Interview with Lydia Joyce
Q: Your successful debut novel THE VEIL OF NIGHT and your equally-successful follow-up, MUSIC OF THE NIGHT, have been described as having a gothic quality. Was that intentional?
A: Yes! I love the Gothics of the mid-1800s through the early 20th century, and I wanted to play off that trope in my first book, sort of stand it on its head while still honoring the tradition. I didn’t want to rewrite the books of the past but bring something new to them.
The second book was also a Gothic because my publisher specifically requested one. Now that they know that my voice can still be strong without being dependant upon genre definitions, and now that I’ve earned enough of a publishing history that my publisher isn’t as dependent upon high-concept words to sell me to buyers and distributors, I can move more freely and can maintain the same voice and atmosphere without restricting myself to the standard features of the Gothic genre.
Q: How long did it take you to find your voice?
A: It took me three years to really find what voice I wanted Lydia Joyce to be. The journey was sometimes painful and frustrating, and the voice I settled upon is not easy to write, but it was completely worth it in the quality of books that I have been turning out now compared to before I was published.
Q: What was your process for deciding on voice?
A: I sort of fell into it at first, and then I really cemented it as I worked. I wanted to write a sort of homage to the 19th-century Gothic, and as I began writing, things began to feel really right. Then I sat down and thought about what I was doing and what I wanted to be, and it all clicked.
My recommendation to writers (from what I did on a less formal basis) is to make a list of all their favorite authors and books in their genre. Then group them by flavor. Make a list of adjectives that describe the books that follow your favorite (usually largest) flavor—this is the “taste” factor. Next, make a list of trends that are currently hot in romance—this is the “marketability” factor. Finally, choose adjectives that describe your writing—this is the “you” factor. (If you can’t easily find adjectives to describe your writing, it isn’t special enough. It’s too mundane. That’s a big problem! But we’re about to fix that…)
Now, make taste, marketability, and you meet. Decide how the traits you love most from the “taste” column can meet with one or more things listed the “marketability” column (you only really need one hook!) that you could see moved to the “you” factor during your writing.
Q: Can you go into some depth about your journey? How was it difficult?
A: First, there were life-related frustrations when I wasn’t getting published. I’d decided to change my major away from engineering because I loathed working in the corporate world and didn’t like even how routine and repetitive class work was. After playing in the physics department for a while, I grappled with the realization that what I truly wanted to do with my life is write. I switched to double majors in Spanish and English because it would give me more focus on reading good writing and upon writing itself, both creative and analytical. But there’s not much you can do with a degree in English or Spanish except teach at a high school! So that was quite a bit of pressure
99% of unpublished authors are never published with a major house, and 95% of published authors cannot live on their incomes, so that meant I had to be in the top .05% of all aspiring writers if I wanted to make a career of this. Many writers are content with writing on the side. I wasn’t. I wanted a career from the time I started. That caused a lot of fear and uncertainty. I wrote 2.75 manuscripts while still in college. No one bought them. How long would I be trying? I wondered. I made a deal with my future husband that after a certain period of time, if I wasn’t making as much money in writing as I would have as an engineer, I’d finish up my engineering degree and go back to that. And I really, really didn’t want to be an engineer!
In addition, I suffered from health problems that kept me virtually bed-bound for six weeks and took a year to recover from, and then there was the stress of the fact that I still hadn’t gotten published by the time I graduated from college. In the year that I wrote VEIL, I moved three times, got married, got pregnant, had a baby…so life was a little hectic, anyway.
Also, I’d signed with an AAR and RWA-recognized agent who, it soon became clear, wasn’t trying to sell me in the way a good agent would. She sent my manuscript to the lowest-paying houses, yet I never heard a peep from some of the highest-paying ones. She sent my manuscript in BATCH SUBMISSIONS, which I was simply shocked about when I discovered. She didn’t follow up on positive rejections with questions about my revising it, and she simply advised patience when a house kept my full for six months. She didn’t target my manuscript to the editor most likely to like it. She couldn’t even remember the name of my manuscript, nor could she keep my address straight in her records! I didn’t want to recognize that this agent was worse than no agent because getting a non-scam agent had been so hard…and yet when I finally broke it off and sent the manuscript to a publishing house I hadn’t heard from, I had a request for a full within two weeks, faster than any turnaround time she’d ever managed! I am intensely grateful that I was no longer in association with her when I wrote VEIL. I shudder to think what would have happened to it. I really doubt I would have gotten the multiple offers from major, high-paying houses that I managed alone.
