So last week I was chatting with my writer pal, Robyn Carr. Yes, I totally just name-dropped there, but I did it for a reason. I wanted to pick Robyn’s brain about some writerly things, and I knew if I told you where I heard these marvelous things, you’d listen even harder. Robyn is one of my very favorite people in this business; hell, she’s one of my favorite people PERIOD. She’s honest, kind, loyal, and talented, and she has 35 years in the publishing business. She’s been down and she’s been up, and right now, she’s VERY up, since her latest book just hit #1 on the NYT list! (That would be THE WANDERER, the start of her brand spanking new series. Haven’t gotten it yet? Go. I’ll wait.)
Anyway, this isn’t even Robyn’s first #1, so when I had a little noodling to do last week, I knew she was the perfect person to ask. I had dropped her a congratulatory email on her firstie, and later that day I sent her another, telling her I would love to chat in a few days when she had some free time and was done drinking champagne and dancing on tabletops. My phone rang within ten minutes because that’s just the type of person she is. I told her that I was pondering some options about a couple of different projects I had in the works, and needed to get some clarity. I knew by talking to her, I’d start making sense of the cloudy soup in my head.
In typical Robyn fashion, she managed to be brilliant over the course of the next hour. And after we got off the phone, I felt MILES better. So much better that I jotted down the main points of what she’d said because I knew someone else would find them helpful too. And because Robyn is awesome, when I asked for permission to blog about what she’d said, her response was, “Go for it, babe.” So, here is some straight up wisdom, Carr-style. Her points are in bold, my commentary follows.
- Write to your brand. If you have a choice between two projects, equally good, pick the one that most closely allies with the brand you are creating. None of us like to think of ourselves as brands. That’s commercial and crass and we are ARTISTS. But it’s a commercial world we’re selling in, and the clearer our message to the reader, the better. Ideally, what you write, how it’s packaged, how it’s marketed, how you engage in social media—all of it reflects the same message. That won’t always be the case, and that isn’t to say your brand can’t evolve, but the closer you can stick to that brand, the easier it is for a reader to know exactly what they’re getting when they pick up your book.
- Write to yourself. And if you thought that first point was too commercial, Robyn was very quick to point out that your brand MUST REFLECT WHO YOU ARE. You can’t fake this; there is no substitute for authenticity and no shortcut around it. You write what you are. And let’s be clear, who you really are may not be apparent to anybody but you at first glance. But that inner voice, that clear bell that rings out your name is yours and yours alone. You can’t imitate, you can’t settle, you can’t wish you were something you’re not. There’s a great t-shirt making the rounds that has an owl and the words “Be who you be.” Always.
- Write the first book in a series as if you were writing a stand alone. BRILLIANT. Robyn sussed that the greatest difficulty in writing a first series book is the pressure to world-build, to throw every damn thing in there that you’re ever going to need in the series. That means writing in a pressure cooker. You’re constantly judging every word, every detail, every scrap of dialogue lest it come back to haunt you in a future book. Forget that. Write the book as if you have ONE chance to tell this character’s story because, actually, that’s all you’ve got. You have one opportunity to introduce people to this character and tell THIS part of the story. So tell it as its own story and stop thinking of it as anything other than its own book. (That’s how I wrote SILENT IN THE GRAVE, and I can promise you, it was much more freeing than it would have been if I’d known how many books were to follow.)
- Readers will forgive bad behavior in a hero far more quickly than in a heroine. She’s not wrong. Her theory is that readers get attached to heroes so they are more forgiving, whereas they want to BE the heroine and therefore judge her more harshly. SO TRUE. My newest heroine, Delilah Drummond, the disgraced flapper in A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, is not immediately likeable. She’s strong, she’s wild, she’s fairly amoral. But she’s no worse than some of the men I’ve written—in fact she’s a good deal tamer! Yet people refer to her as difficult and terrible even as they come to slowly appreciate her. Double standard? Absolutely! But I think Robyn was absolutely right that there’s an identification issue going on with the reader and the heroine and that makes the reader more demanding of her.
- Write with your gut. I told Robyn that with the last book, CITY OF JASMINE, I could NOT get things started. In defiance of all the common writing wisdom, I kept rewriting the first chapter. I KNEW that every time I rewrote it I was getting closer, and I further knew that I couldn’t properly move on until I had it. I needed to get that first chapter done to figure out exactly who Evangeline was. And once I did that, the rest of the book clicked into place. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Robyn had done exactly the same thing. This is one of those great taboos of writing. You are never supposed to let yourself get bogged down in one spot–you’re supposed to keep going NO MATTER WHAT. But Robyn writes from instinct. Like me, she knew what she had to do to get where she had to go. That sort of instinct comes from long experience and she was smart enough to follow it. I followed it but in a state of abject terror. Robyn was considerably more cheerful about it because she knew everything would be alright.
And that brings me to something Robyn didn’t say, but sounds like her. It’s a line from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, and it’s become something of a mantra for me. “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.”