A Romantic Embrace
An Interview with Jane Holland
Picture by Chiltern Railway
Jane Holland does a lot of things better than me. Poetry, reviewing, fiction, editing, snooker… I could go on. In a lot of ways, Jane is the perfect interviewee for the Literary Project. She has worked in various roles within the publishing industry, has written in a variety of forms and knows her stuff backwards. This alone was enough to make me want to interview her, and believe me, I struggled to get the number of questions down to a reasonable amount. But, you know, it's okay, I forgive her for being fantastic, because she likes Georgette Heyer, and as far as I'm concerned, anyone who likes Georgette Heyer is a pretty cool person.
But then, I don't just interview people because they are nice enough to share their experiences on here (although that obviously helps). The aim of the Project is to help out those of us who want to make a career writing by bringing you inside information, new opportunities and new avenues to explore. Today, I am delivering on that aim big style.
Salt Publishing is about to launch a new Romance imprint, Embrace Books, and the fantabulous Jane Holland is the Editor on this line. Salt are an exciting independent publisher already, so the idea that they are moving into Romance made me giddy. As well as discussing aspects of her own career and giving some general advice for writers, Jane has also answered a few questions about what she wants for Embrace, and how you can go about submitting.
Hello Jane, welcome to the Literary Project! Can you summarise your career in the literary sector for us?
I started writing poetry seriously in 1995, founding a poetry and reviews magazine called Blade which ran for four years, and won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 1996. My first poetry collection was published the following year with Bloodaxe Books, one of the top poetry publishers in the world, and I've since gone on to publish five collections altogether with various publishers.
Fiction-wise, I was headhunted by major literary agency Curtis Brown after an article of mine appeared in the London Review of Books. I subsequently published my debut novel, Kissing the Pink, with Sceptre in 1999. Since then my articles and reviews have appeared in most of the major British literary journals.
My agent at Curtis Brown having retired, I am now with Luigi Bonomi of Luigi Bonomi Associates. I'm extremely happy to have signed with LBA, not least because Luigi was just voted Literary Agent of the Year 2010. I'm currently writing a vast Tudor historical set in the middle of Elizabeth I's reign.
In my spare time – ha! – I edit an online arts and literary journal for Salt Publishing called Horizon Review. We take poetry, short fiction, articles and interviews, mostly of a literary nature.
You've made a name for yourself on the poetry scene and have several collections in print. What is the appeal of this particular form for you?
It's short! No, seriously, poetry was my first love. I admire its precision, its beauty, and the sheer sound of it, like music. In the right hands, it's the most magical form of writing there can be. My parents were both highly literate, with a huge library, and I grew up reading the likes of Shakespeare, Keats, Plath, the French Symbolists etc. I knew I wanted to be a poet even before the age of ten, although it took me until I was nearly thirty to start publishing it.
Sadly, poetry doesn't make much money and I have five kids to support. So I've always written fiction and non-fiction as well.
Poetry is often considered the hardest literary market to crack. What advice would you give to poets aspiring to publication?
The most obvious advice is to read as much good contemporary poetry as you can find. No genre writer would try to write a romance without reading some from their target publisher. The same goes for poetry. If all you've read is Keats or Plath, your work will be shallow, thin from lack of development, and your influences will be blindingly obvious to everyone – except the poet herself, usually.
While you're reading all the new poetry magazines and collections you can find, and developing your taste as a reader of poetry, get out and listen to good living poets reading their work. Discover what bores you rigid, what makes you fall silent, and what you kind of poetry you ought to be writing yourself. One thing to remember about poetry is that it is a very broad church indeed, with many odd sects and fringe scenes and a fairly dull and predictable – if worthily solid – centre. Not everyone ought to be writing poetry seriously. If you aren't any good and have no real passion for it, don't bother. Poetry pays next to nothing, and you can slave for years at your craft and never be noticed, so it really is a medium for the obsessive enthusiast.
Love what you do, but don't love it so much that you're happy with scribbling down any old rubbish. Edit yourself ruthlessly and compare yourself to other poets, test what works and what doesn't. Once you think your voice may fit a particular magazine, send off your work, following the guidelines absolutely to the letter – nothing annoys an editor more than someone who clearly hasn't read either the magazine/imprint or the submission guidelines – and expect a long wait. No, longer than that. No, even longer. Unless you submit to my ezine, Horizon Review, which has a 30-day turnaround in most cases. Plug, plug.
Don't innocently expect to get paid if accepted. You almost never will be, even if you get a book accepted. Welcome to poetry. It's full of narcissists, frauds, bullies and talentless sycophants, but if you can't stop writing the stuff, you won't care. And you can compose an entire poem on the back of an envelope in your lunch break. How cool is that?
Moving away from the poetry, let's take a look at the fiction. You both write and review Romance; what's the appeal here?
My mother was the late Charlotte Lamb, one of romance's best-selling novelists to date. Along with all that Shakespeare I was reading as a kid, I was also devouring Violet Winspear, Anne Mather, Janet Dailey and, of course, my mother's books, amongst many others. I habitually read my mother's and my sister's books in proof form – my sister, Sarah Holland, also wrote about eleven books for Mills & Boon back in the eighties. As a child, I was allowed to draw on the back of their discarded galleys, and indeed donate my old mss to my own kids today!