Then there were the rejections, which ranged from regretful to lukewarm to downright moronic. Everyone agreed that I could WRITE and praised that first. However, no one really cared enough to buy my books. Editors liked my characters. Most liked my plot. They just weren’t fascinated. And that was heartbreaking. What more could these people want? Then there were the idiotic rejections, which added another level of pain. I had one from a well-known agency that was just branching out into romance who found my almost pedestrian Pygmalion plot too avant-garde for the genre.
Needless to say, they were off my list for good! The one that impacted me the most was a rejection on a full from an unnamed major publishing house who told me that my work should have been funnier. FUNNIER! ME! I do NOT write “funny” books. I realized then that they were trend-chasing (Julia Quinn had just made a huge splash) and were looking for any funny books I may have written…and yet the fact that they could even suggest that I should make that book “funny” made me determined to write a book that no sane human being would think would be better if it was more comical.
Finally, the voice I decided upon is just plain hard to write, and I decided, with VEIL, that I had been leaning too much upon plot (I am good at writing plot, and it is easy for me), so I forced myself to write a book with absolutely no external plot to the love story. That was incredibly hard, but it made my writing much, much better.
Q: You’ve certainly taken some real risks in your second book, MUSIC OF THE NIGHT. We’ve been reading romances for years, and we’ve read our share of plain heroines, but never read about one with small-pox scars who was a prostitute. Your hero Sebastian is also deeply flawed. What attracts you to writing about people we don’t normally get to see in historical romance?
A: I love writing about difficult people. I’m not terribly interested in perfect people falling in love! I prefer to see people with deep flaws, dark pasts, and serious demons rescue themselves and each other for the sake of their love. I want to write about how people grow and change—people who can be better than they think is possible. I want to be a dangerous writer. I want people to pick up a Lydia Joyce book knowing that they’ve never read anything like it before and that it will be intense, well-written, and a breathless ride.
Q: What do you do in order to push yourself beyond the bounds of “normal” when creating characters?
A: I don’t have to push with my characters. I just take them where I want them to go without worrying about whether they’ll turn off some readers! I have a man who is has spent years essentially pouting. I have a selfish, frightened spinster who’s less innocent than she should be. I have a man bent upon the pitiless revenge of a crime he really is partly responsible for because of his negligence. I have a scarred ex-prostitute. I have a man who is planning to do something very underhanded, chauvinistic, and selfish to the heroine. I have an unabashedly brilliant heroine who can’t seem to keep her mouth shut. I have a stuffed shirt. I even have a murderess—who killed more or less in self-defense but not in any way that a court would recognize. I have a brainless dandy. I have a dull, conventional, thoughtless girl. I wanted these characters because I love the redemption factor in my romances, and if you don’t have the darkness, there is nothing to redeem. This is the raw clay out of which characters of courage and great worth are made. Also, I put my characters through hell before they find their HEA, and characters with warped pasts are more ready for this kind of purgatory.
Q: Were you concerned about marketability?
A: No, not really. I know some people will have problems following me where I go in some books—and that is fine by me. I don’t write for everyone. Writing for everyone is a mistake many authors make, and it’s deadly. The only things that won’t offend, upset, or instill intense dislike in some people are things too banal to create much of a reaction in anyone. Boring, inoffensive books aren’t hated by anyone, but they are rarely loved. If you want to be adored, you must be ready to be hated, too.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to go too far with this and end up creating a concept or characters who are completely unappealing to the public? If there’s a line, how do you know when you’ve reached it?
A: I don’t mean that you should try to shock people or to say, “THIS is something they’ve never seen before!” That is surely a recipe for disaster! People generally don’t want to be treated to a shock-fest. It’s unpleasant, not interesting. They just want a good story. There are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. I wouldn’t ever make a hero or heroine out of an abuser, a sadist, a cold-blooded or mass or serial killer. (But in my newest novel, my heroine murders someone in the prologue. I was certain my editor would flip out…but she loves it!) I wouldn’t make a hero out of a person who is so distasteful that a reader wouldn’t care to hear about any sort of redemption the person might undergo—nor would I want to write it! I write flawed characters with great depths of feeling, not heartless bastards, psychopaths, or slimebags. What I mean is to resist compromising a good story for the sake of the homogenizing influence of typical expectations for the category.
Here are just a few expectations that I’ve broken:
• Heroines aren’t allowed to have enjoyed sex before. Preferably, they haven’t had it—if they were widows, their husbands were gay or impotent; if they have a bad reputations, it is a sham; if they are reduced to prostitution, the hero must be their first john, who is so shocked by her hymen that he falls in love. If they are actually prostitutes—which is incredibly rare—then they must be courtesans with only a handful of lovers ever and must have been driven to it by some distant tragedy. All other ladies of questionable virtue must be best friends/hookers with a heart of gold secondary characters, there to show how cosmopolitan we are as writers but not worthy of a book.
