I love you, but I'm still not sure ive forgiven you for the evil grandmother in the Buchanan series. I almost wanted to forgive her after everything she did to her poor grandkids. :D

Do you believe that a villain is always redeemable, especially in a series, or do you have a villain and just let him be a bad apple?

I'll admit it never occured to me to take a villain and turn him into an honest to goodness hero.

Rules I break generally come in the form of shorter chapters and delaying the meet cute between the hero and heroine. I don't wait too long, just longer than I'd sometimes prefer, but if there's no better way to tell the story that's the way it is.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Welcome to the prairies, Susan! Absolutely loved your post. Probably because I saw me in it. :)

I stop at stop signs. I never go over the express lane limit. I usually don't get traffic tickets and if I do I'll pay it a few days later.

But when it comes to my stories, they're my stories.

One of my best stories is breaking the rules because I have a pastor wanting to marry the girl he's always loved who just happens to be 3 mos pregnant and is so angry at God she won't go to church. And no, he's not the father. So when I enter this in the inspirational categories, the 'Christian' judges say 'A pastor can't fall in love with a fallen woman.' And I say really? Pastors are just men, after all. So even though this story has twice finaled in RWA contests, its been in the Contemporary series categories only. And they've liked her spunk and his devotion to her but say I need more physical sizzle between them. Well, considering I wrote it as an inspy... LOL. But it's bombed in the inspirational categories as not being realistic. I say phooey!

But you're right, I know it's a hard climb with that story so I've set it on the back burner for now. It's day will come and then I'll be ready with it.

I actually wanted to tell you about one my pet peeve rule but I've taken up so much space here so I'll check in later.

I'm thrilled you're here, today. :)

Susan Mallery said...

Alice, I would say a villain is always redeemable to an extent... but I don't choose to redeem every villain. :) I do think even the worst humans among us have some positive aspects to their personality. Sometimes it makes sense to show these on the page, sometimes it doesn't. It's all about what works for the story.

Anita Mae, Your story sounds very interesting. The judges who said it's unrealistic for a pastor to fall in love with a "fallen" woman are making a blanket statement about all men who choose to become pastors, and I don't think blanket statements are ever accurate. Best of luck with it!

Karyn Good said...

Welcome, Susan. So thrilled to have you with us today.

Loved your post on rule breaking. For myself, I'm still learning the rules and the don'ts, so at this point I could be breaking some rules without even knowing it. I like what you said about every action serving the greater good and proper character motivation because it's important to know why a rule might need to be stretched or broken.

Wonderful to have you here today, Susan!

Helena said...

I'm so glad you are here today, Susan. Your opinions on 'rules' are very welcome. I think most of us struggle with this from time to time.

I'm one who doesn't pay attention to the conventions of genre romance, at least in the beginning. I am more interested in finding out what my story is going to be about, who my characters are, where will the conflict come from ... you know, the important things!

I am unpublished (so far) and one of the stories I am currently working on involves a mother and daughter. There is a second time around romance for the mother, and equally important to the storyline is the daughter's romance. One romance writer told me she was glad to see I was tackling the story of an "older" woman, and others have said that there can't be more than one hero/heroine in a genre romance.

As I said initially, I'm not as concerned about what genre this will fit as I am to tell the story, but it's a bit galling to think that a real human situation possibly doesn't have a place in the romance category. I would be interested in hearing your opinion.

Again, warmest welcome to the frigid cold prairie (which is just a reference to the current weather, not the people!) and I hope you have a great conference in Seattle. Thank you for taking time to talk to us today.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Susan,
As you can tell, we're all really excited to have you with us today.

I really like your idea of reforming a villain. As you say, not every villain can be reformed, but to me, some of the very best villains are the ones that are most human and not purely evil. They are the most interesting, I think.

One of my pet peeves is the strict time eras allowed in the romance genre. I think it's starting to change a bit, but historical novels are generally limited to anything before 1900. I have a real interest in the stories of World War 2, but they are in a limbo because WW2 is not considered historical and not considered contemporary.

Have a great time in Seattle. I'm sure it's much warmer there than it is here. It's a winter wonderland!


Susan Mallery said...

Karyn, Thanks for the warm welcome. It's great to be here!

Helena, A story with two heroines doesn't lend itself to short category romance, but your book sounds like it would make an interesting women's fiction, in a longer format.

Jana, I adore spy novels set in the WWII era, and I would love to see more romances set in that time period. I'm not sure why publishers have shied away from that era. Maybe because the history was too recent to feel truly historical, but maybe we're getting past that now. I hope so!

