Thursday, September 29, 2011

Author Interview with Annie Burrows

A warm welcome to Annie Burrows, who writes Regency historical romances for Harlequin Mills & Boon. Her first published book “His Cinderella Bride” became the year’s top seller for the Mills & Boon’s historical line. Annie, tell us how you sold your first book and if you had any rejections before getting that exciting call?

I’d been writing with a view to publication for about 10 years before I got a contract. At first, I wasn’t very savvy. I wrote what I felt like writing, and sent sample chapters off to publishers at random and never got any response at all. I had no idea if my stories were sitting on a slush pile somewhere unread, or if what I was writing was so bad editors were bursting out laughing and throwing my manuscript into the bin without even bothering to let me know it was utter drivel.
Eventually, I heard a rumour that if you sent a manuscript to Mills & Boon, somebody would eventually read it, and give you some kind of response - but that it would be advisable to read their recent output, to see what kind of things they were currently publishing. Sounds common sense to research the market, but I’d no idea, when I started writing, that I was trying to get noticed in a very competitive field. Before this, I had never, knowingly, read anything from Mills & Boon, but when I did, it was a real light-bulb moment. Every single book I picked up really hit the spot, having everything I wanted, as a reader, from a work of fiction. Passion and adventure, and sometimes moments that moved me to tears, but always ending on a distinctly upbeat tone. Why had I never read any before? These were the kind of books I wanted to write!
I stopped fiddling around with science fiction, and “worthy” literary efforts, and began to write my first love story. Are you expecting me to say it was accepted straight away? Afraid not! I sent in 5 manuscripts before I got anything more than a standard rejection slip. By this time, I’d discovered there was an organization called the RNA, and that if you sent in a manuscript, a professional author would read it, and let you know where you were going wrong. If the story I had submitted to Mills & Boon, featuring a Regency heroine who had been abused as a child got rejected too, that was going to be my next step…joining the RNA and getting someone to give me a few pointers. But then I got a letter from Mills & Boon saying that they liked my first three chapters, and would I send in the rest? Six months later, another letter arrived saying that they could see “potential” in my writing, but would I consider doing a few revisions? At that stage, I didn’t expect to get a contract, but at least a rejection with explanations would be a step in the right direction. To my utter shock, the book, with just that one set of revisions, was accepted, and “His Cinderella Bride” went on sale in October 2007. And I joined the RNA anyway! I’d been struggling on my own for such a long time, it was wonderful to find a community of like-minded people out there who totally “got” me.

Where is your favourite place to work?

I have recently moved into a house that has a spare bedroom. It’s a tiny room, which I rather grandly describe as my study. It feels even smaller with all the bookshelves lining the walls. I treated myself to one of those ergonomic chairs to sit on, after a spell where I felt as though I was spending all my income at the chiropractor, and work on a laptop, with a coffee table to one side, smothered with notes and teetering piles of reference books. At certain stages of a w.i.p. the floor is also carpeted with stacks of paper, annotated with bright pink post-its marking crucial points I must NOT leave out of the next round of revisions. It’s a wonderful feeling when a book is finally accepted, I can pick up all the paper, and hoover.

Do you have to juggle writing with the day job? What is your work schedule?

As I am now a consummate professional, my schedule is as follows: having seen my family off to work I breakfast, tidy up the kitchen, do my back exercises, and arrive in my study by 9am. I work for an hour at a time, getting up to stretch out that cranky back by pottering around doing household chores for ten minutes or so. I finish about four, when I prepare the evening meal for those residents of my home who go outside to work for their living…Oh, who am I trying to kid?
Once my family have gone off to work, I crawl back to bed with a cup of tea, to treat myself to “just one chapter” of whatever book I happen to have on the go at the time. I do usually make it to my study, washed, dressed and back stretched by about 9.30, when I put in an hour’s writing until the Popmaster quiz comes on radio 2, when I stop for a coffee break. (I do the breakfast dishes while I’m listening.) Then I get another hour’s work in before lunch. For some reason, I often feel as if I’m writing such rubbish after lunch that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to delete it the next morning. So I usually give up about 3pm. Which co-incides with the start of Countdown on. So, (like Fred) I have another cup of tea, and join in. If I find myself shouting “rat” and “dot” at the screen while the contestants are smugly suggesting “leotards” I know its time to stop writing for good, and I go and hoover something. And only once I’ve reached my self-imposed target on my w.i.p, and done at least one household chore will I permit myself a game of spider solitaire. Well, I have to stick to some standards, don’t I?

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?

