A conversation with romance novelist Robin Lee Hatcher
by Jim Denney
Robin Lee Hatcher is the best-selling author of more than seventy-five novels and novellas featuring emotionally charged stories of love, faith, and courage. She has won a shelf full of awards, including the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award for excellence in romance fiction. She has been an eleven-time RITA finalist and has won the award twice. She has also won the RWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the Christy Award, and ACFW’s Carol Award.
A mother and grandmother, Robin and her husband reside in the Boise, Idaho, area. Her most recent books include Who I Am with You (Legacy of Faith, Book 1), You’ll Think of Me (Thunder Creek, Book 1), You’re Gonna Love Me (Thunder Creek, Book 2), and An Idaho Christmas: Past and Present (two heart-warming Christmas novellas). Visit Robin at her Facebook Author Page at http://www.facebook.com/robinleehatcher, and her website at https://www.robinleehatcher.com.
I’ve known Robin for a number of years, and when I learned how she approached the writing process, I asked if she would let me share her creative approach with my readers at Writing in Overdrive. I always like to find out how writers are drawn to a life of storytelling.
Some people divide writers into two camps — (1) those who plot out an outline of their story before they begin writing (usually called “outliners” or “plotters”), and (2) those who “write by the seat of their pants.” Non-outliners are often referred to as “pantsers” — an inelegant term, in my view. I prefer the term “cliff-jumper,” derived from Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers, “You’ve got to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” In other words, don’t outline — just leap off the cliff and into your story and you’ll discover your characters and your plot along the way.
Now, I’m not saying that cliff-jumping is the only way to write. Outlining (sometimes called “pre-writing”) is a perfectly legitimate approach the creative process. J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Grisham, Jennifer Egan, Norman Mailer, and James Scott Bell are some well-known outliners.
Everybody is wired differently, so do whatever works for you. The problem is that a lot of cliff-jumpers have been told they are “doing it wrong” if they don’t outline. If you’re a natural-born cliff-jumper, you’re in excellent company. Madeleine L’Engle, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Colleen Coble, Stephen King and Robin Lee Hatcher are all cliff-jumpers. Some writers — Piers Anthony, for example — are a hybrid, doing a lot of cliff-jumping within a loosely structured outline. So if you either can’t outline or you don’t want to outline, you’re in good company.
How did Robin Lee Hatcher become a writer? She didn’t always dream of becoming a writer, even though she was a avid reader. In fact, she says she went to her first day of first grade with a single goal: learn to read. She completed her first day of school and still didn’t know how to read, so she told her mother there was no point in going back the next day. But her mother sent her back to school, and she eventually learned to read — and write.
She loved drama and storytelling, and she dreamed of being a movie star. When she was in the fifth grade, she made up a story about her mother, claiming her mom had moved west in a covered wagon along the Oregon Trail. As a consequence, her mother instructed her in the difference between fiction and fibbing.
In her twenties, inspired by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Robin got an idea for an epic romance story. She talked about the story with friends, and finally realized that books only get written by writing them down, not by talking about them. She wrote her first novel in longhand on yellow legal pads, then typed it up during lunch breaks on an IBM Selectric typewriter at work. It took her nine months to write it, then another two-plus years to get it published.
More than seventy-five books later, Robin Lee Hatcher is still making up intriguing stories and selling them to an eager public. She recently told me about her creative process.
Q: As a writer, you are what some would call a “pantser” — or what I would call, borrowing Ray Bradbury’s term, a “cliff-jumper.”
Robin Lee Hatcher: That’s right. I really like that term “cliff-jumper.” It’s a good description of my writing process. I do not outline. I do not use a storyboard or sticky notes or Scrivener’s cork board. Rarely do I go back and rework anything I’ve written while I’m in first draft. I keep writing forward. If I need to find an answer to a question, I stop and research, then keep going.
