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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Guest Interview: Leigh Michaels

Our guest today is award-winning author and teacher extraordinaire, Leigh Michaels. Leigh is the author of nearly 100 books including 80 contemporary novels and more than a dozen non-fiction books. Harlequin has published 35 million copies of her romances in 25 different languages. She even had a manga comic book edition published in Japan
Hello, Leigh! Welcome to the Lady Scribes. We really appreciate your taking time to talk with us today.

Thanks for the warm welcome, Gail – it’s a pleasure to visit the Lady Scribes!

You recently made the leap from contemporary to historical with three single title regencies coming out in 2011. Why did you make the switch, and what else changed in the process?

After writing 80 contemporary books (mostly sweet traditionals published by Harlequin Romance, with a few short contemporaries from Harlequin Presents interspersed) I was getting a bit burned out. So I took some time off from writing fiction, and when I started in again, I found myself interested in an entirely different kind of story – single-title length, Regency period, and sexy! I’ve always enjoyed reading Regency-period books (non-fiction as well as fiction), so I feel as if I’ve been doing research for these books forever. And the added length and the freedom to write sexy stories have made it enormous fun.

With a hundred published books, you are by far the most prolific writer I know. You must have a very efficient writing process. Do you mind sharing your shortcuts and secrets with us?

I find that the more time I have, the more time something takes. So if I have all day to write a scene, it’ll take all day… and more… at least until the point where I’m well into a book and it takes on a momentum of its own, so I have to keep writing to find out what happens.

I think about the story a lot when I’m not actually at the computer – so when I do sit down to write I often have a chunk of story ready to be committed to paper so it can be edited and reshaped later.

You also teach romance writing at Gotham University and run the Chase the Dream contest with Rachelle Chase every year. All of those deadlines must be very stressful. Do you have any tips for relieving stress and balancing the writer’s crazy schedule with real life?

Take one thing at a time – and when the stress builds up, take a walk, then set a timer and do just fifteen minutes on the thing that’s most annoying or most pressing. Odds are that short time will make a significant dent – or even finish the project – and that helps take the pressure off.

On an average day, I start out in the morning with coffee with my husband, then I answer email and check classes. As soon as that’s done, I start writing. I try to fit in a walk every afternoon. After dinner with my husband, it’s back to work for a bit, writing or catching up on loose ends or doing promotion or reading for research. And I try to take weekends off from writing, though I often focus on classwork then.

Some of my favorite books are your non-fiction books for writers, Creating Romantic Characters and On Writing Romance. If you had one piece of advice for newbie writers, what would it be?

I’m glad you find On Writing Romance useful! It’s the culmination of what I’ve learned from close to 20 years of teaching romance writing. My advice to newbies -- Don’t expect that every word you put on the page is going to be golden. Writing is a skill, just like playing tennis or driving a car or knitting a scarf or making the perfect loaf of bread. Yet though we expect that other skills will require practice, we’re surprised when our words don’t fall onto the page in perfect order. We’d never pick up a violin for the first time and expect to play a concerto, so why should we believe that the first draft of a story will be wonderful? I still fight this one myself all the time – the combination of procrastination and perfectionism (“Maybe I’ll just wait till I have that story all figured out in my head, so I only have to write it once!”) is deadly.

Before you go, can you give us a sneak peek at your upcoming projects?

The thing that’s different about my historicals from most others is that each book has multiple main characters and multiple stories. The first book is actually three novellas but they’re woven into one larger, continuing story. In the second book, there are three stories all happening simultaneously. It’s a great challenge to write that way, to juggle multiple characters and stories and not lose track of anyone, or create contradictions -- but I honestly don’t have a favorite character in either book; they’re all my favorites.

Book #1: The Mistress' House

Number Five, Upper Seymour Street seems to be the perfect love nest. Tucked away in a discreet corner of London, it's an ideal site to conduct affairs… except in this elegant townhouse, the residents fall in love instead – especially when they don’t want to!

