Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview with Kate Walker

Kate Walker has been writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon since 1984. During that time she has had 58 novels published, with three new titles coming up. Her novels have been published in over thirty-five countries and around twenty different languages worldwide. Her January 2010 release THE KONSTANTOS MARRIAGE DEMAND was recently awarded the Reviewers’ Choice Best Presents Extra 2010 by the American Romantic Times magazine.Tell us, Kate, how you sold your first book, and if you had any rejections before getting that exciting call.

My first book THE CHALK LINE was published way back in 1984 so I got a letter, rather than an exciting call. But that was exciting enough. I came home one day from shopping at the local market to find a big white envelope with a pink rose on it waiting on the doormat. I had sent in two submissions to Mills and Boon. One was totally rejected – and quite right too! It was pretty bad. I had made the classic mistake of not reading any of the current books that Mills and Boon were publishing – so it was nothing like the sort of thing they were looking for. The second one earned me a letter from a Senior Editor but it had the classic mistake of ‘lacking emotional punch’ so they didn’t accept it, but asked me to try again. I took that as a commission rather than a rejection and wrote THE CHALK LINE. They asked me to go to lunch and talk about it – they wanted just a few revisions – nothing very much to be honest – I think that was one of my easiest books to get accepted - and that was my first acceptance. I found it harder to get my second book through!

Where is your favourite place to work?
We moved to this house because it has the former garage turned into what was originally the grandma’s sitting room, and which we planned would be my office. I can see the street from the window and decide whether to answer the door or not if anyone comes by. It’s also big enough to have lots of bookshelves that just about manage to contain my books – the ones to read and the international translations of my novels. Grandma was a heavy smoker, and when we first lived here I would sometimes go into the room early in the morning and it smelled as if someone had been smoking in here – but she’d been dead for years! That has faded away now so perhaps she’s decided I can have the room as mine!

Do you have to juggle writing with the day job? What is your work schedule?
My writing is my full time job, so I try to work office hours. The reason I say try to is that I tend to be an all or nothing writer. When things are going well with a book I can work from about 6am to 10pm. One of the things I miss about having time away from my desk – when I was a stay at home Mum – is the free time you have to think and let a story develop so that when you sit down again there is so much waiting to be written. Thinking time is vital to a story. These days I do more ‘juggling’ with the demands of publicity, promotion and the internet. I love keeping in touch with everyone and learning more about what is happening with author friends, publishers, etc., but there is much more to this side of the job than there ever was when I first started out. Then I wrote the books, submitted, revised – and moved on to the next. The most publicity I did was a few talks to women’s groups etc. Now I need to schedule time for blogs.

To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?
I’m a mixture of both – I plan a fair bit in my head – the characters, the conflict, where the story is heading – but then I tend to jump in and see where my characters take me. I need to know them well and then introduce the situation between them after which I tend to give them their heads to see how they will react. I have a notepad beside my keyboard where I jot down notes and plan ahead if I need to or an idea comes to me. Sometimes I need a pencil and notes to work out the way things are going to go and put events in the right order. Other times I just plough on with what I’m writing. There was one book once: SATURDAY’S BRIDE, where the ending had a twist that turned everything on its head so I had to work back from that to make sure that everything fitted with the misleading explanation and also the correct one – that took some careful planning and plotting.

Mostly, I have a very good insight into my characters and an idea of the situation – I might also have a few staging posts along the way that will lead me through the mist ahead in my telling of their story. But after that it’s largely a case of ‘what if . . .’ and answering the important questions ‘and then what?’ and ‘why.’

Which authors have most influenced your work? And which do you choose to read for pleasure?
It was reading The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart that made me want to write romantic stories with ambiguous heroes. I had seen the (bad) film version with Hayley Mills and hunted down the book. Then I read every Mary Stewart I could lay my hands on. I was also heavily influenced by the Bronte sisters- I grew up not very far away from Haworth and we often visited the Parsonage Museum. I literally moved on to Wuthering Heights from Enid Blyton – Emily Bronte was the next author along the shelves in the children’s library – and I wrote my MA thesis on Charlotte and Emily’s juvenilia and their adult books (which came in very handy with my latest novel – see the last question.) One of the most influential books of my childhood was a very old novel (it was old even when I first read it) called Simona’s Jewel by Marjorie Phillips – I read it first when I was about 11 and again there was a dark, ambiguous hero. I read it several times and always loved it. Recently I found it again through Bookfinder and managed to get my hands on a copy – it was amazing to see how vividly I remembered it, even the illustrations were clear in my mind from years ago. I also loved all the Georgette Heyer books and read through every one I could get my hands on – didn’t every romantic novelist?