So I grew up in this slightly chaotic romantic novelists' household, with phone calls or faxes from agents or editors being a fact of daily life, as were deliveries of newly launched books and foreign editions. At parties or other gatherings I met people like Tessa Shapcott, now Executive Editor at Mills & Boon, and innumerable writers and other editors and agents who drifted in and out of our lives. I remember that bestselling romance novelist Carole Mortimer was visiting my mother the day I went into labour with my first child; she sat there beaming while I counted between contractions. All of that combined to make me see the writing and publishing of romance as something not only normal and everyday, but almost expected of me as a female child. Being a bit of a rebel, that may be why I initially chose poetry instead!
As for romance itself, it's a genre I love with a deep and abiding passion. I cut my historical teeth on my mother's much-thumbed copies of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, so Regencies are what I tend to reach for when I need a romantic fix. But contemporaries are great fun too, with their sassy heroines and dominant heroes, and I love the rich imagination of a paranormal with their brooding vampires and shapeshifters.
As a genre, Romantic fiction is often looked down on, and consequently so are the writers. Why do you think this is? Does it annoy you?
It does annoy me, but at the same time it's true that romantic writing does tend to be uneven across the publishers and across certain subgenres. Some books are so poorly written they make me wonder whether the editor in charge had even looked at them. (Though this mainly applies to romance ebooks I've downloaded, so perhaps it's simply a case of an ebook not being checked properly after being scanned in.) Others surprise me with their emotional naivety and unbelievable plots - some of which is encouraged by editors who, perhaps guided by marketing departments, mistakenly think readers want to be patronised and written down to. It's vital for romance to take itself seriously if we are to expect others to do the same.
So I suspect that it's the usual thing of 'no smoke without fire'. Romance is not realism, it's fantasy. But that doesn't mean we should abandon any attempt to be realistic in our portrayal of characters, nor lower our standards as writers and editors.
Look back at Winspear, Mather and Dailey in their heyday. Or Charlotte Lamb's category romances, particularly in her 'golden age' around the early eighties, which were beautifully written and elegantly constructed. Lamb's astonishing emotional realism and narrative drive cannot be matched, in my opinion, by any novelist currently writing category romance today. But that's not because the talent isn't out there, waiting to be developed, but because the market on the whole refuses to allow such strong and original voices to be heard anymore.
What the market wants is more of what it already has. Yet the more our new writers are encouraged to produce books out of the same mould, the more we find ourselves reading homogenised formulaic writing instead of powerful, vital, and original category novels like those of the great romance stars of the eighties.
What are you working on right now?
I'm a quarter of the way through a Tudor novel – straight fiction, not romance, though romance does play a key role in the plot – set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
I'm also writing an essay on the poet Ted Hughes for one of our leading British poetry journals, Poetry Review. A real labour of love!
So, how did you get into editing?
Back in the mid-nineties when I was editing that little poetry magazine, Blade, a poet called Chris Emery sent me some work which I published. Nearly ten years later, having spotted online that I was 'between publishers', the now married Chris Hamilton-Emery persuaded me to sign with his publishing house, Salt. When he launched a new literary magazine, Horizon Review, he asked if I would edit it. So that's what I've been doing for the past few years.
What are the key skills that an editor requires if they want to build a career for themselves?
The ability to delegate responsibilities!
Joking aside, being able to work with a wide variety of people is a huge part of the job, plus a willingness to shoulder the blame when things go wrong and to 'share the glory' when they go right. I'm not a perfect editor. I've always had a reputation for being a tad irascible and unable to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, but I'm mellowing as I get older. Over the past two years, I've gathered together a team of talented and dedicated section editors and columnists to work with me on Horizon, and I'm very lucky to have them on board.
Writers are tricky creatures (and I should know, being one myself). The smallest hint of criticism can stop their creative faculties dead. Yet I'm quite a harsh critic, and tend to notice faults in my own work long before I notice the strengths. So one thing I try to do as an editor is remember that writers are vulnerable, and dangle some extra carrot before the stick appears. But there's no getting round problems by pretending they don't exist, so editors have to be firm and not try to mend something that will clearly never work. They also need to be excellent communicators, able to communicate with many different writers. Some writers will want informal chit-chat, others prefer everything brisk and business-like. So editors need to be able to jump registers all the time, and work at a level and in a language each writer can understand and respond to most freely. Clearly, emotional intelligence is a must.
An editor also needs to know how to spot a difficult author and avoid them like the plague.
And not keep writers waiting for months or even years for a response. There ought to be an industry-wide agreement that if you haven't had a reply within a set time limit, say 3 months, then you should consider that a rejection and submit elsewhere. (For instance, Salt Publishing operates a 30 day turnaround with its poetry submissions.) Okay, if you have thousands of submissions, it takes a while to get through them all, especially if they need to be passed on to someone else. But the vast majority of submissions are clearly Yes or No within five minutes of being opened. Sometimes the wait is in place simply to stop writers resubmitting again too quickly.
