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Patricia Kay: The early years

This week I’m delighted to have an in-depth interview with Houston author Patricia Kay. I met Pat during the early days when we both took creative writing at a local community college, and it’s been a pure pleasure to watch her master the craft of writing and see her books rise in standings on the bestseller lists. She’s a delightful, warm person who is more than willing to share her knowledge and love for the craft.

Pat, you’ve been writing professionally for a number of years but I bet you can still remember what it was like when you first became serious about your writing. Would you share some of your early writing times with us? Were there struggles? Did you take writing classes? Did you have any major influences? What made you want to mine the romance genre for your stories?

I was one of those people who always wanted to write. As a kid, I wrote short stories, poems, and plays that I “produced” starring my sisters and the neighborhood kids. Every time I’d read a book I loved, I’d think how I wanted to write books, too. Finally, at the age of 49, sitting at my desk at the newspaper where I was the Classified Advertising Manager (and bored silly with my job), I realized it was now or never. Luckily for me, it was early January and I still had time to sign up for a creative writing course at Houston Community College. I almost quit the first night of the class, though. The instructor had us listen to music with the lights out so we could “see” our path. :) I came home, told my husband she was weird, and I wasn’t sure I was going back. But I did go back, the best decision I ever made. The instructor turned out to be one of those teachers who bring out the best in everyone–just a marvelous woman who not only taught me craft but who opened my eyes (and brain) to the creative process.

During that first semester, she introduced us (15 students) to Writer’s Digest Magazine and through an advertisement I saw there, I ordered a book about how to write a romance — not because I thought I’d actually want to write one — but because I was curious. At the time, I still thought I wanted to write a “literary”, non-genre book. When the book on writing a romance came, I read it and it really gave me food for thought because I realized romances were simply books about human relationships. You know how you’re always told to write what you know? Until then, I’d thought of “what you know” as professional background, the way Grisham writes legal thrillers and Robin Cook writes medical thrillers. But that book showed me “what you know” is more about the human condition and what you “know” in your heart. In talking about this discovery with the instructor, I realized that I didn’t even have to experience everything I wrote about. I could simply “know” it by understanding the emotions relevant to the situation. So–to make a long explanation even longer–I decided to read some contemporary romances and see if that kind of story was something I could do. After all, I knew what it was like to fall in love, to want that connection we all want.

From the first, I was hooked. I promptly joined the Romance Writers of America (their contact information was listed in the back of that book I bought) and began (obsessively) to write a contemporary romance targeted for the Harlequin American line of series romances. The reason I chose Harlequin American was because I admired the work of Beverly Sommers, who wrote for them at the time.

It took me three months to finish the book. So you’ll understand just how obsessed I was about writing this book, bear in mind I was working full time and only wrote evenings and weekends. AND I was working on a typewriter. AND I wrote five drafts before I was satisfied it was the best I could do. When I think about how I literally cut and pasted, I marvel that I ever finished that book. But finish I did, and I then sent it off to the senior editor of the Harlequin American line. I fully expected to be awarded a five figure contract and hailed as the new Janet Dailey — who was top dog at Harlequin in those days. What really happened is six weeks later the UPS man brought my manuscript back with a letter saying “thanks but no thanks.” The editor was kind enough to point out what was wrong with the story.

It took two whole days to pick myself up off the floor, realize the editor was right, and get started on manuscript #2. Five books and one hired & fired agent later, I finally sold my first book, CINDERELLA GIRL, to Silhouette Special Edition. The book had been a Golden Heart finalist (contest for unpublished authors in RWA) but my finalist status really didn’t make a difference because the editor who bought the book had nothing to do with the judging and might not even have known about my standing in the contest. Still, I heartily recommend contests to those of you serious about selling. They give you invaluable feedback, but more importantly, they toughen you. When a judge is blunt or tells you something you’d rather not hear, it prepares you for the really tough business of publishing.

All in all, I took four semesters of creative writing under Radha Mohini, now known by her real name, Dr. Bunny Paine-Clemes, Ph.D. Currently the Faculty Development Coordinator and the Director of Academic Assessment at The California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, CA, Dr. Paine-Clemes is, quite simply, the best writing teacher I’ve ever had. I owe her a lot. Not the least of which is how to recognize misplaced modifiers and Rule #17 (omit needless words) in Strunk & White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE.

One last comment: if you want to write and sell your writing, don’t let anyone discourage you. Even if someone you respect says “don’t quit your day job,” that doesn’t mean you won’t achieve your dream. I have a very dear friend, probably one of the most talented writers I’ve ever known, who was told (very gently) by Dr. Paine-Clemes that she would probably never make it as a writer. That writer went on to sell seven novels and win some very prestigious awards in the process. So you never know. No one is the God of Writing and can predict what will happen. That quotation about most success being the result of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, is very true. Yes, you need to have a kernel of talent and you need to work to develop that talent, but keeping your butt in the seat of the chair and working is the true key.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Another question/answer coming tomorrow . . . .
(Note: The covers below are Pat’s books.)

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  • nisha

    Great interview! I loved reading this part about her early years, as it’s the bit I can relate to the best.

  • nisha

    Great interview! I loved reading this part about her early years, as it’s the bit I can relate to the best.