Monday, September 20, 2010

Stephanie Laurens and How to Be Successful as a Writer

When I stepped out of the elevator and turned the corner to the Friday evening cocktail party at the RWNZ conference, I didn’t need to be told the party’s theme – “Romantic in Red”. For a second, I thought I’d entered the dark room to a photo lab (for those of you who remember pre-digital technology.) Red upon red.

With a “This is Stephanie,” of my friends introduced me to a tiny, vivacious, dark-haired woman and left us on our own. As we chatted, my new acquaintance finally said, “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Oh, my god,” I said. “You’re THAT Stephanie.” Stephanie Laurens. The best selling author and our keynote speaker. My mind flashed back to a rodeo in Florida where Phil and I had spent the first half talking with a friendly older couple who seemed to enjoy rodeo as much as we did. Until they realized we didn’t have the foggiest idea they were the stars of a very popular country/western TV show, and then turned us off entirely.

Well, Stephanie wasn’t at all like that. She just ignored my embarrassment and went on chatting about romances and writing – the stuff we both loved. Naturally, I had to pick her brain with the one question that’s been on the top of my mind lately, “How do you stay so productive?”

She has a routine, writes daily, but the thing that stuck with me most is that all her books are planned. She knows where’s she’s going before she starts. She said it takes time to plan out the work, but the efficiency is worth it in the end. In fact, she told me she can’t afford not to plan.

End of my days of sitting down at a blank sheet of paper with an idea… At least I was headed in that direction anyway.

Stephanie’s keynote speech the next day was one of those “aha!” moments for me. Actually a bunch of aha’s. She talked about the publishing industry and the place of romance writers in it. She said that “fiction is a vehicle for the confirmation of the fundamental verities that underpin our society”. All stories, no matter what genre, are about a major theme that is important to humanity: love, justice, revenge, good against evil, etc. Underneath it all, whether “commercial” or “literary”, we’re all writing the same kind of story.

Popular fiction takes these themes and gives us affirmations that make us feel good. It moves readers at a visceral level, working under the audience’s radar.

Stephanie then gave us the history of publishing in a nutshell. What was interesting is that what we consider “mass market” publications go way back to the 18th century, with the production of cheap editions of books aimed at the general public. Charles Dickens wrote for a mass market audience. He wrote to entertain his contemporaries, not to be taught as literature in high school English classes a hundred years later.

And here’s where the light went on for me. We write books to entertain. Stephanie said, “If you want to succeed in genre fiction, engrave the word ‘entertain’ on your mind.”

“Most outsiders”, said Stephanie, “don’t get it.” They don’t understand that there are different types of fiction. The purpose defines how the author writes.

So where’s the difference?

Literary fiction is concerned with the arrangement of letters on the page and words in a sentence.

Genre fiction is about the subject. The author controls the story to best and most effectively convey what she wants to say about her subject.

Mass market (commercial) fiction is about the story. The story drives what the author writes and how she writes it. Language is important because language is the vehicle, but it's not the goal.

What’s good writing? Stephanie says there is a simple test: “Does the work achieve what it was intended to achieve?” If your goal is to entertain, you write for the mass market and you must NEVER forget that. If you keep your mind on entertaining, you are less likely to torpedo your own work.

Audiences of commercial fiction want a satisfying ending. That’s the author’s contract with them. They also have other expectations – a heroine they can identify with (one of the reasons very close third person POV works so well), a hero they can fall in love with, etc. Entertainment is all about experience. You want to express and heighten your audience’s experience. Stephanie said if you want to know what works, study the best sellers. “We are entertainers and the rules that govern entertainment are the only rules that apply.”


  1. Yes very true! It's my aim to entertain. I like people to enjoy reading my stories.

  2. And what a life you've had Vicky! A good writer's life I suspect.

  3. Entertain . . . Satisfying ending . . . Expectations . . .

    I put these words on a card beside my computer, Vicky. Thanks for reminding me why I write.

    CR Wood

  4. Entertainment. it's very true. I call myself a storyteller. I tell stories to hopefully entertain. If I've done that then I'm happy.

  5. I've read her books, and enjoyed the stories. I got sort of tired with the sex, though. Did she say anything about that?

  6. Great post! To entertain. That is going on a sticky right next to my desk.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. I was actually thinking of turning it to wallpaper on my laptop. But her talk did really remind me of why I write.

    As I thought about it, I realized, too, that even the writers we today consider high literature were (mostly) commercial successes in their day. Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Hemmingway, the list goes on. And the reason why? They started from the premise of providing a good entertainment experience for their audiences. After that, their talent as entertainers took them where they are today.

  8. Well said, Vicky and a great post. Thanks for sharing!

    Wish I could plot like she does, but it seems to kill the joy of writing for me. Sigh.