Joining us today for Savvy Saturday is the lovely and inspiring Liana LeFey. Liana writes historical romances and has her book To Ruin a Rake published through CBG. Her book is available through the Champagne Bookstore, Amazon, and Kobo. Liana loves to weave incendiary tales that capture the heart and the imagination, taking the reader out of the now and into another world. The glory and splendor of the early 18th Century and Regency eras provide lush, glittering backdrops for her historical romances. Sensuous lovers, passionate music, lavish royal courts and deadly intrigues are her delight!
Liana lives in Texas with her own dashing hero of nearly twenty years, their delightful progeny, one spoiled-rotten feline overlord, and several tanks of tropical fish. She’s been devouring historical romance novels since her early teens and is now delighted to be writing them for fellow enthusiasts.
CBG: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
LeFey: When I first started writing, I was one hundred percent a pantser—meaning I wrote by the seat of my pants. I never pre-plotted anything before I started typing in earnest. My first four books were written this way before I came to the realization that although it resulted in a completed manuscript, my process was arduous and involved a lot of rework.
It makes me cringe now every time I think about how I used to shake my head when I saw other writers making storyboards, using Post-Its and index cards to carefully plot out their entire story scene by scene. I did try making a storyboard…once. The endeavor ended with a large pile of crumpled-up Post-Its, an empty bag of Godiva chocolates, and my head buried beneath a pillow. I couldn’t make it work. For me, that kind of detailed pre-planning felt awkward and unnatural. My entire being rebelled against it, yet I needed to find a way to write more efficiently.
Early this summer, I finally found the solution. If necessity is the mother of invention, then imagine what comes of desperation. A while back, my agent and I casually chatted about a book I was working on. After reading the first few chapters—all I had at the time—he talked to an editor about the project. The result was their request for a proposal and synopsis.
Yes, I said it—the “S” word. At the time, synopses were of the devil as far as I was concerned. Long had I loathed writing what I considered a glorified book report, and now I had to write one without having a complete story to summarize. I’d come up against the nightmare every pantser confronts at some point in their writing career. Imagine my quiet terror as I told my agent on Friday that I’d have it to him on Monday.
Don’t worry, I had a plan. Sort of.
Several months prior, I’d heard a group at my local RWA chapter meeting talking about a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and how it helped them improve story development and pacing. Having purchased a copy, I’d read every golden word. Twice. In its pages I’d discovered something called the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.
This magical document listed all the required components of a good story in the order in which they must occur to provide the most satisfying experience for an audience—or in my case, a reader. Having tested it against all of my favorite movies according to the exercises in the book, I knew it to be accurate. Armed with this knowledge, I got the bright idea to use it as a sort of template for a synopsis. Writing three or four sentences per element, I felt it would ensure all the right pieces were included.
I tried it. Using the beat sheet, I laid out my nebulous thoughts, narrowed them down to leanness, and put them in order until it resembled a complete story. Technically, I was plotting—but it didn’t feel like it. I was answering questions. Totally different! So began my crossing over to what I then thought of as “the dark side.”
It took me half a day to write that synopsis. The ones I’d written after-the-fact for my previous releases had taken about a week each, during which I’d been reduced to incoherent sobbing at one or more points—and they were nowhere near as good. What I had in my hands when I finished this one was concise yet comprehensive.
And it worked. My agent loved it. So did the editor. I was asked to finish writing the book ASAP and submit it. Moreover, that synopsis was not the fun-sucking, restrictive cage I thought it would be. It left me plenty of room to “play” as I later fleshed it out in my manuscript. But wait, it gets better. When I sat down to write the rest of that story, it came out so much easier than anything I’d written before.
Somewhere high above, I’m pretty sure my muse was dancing from cloud to cloud singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” because I’d finally gotten it.
I finished writing and polishing what ended up being a 105,000 word manuscript in seven weeks—during the summer with my eight-year-old at home and over the course of two family trips. The week before submitting it, I was also asked to write a proposal for a new series. Again I tried the new method, and again it worked. A few weeks after that, another proposal was requested for the historical romance I’m currently working on. Same result. I was beginning to see a pattern, and I liked it. A lot. In learning how to craft a solid synopsis before writing the full manuscript, this skeptical pantser was transformed into a believing plotter.
