Monday, June 13, 2011

Interview with Harlequin Superromance Author Ellen Hartman

I promised you a super Monday, and it's here! Summer officially starts next week, so I'm throwing a beach party to welcome Harlequin Superromance author Ellen Hartman to our midst. As both a technical and romance writer with a degree in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon University, Ellen lives and breathes writing (and probably ponders the technicalities of romance in her spare time ;)). I know. She's thinking what spare time? Well, she has some now because I have her buried in sand up to her neck, and I'm not digging her out until she spills her romance writing secrets. Don't worry, she has a great sense of humor (much better than mine), and she's a sport (unless you're rooting for the wrong hockey team). Seriously though, Ellen knows first hand that a blind date can start with love-at-first-sight, and end with happily-ever-after, so if you have any questions about writing or romance... Oh, but I get to go first! Ellen's doing a giveaway, so make sure you join the fun .

1. No conflict. No story. In 2008, you gave an online workshop on conflict called Making a Minefield. For those of you who haven't read it, click on the link. It's an absolute must-read, and it contains really great examples. Any new gems or brainstorming techniques on how to keep conflict fresh?

I had such a good time on that workshop. One of the techniques I used successfully in both of my most recent books (Calling the Shots and Married by June) is to swap the gender of characters.

In Calling the Shots, my original plan was for the hero's son (a hockey star) to bully the heroine's daughter (a not-so-good hockey player). It seemed trite for the jock stud to be a bully, and it was hard to make the hero or his son likable. Then I swapped the bully's gender. In the final book, the hero's daughter (a star hockey player) bullies (sort of) the heroine's son (a not-so-good hockey player). This kept the conflict fresh--a girl bullying a boy is less common. It set up some delicious conflict for the heroine and her son. She wants to protect him and shelter him and he wants her to back off! I found it much easier to write the hero as a sympathetic character when he was struggling to understand his daughter (who was stressed out, but not malicious), than when he was defending a jerk of a son.

I had similar success when I changed the gender of a character in Married by June, but if I explain it will spoil part of the plot!

I think in general, a great way to increase conflict is to write solid characters. Conflict works best when it's specific and memorable. Any time you move your characters away from the norm or the trite and find the "real" you're going to have a better story.

2. In 2009, you and fellow Superromance author, Jeannie Watt, did an incredible eharlequin discussion called Shopping for the Alpha and Beta Hero. Gamma guys make an 'appearance' too, and authors from several different Harlequin lines chimed in. It's another must read, and I just have to ask...any chance you'll ever write (or co-author) a craft book on writing?

Thank you so much. I'm thrilled those workshops are useful! I love Jeannie's writing so I was pumped to get to work with her. I don't think a craft book is in my immediate future, but I love doing workshops.

If anyone is attending the RWA conference in NYC, my critique partner, Diana Holquist (she also writes as Sophie Gunn), and I are giving our workshop, "The Virgin Widow's Heart Stopped When She Saw the Workshop that Would Change Her Life Forever: Working with and against Cliches to Make Your Work Shine...And Sell!" (How about that title?) We do some overview and then jump right into examples from our work to show how we edit to get the absolute best stuff we can. We also do live critiquing with work from audience members. I'd love to see folks there. (It's Thursday afternoon from 2-3.)

I also offer a workshop on Beta heroes and one that's drawn from my day job as a technical writer on how to usability test your author web site or social media portfolio. I'm hoping to have the chance to do workshops more often.

3. Getting The Call is up there with marriage proposals as one of life's sweetest moments. We'd love hear about when your editor proposed to you...okay, know what I mean. Your latest release, Married By June, has marriage on my mind ;). Tell us your Call story!

When my son was in kindergarten he was obsessed with guns. He met a kid named Hunter and assumed the boy must have access to weaponry. (Duh, why else would someone be named Hunter?) My son demanded that I invite his new found best friend for a play date. It turned out that Hunter did not have guns, what he did have, is an amazing mother. Leslie Daniels was a literary agent and is my most precious friend here in Ithaca.

