Karly Stratford is the pen name of an author of clean contemporary rom-coms. She will talk about how she came up with her fun cover concepts, how she got started writing rom-coms, and how she writes funny during a pandemic.
Q. Just wanted to confirm. Would you like me to call you Jo Ann or refer to you by your pen name, Karly Stratford?
A. I actually go by Jo. I get confused when people call me Karly.
Q. So it’s not a secret per se, right?
A. Nope. No secrets here. About that.
Q. Ha ha ha! Now I want to know your secrets. How did you decide to go by pen names?
A. I started writing young adult science fiction and fantasy under Jo Schneider. Those books are a light PG-13 rating. No sex, or even talk of it, but there is some mild swearing and plenty of action violence. I have a black belt in Shaolin Kempo, so I really like writing fight scenes. Clean romance readers are extremely particular about swearing, violence, and sex in books. Rightfully so, they’re looking for a clean reading experience. So instead of having readers jump from my clean romance stuff for adults to my more action-packed YA stories, I figured I would keep them apart. The fans know about each other, but they don’t have to cross paths.
Q. Great idea on meeting the clean romance reader expectations. Holy cow. Shaolin Kempo! That sounds cool. How did you get into THAT?
A. It’s sort of serendipitous. A dojo near where I was living at the time came to a women’s meeting for my church. They showed us some basic self-defense techniques, which was fun. However, they brought some really big pads and let us kick them as hard as we could. (I now have a huge punching bag in my basement that’s great for stress relief!) That’s what sold me. I found out later that the daughter of a woman I took piano lessons from when I was 8 years old had started the dojo. In my heart I’ve always wanted to be a Jedi Knight, and I figured the martial arts was the closest I was going to get.
Q. I can’t even. Your answer is like a slew of rabbit holes and I am scrambling to see where I want to jump in. LOL How awesome. I took self-defense once and it IS super-empowering. Good for you. And that punching bag sounds fantastic for THOSE kinds of days. So let’s dial back to your writing roots. How did you get started writing books?
A. I’ve always loved stories. I grew up playing out the movies and cartoons that my friends and I watched. Our imaginations were always going somewhere crazy. At one point I got into the movie Aliens (saw it on TV when I was maybe thirteen and it scared me to death) and was writing myself into the story. I think many of us started with some sort of fan fiction. Anyway, as I got older, I found I missed writing, but didn’t know where to start. A good friend started a writing group, and during those few years, I decided I wanted to tell my stories. That’s when the YA started. The clean romance started when another friend asked me to write in a series with her. I like fun romances, so I figured why not?
Q. Why not, truly? What a neat journey. I am anxious to ask you about your rom-com but let me ask you first about YA. I have been trying to draft one these past few weeks (after publishing clean adult contemporary romance the past 2 years) and I start a page and just not getting the voice right. It’s based a lot on my own experiences, but hipper. Any advice?
A. I usually try to watch a few YA shows or read a book with the same feel I’m going for. If I’m having a problem with the voice of a character, that usually means I don’t know the character well enough. I keep writing for a bit until it feels natural. Unfortunately, I think this is different for every author. One thing to remember is that a majority of readers for indie published YA books are women between the ages of 30 and 50. So yes, we’re writing for the YA audience, but the readers will get it if the voice is a little off.
Q. That is great advice, thank you! I watched a popular YA rom-com recently and I will confess…it bugged me. So yeah, I think I should go for the ones that I want my book to be like, perhaps. How many books in what genre do you have out now? And since what year?
A. Let’s see. I have a YA post apocalyptic series that’s seven books long that I finished off two years ago. I’ve got a YA magic realism series that’s five books long that I also finished off two years go. Last year I wrote an eight book series of fairy tale retellings that are super cute! I wrote in a series of YA books that are cautionary tales about how predators use technology to lure kids into bad situation.
Right now for romance I have my Decker Family romances that’s five books long, and the summer romances that will have three books in it before the middle of August.
My first YA book came out in 2014. The romances have been in the last eighteen months.
Q. Wait…you are just literally one person, right, not two people…because that’s a lot of books, girl! How did you write so many and what is your average wordcount?
A. Hahah. Just me. I went full time writing two and a half years ago. My romances are around 45k each. My YA novels probably average 75k. My fairy tale series are 25k each. I learned to write fast, and I keep learning craft so I don’t have to rewrite as much.
Q. I didn’t think I could write fast either (one book a month) but I have been able to do it. What were some things you learned to be able to “write fast”…and make cleaner first drafts?
