Jo Leigh is a woman of varied talents. Unlike the common thinking behind the jack of all trades term, she is not a master of none. She does just write books, she writes award winning books. She doesn’t just play pool, she wins 8 ball championships. She has also written screenplays, been a producer, and a script consultant on more than fifty screenplays. Today, Ms. Leigh shares her thoughts on writing and the romance genre.
Jane: What did you do before writing and what made you start writing?
Jo Leigh: Read as if I needed books to live. Watched movies obsessively. I was also quite bossy, which I personally believe is a requirement.
Jane: Jayne, my blogging partner, found a fascinating article about what some authors do to jump start their creative juices. Any tips you care to share?
Leigh: There are several stages to the process, and for me, each one needs a unique pump primer. For new material, I love to brainstorm with other writers. Five is the magic number, but I’ve brainstormed with one other writer when necessary. The free flow of ideas always gets my own brain in gear. Oddly, I probably get more revved by talking about their plots. When my plot comes up for discussion, I tend to get emotional and have to work at being open. One would think after 15 years I’d be better at it.
The next stage for me is rather analytical. I use a combination of plotting techniques (Syd Field, Bob McKee, weird stuff I’ve picked up over the years and incorporated into my process) and somehow end up with a big spreadsheet with pretty much every scene mapped out. The structure gives me the illusion that I have some control over the process. I could live in this process quite happily. It would probably give seat-of-the-pants writers heart failure, but it works for me.
Then there’s the writing. I must confess that I’ve been a panic writer for years and years, waiting ’till the last possible moment to actually write. The motivation at that point is the looming end of my career and the prospect of living in a big box under the freeway. That’s enough (finally!) to get me off my butt, where I’ve no doubt been happily doing a hundred percent more research than necessary. I immerse myself in the story and have no life whatsoever until it’s done. My tip? Don’t do this. Oh, and it’s probably worth a mention that quite often my lovely spreadsheet plot bears little resemblance to the actual book.
I revert back to my book learnin’ for revisions. I have been a student of story structure since I started writing screenplays a gazillion years ago. Revisions is where it pays off.
Jane: How would you characterize your writing?
Leigh: I tend to write books as if they’re movies. I keep the pace quick, I’m dialog heavy, and I try hard to surprise myself (and hopefully the reader). I’ve always meant to do some kind of informal survey of readers to find out how they characterize my work. I bet I’ll be surprised.
Jane: Have you ever written an unsympathetic character? If so, what particular challenges do you face when writing someone that your readers may not initially like? Do you think the rules are different for a male character v. a female character?
Leigh: I have written unsympathetic characters, although I know that a lot of category readers don’t care for that in the hero or heroine, even if there’s a well-developed character transformation. My heroine in Release, Harper, is not warm or compassionate, despite being a doctor. She had a long way to go to reach love, both giving and receiving. Even at the end of the book, she wasn’t a typical heroine. That was a challenge because I wanted people to like the book and to stick with her. I had to find ways to make her struggle clear, and that meant I had to give her a very solid, believable back story.
I do believe category readers are more troubled by an unsympathetic hero than heroine. They want the fantasy, and while they love the Alpha guy, he better damn well save the puppy early.
Jane: There was an article last month at Romancing the Blog by agent, Kristin Nelson, about writing a big enough novel. I’ve read categories that I consider better than a mass market, primarily straight contemporaries. How do you feel about that?
Leigh: I agree with you. I’ve read some knockout category books that have all the depth and resonance (or more) of mass market books. Although with the changes afoot at H/S, cutting the length of pretty much all the longer lines, that’s going to be tougher to find. I’m not saying impossible because a solid, engaging story doesn’t have to be 400 pages. I know for me that it was a real challenge to write complex romantic suspense with lots of POVs and a big subplot in Blaze, but it was also incredibly exciting. I feel as if the stories I told in the four books that comprised the In Too Deep series were big. They had meat, they had twists, they were about real people facing unbeatable odds. Writing those books also showed me I’m quite ready to take on single title, and not have it just be bigger category books.