So, what's all this about Salt Publishing, Romance and you?
Salt Publishing have been publishing award-winning poetry, essays and fiction for ten years now, and have offices in London, Cambridge and Glasgow.
They will be launching Embrace Books, a brand-new romance imprint, in Spring 2011. A few months ago, Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt invited me to edit Embrace Books for them, and I agreed!
What will you be looking for?
Initially, we are looking for romances in contemporary, historical, paranormal or same-sex categories. There are two heat settings: Red Velvet – 'sexy, sophisticated romance' - and After Dark, which is a shade hotter and closer to erotic romance.
For Red Velvet, books should be around the 60,000 mark, and up to 65,000 for After Dark. I'll also be looking for novellas across both lines and all categories, from 12-25k.
Personally, I enjoy bubbly Heyer-style Regencies, but paranormal continues to be popular, so those are also being keenly sought. Historicals don't have to be before the twentieth century, but should not be any later than the 60s.
I should also add that I'm open to new ideas, new time periods and new genres. So even if something doesn't quite fit the guidelines – an unusual subgenre like Steampunk, or even some combination that's never been done before – then email me with your ideas and a short sample, say 10 pages.
I'm particularly keen, by the way, to encourage lesbian romance. There seem to be plenty of gay romances available right now, but very few lesbian category romances. So try me.
Overall, I am looking for authors who are easy to work with, open to humour, willing to self-promote, willing to discuss their work without becoming over-defensive, eager to push beyond their comfort zones, and most importantly, authors who understand the importance of courteous, professional behaviour.
We are launching initially with ebooks, but will be looking for titles to select for later print editions. Payment is by royalties only.
How can people submit?
Email the first 3 chapters of your romance and a 3-5pp synopsis by Word (doc) attachment, with a writing CV if appropriate and a cover letter to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Try to avoid RTF or Vista files, if you can, i.e. docx.
Novels don't have to be finished before you submit, but bear in mind that response times may be quite short and if requested, I'd hope to see the full ms within about 6 weeks.
Try not to get hung up on writing the perfect synopsis. There's no such thing. It's a road map to a territory that may shift many times over the course of your novel's writing and editing and publication. Just give me the essence and keynotes to your story, tell me roughly what happens in what order, and don't hide anything vital – like the ending!
Please use spellcheck before emailing me your ms. Better still, be able to spell and punctuate correctly before you reach that stage. Occasional typos I can forgive. I've even been known to make such mitsakes mistakes myself. But persistent poor spelling, wobbly sentence structure and incorrect punctuation will make me cranky. And you don't want to make me cranky.
Spelling, by the way, can be either American or British. But whichever you choose, be consistent and accurate.
Thinking as both an editor and as a writer here, can you explain the value of a literary agent to those who haven't got representation and are wondering if they need it?
Here in Britain, there only seem to be a few agencies that will handle romances, partly because of the low revenue associated with category romance, but also partly to do with its poor image as a literary form. So anyone reading this who is into writing category romance should be aware that they don't really need an agent, and are unlikely to get one anyway, though they are certainly popular in the US and slightly easier to find there.
If, however, you write other things besides category romance, or happen to have found an agent willing to represent you, then the only thing you have to consider is whether you want to hand over up to 20% of your hard-earned income from writing in return for someone who will send out your work to publishers, negotiate sales, check over your contracts and act as a buffer between you and the publisher.
That all sounds great, of course. But in category romance, erotica and some other types of popular fiction, you don't need an agent to approach a publisher. Nor do you need an agent to negotiate or check your contracts because most contracts in this part of the industry are pretty standard and unlikely to be changed for a new author even if you did have an agent trying to argue for a higher royalty. And if you do want a friendly expert eye on your contract, here in Britain the Society of Authors will do the same job for you if you're a member.
You might, however, get your work out of the slush pile quicker, or have a reply to your revisions quicker with an agent in your corner.
NB. Agents seem just as hard to persuade as publishers these days. It seems to me, if you're just starting out in category fiction, that looking for an agent is one more way to get depressed and feel like a failure. If you're already established though, with a sizeable backlist, it might be worth your while hanging up your 'agent hat' and letting someone else deal with those nerve-wracking submissions or difficult to decipher ebook or world rights clauses.
If I forced you at gunpoint to choose between poetry, fiction and editing, what would win out for you?
Poetry. Now put the gun down.
And finally, can you sum up a key piece of advice in one sentence for either aspiring writers, aspiring poets or aspiring editors?
Choose what you want to be, and be that, without apology or distraction.
Jane's website can be found here and her writing blog can be found over here. At the time of writing Embrace haven't got their website up and running, but you can find out more about their parent company, Salt Publishing, over here. If you'd like to take a look at the magazine that Jane edits, Horizon is here.
So, there you go folks, a brand new market opening for writers of romance, interested in pretty much anything so long as it is good. If you impress Jane and she takes you on (especially if you write bubbly Heyer-type romance) then please drop me a line; not only would it be great to hear from you, but I'd be forced to buy three copies of your book for my sister, my mum and myself. You've been warned!