Helena Fairfax lives in the North of England in the village of Saltaire, an old Victorian mill town in Wuthering Heights country on the edge of the windswept Yorkshire moors. She is the author of two books, The Silk Romance and The Antique Love and refers to herself as a romance writer, insatiable book lover and crazy rescue dog owner.
What motivated you to start writing? Was there a light bulb moment?
I started writing as a way to occupy myself on a long train commute to work. On those deathly mornings when the rain steams off everyone in a packed carriage, and all the windows are fugged with condensation, it was so much nicer to imagine myself in the south of France with my characters, rather than facing a cold, damp morning in the north of England! Bit by bit, the story I wrote on the train evolved, and I began writing more and more often. I then joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme, and my writing became a lot more focused.
Is it your main source of income? What were you doing before you were a writer?
My first novel was only published last year, and writing still doesn’t provide much of a living. Most commercial romance writers don’t make a living out of it for the first five years. In order to make a living, you also have to be quite prolific. I’m trying to increase my work rate, and I’m getting a lot better with experience.
I have a degree in languages and am a qualified translator. Before I started writing I worked in manufacturing, dealing with export customers.
You write romance. Did the genre part come about or was it a conscious decision?
It was a conscious decision. I’ve always enjoyed reading romance novels. People think there’s a ‘formula’ to these novels, which isn’t the case. There is, however, a definite structure, in the same way poems like sonnets or haikus have a structure. Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example of how a romance novel should be structured. Writing romances isn’t about gushing out purple prose. In fact it’s a little like doing a crossword puzzle at times. I enjoy the discipline of making my ideas fit the structure of an excellent romance novel.
What pitfalls have you experienced being a romance writer?
Not understanding how a romance novel should be structured (see answer above) when I first started out, which meant a lot of re-writing.
Another pitfall is that many people in the publishing industry don’t take the romance genre seriously. This used to be true also of crime, science fiction, and of graphic novels. These genres are now taken seriously and reviewed in broadsheets. There are some first class romance novelists around. It would be nice to see them enjoy the same status as other genres.
Are there other genres you write about?
At the moment I’m trying to get established as a romance novelist, so I’m focusing on this genre. I do have a novel for teenage readers in mind, though, that I plan to finish in the not-too-distant future.
When you are writing a novel do you plot the story from A – Z or do you let it emerge, take form? Describe the process.
Romance novels have a structure, as I mentioned. When starting a new story, the first thing I do is decide on the nature of the conflict between the hero and the heroine. Romance novels are character-driven rather than plot-driven, and the conflict between hero and heroine is key. What is it in these two characters that keeps them apart? Again, Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example. The title says it all.
Once I have an idea of the conflict, I work out a story in which that conflict can deepen and be tested at every turn.
What advice do you have for starting out writers when it comes to pitching stories and managing deadlines? How do you deal with rejection?
I work best to a deadline, as it gives me something to focus on. If I don’t have a deadline, my tendency is not to sit down and get on with it.
Pitching stories is an art in itself. It would depend on the market you’re pitching for. With romance novels you need to be able to sum up the key to the entire story in two or three lines, and make it sound unique and interesting. That’s a good discipline to get used to, and nowadays I try and do this before I’ve even started writing the story. If you can’t sum up the whole idea in three lines, there’s something wrong with your story.
After that, your first page has to grab the editor immediately. So, not hard, then!
Rejection is painful and I hate it. I’m quite robust, though, and if a story has been rejected several times I try and figure out what it is in my story that isn’t working. Having a critique partner can help. You need to be able to listen to other people’s suggestions dispassionately, and rework the story if necessary.
What has been the most memorable moment of your writing career to date?
When my reader at the Romantic Novelists’ Association told me she loved my manuscript and it was ready to go forward to a publisher. I knew then that even if this first manuscript was eventually rejected, I was able to write and one day I would achieve publication. That was an elating feeling and a massive confidence boost.
Do you find the self-motivation and the discipline required difficult?
Yes, quite often. I am the master of prevarication. That’s why I’m answering these questions and not getting on with my present wip 🙂
Do you find writing a lonely experience? It can also be an anti-social exercise. How do people in your life deal with that?
I don’t find it at all lonely. Once I’m concentrating on writing, I don’t miss having other people around. You’re right, it is quite anti-social at times. My husband is luckily quite understanding, especially as I’m not writing as a hobby, but to try and earn some money.
Do you have a routine / a particular place and time when you write?
I have a routine every day. I get up early and answer all my emails and do all the social media stuff. Then I take my dog for a good hour’s walk on the Yorkshire moors, where I live. This is also thinking and plotting time for me. When we get back, my dog has a good sleep and I try and achieve my word count for the day without getting distracted by all the many lures of the internet.
Who / what inspires your writing? Who are your favourite authors?
I read massively widely and thus would be hard put to choose one author. Authors I re-read time and again include Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Stanislav Lem, Dickens, Tolstoy, Mary Stewart and Philip K. Dick. For commercial romance I like Fiona Harper, Liz Fielding and Barbara Hannay.
Who do you call on for support in your hours of need (which I am sure every writer has from time to time!)
I’m a member of several author groups online, such as Marketing for Romance Authors, and my own publishers’ author loops. Romance authors are incredibly helpful and supportive. I’m also a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and have made several great friends there. It’s good to find your tribe.
Helena's next novel, a contemporary romance called A Way from Heart to Heart, is due out on 14th December and is published by Accent Press. You can visit her website here.
Writer's Edit would like to thank Helena for taking part in this interview.