A friend put it to me this way when I recently confessed my conversion; she said I’d really been a plotter all along—I’d just never bothered to take the story points floating around in my head and write them down in order before haring off. This wise friend also pointed out that the problem with storing it all in the little grey cells is we sometimes get tired and forget things or become distracted. Without first laying down an underlying structure to which we can refer when needed, our writing can easily wander off into the weeds, causing decreased productivity, giant plot-holes, and a great deal of frustration and rework. I know—I’ve been there.
This summer, I learned plotting doesn’t have to be a scary, complicated nightmare involving corkboards and pins, Post-Its, yarn, or color coding. It can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Regardless of how you do it, knowing ahead of time the next turning point to work toward in your manuscript makes a huge difference. Now at the end of a day of writing, I feel happy and relaxed. The anxiety I once suffered wondering whether I had everything covered is gone. Having conquered plotting via the no-longer-dreaded synopsis, my process has become more efficient—and writing has become even more fun!
CBG: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
LeFey: My mother read aloud to me every day when I was young. Grimm’s fairy tales, Frank Baum’s Oz books, Uncle Remus, Tolkien—anything that would hold my interest. What’s more, she “did” all the voices, which made me feel like I was in the stories. Using The Hobbit, she taught me how to read when I was about four. Every night we would settle around her, my father and I, and she would take us to Middle Earth. I followed her finger down each page line by line and learned not only how to read, but felt the power of the written word to transport the mind and touch the heart.
Shortly after we started The Fellowship of the Ring I remember thinking to myself, “This is what I want to do. I want to write books and be a storyteller.” It stuck. In school, English and creative writing were my favorite subjects, and I became a voracious reader. When books like The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita were labeled “verboten” by either my school or my parents (though the latter was a rare occurrence), I did my best to find them and secretly gobbled them up. The lesson in that? Never tell a kid he or she can’t read something!
I fell in love with the romance genre thanks to my dear friend Kim Frasier. Having run out of reading material (again), I asked her if I could borrow something from her library. Now Kim was (is still) that friend who constantly has a book in hand and about a thousand more in her shelves. At the time I was not a romance reader, so when she handed me Bertrice Small’s The Kadin, I rolled my eyes (I was fourteen). She told me to try it and then tell her what I thought. By the time I finished it, I was an addict.
I’ve written stories since kindergarten, but didn’t start thinking of publishing anything until around 1997, a year or so after marrying my own personal hero. I embarked on the writer’s journey enthusiastically thinking I would be the next Tolkien or Herbert. That particular manuscript took me three years to write and (rightly) lies entombed in eternal darkness. It was a study in frustration and insomnia. I admit I gave up.
The next several years I spent launching a career in healthcare administration, but my muse wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to write. In 2008 I expressed to my husband a deep desire to try again. Despite knowing what we’d both endured the first time, he was supportive. Even more surprising, when I told him I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to rewrite that piece of rubbish lurking under our bed, he said I should try something different: romance.
As you can imagine, I immediately began looking for pods and other evidence of his being a doppelganger. His reasoning behind the suggestion, however, was right there in my “keeper” shelves: row upon row of historical romances by the greats. He said I ought to be able to write one and be good at it seeing as I’d read so many and loved them so much. Sometimes, I think he knows me better than I know myself, because he was right. Since November 2012, I’ve released four historical romance novels. My latest, To Ruin a Rake, became available through Champagne Books in May of this year. I plan to write many more!
CBG: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
LeFey: I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m a research junkie. Many a time I’ve stopped writing to fact-check, only to get sucked down into history’s bottomless rabbit hole for several hours. Writing To Ruin a Rake provided a vehicle into a fascinating research topic: the development of healthcare protocols in the eighteenth century. For years now I’ve known how bullet wounds and blade-related injuries were treated in the 1700s, but digging into medicine in general during the early Georgian period was enthralling. It consumed me.
Eighteenth century ideas concerning medicine are shocking to those of us who live in this modern age of miracles. Miasma theory, bloodletting, the lack of proper handwashing—these are just to name a few. Then you have all the crackpot cures promulgated by shameless frauds, home remedies based on old wives’ tales, and every kind of medical treatment you can imagine from the ridiculous to the outright dangerous.
To Ruin a Rake is largely set in a very real facility, London’s Foundling Hospital—which was not, as you might think, an actual hospital like we have today but rather a home for the city’s unwanted children. Most were brought to its doorstep as a last resort, either by parents too poor to feed them or as orphans. But it was more than just an orphanage. Children brought to this facility were often sick and/or malnourished, requiring medical treatment—such as it was.