For pleasure I read anything and everything – I love Dorothy Dunnett’s books, specially the Game of Kings series, my sister got me started on Jodi Picoult and I think her books are amazing, I have to be very careful when I start reading one of them as they grab me so tightly and keep me absorbed so that I don’t want to put the book down and as they are usually very emotional books, I get so involved that I don’t want those emotions to colour what I’m writing. And of course I read romances – to see what themes everyone else is writing and because I really enjoy what the late great Charlotte Lamb called these ‘complicated little books’. I love romances by Michelle Reid, Anne McAllister, Liz Fielding, Marion Lennox . . . so many good writers to choose from.

What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
Believable, sympathetic characters that the reader can empathise with. A readable, easy pace to the story and a distinctive voice from the author. That’s always easy to say but so hard to define. In writing for Mills & Boon, I always say that they are not looking for a new Michelle Reid or Liz Fielding – or even a new Kate Walker – they have one of those . They’re looking for what Jane Smith or Mary Brown can give to the stories so that they appear fresh and revitalised. It’s not really possible to be original when writing romances, but it is possible to be authentic, to write your own personal, individual version of the tried and tested stories. And of course to quote one Senior Editor when asked what they were looking for and what was selling well - the answer was ‘There are three things that always sell well – emotion, emotion, emotion.’

How do you relax? What interests do you have other than writing?
I love to read and never get enough time for that so that would be my number one form of relaxation. But I also love films and plays, dramas that feed my imagination and give me ideas for new stories so I get to the theatre at every possible opportunity. I love learning about antiques and I have a special collections of old embroideries. Most of them are ‘Samplers’ the embroideries that young girls were set to do to learn their stitches, with the letters of the alphabet, some designs of flowers or animals, and a text from the bible. The oldest of these dates from 1789, I have a tiny bookmark that my mother made for her mother – the original Kate Walker whose name I use as my writing name - and the most recent ones are ones I’ve done myself. I used to have a lot more time for knitting and embroidery and I have a tablecloth that I embroidered with roses, daffodils, tulips that we use for special occasions. I still love to wander round antiques fairs and stalls thought samplers are becoming very rare now, and very expensive.

I’m actually surprised to find that I now spend quite a lot of my time teaching. When I left school I was determined to become a librarian because I just didn’t want to become a teacher like my mother – or my husband, my friends, even my son, now. But after I wrote the 12 POINT GUIDE TO WRITING ROMANCE, I found that I was asked to do a lot of workshops, writing courses, residential weekends, teaching writing romance. Mills & Boon often ask me to run workshops for their New Voices contests or other events. Each year I teach at Writers’ Holidays at Caerleon, I run the Advance Romance Writing course at Fishguard residential writing weekend every February, and next year I will be teaching a week long course on writing Romantic Fiction in the glorious setting of theWatermill at Posara in Tuscany. I now find that I enjoy teaching writing and that I get a real buzz from discussing craft with would-be authors – and an even bigger one from knowing that I’ve helped some of them reach the status of published writers.

What advice would you give a new writer?
Read. Read. Read. Read the sort of books that the publisher you’re aiming for is currently publishing You’d be amazed how many people think they can just ‘dash off’ a ‘little romance’- because how hard can it be – without ever reading any of the books the publishers are buying right now. They have no idea what a contemporary romance is like because they have never read one - or they read one once 20 years ago and think they are still the same. Respect the genre. Don’t think of it as something that you can’ churn out’ very quickly. You have to ‘get’ what a romance is all about – the focus on the emotional journey and write that from the heart. And as I said above, be authentic to you – don’t try to copy any other already successful author.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you cope with it?
It’s a rare book that I don’t get part of the way into it and think ‘this stinks . . .I’ve never written anything so bad.’ Sometimes it stalls and drags so much that I think I’ll never finish it. And sometimes it’s so bad that I think I’ll never ever write another book again. I don’t think these are real writer’s block – but I do think they come close to it and they’re a form of it. Real writer’s block is when you can’t actually write another word. I get close sometimes, and my husband will tell you that in almost every book I’ll say I don’t think I can do this again. He always tells me that I know I can do it – and he’s always right!

But even after 60 titles, it doesn’t get any easier. I totally understand unpublished authors when they struggle to get a book right and the nerves that set in when you send a book in. Because each new submission has the potential to be the one where the imposter syndrome I’ve been living with is finally exposed and I’m revealed as a fraud! I suppose it’s the knowledge that I’ve done this before, been through this before that keeps me going. I stick at my desk, write words, even if they are then words I delete – as Julie Cohen so sensibly advises ‘give yourself permission to write crap.’ At least crap can be edited and improved, an empty page can’t be. The time when a book stalls, when I’m on the verge of a block are usually there because I don’t know my characters well enough. Nothing is more likely to make my writing grind to a halt than to discover that I don’t know why a character is behaving in a certain way or how they got there. This is probably because I’ve been pushing my characters to act as I’d planned in my novel plan or synopsis, when now their characters show they’re really far more likely to be heading down a different path. So one of the best ways I’ve found of dealing with a block is to go back a scene or maybe two, to see where I’ve taken the wrong turning, ‘question’ my characters and find out why they are behaving as they do.