And now I must rush off to workshops. What a fun day! This is great. I'll check back in soon!

Anonymous said...

Hi! Susan, I like how you write that the villian can turn his or her life around. I'm all for that, I feel that a person can change. I know for myself that I've made my mom upset for I had different views on love, I believe in love at first sight and you can be friends first, she didn't feel the same. I married the wrong man, but things are changing for me and I feel that my mom is looking down at me and its making me feel guilty but I'm at least happy and thats the most important part. You wrote with your heart and I believe in love and forgiveness. I love your books. I can't wait to read Garth's story.

Janet C. said...

Susan, I hope you're enjoying the workshops at the conference - only a week and a half before some of head to Surrey for the international writers conference, we're very excited. I've heard the Emerald City Conference is a great one to attend, over and above the National RWA one. Maybe one day I'll get there :)

Wonderful that you could join us today - and a great post. I love books that break the rules, throwing a twist or ignoring convention definitely gets my attention a lot quicker than "Oh, I bet I know what'll happen next." tried and true formula.

My first manuscript didn't follow any rules because I didn't know there were rules to follow. Since then, the conventions niggle at me as I write and I often find I'm blocked. Your post has shown me that I need to write the story - if it's a great story, it'll sell.

I have to ask - did you always break the rules, push the envelope, or were your first books more in line with the genre? Do you think breaking the rules as a new writer would help or hinder getting published? Do you wait to push the envelope until you're Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Lisa Kleypas, or Susan Mallery?

Thanks again for taking time out of your busy day to be with us. Love the discussion.

Vince said...

Hello Susan:

I’ve read two of your Christmas books a while back. Do you write these any more?

I have a story where a church splits in two because of an internal fight over hiring a female minister. The leader of the breakaway church remains hostile to the new minister and threatens to sue her church over missing church funds which should have gone to the new church. During the fighting they fall in love and the churches reunite. I don’t think the rules allow church disputes. But the idea of human love reuniting a church just seems to have a lot of appeal.

As a reader of a genre novel I often don’t like rules being broken. One of my favorite authors, (I’ve read over 40 of her books), wrote a book where the hero and heroine still had not even met after 90 pages at which point I threw the book away. (The book was about 210 pages long.)

Yes, you have to think of your editor but please also think of your readers.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Okay, I'm back. Here's my pet peeve: flying body parts and metaphors.

I love 'em!

- Her feet were nailed to the floor.

- His hands were icicles.

- His eyes drilled into hers.

- Her eyes flew to his.

I love these lines!

Yet current trends say they can't be used because they aren't realistic. That even though 'like' slows the pacing it's needed so people don't get confused. That since eyes can't really fly you have to say 'gaze' etc. That nailing someones feet to the floor really would hurt and therefore takes away from the emotion of the scene.

Well, I strongly disagree. And even though I'm trying to play by the rules in this regard because I am pre-pubbed, sometimes those lines just sneak in because no other line will do.

(Anita picks up her soapbox and after a furtive glance to ensure she is alone, she tosses it over the hedge. Whistling, she walks away.)

Thank you, Susan for allowing me to express my opinion. :)

Vince said...

Hi Anita:

I have to comment about your line: 'A pastor can't fall in love with a fallen woman.'

Not only do pastors fall in love with fallen women, they also create their fair share of fallen women.

Do the judges ever read the papers?


Erika said...

First, I love your books. I just received the Sweet series in the mail last week and I'm anxiously awaiting getting started. (I need to finish the book I'm reading first.)

I broke a big rule in my first WIP, every member of the Beta Bloggers called me on it and I had to fix it. My hero was married. Separated, in process of divorce, but married, when he first "met" the heroine. They had a vacation fling in Hawaii. I was called out in a big way. I now know better.

Carly Phillips had her hero and heroine sleep together on the first date. They got married on their first date also, but apparently that's not okay either.

Who was it who said rules were made to be broken?

Patrice said...

Susan, I love your books, and also enjoyed Blue Eyed Devil, but thought what is she doing? This is not the way a romance book works! I normally write WF but have recently switched to single title romance, and wanted to get a feel for what is out there. I agree that breaking the rules is okay for well known authors, but risky for us breaking in. Thanks for the post.
Patrice Wilton

Debra St. John said...

HI Susan, Great post. Great advice. I've always wanted to write a story with a rock star as the hero, and everyone always says it will never sell. But, I still plan on breaking the rules and writing it. You never know!

Crystal Posey said...