In Roland and Harriett’s time, disease ran rampant through London—smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, influenza, scarlet fever, measles and a host of others. Before mankind came up with ways to treat and even vaccinate against many of these, a significant number of those who contracted these illnesses died, making sickness a thing above all to be feared. In To Ruin a Rake, we see the nascent development of what are now considered some of healthcare’s most basic protocols—protocols that in and of themselves saved countless lives.
In addition to research in medicine, I also based my characters on real historical figures of the time. The modified family history of one of the Hospital’s founders became Roland’s background, and Harriett’s family history was similarly borrowed from truth and altered to fit fiction. Anyone who thinks history is stuffy or boring should read what I did when I found inspiration for their stories. Put it this way: if Jerry Springer had a time machine, he’d have invited them to be on his show!
CBG: Do you have any advice for other writers?
LeFey: Self-discipline, perseverance, and the resolve to never stop learning are everything. You can be a creative genius but without these three things it’s unlikely your writing will ever see the light of day. I know for a certainty mine wouldn’t have!
My first romance novel was written in a complete vacuum. I wrote early mornings before my husband and child awakened, during lunch breaks at work, and late at night after everyone else was asleep. When I finally wrote “the end” I was elated—for about an hour, at which point I realized I had no idea what to do with the thing. I had zero knowledge concerning the publishing industry.
Not knowing what else to do, I looked online for information and came across the Romance Writers of America (RWA) website. Angels must have guided my search, because RWA offered exactly what I needed—writing-related resources and a network of writers, agents, and editors. I joined the national association in early 2010 and then found a local chapter in my town and joined it as well.
The phrase “if I’d known then what I know now” describes my perspective shortly after attending my first few meetings. My RWA chapter is made up of kind, generous people who freely and cheerfully offer their knowledge and expertise to those willing to learn. Had I not been mentored by some of them, I might never have become a published author. At the least, I’d have been delayed by a good decade or so. I was given invaluable information, insights, and tools to hone my writing skills. Most importantly, my chapter mates encouraged me. Never have I met a more supportive group of people.
In July 2010 I attended my first RWA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. It was an eye-opener. I spent several days in the company of a couple thousand other writers from every walk of life and in every stage of career development. There were newbies like myself as well as veterans, and everyone was so nice that at first I wondered if I’d stumbled into an alternate reality.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, I’ll share a personal experience from the event. My first day at nationals started out with a fifteen minute chat with a lovely woman beside me in line. No one was talking to her, so I decided to be my usual extroverted self. I introduced myself and told her I’d just finished my first manuscript and how excited I was to be at my first RWA conference. A lovely conversation followed. It wasn’t until after we parted ways that a lady on the other side of me informed me who I’d been talking to: Nora Roberts.
I nearly passed out on the spot. Talk about a facepalm moment! I had asked her what subgenres she wrote in. I had asked her how long she’d been writing. In my excitement, I had asked her everything but her name (she wasn’t wearing a badge). And yet, she’d smiled the entire time and was graciousness incarnate.
What I took away from that experience (besides a whopping dose of mortification) was the fact that Nora Roberts, queen of romance, told an unpublished nobody never to give up, that I was in the right place if I wanted to learn, improve, and achieve success—and then sincerely wished me the best of luck. So did many of the other attendees I met throughout that fabulous week, some of them authors I’ve read and loved since I was a teenager.
It was exactly the motivation I needed. If they had done it, so could I. The following July after rewriting my manuscript no less than three times based on what I learned from the sessions at nationals and my chapter mates, I attended the RWA Annual Conference in New York, NY. My intent? Find an agent and a publisher. I succeeded on both counts, and January 2012 saw me sign a three-book publishing contract. My first historical romance was released November of that year.
My story is not unique. Countless other writers have made this journey. It can be done. There are challenges, but the key is not to let any of them stop you. If being a published author is your dream, then fight for it! My first three books were written and published while I held down a full-time job, dealt with family drama worthy of daytime television, and raised a toddler even as my husband and I struggled through launching a small business. There were times I felt the only things holding me together were chocolate, determination, and the support of my RWA chapter mates.
Be self-disciplined. Set concrete goals and work toward them until they’re met. Persevere despite opposition, rejection, and a host of other frustrations and challenges. Remain willing to learn from others, keeping in mind that no matter how many of your books end up published, there will always be someone wiser and more experienced than you. Find them. Learn all you can. Above all, if possible join a professional writers association. In addition to knowledge and expertise, you’ll find support and forge friendships with others who will understand you as no one but a fellow writer can.