Please welcome New Hampshire writer Sylvie Kurtz to Maine Crime Writers. Sylvie graciously agreed to be interviewed here today.
Kaitlyn Dunnett: You’ve written some twenty novels, varying from paranormals to the six-book Seekers series for Harlequin Intrigue to stand-alone novels of romance and of psychological suspense. I’d describe the Seekers books in particular as being crossover books encompassing both the romance and the mystery genres. Can you talk a bit about where romantic suspense novels fall in the crime fiction spectrum?
Sylvie Kurtz: When I first started writing, I didn’t know anything about genres, so I just wrote what I liked. That turned out to be stories that contained both a romance and a strong suspense. Who knew that a post-WWII time travel romantic suspense novel was considered unmarketable? Two books later, after I sold to Harlequin Intrigue, I learned that the expectations for that line were 50% romance and 50% suspense–that if you took either out, the story couldn’t stand, that they had to fit together like a tight braid. It didn’t really change the way I wrote. I like stories that tend to have a psychological edge, so I fall more toward the suspense than the mystery end of the spectrum. The why interests me more than the who.
Kaitlyn: You’ve recently overseen the translation of your romance novel, A Little Christmas Magic, into French for an ebook edition. Can you tell us how this came about and the process of getting it through various stages to publication?
Sylvie: I grew up speaking French and didn’t learn English until went to an English school due to a move in eight grade. Getting published was a dream come true for me, but one I couldn’t share with some family members who didn’t read English, especially my grandmother. After years of wanting to get a French edition of any of my books, I finally received one in the mail last year. I sent it to my mother and asked how the translation was. She said it was pretty accurate and mentioned she could translate a book for me if I wanted. My mom does translation work, so it wasn’t as if she wasn’t familiar with the process. And now, with a brand new cover, I’m re-releasing the English version of A Little Christmas Magic and the French translation, Magie de Noël, in time for the holiday season. It’s too early to say how it will do, but I’m really excited about having the translation out as an e-book.
Kaitlyn: You’ve done a number of successful workshops, both online at at conferences and at your website you offer downloads with helpful hints for writers, everything from “Muse Play Date” to “Top Ten Fixes that can Make a Manuscript Shine.” You also offer shorter “tips” in the form of paragraphs on topics as varied as “Even Bad Guys Need Understanding” and “A Rose is a Rose, Unless It’s a Daisy.” What prompted you to share the writing lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Sylvie: When I was learning to ride horses (eons ago <g>), one of my instructors told me that the best way to learn a concept was to teach it to someone else. I’ve taken that advice to heart. It’s not always possible to have someone live to teach, so putting up articles and tips on my website is one way to teach the concept to someone else while cementing it in my own neural pathways. It’s also a way to pay things forward for all the help I got from generous authors while I was learning.
Kaitlyn: Among the online workshops you offer, two (“Growing a Story Spine” and “Layering a Story Concept”) deal with “seven story spines” and “seven elements of a story concept.” Is there something special about the number seven?
Sylvie: Um, I never thought about it. Seven just seems to be where things fell. It’s enough to give a story strong underpinnings while not being too much to remember. Or I could go for a more cerebral answer and say that number seven represents analysis and understanding <g>.
Kaitlyn: One of your workshop topics is “How to Revise Without Getting Sick of Your Manuscript.” What is the most important tip you can offer for those of us who find their manuscripts sleep-inducing after the umpty-zillionth read through?
Sylvie: Revise in chunks rather than as a whole for the first few passes. Looks at the “big rocks” of structure, character, scenes, dialogue before attempting to fix the “pebbles” of details. Finding the perfect word for page 266 does you no good if the whole scene needs to be cut to move the story forward. The more you read through the whole story, the more attached you are to the way things are and that makes effective revision difficult. Better to look at the things that can make the biggest difference first.
Kaitlyn: In the same workshop description, you mention a macro-to-micro method. Can you talk a bit about what that is?