The three residents of Number Five, Upper Seymour Street: Anne is the perfect mistress for the rakish Earl of Hawthorne; Felicity is the perfect challenge for Richard, Lord Colford, and Georgianna is the perfect nightmare for Major Julian Hampton...

Book #2: Only In London

Meet the Ryecrofts...the family that courts together.

RYE -- Viscount Ryecroft is a young man with a problem. Make that two problems: He has a beautiful sister to marry off but no money to fund a London Season for her. Perhaps he needs to find an heiress for himself first? SOPHIE – Miss Sophie Ryecroft is willing to marry for the good of the family -- but since she can't meet the sort of man her brother has in mind for her except in London, she’s looking for alternatives. MIRANDA -- Rye and Sophie's mother, the dowager (but still young) Lady Ryecroft, will do anything for the sake of her children -- even taking up again with a man she knew long ago, and offering to be his mistress.

Only in London can the Ryecrofts find their destinies.

Thank you, Leigh Michaels, for sharing your wisdom with us today. For more information, see Leigh’s website at http://www.leighmichaels.com/.

Please post your comments and questions for Leigh.


  1. Thanks for stopping by, Leigh! Your historicals sound amazing. I've never thought to intertwine shorter stories together like that and create one whole. I can't wait to read them.

    And great advice about not expecting every word to come out perfectly. Several times, I've gotten stuck, only to realize that I was expecting perfection and couldn't write until I thought it would be perfect--which, of course, it never will be. LOL. Learning to accept my imperfection has been a struggle.

  2. Thanks for the invitation, Gail!

    Catherine, I have to admit that the first intertwined story happened by accident. I thought I was writing a novella, but then it turned into something bigger. But I love the intertwined stories.

    As I watch TV dramas or movies, I notice how often we're following more than one character, with each one having a crisis of his/her own, and skipping back and forth between related but separate story lines. So I've just adapted that approach to the page.

    As for writing imperfectly -- one of the tricks I use is to keep telling myself that everything is a first draft, and I don't have to show it to anyone. So I give myself permission to write sloppy at first, knowing that I'm the only one who will see it and I will have a future draft (or seven) to fix it.

  3. Leigh,
    Thanks so much for stopping by today. When I decided to try my hand at writing romance, the first book I bought was "On Writing Romance". What a great introduction to such a mysterious world for me at that time. It gave me the courage to try.

    I love your advice on giving yourself permission to write sloppy. I have a tendency to be a perfectionist then get hard on myself when my writing isn't perfect, or else I move very slow. With my most recent manuscript, I did exactly as you suggest and told myself it didn't matter at this point. I would have plenty of time to polish later. It really worked for cranking a story out. Now I have something to improve on rather than blank pages.

    Your new stories sound amazing. I love something a bit edgy. :)

  4. I like pushing the envelope, Samantha. It seems to me that writers either continue to push hard to get better and try new stuff, or they slide downhill and are no longer as good as when they started. A big directional shift mid-career is risky, but it's exciting too (for me and I hope for readers).

    I'm so pleased that On Writing Romance was helpful to you. As for writing sloppy -- I don't know anyone who can write and edit at the same time, because they're such different functions (and even use opposite sides of the brain). Perfectionism and procrastination are a problem for me, too -- always have been. It's only when I let myself start by just jotting ideas, instead of trying to come up with the great first sentence, that I can even get into a scene.

    For anyone who is thinking about adding On Writing Romance to your library, by the way, there are some packages available on my website.

  5. I'm a long-time fan of yours. It's lovely to meet you today. I write historical west in the gold rush era, Writing is such a treat to me especially since I live where this amazing time in history took place. It is easy to procrastinate when my characters stop talking to me, but it usually means I am off track and had better start looking for the problem. I appreciate the help my characters give me. :)

  6. Isn't it amazing how the characters take over? -- and when we hit a roadblock, how often it's because we tried to make them do something that didn't fit the character? When I lose momentum, it's nearly always because I took a wrong turn -- told the reader too much, or made the character say something they wouldn't have -- and when I back up and take another run at it, the problem often solves itself.