Q: How much planning goes into your characters before you begin? Do you know your characters well before you start writing, or do you get to know them as the story develops?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I write first-person autobiographies of my major characters from birth to when the novel opens. This enables me to understand their backgrounds and motivations. I know where they hurt. I know what they want. I have a good idea which characters will come into conflict with each other, and why. Then I write them in a stream-of-consciousness style. I just let my imagination take wing. My stories are totally character-driven, not plot-driven. The plot is simply what emerges from the interaction of the characters.
Q: Your approach is a great illustration of what Bradbury meant when he said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” What about your setting? Certainly you need to know where your story takes place before you begin to write.
Robin Lee Hatcher: To an extent. I usually have an idea of my setting, but it’s rarely very concrete. The setting tends to come to life as I write. Almost all of my settings are fictional towns. I know the reality of where they are set but the towns are laid out in ways that best serve my stories. When I begin a novel, I know my main characters, the opening scene, and I have a vague idea of where I am headed. That’s all I need to begin writing.
Q: Have you ever tried outlining?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes. I learned that it just doesn’t work for me.
Q: Why not?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Writing for me is all about discovering the story. When I tried to outline the story in advance, I realized that I no longer wanted to write the book because I already knew how it was going to end. Why write it once I know that? Knowing everything about my story in advance only dampened my enthusiasm for writing it down. It made me anxious to set it aside and move on to a new idea.
Writing without an outline, I get up and go to my computer every morning so that I can discover what happens next. I’m just like my readers in that regard. They read my books to find out what happens next, and that’s why I write them. The deeper I write into the story, the better I understand the story, and the more I know what will happen next.
Q: E. L. Doctorow said about writing, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Is that an apt description of how your creative process feels? And isn’t it a bit scary?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, writing for me is a lot like driving at night on a deserted highway. My imagination serves as a set of headlights, providing enough light each day to keep me on the road. Are there twists and turns ahead? Is it scary not knowing what’s out there in the dark? Yes, a bit. But it’s also exciting. All the answers to my story are out there, beyond the range of the headlights.
Q: Have you ever wished you could be an outliner instead of a cliff-jumper?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, there was a time when I thought it would make the writing process much easier if I could pre-write the novel, then breeze through the actual writing. One time, years ago, I was at a conference. As I talked to different writers about the workshops they were attending, it occurred to me that all the character-driven novelists were attending the plotting workshops and all of the plot-driven novelists were attending workshops on characterization. Why were they doing that? Were they trying to improve their craft and sharpen their writing skills? Yes. But more than that, I think that, whether they realized it or not, they were also looking for an easier way to write a novel.
When I came to that realization, I quit feeling guilty about not being a plotter. I decided to embrace the way God made me to write. This how my brain works, and I’m good with that. I don’t need to change. Cliff-jumping works for me. There is such freedom in getting to the point where you accept that this is who you are as a writer. If you can only write a novel by driving in the dark without a roadmap, that’s fine. If you need to outline your plot before you begin, that’s fine, too.
The truth is, there’s no easy way to write a novel. It’s hard work, whether you’re a cliff-jumper or an outliner. With study and practice, some aspects of writing become easier and more natural, but it’s still hard work. In some ways it becomes even harder, because as we increase our confidence and our skill-level, we want to challenge ourselves more and stretch ourselves in new directions.
Of course, I had to try everything early on in my writing career. I tried the plot-motivation-whatever chart. I tried outlining a novel from start to finish. I’ve read tons of how-to books with all kinds of tips and tricks and I’ve tried most of the suggestions I came across. And in all of that reading and experimenting, I’ve discovered what works for me and what doesn’t.
Q: You said that you don’t use Scrivener—
Robin Lee Hatcher: Well, I don’t use Scrivener’s cork board feature, but Scrivener is a very powerful and useful tool for writers. I do use it. I love the character pages in Scrivener. I love the way you can add photos and details and insights about your characters as you go along. So I enjoy using Scrivener, but I don’t use it for outlining. I use it to make my creative process flow more freely.
