MJN: You hold a degree in screenwriting. Be totally candid. Is a BA in Screenwriting a destination in and of itself or a stepping stone? Do you need additional education to enter the world of cinema? I know that there are many people who don't use their degrees, and many people without degrees who work in the film industry because they have a talent for picking up new skills and techniques.
RD: On the first day of Screenwriting I, my professor earnestly said to the class, “If you don’t have to be a writer—if you can imagine yourself doing any other career—then I advice you leave this room right now.”
I won’t sugar-coat the reality, either. It’s true what they say: film is an incredibly competitive and difficult field. You need talent, personality, passion, unbelievable drive, and the patience of a saint. A BA in Screenwriting is definitely only one of many stepping stones. It’s a time where you can fail without feeling the full sting, develop your voice, network with peers and professors, and learn every aspect of the craft.
You don’t need additional education (heck, many successful screenwriters don’t have a BA at all)—though a Masters can’t hurt, especially if it’s obtained at a university with solid connections and a tight alumni network (such as USC). But I’d say the most crucial gateway into the field is landing a solid internship. I worked at STARZ Entertainment and loved every moment of it!
I realized in my junior year that my true passion lies in novel writing. My professors almost always loved my screenplays and characters—but they’d often say, “It’s too descriptive. It reads like a novel.” And then it hit me. My writer’s voice was that of a novelist.
However, I still have a deep affection for screenwriting and will often work on pieces from time to time. One of my dreams is to write the film adaptations for my books! (In fact, believe it or not, The Frost of Springtime, my first historical romance, began as a screenplay!)
That said, even though I’m primarily a novelist, film school deepened my love for crafting fiction tenfold; it taught me to concentrate on plotting, dynamic characters, and effective pacing, as well as the importance of visual storytelling. I strongly encourage all writes to intimately familiarize themselves with the three act structure (something that’s in now way exclusive to screenwriting, of course) and beat sheets. Two invaluable books: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and David Howard’s How to Build a Great Screenplay.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade my college education for anything in the world—and I truly feel that cinema holds a uniquely powerful magic. The collaboration that goes into making a film is remarkable and beyond inspiring. It’s truly an amazing field, filled with talented personalities and voices.
MJN: You take pride in creating "tortured heroes" and you mention some of my favorite French novels like Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera. I imagine, a tortured hero means different things to different readers. There are the likes of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, and then there are the Edward Cullens, lipgloss-wearing vampires. Can you list some of the mandatory components of a tortured hero?
RD: Oh, I adore Les Mis and The Phantom of the Opera beyond words! (Twilight—not so much.)
Indeed! Tortured heroes come in a variety of personality types and “flavors,” but I would say a mandatory component is the reader’s ability to identify with their human core. There must be something about the character that allows an intimate look inside their very soul—something that creates empathy and a profound understanding of how the character can to be in his or her current state.
When crafting a tortured character or anti-hero, you don’t have to make them easy to root for or even particularly likable; however, the reader must be able to understand him or her. Deeply. As a result, a rich and well-developed backstory is crucial for these types of characters.
Erik, the protagonist (and also antagonist) of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera is insane, madly jealous, cynical, inwardly and outwardly scarred, and a killer. But his suffering, longing for compassion and loneliness—which all stem from humanity’s cruelty toward his disfigurement—not only allow readers to understand his cruelty and hateful ways, but transforms his character into a tragic figure which is impossible not to love.
MJN: Now, while we are still on the subject of conventions, you mention that you like to defy the conventions of the romance genre. Are there any particular rules that you consistently long to break? (Such as, generic love scenes or happy endings?) I find that describing emotions and experiences in a somewhat counter-intuitive manner can make them more poignant. For instance, sobbing at a funeral is common. But if you have a widow giggling hysterically, smoking by her husband's graveside and cracking obscene jokes, it's more disturbing and makes a deeper impact. What do you think?
RD: I absolutely agree. In fact, here’s a relevant excerpt from Finding Gabriel; it occurs when Gabriel discovers the severity of his disfigurement for the first time:
‘Willing himself not to tremble, Gabriel fondled the linen – already aware of the unseen horror that lurked beneath. Two fingertips pried beneath the bandage. Rekindled pain speared through his body as the tender, gaping hole met his fingertip. Defeated, he groaned and dropped his hand back onto the coverlet. His fingers fisted the coarse material, and sweat welled in the curve of his palm.