• Orgasm=love. The strength of an orgasm reflects the power of the characters’ love. Physical attraction is also proof of The One. So is obsession. So is getting pregnant carelessly. Because we all know that’s what true love is about.
• Heroes should have problems with their mothers to add a nice Freudian conflict with every female they meet.
• Heroes should always be breathtakingly handsome.
• Love solves all problems. (It doesn’t. Sometimes, it just complicates them. That doesn’t mean that love is bad or that problems can’t be worked out. It just means that love doesn’t make them automatically disappear.)
• Heroes are allowed to have as much experience as they want with no thought of consequences without it reflecting badly on them in any way.
• Heroines must be self-sacrificing. Self-sacrifice is the crowning virtue of a woman, bar none. She must be willing to throw herself away for the sake of her father, brother, or lover for any reason whatsoever because that’s all women really are good for.
• Heroines can’t be too smart. It’s not pretty. They can’t be too sharp-tongued, either, unless they are the “fiery” sort, and then they must do much foot-stamping and hair-tossing.
• Heroes must do all the rescuing. Otherwise, what are all those muscles good for?
In writing, I have been very, very careful to choose the initial stories that have been published to reflect the scope and depth of what I want to get on the shelves, knowing that whoever “Lydia Joyce” is in her first three books is who she must remain or risk alienating an established audience. I’ve tossed most rules to the wind and have kept only a very few: Don’t break the essential rules of a genre, write like no one else, and write a damned good book. You can do almost anything if you follow these.
Q: Are the rules for the romance genre at all bendable in your estimation? Which ones might be?
A: The rules of the genre are simply this: A) It’s a story that focuses on the relationship between a man and a woman, and B) The relationship must end happily and successfully. These aren’t bendable because they’re what make a romance a romance. You can write other things…but they won’t be romances! I probably should have said “definition” rather than “rules”.
Q: What other risks do you think you took that paid off in the end?
A: After a couple of unsuccessful years of trying to get pubbed, I started going after editors in slightly unorthodox ways, from describing the flavor of my book more than the plot to really going after editors with a list of reasons why I picked to submit to them specifically for a particular book to using one request for a full to convince two junior editors to skip over the partial and go straight to the full themselves for fear of loosing a chance at me. *g* Result? Two offers for publication and a third who wanted to but wasn’t allowed because another imprint of the same house offered first—all without an agent. Of course, this would not have worked until I began writing more dangerously.
Q: Can you provide an example of enticing with “flavor” in a query?
A: After a TINY plot blurb that was only a bit more revealing then an average back cover, I wrote in one query:
THE VEIL OF NIGHT is a completed 96,000-word sensual romance set in Victorian England, part of a loosely connected series. In this lush, dark novel, the conventional elements of the Gothic romance are reinterpreted into something different without compromising the roots of the sub-genre. It is my third single-title romance manuscript, and it is a finalist in the 2004 Golden Heart.
Then, when explaining why I queried a particular editor, I wrote:
I feel that my own work holds a similar attraction [to Dodd, Ivory, and Kinsale]. I am not claiming to be the next Laura Kinsale, of course, but authors of the type of novel that I write—dark, gritty, emotional novels, especially historicals—have proven themselves to have great staying power and a widespread appeal that transcends the vicissitudes of public taste. Also, the sensual tone of my work (comparable to Ivory or Lisa Kleypas) follows current publishing and buying trends without losing the universal resonance that ties it to older, beloved traditions. My distinctive voice, however, makes my work very much my own.
Q: The historical romance market seems to be softening, yet with a successful debut and a well-reviewed follow-up, you are flouting conventional wisdom. Do you think the decline in historical romance is just natural fluctuations in the market or is something deeper at work?
A: I think that historical romance is declining as a genre because most of the books are rehashes of what readers have already read and are, frankly, boring. There is plenty of room for writers who are doing new, fresh things, but readers are getting sick of the familiar, and that’s what is currently dominating historical romance. It’s a little harder for a new writer, however fresh, to do well because enthusiasm in general is down, but it is by no means impossible.
Q. Can you tell us about your writing process?
A: Write. Get stuck. Bang head on wall. Repeat. *g* I start with a vague idea or character or scene, and I start writing. As I go along, I make important realizations about the characters. By chapter four, I have a very good idea of what the rest of the book is going to look like and have often rewritten the first few chapters half a dozen times or more, but the rest generally flows more easily. I constantly edit for flow, mood, and tone as well as meaning, and I try to make sure that however many threads I create, I don’t drop any and they continue to work at an appropriate pace throughout the book.
