Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Queen Comes to Cowtown

My friend, Maria, and I met with eight members of my RWA chapter tonight to travel to Fort Worth (Cowtown to Texans) to listen to Nora Roberts speak.

Nora Roberts, the Queen of Romance, has written an average of 6+ books a year for the past 26 years. She was the first author to be inducted into the RWA Hall of Fame.

The interesting thing about tonight was that it was part of the book tour for the latest "In Death" police procedural. Born in Death is the 23th book in the series, which Nora writes under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb. She was introduced to the audience as J.D. Robb and explained that this was one of the first times she has toured specifically as Robb for an "In Death" book.

For those not familiar with the Queen's work, the books written under the Nora Roberts' brand are straight romances. The books written as J.D. Robb are much harder-edged mysteries featuring homicide detective Eve Dallas who works in a futuristic New York (circa 2058).

This evening, Nora explained the genesis of the "In Death" series. I've previously mentioned she is a famously prolific writer. As she approached her 100th novel in the early '90s, her agent and editor became concerned at the backlog of books building up. They suggested she consider a pseudonym. She suggested that her publisher let some of their other authors go to make more room on the bookshelves for her books.

Nora said that she initially resisted the idea, unable to understand the point of writing under two names. However, when the character of Eve Dallas occurred to her, she was able to see the value of separating the two brands, which were very different. The first "In Death" novel--Naked in Death--was published in 1995.

Listening to her speak, I remembered another author who faced the same problem. Stephen King was so prolific that his author and editor tried to get him to slow down. At the same time, King had a backlog of non-horror manuscripts that he did not want to publish under his own name. Like Nora, King began publishing under a pseudonym: Richard Bachman.

Many years ago, I took a car trip across the state of Florida. I rode in the backseat and read a Bachman novel along the way. We had just arrived on the east coast of the state when I came across a paragraph and was struck by the literary style. After asking, "Who does this sound like?" I read the paragraph aloud. Without hesitation, my companion responded, "Stephen King." About a year later, King publicly admitted he was Richard Bachman.

These two examples reinforce the importance of protecting your brand. If you like to write in different genres, you need to consider how you will market these. If you've written a hard-edged thriller, the fans of that novel
will be looking for more of the same from you. To follow up with a fantasy or sci-fi may cause problems with readers who do not care for paranormal books.

The J.D. Robb novels are different in a number of ways from the Nora Roberts books: different genre (police procedural mysteries vs romance), different tone (Robb is more graphic in the descriptions of violence) and focused on a long-term relationship between a man and woman (Eve is married to Roarke, a shady character who gives up his criminal past to preserve their marriage) instead of the building and then culmination of a romance.

Robb/Roberts mentioned a couple of other things that guide her writing: (1) Characters must earn their happiness; (2) Characters are more interesting if they are strong or if they find their strength along the way; (3) She always has an internal conflict as well as the external conflict. Her books are largely character-driven, not plot driven.

All in all, it was a very satisfying evening.

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