Very often a change of pace in my day – moving on to something practical for example – will relax my mind and let me think things through without the pressure of staring at the keyboard and the empty screen. Ironing or gardening are great for this because you can do them with your hands while your mind is occupied. And I’d do anything to get out of the ironing so I’m pretty fast to find a way to get back to writing instead. One other system that works for me is to get my husband to do what he calls asking idiot questions – I give him a brief resumé of the story and he’ll say something like ‘So what if he/she was to drive into the nearest town . ‘I usually respond ‘no!’ pretty fast and then, because I have to say exactly why he/she wouldn’t do this or that, I come up with an idea of what they would do.

In what way has the RNA helped you or your career?
I didn‘t join the RNA until I’d been published for a few years. I’ll admit that I didn’t know about the New Writers’ Scheme or that unpublished authors could be a member of the Association. So I missed out on what I think could have been one of the most valuable parts of joining the RNA – learning from published authors, from the conference and from the articles in the magazine. Though when I was first a member there wasn’t even a conference either. I remember I went to a couple of one day seminars – at Castle Howard and in Bath before the conferences were set up. Those occasions were great for mixing with other authors, meeting agents, publishers, writers of all the different types of romantic fiction – and making friends. I loved learning more about the industry I work in, getting to know more people who have this same rather strange, lonely career that I had taken on. It was fascinating and valuable to learn how other people work, how they manage their careers.

The first couple of awards lunches I went to made me feel that I wasn’t just an isolated author sitting in my workroom in a small northern town, in touch with very few people. Authors I’d read and admired for years became real people and then real friends, and the ‘New Writers’ asked questions, wanted to learn so much. I’ve always found that talking to new writers, those who are not yet published but working hard to get there is so inspiring and invigorating. I’ve come home from every conference revitalised and with a renewed enthusiasm for my own writing. This was particularly so when I started the ‘virgins’ – the First scheme for the RNA conferences. Each year I saw that there were more newcomers signing up for the conference, half scared, half excited, and that reminded me of how I’d first felt when I started out.

The RNA has enabled me to give something back to a profession and an industry that has been very good to me over the years I’ve been writing. By running workshops at the conference, or acting as a reader for the NWS, I can put something into the development of new authors, help them learn about their craft. I don’t think anyone can teach someone who doesn’t have the talent already, but teaching and critiquing can help people refine their skills and hopefully get them on the right path. I’ve been thrilled when new writers I’ve worked with and hopefully helped have had their first acceptance, their first published book. Years ago, a friend of my mother, Marguerite Lees, was a writer for Mills and Boon in the 60s and a member of the RNA I think – she was one of the few people to encourage me in my early writing and I’ve been able to pass on her kindness to others. And above all else, I have made some wonderful lifelong friendships of writers of all ages, writing all types of romantic fiction, at all stages of their careers through the RNA.

Are you into social networking, and in what way do you feel it helps your career?
I have a web site and a blog and I try to keep both of those as up to date as possible. I also have regular blogging spots every month on The Pink Heart Society web site (A Date With Kate) We Write Romance (Kate’s Corner) and Tote Bags ‘N’ Blogs. I find that these help me get in touch with readers and are ways that they can keep up to date with me. Because writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon has such an international market, I want to find a way to keep in touch with readers in America, Japan, Australia, India, France, Spain. . . My blog has had visitors from 161 countries and these are readers I couldn’t speak to or do a signing for so this is my only way to reach them. I think that my blog statistics show that it’s worthwhile and I have a lot of regular visitors who come back again and again to see what I’m doing, and find out about my books. I can also talk about writing and run Q&As which are popular with people who have read my 12 POINT GUIDE TO WRITING ROMANCE.

I do have a Facebook page which I update with my regular blog posts but I don’t use Twitter. I have too many demands on my time as it is and I just know I’d get distracted by chatting and keeping in touch. I am far too tempted by procrastination as it is and I don’t need any more distractions. I’m not sure that it would help my career when the thing that helps it most is writing the books and getting them published. That’s what’s kept me in this business for 26 years.


Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
The answer to this question connects up with the answer to question 5. My latest book has the title THE RETURN OF THE STRANGER and it’s part of a special four book mini series in Mills & Boon Modern Romance. Last year, editorial came up with an idea for a mini series of romances reworking some of the classics of romantic fiction – not copying them but using them as inspiration for new, Modern Romances that fitted with what the line promises but kept the spirit of the classics. I was asked to write the ‘Wuthering Heights’ for this series. It was both a joy and a struggle. I loved the chance to revisit my favourite Bronte novel, the book that had haunted me in my childhood ever since the day my junior school teacher had started telling us the story of this great book one day when a thunderstorm had fused all the lights. He only told us the first part, where Mr Earnshaw brought the gipsy boy home, as far as the day that Heathcliff runs away, but I was hooked and wanted to know more. I always knew that Heathcliff and Cathy, for all their ardour and passion, were not people who would stay together in any happy ever after sort of ending.

In many ways this was the hardest part of writing a book inspired by Wuthering Heights – I had to create a love story that would give them a happy ending and yet keep it true to the spirit of the original book. I had to take wild, strong-willed Cathy and dark, brooding, dangerous Heathcliff and let them learn about love in a way that the originals never managed to do. It was a challenge and thrill and I hope I’ve come up with a story that stands on its own but has the spirit of the original.

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
I've just completed my 60th title for Mills & Boon Modern THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES so now I’m working on a brand new story. I haven’t ever written a ‘royal romance’ before but this spring, because of the royal wedding ( and then the second one in July) I was asked to run a workshop on writing a royal romance. Preparing for that, and thinking about what made a romance with a king, a queen, a prince or princess as a hero or heroine different from other types of stories. I found myself getting intrigued – and then inspired. Characters started to grow in my thoughts – a hero and a heroine. I won’t tell you which one is royal as that would spoil things – and I always find that if I tell people too much about a story I’m writing then it loses that exciting ‘what if . . .’ feeling that I talked about in question 4. I feel as if I’ve told the story already. But from someone who never thought I’d write a royal romance, I find I’m intrigued and fascinated by the characters I’ve created and I want to write their story.

Kate Walker’s book the 12 POINT GUIDE TO WRITING ROMANCE (Aber publishing) won the CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Best Book for Writers’ 2004 Award. Two editions have sold out and a third edition is now also available on KINDLE.

Her website is at: www.kate-walker.com 

or her Blog: www.kate-walker.blogspot.com/

9 comments:

Nas Dean said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for sharing so much about yourself, it was awesome reading this post.

Can't wait to read your latest, The Return of the Stranger!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fascinating interview, Kate! I loved hearing you at the Newcastle RNA day a few years ago and your 12-point guide sits on my bookshelf near the computer.

Kate Walker said...

Hello Nas - thank you for visiting. I'm glad you found plenty to interest you in the interview. I do hope you enjoy Retutn of The Stranger when you get to read it.

Kate Walker said...

Funnily enough, Rosemary, I was just remembering that Newcastle day and mentioned it to my husband - it was a great day wasn't it? I enjoyed it a lot and got to meet a lot of northern members of the RNA who can't always get to Conference. You must have had one of the original 'first edition' 12 Point Guides - I really hope that it has been useful to you.

Helen Lacey said...

Hi Kate
Such a fabulous interview - I have always read your books and it's great to learn about your writing process and your career as an author. I'm looking forward to reading Return Of The Stranger.

Kate Walker said...

Helen Helen - and thank you. I'm glad you found the interview interesting and it's such a compliment to know that you have always read my books. I do hope that you enjoy The Return of The Stranger when you get your hands on it - it can be read compleetly as a stand-alone romance or looking for the links to the orignal inspiration of Wuthering Heights.

Victoria Connelly said...

Lovely to read this, Kate! When I joined the RNA back in 1996, I had the very great pleasure of meeting you and Jessica Hart at a lunch in York. It was my first RNA outing and amazing to meet a real author because I remembered reading one of your early titles whilst I was at school and knowing that I wanted to write novels too! I've forgotten the title - it was about a man who is rescued by the heroine in a snowstorm and he can't remember who he is. Loved that book so much! It set me on the path to writing my own so thank you for being so inspirational! x

Kate Walker said...

Victoria - I'm not quite sure if your post is making me glow with your lovely vomments and the thought of being inspirational - or feel downright ancient at the thought of inspiring you when you were at school! I remember that lunch in yourk only too well - Jessica Hart is a fabulous hostess. And since then you have gone on to make a real success of your own career- I love to hear about New Writers making it like that. One of the reasons why I wrote the 12 Point Guide - for people who couldn't get to one of my workshops or courses.

Oh - and that book you read - it was Game of Hazard (1986), my very first paperback ever - not everything in K&B went into paperback those days. It was also my first USa title so I have happy memories of it as if set me on the path to my career ever since.

Victoria Connelly said...

Oh, thank you, Kate! And I didn't mean to make you feel ancient - you most certainly are not! Just inspirational!

Game of Hazard - how marvellous! I was reading my fill of M&B's and I remember yours and Margaret Mayo's with great affection : )