I’ve also read category books that are simple as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and but the story was gorgeous, the characters compelling, and I was hooked. Sometimes, what you want is a little romance in your life. Category books can fill that bill beautifully.
I’ve never been one to finish a book if I don’t like it. Well, fiction, anyway. I toss a good number of mainstream books for the same reason I toss some category books.
Jane: Do you think that there is a stigma against writing category romances? Or is there an advantage because you are already published and therefore have a proven audience?
Leigh: Both. There is definitely a hierarchy in the romance world (and other genres as well). Category books are probably the most vocally dissed. Even people who like me tell me they don’t read that trash. I think attitudes about category happen early, and it’s all about the way the books are introduced to the reader. It’s hard when most of the negativity comes from people who don’t read them. As for the transition from category to mainstream, the project has to be a knockout, but that’s true for anyone. And frankly, some agents have preconceived notions about category writers, so it’s good to look at their authors before submitting. Agents and editors are readers, first. If they think category books stink, then, well, that’s true for them. But a lot of top sellers have come from the category lines, and I like to focus on that proud tradition. For me personally, I’ve been able to try my hand at comedy, drama, suspense, caper and mystery in my career, and was paid as I learned where my strengths lie. Not too shabby.
Jane: Do you want to move out of category writing eventually or will you always write categories along with bigger novels?
Leigh: I’m writing a big romantic suspense novel right now. I have no plans to give up the category books. Besides, I’ve been with my editor about 11 years now, which is something of a rarity. I really like working with her, and she’s willing to buy stories that let me stretch, so, no. I’ll be with category for the foreseeable future.
Jane: What does it mean to you, having been nominated for a RITA? You’ve been nominated before for other category novels. Do you think that there is stigma against Blaze’s when it comes to RITA judging?
Leigh: You could have knocked me over with a feather when I got the call about Relentless. It was a total crapshoot to put the Blaze in romantic suspense. My entire motivation was to expose the book to different readers, not to make it to the finals. I’m amazed and delighted, and so, so proud. It’s given me a personal boost, and I love that I’m in the playground with the big kids. As far as the stigma goes, I’m sure there are readers who don’t care for the level of sexuality and the language, but it’s never going to be an even playing field. Ever. The big prize is the readers who bond with my books. Everything else is gravy.
Jane: If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be?
Leigh: I’d like it very much if reading became the hottest thing since the iPod, thank you. :) Honestly, I think the methodology of book selling is so antiquated and bewildering it gives me the vapors. Perhaps a new business model would be good?
Jane: Is there a secret to publishing you can share?
Leigh: Nothing glamorous, I assure you. Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboards. Finish the book. Start another one. That’s it. That’s what I did. That’s what every successful writer I know did.
Jane: If you had one marketing secret, what would that be?
Leigh: Ha! Oh, sorry. Uh, no I really don’t have a marketing secret. My education is sorely lacking in that department, although that needs to change now that I’m going to put my single title book out there. With category, it doesn’t matter what an individual author does, with the sole exception of writing fabulous books. That’s it. Nothing else will make enough of a difference to change the course of a career. It always comes back to the book.
Jane: I saw you won an 8 ball championship. Any of your novels feature pool sharks?
Leigh: Yes. One did. If I had any kind of memory whatsoever, I’d tell you which one. :) It was a long time ago. Oh, wait. I do remember my first book having a pool scene in it. I love pool. I’m quite ruthless about it, and I have a wonderful cue with a rose on it – both things make me happy.
Jane: What are the three romance books you read in the last month? and why?
Leigh: In the last month I’ve read books on: mercenaries, Arlington National Cemetery, the CIA, political assassinations, MMORPGs, behavioral psychology, PTSD and maps of Washing DC and environs. Sadly, none of them were particularly romantic. On the bright side, they were, for the most part, fascinating. I will read for pleasure again, but not until the current partial is finished.
Now that’s the downside of being a writer. I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. I haven’t stopped buying books, oh no, but the time! I need to get me some of those James Patterson assistants. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Jo Leigh has graciously offered up 2 complete sets of the In Too Deep series from Blaze. That’s Closer…, Relentless, Release and Reckoning. Relentless is her RITA nomitated book and I will give one ecopy of that book away.