Sylvie: It’s as I mentioned, revising in chunks. At first, you don’t read through the whole manuscript, but you look at it with the X-ray vision of structure. If you have all you need and everything is in the proper place, then you move on to a middle view of the story, working on individual scenes–you may not need to work on every scene during this stage. Once your scenes are as strong as you can make them, then that’s when you read through the whole manuscript and polish the details until they shine. Rather than polishing a weak manuscript, you’re working on building strengths.
Kaitlyn: In “Writing at Peak Productivity” you talk about managing your energy to keep writing through the ups and downs of life. I’ve also heard you speak on meditation techniques that can restore energy so a writer can keep going. How did you come to fix on energy being so important to creativity?
Sylvie: I’m always reading about all sorts of topics. Among my favorites are food, health and psychology. I went through a pretty dark period where I wasn’t able to write. My goal during that time was always to somehow get back to writing. I came across some interesting material on managing energy rather than time and started applying the techniques to see if they’d work for me. So even though I was struggling just to get through a day with what turned out to be Lyme Disease (wouldn’t get a diagnosis for over five years), I was able to get back to writing.
We live in a world where more is thought to be better, no pain, no gain, push through the low, etc. in a mistaken idea that this will lead to more success. But in reality, if we honor the rhythms of our body, we can get more done in less time and have energy to spare at the end of the day rather than fall into bed exhausted. We have circadian rhythms, sleep rhythms and ultradian rhythms. Every 90-120 minutes, the brain needs to power down for a bit by doing something completely different–getting a drink of water, having a short walk, doing a short meditation. Just doing that one thing allowed me to go from not writing for almost four years to writing three hours a day (two writing cycles with a break for exercise in between.) It doesn’t sound like much, but I can write a day’s worth of pages in those three hours because I can stay fresh and focused. And I do those two things (writing and exercising) first thing in the morning, because they’re my high priority items for the day.
Kaitlyn: Your webpages carry the slogan “Beneath the surface lies a deeper truth . . . Discover Suspense by Sylvie Kurtz.” Can you talk a bit about how that theme recurs in your novels?
Sylvie: Growing up, I always felt like an outsider. I sometimes even felt as if I didn’t belong in my own family. So the theme of fitting in, of finding one’s own place in the world is one I can’t help exploring in fiction. For my characters, that means stripping down the layers of who they are and figuring out what’s true for them. Something I’m still trying to do for myself. It’s so much easier to fix someone else’s problems than your own <g>.
Kaitlyn: What are you working on now?
Sylvie: I just finished putting together a French translation of A Little Christmas Magic. I’m trying to figure out the best place for a story I wrote to get back into writing and finished a year ago. That story may not have all the commercial hooks publishers are looking for, but it forced me out of my comfort zone, and I like the way it came out. Right now, I’m working on a straight suspense that’s pushing my comfort envelope yet again. Only a few more chapters to go.
A forensic photographer with no memory of her life before the age of thirteen has learned to manage life by keeping tight control over her mind, never letting anyone see its shattered state. But she can’t shake the dark voices, the visions haunting her dreams, or the missing time holes. When the crime scene she’s photographing feels too eerily familiar, she knows she’s in danger. Until she figures out who she is and what happened fifteen years ago, she won’t be safe. She can trust no one—especially not herself—because there’s something worse than forgetting: remembering.
Kaitlyn: Our final question is the one we ask all our guests: what question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview? And, of course, please also answer it.
Sylvie: That’s a tough question! I think I’d turn the question around to the readers. Why do you read? What do you get out of the stories authors write? I’m always curious about other people. For me the answer is a sense of hope. If the characters can live through all that awful stuff that happens to them and end up in a better place, it gives me hope that I can, too.
Great interview. I like the observation that the brain needs a break every 90-120 minutes. I’m going to see if I can use that to my creative advantage. As for why I read, I do so to be able to create a new temporary world in my mind. I’m both a visual reader and writer, ‘seeing’ the story like a nice home movie as I go along.