A few years later, I won the Great Expectations contest, sponsored by the North Texas RWA, and the prize was a partial read by Laura Shin, from Superromance. She requested my full manuscript. I sent it in and then there was quite a lag before I eventually got a 5-page revise and resubmit letter. So I took my book apart and put it back together and sent it off again. At that point, I was pretty sure I was going to get an offer. I knew NOTHING about publishing or I'd have known how often things get to that stage and still don't go to contract, but I was uneducated. I knew you didn't need an agent to sell to Harlequin, but I'm painfully shy and 100% incapable of negotiating around money so I really wanted an agent. Leslie kindly wrote letters of introduction to several famous literary agents and I sent them my book. They turned me down flat, every one. Leslie didn't represent any romance clients, but she took pity on me and said she'd be my agent. Thank goodness.

So I was all set with my agent and all I needed was the Call. I was at work in my cubicle in the Cornell vet school one day when Leslie called. She said, "Laura Shin left a message while I was out. She said she's going to call back this afternoon."

I said, "I hope she's not calling to reject it." (Honest to God, this is what's inside my brain!)

Leslie: "They don't call to reject things."

Me: "It could be a new policy."

At that point Leslie asked me to try not to let on that I'm crazy when I was talking to Laura. The actual call from Laura is a blur. I remember where I was...sitting on a bench in the atrium of the vet school building, but not what we said. I only remember that conversation with Leslie, because that's when it all started to seem real!

4. What's the one thing you did that you feel played a critical role in landing you a book contract?

Two things: I finished a book and I submitted it. I had this conversation with my critique partner, Diana, shortly after she got her first contract.

Me: "I'm never going to sell a book. I think I should quit."

Diana: "Have you submitted your book, yet?"

Me: "..."

You can't sell it if you don't finish it and send it in.

5. You have a degree in creative writing and create wonderful romances by night. However, you're a technical writer by day and a self-professed lover of logic. Are you more left-brained, right-brained or is it a tie? When you come home from work and get ready to write romance, is the transition in writing style easy or difficult? In what way does your love of logic and your technical writing mindset influence/affect how you tackle a character's emotional arc?

The writing style thing is easy. Practically the only thing I'm confident of in my writing is my voice so I can settle into fiction no problem.

The left brain/right brain thing is complicated. I'm a combination, but my right-brain tendencies scare me so I subdue them with left-brain stuff. For example, left-brain people like to make lists. I don't like lists, but not having one feels dangerous. So I make very high-level lists. Or I make them in the middle of the night when I'm nervous and then never look at them again. Left-brain people read magazines in sequential order while right-brain folks dip into the interesting stuff and skip around. When I read The New Yorker, I read the movie review (the last page) first. Then to punish myself for skipping to the good stuff, I force myself to read sequentially backward.

The logical issue is the hardest one. I am logical. I like logical, sensible people. But I'm writing books about people who make decisions that go against their best interests. The key thing for a romance conflict is that if one person gets their heart's desire, the other person loses theirs. This always bogs me down when I'm writing. I can't move forward unless I know why a character will chose a particular path. In Married by June, the heroine, Jorie, gets engaged even though she knows she's not in love. I didn't intend to show the engagement in the book, partly because I couldn't figure out what she was thinking when she made that decision. Then my editor and all of my critique partners asked to see the engagement. I wrote it mostly as a character exercise, but I loved the way it came out. It convinced me that Jorie's decision made sense, so that scene is now the prologue for the book.

6. You have quite a few 'famous' scenes to your name. One would be the 'sexiest, fully-clothed dance scene ever' in His Secret Past. Those may not be your editor's exact words, but they're close, and they had me running off to buy the book from your backlist. I had to see for myself...and she was right of course ;) Another would be the famous 'drunken breakdown scene' from Plan B: Boyfriend. That was so much fun. Which scene in Married By June do you think will get initiated to the Scene Hall of Fame?

This question made me blush. Thank you so much. One of the reasons I love being edited by Victoria is that she has a great eye. She encourages me to develop scenes when she knows they're working and I owe her big time for that.

The engagement scene prologue for Married by June doesn't rise quite to the level of the drunken breakdown scene, but I love it. It's a very romantic, tension-filled moment. The last scene of the book has some nice callbacks to the prologue and I'm happy with the way the two parts bookend the story. Those two scenes together are the ones I like best.

7. Prologues are tricky little buggers, but in Married By June you rocked it. As in 4 carat diamond solitaire rocked it :). Chapter one had me all wound up and dying to know what happened where the prologue left off. Oh yes, a page sly Ellen. When did you know your story would need a prologue? Was it part of your proposal, or did it come around in revisions?

