Working stiff

Nora Roberts says writing is a job, an exercise routine, a habit she loves

Nora Roberts says writing is a job, an exercise routine, a habit she loves

September 30, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

She is not unlike any garden-variety telecommuter.

She wakes up, makes her way to the home office dressed in whatever is comfortable, fires up the computer.

She checks her e-mail, surfs the Internet. Starts tapping away at her keyboard.

There are fits and starts, interruptions to her flow. More e-mail to write, a little more surfing.

Of course, not every telecommuter can lay claim to having published enough books to fill Giants Stadium - all 80,242 seats - nearly 2,000 times, but why quibble.

Nora Roberts is a working stiff, putting in long hours crafting the stories that take up several slots of the bestseller list, most among authors represented.


Don't get the Keedysville resident and romantic fiction icon wrong; she loves her job. But it is most definitely a vocation. She does not lounge about with staff catering to her every whim, waiting for her muse to swoop in out of the ether to infuse her with another chart-topping romance.

For starters, she doesn't care much for people, and a staff would just get in her way - unless there's an invisible muse out there eager to please.

Second, the concept of a muse is rubbish.

"(People) do think it's like dreaming something and you do it only when you're inspired, it just pours out of you and then you take a walk in the woods, Walden Pond, until the muse comes back again," Roberts says.

Fact is, it's just like any job. "When it's over, you go to fix dinner. Or get pizza if you're lucky."

Turn the Page Bookstore is empty other than a couple of employees and a few painters readying the Boonsboro shop Roberts owns with husband Bruce Wilder for an Oct. 5 book signing.

Inside, fresh from a longer than usual visit to the dentist, Roberts sips a can of diet soda and discusses her craft.

Hating cross-country book tours, with their long hours and hectic schedules, Roberts is most comfortable in the office where many of her tales come to life.

"She's got such strong characters and such a strong story, it's probably most appealing about her books," says Nicole Kennedy, a communications assistant for the non-profit Romance Writers of America. "All of her characters are so real. Placed in interesting situations, but there's always something identifiable with each character that as a reader you can identify with. They're not 100 percent perfect characters. They're flawed, very believable."

Writing one volume at a time in a seat-of-the-pants fashion, Roberts will steamroll through at least three drafts of each work, constantly refining her text to tweak a section here, language there.

Other than the vaguest of outlines - "I'm not analytical, not terribly organized, so if I had to analyze or organize before writing a book, it would never come out," she says - she will empty her mind on the page and then worry about tightening the story later.

Among those joining Roberts at the Saturday signing will be Judi Strider-Fadeley, a Shepherdstown, W.Va., writer who couldn't work in a more opposite fashion.

She's writing two projects concurrently, bouncing between the two as she loses interest or is stopped by a particular passage. Outlines are critical, and any stream of consciousness prose is fine as long as by the end of any given chapter Strider-Fadeley has arrived where she planned.

Two authors with disparate views yielding the same result - that is, Roberts says, one of the wonders of writing.

"Anything that works is right, and that's one of the beauties," she says. "If you have to get up at 6 a.m. every morning and stand on your head for 15 minutes and that's your process, that's correct."

Roberts loves a good story with a happy ending; she raves about "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold.

What appeals to her as a reader guides her efforts at the keyboard. Weaving complex relationships across several volumes holds her interest, let's her explore the evolution of characters over time.

Continuity is a staple of her futuristic series of "... in Death" novels, written as J.D. Robb, most recent of which is "Purity in Death."

As a reader, Strider-Fadeley says following characters as they grow is another reason Roberts' work ropes her in.

"She does a good job, has excellent characters. The settings are terrific. She really gets you involved in the story," she says. "The way she gets readers involved, especially with trilogies. She just makes you want to continue reading. It's suspenseful and exciting. She makes you want to be the character."

Not a book goes by where Roberts doesn't slam headfirst into a storytelling roadblock. She curses it, vows to take an extended break once the infernal novel is complete.

Then it does end. Day one A.C. (after completion) she'll relax. Day two, run some errands.

Odds are good that day three will feature the start of another tale - not surprising considering her prolific output.

"I love everything about it. I love the process of writing, even when I hate it," she says. "It's an amazing thing to create a world, people and relationships with words. I always loved books and reading. Creating them myself is just amazing.

"Writing's also a habit and an addiction and I need my fix. I start to be jonesing for it. To keep that habit up is just like exercise. If you stop exercising and go back to it after six months it hurts, everything just hurts. If you keep those muscles in tune, everything is just easier."

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