Q: One thing I talk about a lot on the Writing in Overdrive website is the power of the unconscious mind to enable us to write faster and to be more creative and uninhibited. What role does the unconscious mind play in your creative process?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I’m convinced that much of my writing happens in my unconscious before I’m ever aware of it. Sometimes the writing even happens while I sleep. I don’t mean that I get plot ideas from dreams — although I have actually dreamt some scenes. I mean that, somewhere below the surface of my awareness, my brain is working on the story. So while it sounds like I just wing it, there’s an unconscious creative process going on that I’m not aware of. That process is working out interactions between characters, exploring plot possibilities, and making intuitive leaps that my conscious mind would never think of.
Q: This is a phenomenon many writers observe during the writing process. Ursula Le Guin said, “I allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.” And Anne Lamott talked about the need to align ourselves with “the river of the story, the river of the unconscious.”
Robin Lee Hatcher: Exactly! During every writing session, there are probably two or three things that emerge — ideas, insights, connections, entire scenes — that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the start, but at some unconscious level my brain was working on the story. When I’m writing, these ideas come to the surface. We think it comes out of nowhere and we call it “inspiration,” but I think it often comes from our God-given unconscious self. And, of course, God works through us and inspires us when we are open to him and listening to him.
That’s why it’s so important to show up for work every day. We won’t receive our daily allotment of inspiration until we sit down, place our fingers on the keyboard, and discover what our unconscious creativity has been working on.
Q: Robin, the words rewriting and revising are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically they are not the same thing. Rewriting is more drastic, and usually involves major restructuring, such as adding or deleting an entire subplot or character arc, inserting new scenes, or removing scenes that detract from the storyline. Revising is essentially buffing and polishing and perfecting a novel that is structurally sound. Do you find that writing without an outline is an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to rewriting or revising your first draft?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I don’t think my creative process gives me an advantage or a disadvantage. Both outliners and cliff-jumpers need to revise. I don’t generally have to do major rewrites, but they have happened on occasion. Most of the time, however, when I finish a first draft, I do a proof and polish, then turn it in. I’ve been tweaking and polishing throughout the first draft, so it is usually in good shape.
Because most of my books are romances, I begin with a hero and heroine and I know their history, their lives leading up to the story. For instance, with my latest novel, I know that Jessica is a pregnant widow whose husband cheated on her and he died in a car wreck just after telling her he was leaving her for another woman. And I know that Ridley is a tech guy who got involved in a political scandal for which he was blamed. Both are trying to hide from life and keep people from knowing who they really are. Ridley goes to Jessica’s small town and becomes her neighbor. Their romance begins.
Now, because it’s a romance, we know that the two of them will get together at the end. So I just start writing toward that moment when they get their Happily Ever After. Sometimes I have a glimmer of an idea as to how they will get there, but I usually don’t. I’m driving in the dark.
My first drafts tend to be pithy and concise, so my revisions usually involve fleshing out the scenes I’ve written to make them longer, more emotionally involving. As a romance writer, revisions usually involve going deeper into my characters’ emotions.
Q: I think many outliners have a more adventurous, cliff-jumping spirit than they realize. I’ve known many writers, myself included, who started out with an outline, then wrote and wrote without even looking at the outline. By the time the book was written, it was a very different story than the one in the outline. Along the way, outliners generally discover depths to their story they never imagined at the outset. They discover new characters, new plot twists, and often come up with a completely new ending.
Robin Lee Hatcher: I agree. I don’t think plotters are slaves to their outlines. I’m sure they are constantly tweaking and refining their ideas as they write, whether in broad ways or subtle ways. The book they planned and the book they wrote are often very different from each other. An outline doesn’t have to be a straight-jacket. If you’re a plotter, then your outline is your roadmap. But if, along your journey, you stumble onto a road that isn’t on the map, you’re perfectly free to explore it.
No outlining writer should ever tell a cliff-jumping writer, “You’re doing it wrong.” Or vice versa. A plotter feels more freedom with an outline to follow. A cliff-jumper feels more freedom without an outline. That’s great! Whatever works for you, do that. Enjoy your freedom to create.
Q: That’s great advice for any writer. Thank you, Robin, for sharing your experiences and insights.
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