It only took one touch. The despairing truth confirmed itself, and the epiphany was almost poetic.
Laughter bubbled inside Gabriel’s throat. He laughed until his stomach ached. He laughed until tears poured down his cheeks and dampened the bandages. Nausea overcame him as his sides grew sore from the force of his laughter. Stopping only to retch on the floorboards, he continued to laugh until those tears held no more mirth.
Really – the turn of events was all too fitting. Now his face would match the tattered depths of his soul.”
But how do I endeavor to break conventions, you ask? First off, I’d say my writing style is somewhat of a convention bender. I have a dark, Gothic voice and enjoy genre-blending. Throughout Finding Gabriel, you’ll encounter some suspense and mystery, a dash of horror, and, of course, an abundance of romance and steam.
Secondly, the majority of nineteenth century historical romances are often confined to England’s elaborate ballrooms. Finding Gabriel is not. It takes place in France, straight in the heart of a raw and bleeding Paris. The painful repercussions of a country at war is definitely not sugar-coated (as they might be in a typical romance)—and neither are Gabriel and Ariah’s inward battles.
Thirdly, I always ensure my stories’ premises are fresh, unique, and bold. Finding Gabriel plays on the age-old Beauty and the Beast theme, though in a unique and daring way. Gabriel’s deformity is self-inflicted—and, in essence, a testament to his years of grief and internal suffering. And while Ariah is an ideal foil to his darkness, she also has known much suffering and heartache during her lifetime—something that makes her strong and tenacious, though also very vulnerable. Ariah is certainly no damsel in distress, and she will go to any lengths to protect her loved ones.
At lastly, I always ensure the plotline serves my characters and story first and foremost—conventions be damned. The Frost of Springtime features a married hero. Finding Gabriel has a married heroine (though the ties to her husband are much more ambiguous and less controversial). These are just two examples—and in each one, I felt they strengthened the story’s heart and created more interesting, relatable, and dynamic characterizations.
At the end of the day, however, I simply write the kind of stories that I enjoy reading—ones that are emotionally charged with flawed characters, an evocative, dark atmosphere, steamy moments, and plenty of surprises.
MJN: You have a lovely headshot. You have a very flirtatious countenance, which suggests playful chicklit, but your long hair would make you a hit at a Renaissance fair. The old adage goes "Don't judge a book by its cover". Now the new adage should read "Don't judge the book by the author's headshot". Would you say that your headshot is reflective of the content of our writing? Has anyone suggested wearing more dark eyeliner?
RD: *Blushes* What a fun question! And yes, my hair is very long—it actually falls past my waist. I’ve cut it to my shoulders before, and it always grows back within a few months. It’s just something in my genes. Even when I was born, I had long hair! Strange, huh?
Back to your question. I suppose I would say that my headshot is reflective of components of my writing—the romance, flirtation, and the lighter, warmer sides of my characters. But, in a way, my appearance is also deceiving, since my writing often ventures into quite dark and edgy territories…
In the words of a beloved college professor, “Don’t be fooled by Rachel’s shyness and sweet face. She’s fu**ing sick in the head, and I love it.” (He had a huge potty mouth but a heart of gold. In this quotation he was alluding to a rather risqué satire screenplay I’d written.)
More eyeliner to appear darker and more Gothic? Nah! I think it’s fun to outwardly look sweet and harmless—but also to pack a surprising punch! After all, one of the facets of memorable storytelling is unexpected twists. :-)
MJN: You mention living with your high-school sweetheart of eleven years. Congratulations on having found such lasting love! In our day and age when relationships are fleeting and fragile, you are lucky to have found something that endures. So your sweetheart must've witnessed your artistic growth as a writer. Did he see the early drafts of your work?
RD: Aw, thank you much! *Smiles* And yes, I’m beyond grateful to have found my love at such a young age. At the risk of sounding like an overblown romantic, he’s truly my soul mate and greatest inspiration. He did indeed watch me grow and mature as a writer. Honestly, he’s not much of a reader (I know, shocking! Guess opposites do attract, eh?), and hasn’t read early drafts—though he constantly serves as a springboard for new ideas and tweaks. He has a wonderful insight into storytelling and helps me out on a daily basis!