  7. Leigh: How exciting your career’s been, and what a neat twist it’s taken with the new historical series. Bet you’re charged up! Your insights are always dead-on (Leigh offers a manuscript evaluation service, which I’ve used several times – superb feedback). I own both your “How To” books on writing – aren’t there two? “On Writing Romance” is a beaut.

    Leigh, your Gotham class was one of the best I’ve ever taken, and of course, I was very lucky to be enrolled with such stellar classmates.

    I think you can take pride in not only how productive you’ve been as a writer, but also how you’ve helped others. That to me, represents a well-rounded and meaningful life.

    I’m curious, though, how do you do all this? What is your average book length, what are your golden hours for writing, how fast can you produce a book? (We’ve talked about this before, I know, but people will be wowed by your answer).

    Plus, do you think it is harder to break into publishing or easier? Has the Internet made it easier for writers or harder? Are big advances a thing of the past?

    One thing I do take heart in… is that romance books are selling well in this very tough economy.

    I LOVE all your photos, Leigh, (on your site). I’ll be sure to vote for one.

    Gail -- as always -- fabulous questions and interview.

    Your humble fan (both of you),

  8. 2011 seems so far away. I've always let my characters take the lead, except when I don't. And when I don't chaos happens. I read somewhere once that you should never allow your characters have that much control, but I can't imagine writing without giving them the freedom to be themselves.

  9. Great interview, ladies! I love the layered stories.

  10. Great interview. Leigh, I've read some of your contemporaries and even too part in one of your Gotham classes, I think it was at least 2 yrs ago, and it was very helpful. Oh, and I also own On Writing Romance - which I also thought was great. I can't wait to read your historicals.

  11. Thank you for the warm welcome, ladies. 2011 feels like a long time off to me, too!

    Besides On Writing Romance, I’ve also written Creating Romantic Characters and Writing Between the Sexes, and I’ve authored or co-authored about a dozen local history books. I’m not doing as many manuscript evaluations now, but I still fit in time for a few, along with the classes I teach at Gotham Writers Workshop (www.writingclasses.com).

    The average length of my contemporary romances was 50,000 to 55,000 words, and I averaged three to four books a year. The fastest I ever wrote was 17 days (but then I’d been thinking about that story for a while, and when it finally clicked I simply flew through it). The historicals are 80,000 to 90,000 words, and I wrote the second one in about three months, but I wouldn’t want to commit to writing more than two books a year now, and my ideal pace is actually just one book a year.

    Early in my career I wrote in the morning; now it tends to be mid to late afternoon when I get most productive. This is one of several reasons why I suggest writers keep a time sheet. Just because you once were a morning person doesn’t mean you’ll always be, and when you can look back over several weeks or months you’ll see patterns in when you're most creative.

    Big advances aren’t a thing of the past because there will always be the blockbuster, but average advances are going down. I think publishers (like movie studios) are betting more and more on the sure thing – doing the same thing over again with a few variations – and that will make it harder for new and innovative stuff to get published. I want to thank Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks for instantly seeing exactly what I was trying to do with my layered stories, and especially for loving them. :-)

  12. Leigh,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. What a great interview. And I love what you just said about Deb Werksman. She really does seem more willing to take a risk, which is so refreshing these days. :)

  13. Great interview, Leigh. You're the best. Not only a great writer but a great instructor!

  14. Holy tamole - that many books boggles the mind! Great interview, it was so interesting to hear about how Leigh approaches her craft. Great advice, and I will have to keep an eye out for the romance reference books!

    Erin Rieber

  15. Hi Leigh,
    It's such a pleasure to have you here! You're regencies sound delicious. I'm not a huge regency fan either but I am definitely going to pick those up. I'm curious to see how you pull off multiple main characters. I'm also going to pick your "On Writing Romance" as well. With all the praise it's getting, it must be great. Thanks for stopping by with us today and great interview as usual Gail.

  16. My pleasure, ladies. Thank you so much for the warm reception -- I look forward to coming back as a visitor to see what's going on here at Lady Scribes!