An Afternoon With A Master

By Mary Gillgannon

A few weeks ago, Nora Robert’s book Liar hit the top of the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list. I was delighted by this news. Since I also write romance, it’s cool to see a romance writer make it to number one. The genre is often disparaged and sneered at, but there can be no doubt romance is hugely popular, accounting for almost 40% of ebooks sold and over 20% of print.

The other reason I felt a kind of personal thrill over Nora’s success is because I once had the opportunity to spend several hours with her and discuss writing. It was at a conference nearly twenty years ago. We were sitting in the lobby with my editor at the time. Nora, who was the keynote speaker, walked by, and my editor asked her to join us. A short while later, my editor left, but Nora stayed and chatted with me and three other “newbie authors” for a couple of hours.

At first the conversation was very general, but it gradually turned to writing. Nora was so gracious and relaxed, my friends and I took the opportunity to glean what knowledge we could from this amazing professional. We asked, of course, how she managed to be so prolific, managing to write six or more books a year, under two names. (And unlike bestseller James Patterson, she writes every word herself.) She talked about her work ethic and “Catholic guilt” and said she writes for several hours almost every day, even when traveling.

Next, we asked about her writing process. You might imagine that someone so prolific would have to plot and outline ahead of time. But Nora’s process is fairly loose. She comes up with an idea and/or characters and starts writing, developing the plot and doing research as she goes along. I asked if she ever got stuck and she said, “All the time.” But then she explained her magic solution: “When you write yourself into a corner, you just have to write yourself out again.” A simple enough sounding technique, but it embodies some very important philosophies: Never giving up and having faith in your story and in your own abilities.

With every book, I write myself into a corner, not once but several times. Early in my career, I would panic when this happened. My confidence in myself and my writing would start to waver. I would worry the book totally sucked and maybe I should abandon it and write something else. (Some books I did abandon, at least temporarily.) But now I know writing is more about persistence than skill or creative brilliance. I also know that if I hit a bump or a rough spot, I have to keep going. If I keep putting words on the paper, the answer to the question—what happens next—will eventually come to me. And I’ll be out of the corner and back on the smooth writing road again. I figure if this technique worked for the 200-plus books that Nora has written, it ought to work for me.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

14 thoughts on “An Afternoon With A Master

  1. Good morning, Mary! I have never enjoyed a private conversation with The Master, but I did dance with her at a Harlequin party in Atlanta, and have listened to her author sessions on tape. She is, as you said, Mary, gracious and unpretentious. Gotta love her. Thanks for your excellent post this morning. We all need to be reminded of the simple truths that keep us inspired and writing.

    • It seems to me that for the most part writers, even famous ones, tend to be nice people who are happy to share what they’ve learned. Let’s face it, writers rock!

  2. This is one of the things I love about smaller conferences and mystery fan conventions — you’re more likely to get the chance to sit and talk with a respected and prolific author about the writing life. It’s a great experience.

  3. Thanks Mary. What a great post. I write myself into a corner on, what seems like, a daily basis. What a wonderful experience and thanks you again for sharing that experience with us.

    • Her very practical, no nonsense outlook really helped me at the time and it continues to be a good reminder that the key to success for most of us is hard work.

  4. Fun post, Mary. And this could have been me talking: “She comes up with an idea and/or characters and starts writing, developing the plot and doing research as she goes along. I asked if she ever got stuck and she said, ‘All the time.'” It was encouraging to know my style is that of a famous author.

  5. Thanks for sharing, Mary. I’ve long admired Nora, though it was my sister (a non-writer) who initially introduced me to her brilliant writing. I would love to meet her one day. Here’s a cute interview a couple of fellow quirky OKRWA authors did with Nora a few years ago you’re sure to get a kick out of. If you dig, these two multipublished authors have several of these fun interview skits with big authors. Gena Showalter is now a biggie herself.

    • Omgosh, that was hilarious! Thanks for sharing. And thanks for the blog post about being persistent enough to write yourself out of a corner. I needed that.

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