Monday, December 14, 2009

Sarah Mayberry Floats Floats My Boat...

I've been thinking about something Eileen said about how a high tide floats all the boats and I am on a quest to find those category authors who create such a high tide. Great category books can be hard to find and I feel like every person who has given up on category, or read one that they hated and now don't pick any up - have been cheated of a great read.

I believe great category romances are the reasons why romance lovers love romance. It's conflict and chemistry - in a bite sized package. And there are authors out there who are as good and better than the pioneers of the genre. We met Kathleen O'Reilly some time ago - she rises the tide for all of us. And now - meet Sarah Mayberry - she writes for Blaze and Superromance. She's a story editor for Australian soap operas. She loves shoes and booze. And she writes wicked good romance. Her Christmas Super: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is both sexy and tear jerking and I can't wait to get my hands on her Jan. Blaze HER SECRET FLING .

How do you approach a story? Characters first? Situation? As a person who loves your heroines and the successful flip you manage to make between what’s considered feminine and masculine (and am amazed at how gritty and real you make them) how do you approach your characters?

Every book comes from a different place. Sometimes I have a sort of "flavor" in my mouth for the kind of story I want to tell, sometimes I have a situation or character. My next Super - Her Best Friend - was inspired by my friend telling me how she and her husband got together. The Super I'm about to write was inspired by an ad in a local magazine seeking sperm donors for a single woman in her late thirties... Once I have those story seeds, though, I start thinking about characters who will be pushed to change the most by this sort of situation/story. Often I have a clearer idea of one character more than the other, so once I feel I have a grip on that one character, be it the heroine or hero, and have worked out what their weaknesses/fears and backstory are, I then think about the partner who will challenge/excite that fear the most. For example, a commitaphobe who falls for a woman who is determined to have a baby in the next year. That kind of thing. Very basic, on some levels, but by the time I've thought about what they both want and why they are that way, the story starts to unfold for me. I spend quite a bit of time with my characters before I start writing, I guess, but things still come to me during the book and I often go back and adjust or add elements during my revisions.

In regard to flipping characters and playing with the masculine/feminine, this is not something I necessarily set out to do on a conscious level. I have always been one of those women who carries her own suitcase and changes her own car tire, so I tend to make my heroines responsible and capable in this way. I also think that men - real men - are far more uncertain, gentle and nurturing than we often give them credit for. I did a weekend workshop with an LA story consultant when I was last working in-house on a TV show in Australia and she helped crystalise something for me when she talked about Tony Soprano. Now, by rights, Tony Soprano is a very bad guy. He's a murderer, he's violent, he's very animalistic. Yet he's also the reason people watched The Sopranos, and many, many people love him. Why? I believe it's because we see his vulnerabilities - his fear and anxiety, his confusion, his great love for his kids, his concern about managing the men beneath him, his conflicted love for his wife, his brutal upbringing. People do crappy things all the time in life, but almost all the time they have a reason for it. As a reader, I am prepared to forgive much if I understand why and can empathise with that why. So even though I sometimes write difficult/scratchy/selfish heroes and heroines, they always have their reasons, and I always try to show that sometimes what they say is not necessarily who they are or how they feel privately. Vulnerability is the key.

Are there things you’ve tried in your books – envelopes you’ve pushed that an editor has pushed back on?

I can honestly say I have never had my ed clip my wings. She's never said "too unlikeable" or "too slutty" or "too damaged" or anything like that. I write very, very detailed outlines - they're usually about 6 - 8 pages, single spaced, and I break them down into chapters so that when I sit down to write, I have a road map. I think because of my TV story lining background, I tend to like to get things sorted before I write. I try to anticipate problems and really dig in. That said, sometimes a story or plot point looks and feels strong in outline but when I get into the nitty-gritty honesty of the moment in the book it feels all wrong. Then I have to sit down and think my way out of the hole. Not much fun, but I haven't not found a way out yet! So I think because I usually show in my outline where the story is going and what's behind my characters' actions, she trusts that I will pull it off.

How do you find the jump from Blaze to Supers? What do you like about writing each?

Blaze books are a lot of fun. Blaze heroines are honest about their sexual desire and are very bold and modern. There's something very liberating about having a heroine who is so up front and honest - real life is often far more complicated. There are certain demands for the Blaze line that are different for Supers - Blaze readers are looking for a sexy situation, there needs to be ample opportunity for physical intimacy, and in some ways the romance is a little backward - sex first, then emotional intimacy. Unless it's a friends to lovers book, of course! In a more traditional romance, there is attraction and then emotional intimacy as the hero and heroine draw closer to each other and sex is the natural conclusion to all the two-stepping and back and forth. So doing it the other way around can be a challenge - and really forces you to dig into the psychology of your characters to find reasons why they would be happy to be physically but not emotionally intimate with each other. Supers, by their very nature, offer a much broader pallet. They tend to be more realistic in tone in that pregnancies, family conflicts, personal crises, pets, siblings, careers - all the mess of real life - are very much a part of the picture. In Blaze, it's about the heat, and I think Supers are more about the romance, if that makes sense. I like writing both, for different reasons. As I said above, Blazes are fun, and I get to be outrageous in my head in ways that I would never be outrageous in real life. Supers are more complex and having that broader pallet to explore after having written a dozen or so Blazes is both challenging and stimulating.

Please tell us that your life as a successful soap writer is as exciting as we all want to believe it is? How did the job come to you? Were you writing romance first?