What a great post. This reminds me of what Christina Dodd tweeted not to long ago: "Plot holes don't matter. Logic doesn't matter. What matters is telling a whopping big story that sweeps the viewer/reader away." (

It seems I've been hearing, in lots of places online, sort of the same message. Either you're stories got it or it don't. There are no rules or method to follow. Write what is in you and see what the outcome is.

I have WILD HEARTS and UNDER HER SKIN on my Sony. I can't wait to get started.

Susan Mallery said...

Thanks for saying "you wrote with your heart." For me, emotion always comes first in the writing. And in reading, too. I'm a very soft touch.

Janet, Emerald City is definitely one of my favorite conferences. Hope you can make it some day.

Overall throughout my career, I have tried to write within the conventions of the genre. With category romances, that's particularly important in order to build a career and a readership. There's a level of trust that readers have when they pick up a category that I try not to violate. The fans of each line know that they're going to get an exciting, interesting story within the general conventions of that line, and that level of trust is a large part of what makes those lines so successful. What's fabulous is that there's something for everyone, sweet or spicy, funny or moody. I have found lots of opportunity for creativity even within those conventions.

But sometimes, you just have to be a rebel!

Susan Mallery said...

Vince, I *love* Christmas romances! They do as much as (if not more than) listening to Christmas carols to get me in the holiday spirit. Writing them is just as much fun.

HIGH POWERED, HOT BLOODED is my Christmas book this year. (Had to call a friend to figure out how to put in that link. I'm soooo not techie. Hope I did it right! If it worked, the link should take you to the book's page on Amazon, where you can pre-order it.) The hero on the cover is adorable!

You're absolutely right that writers need to keep their readers in mind when writing. If a tree falls in the forest, and someone writes a book about it, but no one reads the book... did it really happen? (Was that funny or just lame? I was going for funny!) I have so much respect for my readers, and I try with every single book to write something I think they would enjoy reading.

Susan Mallery said...

Erika, hope you love the Bakery Sisters series! The Keyes women are special to me. Because of the way they were raised, they had to work for their close relationship. Becoming a family was a struggle for them, which I think will make them value each other even more now. I love writing about sisters.

Patrice, you're definitely right that breaking the rules is risky. It doesn't always pay off. Particularly before you've established a name for yourself, you may find it difficult to sell a book that pushes the envelope too far.

Debra, ROCK ON!!!

Crystal, Christina Dodd is a genius (and a very good friend). She's right. Readers will forgive a lot if you connect with their hearts.

I hope you love WILD HEARTS and UNDER HER SKIN. (WILD HEARTS is the historical e-book prequel to the Lone Star Sisters series, and it was a blast to write. An early women's libber comes to the Wild West, and Zeke Titan and the other men of Titanville Texas don't know what hit them. LOL!)

And now I must run to lunch. I bought raffle tickets, so wish me luck that I'll win a fabulous basket of goodies!

Susan Mallery said...

By the way, for anyone who's in the Seattle area, stop by the Hilton Bellevue this evening from 4-6 p.m. for our Book Fair. Lots of authors signing their books, including me. I'd love to meet you face to face!

Vince said...

Hi Susan:

I checked “HIGH POWERED, HOT BLOODED” and I’ve never seen a Silhouette Desire without the red cover. Is yours a first of a ‘new look’ or is it from England or something like that? It looks like they left the heroine off the cover. Why would they do that? : )


Mary Ricksen said...

Sometimes conforming just doesn't work, so be a non conformist for a change, it's working for you!

Janet C. said...

For all you on the west coast, the night is young and the discussion continues. For me on the east coast, the night wans and the remainder of a most excellent book awaits.

I want to thank Susan for guest blogging with us - and for the wonderful post that gives us the opportunity to look beyond convention and write the story our characters tell us to write. I know you've had a busy day, Susan, at the conference so our heartfelt thanks for taking time to hang out here on The Prairies and answer our readers' comments. It's been a pleasure.

Again, for our readers, check out Susan's website for a list of her books, both archived and new releases. Read her media kit for more interesting information about being a writer. susanmallery

Susan Mallery said...

Sorry I didn't make it back yesterday. I had a workshop to do in the afternoon, followed immediately by the Book Fair. Great time!

Vince, I don't think HIGH POWERED, HOT BLOODED is part of a new look for Desire. I think they designed the cover this way to attract readers who may not typically glance at Desires. As a Christmas story, this may appeal to a lot of readers. (I hope! I'd love to help readers get in the holiday spirit, the way Christmas books have cheered me over the years.)

Thanks for having me, Janet, and thanks for posting the link to my website. I'd love for you all to join my Members Only area! I'll be posting an excerpt of HOT ON HER HEELS very soon, and members get to read the first two chapters.