Revisions. I absolutely adore doing the first draft of a story, where I pretty much sit down and let it all flow out. I’ve heard other writers describing this part of the writing process as “playtime”. Even re-writing, which is what turns the bare bones into something fit for a reader to look at, is a rewarding process. I polish and polish until my story is something I am proud of… And then the editor wants me to change it! Ouch. That is the point when I have to remind myself that if I want payment, I have to produce a product fit for the market. And that the editor knows what sells. And take her comments as professional advice, not personal criticism.

How do you relax? What interests do you have other than writing?

Well, I’m an avid reader. I read extensively within my genre, to keep abreast of the market, but I love thrillers, and science fiction too. I enjoy pottering about in the garden too, getting out in the fresh air and seeing things grow. And a few years ago, I started going to ballroom dance lessons, as a way to keep fit, and also as an activity that my husband and I could do together. Now we have a regular dance lesson each week, and a club we have found where we can “practice” to a live band. There is nothing more romantic than a waltz…Unless it’s a steamy tango.

Which authors have most influenced your work? And which do you choose to read for pleasure?

I absolutely adore the historical works of Georgette Heyer. I re-read my collection until they drop to bits and I have to buy new editions. But then I also read Dick Francis, Dean Koontz, P.G. Wodehouse, Harlen Coben…

How do you develop your characters? In historicals, how do you keep them in period yet sympathetic to readers?

Writing for Mills & Boon there is not a lot of time to develop the historical backdrop. In fact, a backdrop is all it can be, with the vibrant romance taking centre stage. I try to create authenticity by creating characters with a regency mindset. They are people who routinely go to church, have no knowledge of the technology we take for granted, and who are much closer to the land than we are today. If they have a problem, they have no recourse to Oprah, or Cosmopolitan. They just have to muddle through on their own, often without being able to share their deepest, darkest woes with anyone at all. So things which nowadays could be straightened out relatively easily, can become huge stumbling blocks to personal growth.
My first heroine, as I’ve already mentioned, was abused as a child, and grew up thinking it was all her own fault. She was afraid of, and disliked men, but also bore a huge burden of guilt herself. But it’s like walking a tightrope, striking just that right balance between authenticity and readability. I am writing for a modern audience, who would find it hard going ploughing through the tortuous sentence structures that writers of the period would have used. But I do try very hard to avoid glaring anachronisms. So, in effect, I write in a style I have heard described as “bygonese”. Which suggests the period, whilst remaining accessible to a modern reader.

What advice would you give a new writer?

Well, if you’re reading this, you’re already aware of the RNA, which is a great start. Keep your dream alive by talking to, and mixing with other writers. Keep practicing and honing your craft. And don’t give up.

Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it?

The next story of mine which will be out is a novella in a Christmas anthology, called “Gift-Wrapped Governesses”. I was really thrilled by the way that this came about, as I didn’t have to pitch a proposal in the normal fashion, but on the contrary, my editor emailed me to say they were putting together an anthology of Christmas stories featuring governess heroines, and would I like to contribute? I always have loads of ideas stashed away in notebooks, of openings for stories, or dramatic scenes, or interesting characters with nowhere to go. I browsed through my collection, and pretty soon came across two characters that I had known for a while ought to be together. The idea of making the heroine a governess was like the final piece of a puzzle slotting into place. A schoolroom was the perfect setting for her, and would also solve many of the problems I’d had with bringing her hero into her orbit.
But, like so many of my heroines, once I gave her room on the page, she took off in a slightly different direction. And the hero wouldn’t behave himself at all! But they did gel together remarkably swiftly, and what followed was a joy to write. I hope readers get as much fun out of Honeysuckle and Lord Chepstow’s fiery courtship as I got describing it. (Because, I have to tell you, there was no way to control either of them, I just had to stand well back and describe what they got up to.)

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?

Currently I’m working on the story of an Earl who is very, very reluctantly searching for a wife. He doesn’t really like or trust women (because he had no Oprah to consult about his traumatic childhood!) Then he encounters Miss Gibson. Far from throwing herself at him, she makes it clear she has no interest in him whatsoever. Piqued, he decides to make her fall in love with him, just to teach her a lesson. But during the course of his cold-hearted seduction, he will discover that Miss Gibson could just be the woman he’s been searching for all his life, but never believed existed.

Thank you for talking to us Annie. Good luck with your latest book.

To find out more about Annie and her books visit her website at


Scarlet Wilson said...

Fabulous interview Annie - loved it! But you've got me worried - I only ever get three letter words while watching Countdown!

Annie Burrows said...

thanks Scarlet. My reasoning is that if you only get 3 letter words it's because you're all "worded out" from working so hard on your w.i.p, and deserve a cup of tea and a digestive.
Yesterday I got a 7 letter word, and felt guilty. I clearly hadn't worked to full capacity!