“The goal would be to tell it as well as I possibly can,” she says. “If there’s anything else, you can’t sit there and think, ‘I want to sell x number of copies of this story’—you haven’t even written the story yet!” she says. “So, it’s like closing the lid on the box. You go into the story, the story’s in the box with you, and that’s all there is.”
Roberts began writing category romance in 1979 when a blizzard forced her to remain housebound. Since that time, Roberts, who also writes under the alias J.D. Robb, has published more than 130 novels, including her most recent title The Villa (Putnam).
In 1986, she became the first author inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. To date, 56 of Roberts’ novels have been New York Times bestsellers. In 2000 alone, Roberts had 14 titles on Times bestseller lists. She admits that there’s a secret to her success.
“Really, it goes right back down to the story,” she says. “I think I do have some advantages, not in story telling, but that I was educated by the nuns. That means I was [raised] with discipline and guilt—they’re very wonderful writer’s tools.”
Roberts goes on to explain that she also has a fast pace and a love of the process of writing. So, when she combines those traits, she says she can produce a lot of books.
In 1981, Roberts published her first novel, Irish Thoroughbred (Silhouette Romance), whose breakout phenomenon rocketed her career to the lofty status it enjoys today. And again, writing the novel came down to crafting a story.
“I just wanted to write the story,” she says. “I don’t think you can sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a breakout novel.’ I think that’s not only pompous, it’s silly.” Rather, Roberts thinks writers should sit down and say, “I want to tell this story.”
According to Roberts, if the writer crafts a story that is compelling and he or she puts the time and effort into it, then maybe the author will get lucky and break out. However, Roberts says she doesn’t really understand the term ‘breakout.’
“I don’t think about stuff like that, I really don’t,” she says. “And I know that the writing process is very individual, so others who write may think about that because that’s part of their process.”
For Roberts, the writing process involves writing daily for eight hours, which allows her to tell the story in whatever form she has selected—category romance, contemporary relationship or romantic suspense—or that the story demands, and write it the very best that she can.
Once she has written the story, she says she relies on other people to market and position the book, and if it becomes a breakout novel, so be it.
“My only job is to tell the story,” she says. “I think that if writers focused on that, they’d be better off and probably more successful.”
She also says that if a writer believes that there is a recipe for writing a bestseller, they’re wrong because it just doesn’t work that way.
Aside from the story, Roberts says that characters are also important if you want to have a successful book.
“All my books are character driven. Character is key,” she says. “Character is plot—character is everything and the story wraps around them.”
Especially in romance—relationships are the most important element in romance novels, according to Roberts. “It’s all about the relationships. If you don’t have at least two really interesting, dynamic people at some point in their lives that makes sense—starting into a relationship, developing this relationship with its problems and its complexities and its conflicts—then you don’t have a romance. Relationship is what drives the story. Whatever plot there is, whatever outside influences there are, it is all about who these people are and what they’re going to bring to each other.”
Roberts learned how to use character from her roots in category romance, as an author has to be able to ‘paint’ the characters quickly and clearly in a short period of time.
“Your characters have to jump off the page,” she says. “They have to appeal to the reader in some way.” Along with a well-told story, Roberts also says that characters need to be appealing, humorous and human.
“If you don’t care about the people, then it’s all action, and who cares about that if you don’t care about who drives the action or who the action happens to?” she says. “It’s all about who these people are.”
Despite her success and established writing process, Roberts still faces challenges when writing a new novel. It begins at “page one and then page two and so on.”
“I start with a situation and ‘what if,’ and some character types and the canvas,” she says. Then, she takes the situation, places it in a variety of settings with different backdrops and character types.’
“Then you have to refine that situation into story,” she says. However, Roberts makes it clear that she does not refine the story into plot. “I don’t plot. I don’t sit down and plot a book. It sort of unreels as I write.”
So, with each draft she is faced with the challenge of crafting a situation and articulating the story on paper. Within this three- to four-draft process she finds out who her characters are, not just their personality types, but who each is as a person. “It’s a challenge every time,” she says.
In the end, Roberts says it comes down to having the skill to tell a story. “You have to have the discipline to sit down and tell the story, and the desire to tell a good one.”
This article appeared in 2002 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market.