Rian: I found your latest book “Hanging by a Thread” to be a very enjoyable, solid and well-written read. Where did you get the idea to write that story?
Karen: Well, I knew I wanted to write about a more “ordinary” heroine than one often finds in chick lit, so I thought it would be fun to explore the twenty-something mindset and issues of someone raised in a very blue-collar outerborough (NY) neighborhood. Someone with a decidely unglamorous life, who was torn between fantasy and reality. And I thought it would be interesting to make Ellie a single mother. That, really, was the seed of the story — the rest of it pretty much evolved as I wrote. For me, story development is almost always a conscious, deliberate consideration of subject matter and character(s) (as opposed to some lightning flash of inspiration!). After more than twenty novels, I find the work much more rewarding if I’m writing about characters and situations either I haven’t explored before, or I haven’t seen in whatever genre I’m writing. But at the beginning, I rarely have more than a premise — the story itself grows organically from that.
Rian: I also loved “Loose Screws”. I particularly liked how the main character had to go through a lot of hardship and soul-searching to find true happiness. Why did you have her go through so much?
Karen: Because the book would have been boring otherwise, LOL? Again, the story evolved with little conscious effort on my part — but just as in real life, the more a character goes through, the sweeter and more satisfying the reward of self-knowledge at the end. Ginger wasn’t someone easily thrown by the curveballs of life, which meant her learning curve was longer than for other people. So not until she hits absolute rock bottom — meaning she no longer had any resources whatsoever to avoid moving back in with her mother — is she finally forced to reevaluate what she’s always believed about herself. The only way to do that was to put her through not just one or two traumas, but a whole mess of ‘em. (And don’t we all know people like that??? )
Rian: Do you have any other books in the works? If so, what are they about? (If you would like to share this info.
Karen: I’m currently working on my third Red Dress Ink story, about a trio of half-sisters (a 50-year-old Albuquerque TV anchor, a 35-year-old nurse-midwife living in Brooklyn, and a single, pregnant 22-year-old living in a tiny artist’s colony in Northern New Mexico) who didn’t know each other existed before the start of the book. Each woman is at a crossroads in her life, stemming from different emotional burdens bequeathed them by their birth mother, who is no longer alive. At first, they all resist the relationship, in large part because they’re convinced they have nothing in common. But eventually they come to realize that only by piecing together what each one knows of their mother can they ever really overcome past issues that are keeping them from moving forward in their present. Told in revolving first person point-of-view, this is easily the hardest book I’ve written to date, mainly because it’s actually three stories in one (a revelation that didn’t occur to me until, oh, halfway through the first draft). Although, like HANGING BY A THREAD, I’m exploring some serious subject matter, expect to find the same dry humor of my first two books for RDI. At this writing, we’re looking at a release date sometime in early 2006.
Rian: What do you think of the chick lit genre?
Karen: Well, I think few people understand what it is, for one thing. Which is understandable, because I don’t think the INDUSTRY completely understands it, for one thing. Or fully understands its potential. And that’s partly the fault, IMO, of too many publishers jumping on the BRIDGET JONES bandwagon with a lot of copycat stories early in the game. One thing, though — it is NOT a subgenre of romance, but rather, like romance, a sub-genre of women’s fiction. A romance plot centers on a couple’s overcoming obstacles to forging a relationship; right now, chick lit is generally defined as any story about a youngish woman looking for answers about life and love, usually told in a lighter, sarcastic, realistic “voice.” (There may be a romance thread, but that’s the raison d’etre of the story.) Yet, as broad as that definition seems to be, the genre is already evolving beyond that, with older heroines, heroines who are mothers, heroines who face far more serious challenges beyond losing a few pounds before their sister’s wedding, shopping dilemmas, and the woes of serial dating. Not that there’s still not plenty of place for those stories — readers love them! — but if the genre were to settle into a steady diet of those types of books, it would quickly die out. So publishers and writers are already stretching the boundaries, offering a much broader range of stories to readers, and this is a very good thing.
To add to the confusion, some writers straddle subgenres (which are by and large arbitrarily defined, anyway). Jennifer Crusie is a good example — by my definition, her stories are generally romantic mysteries, but her tone and edgy characters appeal to chick lit readers, who have claimed her as one of their own. And many readers define “chick lit” as any book that appeals to younger women, so they lump a lot of contemporary romance in there, too. Not that’s there anything intrinsically wrong with that, except that all this muddling makes the genre even more difficult to pin down.
Rian: Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? What events led up to you writing your first novel?