Q: Threads are tricky. How do you ensure they’re well p(l)aced? Are you conscious of this during the initial draft, or do you have to mend your “weavings” a lot during editing?
A: I have to do a lot of mending because I realize threads sometimes three-fourths of the way through a manuscript, but it usually only takes a sentence or two in the right place!
Q: Do you use a critique group or partner, and if so, how do you process their comments?
A: Yes, I do! My critique partners are very insightful, and so I almost never flatly disagree with their comments. I do look to the root of the problem and tweak that, so I often come up with a different solution than they would have, addressing their concerns in the way I feel is best for my story. I do the same thing with my line edits!
Q: Did you have any self doubts or hit serious writer’s block along the way?
A: Yes. I moved very quickly from just a few personal rejections to almost all personal rejections, multiple requests for fulls, and multiple “almost—but no” responses. I got very frustrated because I felt powerless to tip myself over the line from almost published to really published. What did editors want that I wasn’t giving them? What would readers want? I was baffled and irritated. Finally, it came down to something very simple: I wasn’t writing books that were special enough. That realization, coming in the course of writing VEIL, was critical both to the current shape of my voice and my success. I had been trying too hard to write a likeable book instead of writing a great, unique one. As soon as I changed my focus, my writing blossomed, and so did the enthusiasm of readers and editors!
Q: Your next novel, WHISPERS OF THE NIGHT, is what we’d call “big plot”–lots of juicy conflict in settings that sweep across Europe and Asia. Can you tell us why you’ve chosen such out-of-the-box venue for this story? Do you feel like you’re taking a risk in moving the story out of Europe?
A: I want to have the freedom of setting my books anywhere, and to get that, I needed to start with the exotic settings pretty quickly in my career. I love adventure/travel romances, too, and I have been fascinated by the Byzantine and Ottoman empires for a long time. In addition, I had to write a third Gothic-inspired story, and since I already had the manor-on-the-moor and the canals-of-Venice, what better than to start out with a castle-in-Romania? No vampires, of course, but what a great jumping-off point for an adventure! Actually, this novel stays in Europe because I couldn’t think of a reasonable motivation for them to cross the Bosporus. And I ran severely over my word count already! I am planning several books set in Africa and Asia, though, and if I make my mark by being “different,” I don’t think I’ll have a problem at all.
Q: Trimming is never easy. How do you decide what to cut?
A: I trim what I can and tell my publisher that’s all I’m doing, and they publish the rest. *g* I tighten heavily any time I go through line edits, so I typically lose at least five pages by cutting a sentence here, a paragraph there. (It also makes my editor think I really am taking her request to cut to heart, too. If you’re going to write over, it’s always better to have the biggest page count hit your editor’s desk at the initial due date and then make it a bit shorter after line edits rather than barely make it with the initial submission and then go longer with line edits!)
I really look for repetition of feelings, thoughts, conversations, or tones and get rid of them. Sometimes, I cut whole scenes, as I did in MUSIC. Sometimes, I combine then with other scenes, as I did in WHISPERS. I cut 14 pages in WHISPERS and about 25 in MUSIC. MUSIC weighed in at 414 pages and WHISPERS at 438 when I finished.
Q: You’ve got a terrific website and blog, and you’ve maintained a pretty decent presence on writer’s listserves. How do you balance writing with your online connections?
A: Writing and family come first, and so I’ll disappear for months at a time online. *g* But I like to know what readers are thinking and talking about. Listening to readers has helped me as much as being a reader myself to establish what I wanted to be as a writer. I also like chatting online—when I have the time!
Q: What do you reach for to inspire? (Music, exercise, websites, another book…?)
A: Usually, nothing. I typically write in a chair or in bed with to background of a playing preschooler. Occasionally when I’m stuck, I use candles and moody classical music to get my brain working again. But my inspirations come from a foment of many, many materials inside my own head.
Q: Have you thought about writing outside of the romance genre (as someone other than Lydia Joyce)? What else interests you?
A: Well, I hope to write both romantic historical fiction and romance as Lydia Joyce. But I’m working on a contemp, non-romance pseudonym that’s an homage to James Bond with a feminine, Lara-Croft-like kick. Think Bond meets travel adventure meets Stephanie Plum. I love writing plotty books, and so these will be a blast!
Q: What’s the “chanciest” book you’ve ever read and how did you feel about it?
A: In romance, the chanciest books I’ve read are by Judith Ivory, Susan Squires, and Laura Kinsale. I read them, loved them, and said, “I want to be special because I go unexpected places, too!”
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring authors?
A: Be unique and as big as you can, and there are no short cuts to writing a good book!
THANK YOU, Lydia Joyce, for sharing your expertise with us!
–Kathleen and Therese