Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Writing Wednesday: Romance Outliers

What does it take to be an Outlier in the romance industry? PHS columnist Michelle Styles investigates.
Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a book called Outliers that explore why some people are outrageously successful. Is it genius? His basic conclusion is that it had to do with luck -- being born in the right place at the right time and hard work – the willingness to put the hours in rather than some mystical talent. And the conditions that allow people to put in the hard work has to be there.
If we take a look at some of the outrageously successful romance writers does this theory stand up?
The first name that springs to mind is Nora Roberts. She is highly talented and hugely successful. By anyone’s reckoning she must be considered an Outlier. She is famously a hard working and prolific storyteller as well as being one of the most influential women in North America. But why? Is Gladwell right?
Nora Roberts started in series romance and was able to hone her craft. She put the 10,000 hours in that Gladwell reckons it takes to become proficient. She has also continued to produce high quality stories at the good rate.
Her first book appeared in 1981 when the romance genre was just taking off in the US. The RWA was also formed about this time, and Ms Roberts became an active member. Because of changes in the romance publishing industry (some of which she helped to bring about, I believe) she was able to take her name and therefore her series readership with her when she went to single title. This is something that was not open to earlier authors who had to rebuild their readership with a new name. So the conditions were right for her to prosper, but it would not have happened if Ms Roberts had not been willing to work so hard. She was (and I believe remains) highly focused on producing excellent stories.
A similar story might be made for Debbie Macomber. Debbie again started with series romance with her first book being published in 1982, honed her craft and made the switch over to single title. But she is also famously hard working and produces high quality books that speak to her readership. She also excelled at reader outreach and continually looked for ways to enhance her readers’ experiences. For example, she produced newsletters and websites for her series long before the idea became popular. Her hard work at reader outreach is legendary.
You could make a case for Sandra Brown (1981), Tess Gerritsen, (1987), Diana Palmer (1979), Linda Howard (1982) and a number of other best selling women’s fiction authors. Many had their start in the early 1980’s romance genre. All worked hard and were in the right place to take advantage of the opportunities that swiftly growing marketplace offered.
Does this mean that there is no chance for any new author today to become an Outlier? After all the market has changed and matured since these women first started. You cannot return to the conditions of the early 1980s.
What has not changed is the need to put the time in to hone your craft (the mythic 10,000 hours). Desire, dedication, determination, discipline and a lot of persistence all contribute to the success an author enjoys. The film and television industry often portray novelists as people who dash off novels in a few days or who do not really work at their craft. The vast majority of successful writers that I know care deeply about their books and the worlds they create. They spend hour after hour working at their craft. Successful romance writers tend to be highly focused people. In order to write novels, you really have to want to write.

The other trait the highly successful authors have is that they decided when the time was right to make the jump to single title. It is always a risk, even when the authors in question had huge readerships. But they all had an inner drive to try. So again it came down to determination, desire, dedication and discipline and persistence.

I should also point out that not everyone wants to become an Outlier. Some people prefer to have a life. But should you be inspired, you should know that it will take a lot of hard work. The hard work enables authors to be in the right place. Opportunities are always there, if authors are willing to reach out and grab them.

If you are interested in reading some of the first books these successful authors wrote, Harlequin as part of its Diamond anniversary programme is re-releasing first series books by New York Times bestsellers.

Michelle Styles tries to craft quality stories that appear at regular intervals but knows that she is still well within the 10,000 hour apprenticeship period. Her next M&B historical, Impoverished Miss Convenient Wife will be published in April 2009. It is the sequel to A Question of Impropriety.


  1. Hi Michelle,

    This was a really interesting piece.

    When I was at RWA conference last year I went to Linda Howard's talk and asked her the question: 'Do you have any advice for authors thinking of making the jump from category to single title?'. Her answer: 'Write a bigger book.' Made me feel like a bit of a dunce... But she was, of course, absolutely right.

    I'd love to have the drive, ambition and passion for writing of someone like Nora Roberts or Linda Howard, but the truth is I simply don't think I'll ever make that 10,000 hour mark or write that Bigger Book. I like writing the smaller ones too much - and having lots of time to do other stuff.

    I did enjoy reading Nora's first category though, I think it's called Irish Thoroughbred, because reading it you can see what a huge progression she's made (and the category romance market has made) since she wrote it. Gives us all hope frankly...

  2. I love this post - and totally agree with the concepts.
    I learnt many years ago that any work of fiction needs two elements - the story itself, and the craft skills, which the author has learnt by work and diligence, to make that story as compelling as possible on the page.
    Two totally different elements.
    There are stories which I know that I am not yet ready to do justice. I am still learning. And have passed the 10k long ago.
    Perhaps that is what makes the Outliers so special?
    Now - what was that about 'a life' again? LOL.
    Thanks for such a thought provoking post Michelle.

  3. Oh good, I am so pleased you both found the piece interesting. I am fascinated by the whole concept of outliers and what makes someone super successful. There is just that huge drive and that willingness to spend the time perfecting the skill. But there is also an element of luck and of getting on the bus when it stops...

  4. And Heidi --
    I do think reading early work can be so instructive. You can really see how people improve and work at things.
    Hopefully some of the first book collectors thing will come over to the UK...

  5. Fab post Michelle! I for one love thinking about the "big" authors that got their start in category.

    And Heidi, lol at Linda Howard. A true answer but one that can be hard to execute.

    Whenever unpubs ask me what they need to do to develop voice or even just break in, my answer's the same. Put in the time and write. Of course it's not that simple, but it's the one thing you MUST do.

    Now I'm all inspired and stuff. :-)