Karen: Nope. I’ve done a whole mess of other things, though — dancing, singing, acting, design, crafts. Then the family got our first computer in 1995, and I thought, Hmmm. . .you know what would be fun? Seeing if I could write a book. Initially I thought I’d write great, sweeping historical sagas. After 100 pages, however, I thought, You know what would be fun? Writing a book I might actually have a shot at completing in my lifetime. So I switched to contemporary romance, wrote two books in six months, sent them both to Silhouette, and lo and behold, one of them sold. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rian: What is the most difficult thing about writing fiction? (If anything.)
Karen: That it gets harder with each book. The more I know, the more I realize I DON’T know, while at the same time there’s more pressure to make each subsequent book better and richer than the last. And the thing about writing commercial fiction (as opposed to literary fiction) is that one is expected to be prolific, generally writing more than one book a year (and in the case of genre romance, two or three or four books a year). That quickly takes its toll on one’s stamina and creativity, unless you’re Nora Roberts. Which, last time I checked, I wasn’t.
Not only that, but it’s exhausting, living out an entire cast of characters’ lives for months on end. All those decisions, all that trauma, all that emotion. . .oy. And unlike a “normal” job (which, believe me, I would not want — been there, done that, I’d rather put out my eye than go back to that grind), you don’t leave it at the office, because the “office” is in your head. As are the characters. Who are more demanding than a three-year-old with the sniffles. In other words, of all the things I’ve done, writing is by far the hardest — physically and emotionally. But the rush of having finished a book is like no other.
Rian: Is there any book or author in particular that inspired you to want to write? If so, which one(s)?
Karen: Inspired me to write? No. Inspired me to try my hand at romance/women’s fiction/chick lit? Yeah, a few. In no particular order, I admire Kathleen Korbel (she wrote some dynamite category romance in the late eighties and early nineties, which IMO is still unsurpassed for their depth of characterization and emotional intensity), Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie, Janet Evanovich, Jeanne Ray, Marsha Moyer, Curtiss Ann Matlock, Sophie Kinsella, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Terry McMillan. Make me laugh, make me believe the characters are actual people, and I’m sold.
Rian: Is it fun writing for Red Dress Ink? What is your favorite thing about it?
Karen: I will say, LOOSE SCREWS was really fun to write, once I got into it (at that point, I had be convinced by my editor that this middle-aged broad with five kids could really pull off chick lit), but the other two have been much harder, in large part because, as I said earlier, I’m demanding so much more of myself and my craft. But what’s really cool is being able to explore territory/characters I can’t in romance. There are few, if any, restrictions to writing for RDI — almost anything goes, as long as it “works.” (And no, I have no intention of even trying to define that!) I’m usually glad to get back to romance after I’ve finished an RDI, but I’m equally delighted to stretch my wings with RDI after writing a couple of romances in a row.
Rian: Where is your favorite place to write?
Karen: After many years, I finally have my own space (enough kids have moved out that there was an extra bedroom, yay!). So I have my laptop set up on a long table with plenty of room to spread out all manner of reference books and printouts and anything else my heart desires (as opposed to spread on the floor at my feet, which was my “office” when I was writing in a corner of my husband’s and my bedroom). If I want to get up in the middle of the night and write, I can. Not that I’ve done that very often, but it’s just nice to know the option is open. Oddly enough, I do not like using my laptop on my lap. I don’t find it comfortable for very long.
Rian: In closing, if someone asked you “How can I get my chick lit book published”, what would you tell them?
Karen: To be honest, publishers are overwhelmed with chick lit proposals these days. Red Dress alone receives more than 200 queries a month, and no longer accepts unsolicited manuscripts because they simply couldn’t handle the load. So three things are going to have to stand out in order to catch an editor’s or agent’s attention: Your voice, your character(s) and your story. Editors are looking for witty, intelligent, sophisticated writing, and they’re looking for fresh angles to popular themes. But perhaps most important, they’re looking for realistic, APPEALING characters the reader can relate to, somebody they’d like to know in real life.
If you want a handle on what readers really want (and editors want what readers want), go read reviews at Amazon for a number of chick lit books, both those you liked and those you didn’t. Look for common threads that made books “winners” or not. If you see ten reviews for a book, nine of which complain about the character’s shallowness or bitchiness, it’s a pretty safe bet that’s probably not where you want your character to go. As Margaret Marbury said in an online Q&A session on the RDI site recently, readers might buy the first book with an unsympathetic character, but they’re not nearly as likely to buy subsequent books by the same author.
Now, you can have all those elements and still not sell your book, because publishing is brutally competitive and there’s nothing easy or sure-fire in this business. I can’t tell you how to get your book published, I can only give you an idea of what editors are looking for. But by making sure your story is well-written, your premise is fresh and your heroine is irresistibly appealing, you’ll at least increase the odds in your favor!