A. I’m an outliner. I’ve smashed together concepts from Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker, Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin, and Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins for my outlining. I have a process I use that takes me from idea to characters to outline. It’s taken me several years to work it out, and it’s not full proof. I still have to rewrite, but not as bad. My first books I had six or seven drafts. Now I may have to do two or three, and the third one is only light changes.
I’m also a fast typist, and when I know what I need to write, it’s not hard for me to get the words on the page.
Q. Share your process, pretty please? * Puss N Boot eyes * If not here, in my inbox. I mean other than read those books. Which I plan to do. I start with a loose outline and by halfway I am derailed completely.
A. LOL. The simple version is that I dive into my characters first. I know who they are, what they want more than anything, what they need (even if they don’t know it), who their ally is, who their enemy is, and what they do in the end of the story that they wouldn’t have at the beginning. I my romance novels I do that for both the man and the woman. If I can confidently answer all of those questions, then the plot is easier to craft. I’d suggest starting with Take Off Your Pants (I promise, there are no nude people involved) if you want to dive into this approach. She explains it well. I’d need at least an hour and two whiteboards.
Q. Ha ha, I have an hour more. J/K. Okay, I will look into that. And that sounds like a great technique. Thanks.
I have to ask you, before I forget. One of my favorite ever literary characters is Jo March from Little Women. By chance, were you named after her?
A. No, but I always wished I was! Since my parents only had girls, I’m named after my grandfathers. Jo for Joseph and Ann for Alan. However, might have told a few people that I was named after the Jo in The Facts of Life when I was a kid.
Q. Well, that’s a good backstory too. Tell me about your rom-com. I started your book He’s Just a Friend. Two chapters in, and you have set up this friends-to-lovers story really well. What inspired that book?
A. I didn’t plan to write a romance this summer, but a sci-fi epic I’m working on got put into time-out, and I turned to my romance readers for solace. I asked them what their favorite type of story was, and they came back with second chance romance. Val came to life immediately, and Nate followed soon after. I was tired of all of the negativity and stress around us, and I wanted to write something light and fun. That’s where He’s Just a Friend came from. I’m a curvy girl myself, and I thought I would explore that with Val.
Q. Love that! Definitely needed right now…lightness and fun. Your cover is unflinching about the curvy girl aspect, while having that fun, sassy vibe with the beautiful model. Eye-catching. I’d asked you about your cover artist. You said it was the amazing Steven Novak. You said you had brought him some pretty specific ideas. How did you come up with the cover concept and find your models?
A. I looked through romantic comedies on Amazon. Many of them have a plain white background with the couple doing something fun on them. I found one or two with something like the background on mine. I sent him those.
As for the models…unfortunately I scour Shutterstock for them. I hate it. It takes forever and I never feel like I have quite the right thing, but in the end I’m really happy with this cover. And Steve is always ready to tweak anything I need him to about a model or a background.
Q. Scouring stock…sigh. It’s like a needle in the haystack, but it sure is fun when you finally find a good fit. Did you do some market research about rom-com stories and if so, what are you finding to be some common threads among the bestsellers?
A. I was actually disappointed in most of my research regarding rom-coms. Most are not clean. Not even close. I don’t read anything above a PG-13 rating myself, so I started a few and put them back. Most of the clean romances that claim they are rom-coms weren’t that funny. That being said, there are always great tropes you can use in rom-com. Any sort of embarrassing situation is funny. Quirky dialogue is always good. Forcing the couple together and making them cooperate on a project can be a hoot. Researching more about comedy is on my list of things to do, because I like funny, and feel there might be a gap in clean romance that I could fill.
Q. Agreed! I love me a clean rom-com, but it is a rare find. Glad you are setting about to change that. Kudos.
I can’t believe our time is up. I could ask you questions all day. Here was my last question… do you have tips for writing funny, which is obviously a mark of a great rom-com? But you already answered that! I guess as a last follow-up, how do you get yourself in a funny frame of mind during a pandemic?
A.Honestly? Go talk to my husband. He’s a complete dork who thinks he’s hilarious. It makes me laugh.
I love rom-com movies, but there aren’t many clean ones out there anymore that aren’t painfully cheesy. I know we can fix that! Readers want it. I hope.
Q. Ha ha, I would love to watch the two of you banter. Thank you so much, Jo! I really appreciate your time. You are such an interesting person and you’ve truly inspired me.
A. Thanks for having me.
Check out Karly Stratford’s books.