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Harlequin author keeps readers hooked

Nancy Warren

As a leading novelist for Harlequin, the world’s top publisher of romance novels, it is the job of Nancy Warren (BA ’81) to keep readers guessing.

And in an industry that in 2005 alone produced nearly 6,000 titles, that’s not an easy task. Far more than passion, desire, and racy cover art, romance novels are a culmination of a writer’s ingenuity. For Warren, they are a finely honed craft, full of precision.

“Everybody knows the hero and heroine are going to fall in love, so it’s not a big surprise how the book is going to end,” explains Warren, the author of more than 30 novels and novellas. “There has to be a point where readers think, ‘I don’t know how they’re going to pull this off.’

“And that’s really my job — to keep the readers turning the pages even though they know these two will end up together.”

She credits Hamlet for giving her the tools to launch her career.

“Studying Hamlet may not really have a lot to do with Speed Dating (Harlequin: 2007), or The Trouble With Twins (Harlequin: 2006), but it’s surprising how it played a big part in learning how to write and create.”

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, Warren launched herself into a career of professional writing as a reporter with The North Shore News community newspaper. She later took on corporate communications, public relations, and freelance writing — her professional assignments included authoring the engineering newsletters for UBC.

Following a stint in Ottawa, Warren returned to Vancouver in 1996 and considered something entirely different. “I thought to myself, you see those romance novels all the time on the shelves. How hard can it be?” she recalls.

“And so I thought I’d just try one and it took me four years to be able to sell one,” she adds. “It’s much more difficult than you think.”

After submitting her first two novels to Harlequin — one for Duets, a romantic comedy series, and the other for Temptation, the publisher’s steamiest line at the time — Warren recalls feeling discouraged when she did not hear back from editors.

“When you’re first starting out, it’s a dreadful, grim, and soul-destroying process,” she adds. “If you think about it, this is you on the page. It’s much harder than sending a piece of journalism and someone saying that it doesn’t fit their requirements.”

Warren found that editors did not have time to read new material — their priority was to work with existing authors. With romance sales making up 40 per cent of all popular fiction books sold — more than mystery, suspense, and detective novels combined — the genre is the most popular type of fiction in America.

To break into the industry, Warren joined writing groups, worked closely with an editor, and entered contests. She eventually got her break, winning the contest that launched Harlequin’s hottest and sexiest line, Blaze, a series of erotic romance novels.

After knocking on doors for years, seeking comments and feedback from editors, Warren believes she has learned to create and tell the perfect story — one that requires entertaining characters and an intricate plot.

“Every time I start a romance novel, I have somebody that has a problem, whether they really want something, or are running away from something,” Warren says of her characters’ personal issues, evident in the opening chapters of her books.

“If it’s a question of vulnerability or an inability to commit, those elements are going to somehow come through even in the intimate scenes.”

From writing about Shakespeare’s canon to reporting news stories, Warren accumulated a set of skills she believes is “incredibly applicable.”

“For example, interviewing somebody and getting to the heart of the story really helped me in writing romance,” says Warren of her five years as a reporter. “You get really good at [romance] dialogue because you’re so used to writing down what people are saying. You get used to the rhythms of natural speech rather than a very formal writing style that we come out of university with.

“You have to kind of understand the rules and then break them.”

In penning her often explicit love scenes, Warren enjoys the creative process of delving into her imagination and making up every word.

“I love writing love scenes because they can be really fun,” Warren says, adding she focuses on bringing out the personal connection between each set of different characters.

“And think about it: that’s when you’re completely vulnerable, you’re completely letting go, you’re completely intimate, and so I think that’s the most revealing of who we really are.”

Warren says she equally enjoys the process of what she calls “sparking ideas.”

“Stories and ideas are everywhere,” she says. “Everybody has a story. And I spend a lot of time when I’m out just chatting with people.”

As a novelist with a dedicated readership, Warren has reduced the amount of writing she produces, currently averaging three to four books a year. Along with the flexibility of writing from home, she says she enjoys a yearly publication schedule that is based on her needs.

“I’m very entrepreneurial,” Warren says. “This is my own business. And I’m my own boss.”

She adds: “Writers write. The bottom line is — if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.”

Article appeared on UBC Faculty of Arts website, October 12, 2007

[Photo courtesy of Nancy Warren]

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