This is a mind meld moment, for us, Rula, where I answer your questions before you ask them. ;-) I'm so glad the scene worked for you! Good thing Victoria made me add it in.

The proposal for that book looked nothing like the published version. In the original concept, Cooper was an insurance agent, not a political speech writer. He and Jorie were married (not engaged) and he asked for a divorce. They went away for a month to a cabin with his three teenage nephews. When it came time to write the book I'd just finished Calling the Shots and I was eager to write a book without teenagers. ;-) My critique group said insurance wasn't high stakes enough. Etc. Then the whole thing got revised again after I turned it in. You can read a deleted scene featuring Jorie's sister, Mindy, on my website. Mindy and her whole storyline got cut.

8. In Married By June, your heroine, Jorie, puts together a wedding proposal inspired by the fact that the bride and groom went to the movies on their first date. Which of the following wedding movies would be on Jorie's top three list of muse joggers?

The Wedding Planner (Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey)
Made of Honor (Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan)
Sweet Home Alabama (Josh Lucas and Reese Witherspoon)
My Best Friend's Wedding (Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney)
The Wedding Date (Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney)
The Wedding Singer (Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore)

Definitely The Wedding Singer. Who doesn't love Adam Sandler in that one? At a certain point in the book, I think Jorie would be quite fond of Wedding Crashers. But the one I watched several times (like 15 times) when I was writing the book is The Proposal. (And yes, I watched the whole thing, not just the scene where Ryan Reynolds is naked.) That movie had a hero in conflict over his romance and his familial obligations which had similarities to Cooper's story.

9. Movies make me think of snacking. Actually, waaay too many things make me think of snacking, LOL. Do you have a quirky writing ritual and a favorite deadline crunch-time snack?

Way too much Diet-Coke and big bags of M&M's. For some reason, the jittery feeling I get from that combo helps me tune out my family and life obligations and get into the story. I don't understand it and my waistline hates it, but that's my deadline diet.

10. Apart from not quitting, what's the one piece of advice you'd give writers striving to be Published By June? Well, fine. Too specific a time frame? Published Period works too ;).

I wouldn't be anywhere without my critique partners. Find someone who's a good reader, it doesn't matter if they write the same stuff you do, or even if they write at all. Share your work with them and listen to the feedback.

Excellent advice, Ellen. As always. I'm picturing a poster in your office that reads, 'I'll share my work, but don't touch my M&Ms!' LOL. Thanks so much for being here today! I'll start digging you out ;)

Ellen's giving away a free copy of her book! See details below. Do you know anyone getting married this month? I just had an idea. I'm thinking a copy of Married By June would make a cute bridal shower gift topper...or add it to a bridal gift basket ;). More daring? How about crashing a wedding and passing out...okay, okay. I'm getting carried away. Just kidding. Don't do anything illegal. Ellen had nothing to do with this, and I've honestly never crashed anything but my car. I'm setting aside the jumbo size diet coke and bag of M&Ms now...


Wedding planner Jorie Burke—aka "the wedding whisperer"—knows all about staging the perfect event. So when it comes to her own wedding, she has every detail worked out: the perfect venue, the perfect flowers, even the most brilliant gift registry idea. Not to mention a perfect fiancĂ©…the brilliant, gorgeous senator's son, Cooper Murphy. It's going to be the Washington wedding of the century.

All that's missing is the perfect love.

But halfway through their cake-tasting is a terrible time for Cooper to point that out to her! Can it get any more humiliating for a wedding planner than having her groom call it off? Well, yes, it can. Because it turns out her ex has yet another proposition….


Barnes and Noble


GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment or question and you'll be entered into a drawing for a free copy of Married By June or a book from Ellen's backlist (Note: Wanted Man is unavailable, and His Secret Past is available in e-format only). The winner will be posted here this Thursday, June 16th. Comment away!


  1. Hi Rula,

    One of my co-workers has a daughter getting married this month. I signed a book for her and her fiance and the dad gave it to them as a little joke gift. Too bad I wasn't invited to any showers this month!

    Thanks so much for inviting me today.

  2. Aw, Ellen. A signed book from you would be a special, sentimental wedding gift...not a joke. You may have started a tradition for the bride and groom reading romances together ;).