I have always written romance - I think I tried to write my first romance when I graduated from my writing degree at 22. It was terrible, however, and I'm very glad a copy does not still exist. I got my chance to put my hand up for a job in TV through nepotism, of sorts. My partner did the same degree as myself - although we never met once on campus, believe it or not - and he scored a job working on a TV show not long after graduating. He has since gone on to work on many shows all over the world. One thing you should know is that a soap opera chews up an enormous amount of story - it's a greedy, insatiable story gobbler. The soaps we have here in Australia are quite different from the daytime soaps in the US that tend to drag stories out for months on end. It's kind of the opposite down here - we burn through story at a great rate of knots. Anyway, while my man was working on these shows I was sitting on the sidelines, working as a journalist, chipping in with story ideas and suggestions whenever I could. He kept telling me I was good with story and should try out for a job but I didn't want to work with him - that seemed like a fast-track to divorce-ville to me. The time came when they were looking for a new storyliner, and he was ready to leave in-house work. I took two weeks off work and came and sat on the story table for two weeks for free, a sort of informal work experience. I loved it and seemed to click with everyone and was offered the job after a few days.

As for it being exciting... Being a storyliner is enormous fun. There aren't many writing jobs where you get to sit in a room with a bunch of other like-minded souls and plot out loud and talk about character and emotion and act out scenes and argue over motivation or reactions etc, etc. Usually these arguments happen in our heads in our lonely writerly offices, right? So there's enormous energy and lots of crude, silly, pointless jokes flying around. The flip side of all that it that it can be absolutely exhausting - coming up with over 100+ dramatic, interesting, moving, funny scenes per week to fill 5 x 1/2 hour episodes is a daunting task. Doing that 48 weeks a year is even more daunting. At this time of year - just before Christmas - everyone is feeling burnt out and exhausted and drained, let me tell you! But at the end of the day, both myself and my man agree that storylining on a soap is one of the best jobs we've ever had. We've both been story editors, too - which means we've been in charge of the story room and all those unruly, poo-joke-telling storyliners, and that is a far more exhausting, challenging, pressured job. Personally, I enjoy it, but I can't do it for huge stints at a time. And there's definitely no energy left at the end of the day to write a book. At the present, and pretty much ever since I've been published, I write scripts on a freelance basis - that is, every four weeks or so I get a script to write. It arrives in my inbox, I read the outline, have a chat to a script editor, then I get two weeks to write the script and hand it in. All done by remote control, really, and not particularly exciting or glamorous.

What’s next for you?

I've written a single title book called Before and After that I'm shopping around at the moment. It's just finaled in a competition down here in Australia and is in front of a couple of publishers. It's a bit of a departure for me - first person, chick lit. It's about a 30 year old woman working as a storyliner on a soap opera and her realisation that somehow, while she wasn't looking, she's put on a lot of weight. ( I know what you're thinking - where did she get that idea?! ) The book is my attempt to be honest about how it feels to be big and how hard it is to lose weight and all the unrealistic expectations we pin on the idea of "when I am skinny". I had a lot of fun writing it and I hope it finds a home.

I'm also in the throes of plotting a romantic-comedy screenplay with my partner. I've done some story consulting work with a production company this year, working with a couple of just-starting-out writers who have crafted a really lovely and funny romantic comedy and talking with them and thinking about the rom-com form has got my juices flowing. So, we shall see.

And I always have other Harlequin ideas burbling away in the back of my brain...

I’m on a hunt for top shelf category writers/books – what are some of your top shelf writers in the Harlequin/Silhouette world?

This is such a tough question. I tend to read outside the genre to refill my word well, as Stephen King calls it. But I do try to pick up series books when something catches my eye or I read something good on review sites. I just finished Ellen Hartman's Super, His Secret Past and loved it, so I'm keen to read more of her books. I have also recently enjoyed Karina Bliss's Super, Mr Unforgettable. Anything by Joan Kilby, who is also a Super writer. I love your books, Molly, and have been recommending you on other blogs! I'm also partial to Carol Marinelli, who writes wonderful Medicals, which I don't think are generally available in the US, as well as Presents. And Susan Napier also rocks a good Presents. I'm sure I'm leaving many of my favorites out. It's hard to think when my bookshelf is all packed away in boxes (we're moving house) and I have nothing to consult.


Alli said...

Thanks for a great interview, ladies! It's also nice to see a fellow Aussie on DWT - and a writer for the soap Neighbours at that! (Sarah, you had me intrigued as to which soap so I went to your bio). Fellow DWTers, Sarah has written for THE most successful soap in Australian TV history (and it's even more popular in England!). Very impressive!

I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on your books, Sarah. And thank you, Molly for introducing us to another fabulous writer!

Maureen McGowan said...

Fabulous interview. Loved the peek into a writing room for a soap. Sarah, your books sound fabulous and if Molly is recommending them, well, I'm off to order some!

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone. I was thrilled when Molly asked me if I was interested in doing an interview, and as you can see I rambled on and on. Lovely to "meet" you all! And Alli, although Home For The Holidays was a November release in the Is, it's actually coming out in Australia in December. I'm not sure what the release cycle for Supers is - whether they're out on the first of the month or the 15th - but it should either be out now or about to be out.

Eileen said...

Fabulous interview! I loved hearing about the poo-joke-telling writers' room.

I think category writers deserve a lot of respect. One of the members of my critique group has written several category romances. Her grasp of goal, motivation and conflict is so diamond sharp you could cut glass with it!

It's terrific to "meet" you, too, Sarah.

Sinead M said...

Great interview, cannot wait to read your books, Sarah.

Becca J. Heath said...

Great interview!
I'm a huge Sarah Mayberry fan, nice to hear her virtues shouted to the world.
Congrats on the STALI final Sarah - the ST book sounds great!

Molly O'Keefe said...

Sarah thanks for stopping by and your answers were so insightful and interesting - seriously next time you find yourself anywhere near...I guess one of us? Drunk writer talk will commence - thanks so much!!

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