    I'm so glad you're here today!

  3. Loved this interview and will check out Ellen's workshop in NYC and her articles!

  4. Rula, another fantastic interview. Thanks.

    Lori, thanks so much for being here. I loved what you said about changing genders for the leads. What a wonderful idea and one I can't wait to try.

    As for the blurb for Married by June, that is mouth watering and I am on that book for my summer read list.

  5. Hi Jennifer! I hope you can make the workshop. My friend, Diana, is so smart and so funny. I think listening to her is a great way to spend an hour.

    I hope the articles are helpful. eHarlequin has so many good resources.

    Hi Rula--I hope they'll enjoy the book. It will be a unique keepsake anyway.

  6. Hi Anne,

    In the workshop about conflict that Rula linked to, there's a note about techniques to raise conflict in scenes. I think I can link to a specific comment, let's see. Conflict

    We had a great discussion in that workshop.

    I hope you'll enjoy Married by June

  7. What a fun interview! Much luck with your workshop, Ellen.

  8. Thanks, Carol. Glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Loved this interview! I follow Ellen on superromanceauthors and am anxious to read any of her books!

  10. Hi Jennifer. Maybe I'll run into you there!

    Anne, I love the gender switching too...and Ellen's books are must-reads :)

    Hi Carol and Jackie! Thanks for stopping in.

    Oh, and Ellen...I'd forgotten about the movie The Proposal. I LOVE that one! Yeah, we know you wore out the rewind button on your remote, LOL.

  11. Hi Jackie!

    So nice to see another familiar name here at Rula's. I love the new Super Author blog. I'm up again on Thursday this week. I have three blogs half-started, but can't settle on the right one.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Rula--I did rewind one particular scene many, many times. It was the one where the Ryan Reynolds character stands up to his dad.

    I know...I'm a failure as an ogler of hot men, but the drama of the son/father interaction really got me thinking about Cooper and his story.

  13. Yes, that scene stayed with me. That's what I love character driven stories. Seeing/reading how characters like Ryan's (Andrew) or Cooper cope with a certain conflict, empowers readers who can relate to that conflict.

    I also love it when a scene or piece of dialogue tips a domino over in my head.

  14. Ellen sounds like quite a busy person. Good advice to increase conflict by writing solid characters. If they're wishy-washy, there's not much you can do with them. And if characters don't inspire writers, they sure won't inspire readers.

  15. Gender swapping! That's like a V-8 moment. Slaps head.

    Thank you. Lovely interview.

  16. Rula--you're right about character-driven stories. I love character and that affects so many of my media choices, right down to the songs I love. My husband knows music. I like songs that tell a story.

    (And yes, this difference did get reflected and magnified between Mason and Anna in His Secret Past.

  17. Hi J.L.,

    I'm glad the idea seemed to be sound. The more people writing great, character-driven stories for me to read, the better!

    I am busy, but I think I like it this way. My husband used to joke that I tended to sell the house or have a baby when I got bored. He must be happy now that I'm wrapped up in my two jobs. We did just get a puppy, but I haven't had a baby in over a decade and we've had the same address for almost five years. ;-)

  18. Hi Maria,

    I love it when an idea clicks. I still remember the feeling I had when I listened to Deb Dixon explain her Goal, Motivation, Conflict charts the first time. Amazing!

    We really did do an awful lot of good discussion in the Conflict workshop Rula linked to on eHarlequin. People were generous in sharing their ideas so we could work through them. I refer back to it every once in a while, myself.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  19. Hi Ellen,

    The interview was awesome!

    It struck with me to finish the manuscript and submit. Also, get a good critique person whether they are a writer or not. I am really trying hard to finish this book but this year was super challenging in some personal matters.

    Perservance wins and I plan to win with this manuscript.

    Your tips are very valuable and instrumental in implementing in the works.



  20. Hi Ellen,

    Your interview is as entertaining as one of your books. I totally enjoyed it and I'm happy to find a fellow Diet Coke swiller. When the going gets tough I head for the fridge.

  21. I love the idea of switch the gender. I'm going to have to try that with my next novel.

    Thanks for the great interview.

  22. Hi LaSteph,

    I have had a challenging year in my personal life, too. I'm hoping for some ease in the second half of 2011 and now I'm sending good thoughts your way.

    Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment. So many people say, "I'm going to write a book someday." but they never do. I have huge admiration for anyone who can persevere to the end.

    Best of luck to you. Thanks for dropping by!

  23. Hi Jeannie,

    I reread your interview with Rula today and I noticed the Diet-Coke confession. We'll have to stock our fridge for RWA. ;-)

    I'm delighted Rula has so generously opened her blog to the Super authors. Her questions are so entertaining!

    See you soon!

  24. Hi Stina,

    Sometimes a change like the gender makes all the difference. We need to feel free to experiment in our work.

    In my book The Boyfriend's Back, JT McNulty goes back to his hometown to care for his dad who's been in an accident at work. Originally, I planned for the dad to be unable to speak due to a stroke. I wanted to show JT struggling to communicate with him and the dad unable to respond.

    It's hard to get a good conflict on the page when one person can't talk. ;-) So I did a little experiment and let JT's dad have some dialogue. The book cracked wide open for me and the dad became a fun character to write.

    I plan my books out pretty thoroughly, but I always let myself make changes. Thanks for dropping by!

  25. Hi Ellen, I remember "Making a Minefield" and still have it in my favorites. I thought "Hurt Your Character to Satisfy Readers" was part of that, but I'm not finding confirmation on that.

    Do you have plans for another workshop on the forums?

    Love reading your answers to the interview questions.

    aka chrissiesue

  26. I'm so glad everyone is enjoying the interview!

    I go back and re-read Ellen's workshops whenever I'm stumped on plotting my story and conflict out. Great stuff. I really hope to make it to the Virgin Widow workshop at Nationals :)

  27. Hi Christy,

    I would love to do another workshop at eHarlequin. I'll have to check and see if there are opportunities coming up.

    I'm so glad to know the earlier discussions were valuable. It all works better when folks show up the way you did and offer questions, examples, and responses!


  28. Wonderful interview ladies! Rula, truly you do amazing interviews. Loved it!! Best to you, Ellen for your continued success!

  29. Thanks Ellen and Rula! One of the best author interviews I've read, maybe the best. Interesting questions!

  30. Thanks Kaily and Autumn. You're both so sweet. It's really all in Ellen's wonderful and informative answers. She's great at teaching the craft of writing, and her books are great examples of how to make it all work.

  31. Hi, Rula and Ellen,

    Great interview, as always, Rula.

    I'd like to go on record as saying how much I enjoyed this book. The characters were vivid and unique, and I think what I loved best about them both was how much they loved their parents--despite said parents' deep and obvious flaws.

    I could definitely see the Ryan Reynold's influence. We just re-watched that movie a couple of weeks ago. I love how much he detested Sandra Bullock starting out--and how the tiny peeks at her underbelly made him fall in love with her.

    Wish I were going to NYC--you had me at Virgin Widow. ;-)


  32. Hi,

    Thanks so much, Kaily and Autumn. I'm so pleased that Rula makes this wonderful space for sharing.

    Deb--I'm delighted you liked the book, but especially that you saw the love among the families. I wanted to write a book where the hero and heroine both loved their parents--it's easy to make parents the source of conflict, but not as easy to make the relationships loving, too.

    Yay for Ryan Reynolds Resemblances!!!

    The Virgin Widows and I will definitely miss you in NYC.

  33. Hi Ellen, Hello Rula!

    I loved your answers to Rula's questions, Ellen.

    Congratulations on the release of MARRIED BY JUNE, it sounds an awesome story! For some reason I just love the SuperRomance covers...and this cover is so romantic!

    Would love to read Married By June, just attended a wedding over the weekend!

  34. Hey Nas,

    Thanks for stopping by. I agree, it's a very romantic cover :).

  35. Hee. The cover is nice, isn't it?

    Here's a fun fact. The scene on the cover is the one when Cooper moves into Jorie's downstairs apartment. What? You don't remember that scene? It's because it got cut in revisions. :-)

    Thanks so much for inviting me to visit your blog, Rula. Your community here is lovely. Thanks also to everyone who joined the conversation. I enjoyed myself so much!

  36. I'm late but I just have to comment on how much I enjoyed this interview. I loved Married by June. Thanks Rula and Ellen.

  37. The door is always open, Kaelee :) Thanks so much for stopping in!