Writing Advice: Paranormal Romance with Heather Graham, Nalini Singh, and Rebecca Zanetti

I went to the massive Romance Writers of America national conference this past week and one of the best things about this conference is that so many of the top writers in the genre are here. RWA and the romance community at large is extremely open. It’s the only place I know of where you can take workshops presented by writers who have literally sold in the tens of millions of books where they tell you how you can do it, too.
One event I did not want to miss was the Paranormal Authors Chat with Heather Graham, Nalini Singh, and Rebecca Zanetti. Since I have a paranormal/urban fantasy series starting with Tor Books in 2017 (The Vanished Chronicles), I definitely wanted to soak up whatever wisdom I could. These women are three giants of the field, plus Heather Graham was so unbelievably nice to me when I was a young struggling writer years and years ago that I still remember it vividly.
(The story: We were at a group signing together at a bookstore, I was feeling like an unknown, unwanted piece of chopped liver, while she had a line out of the door. I was at the seat next to her. She could have ignored me and instead she made me feel welcome and included. I love her forever, and this same spirit of inclusion and helping others pervades the whole RWA so far as I can tell.)
You can look up each of these writers’ bona fides but if you are new to them, they are all New York Times bestsellers many times over. Nalini Singh is the author of the Psy-Changeling and the Guild Hunter series among many dozens of other books. Rebecca Zanetti has published over 25 dark paranormals and has been a finalist for the RT Award. Heather Graham has written close to 200 vampire and paranormal novels at this point and was a founder of Florida’s chapter o the RWA. Giants, I tell you.
What I’m presenting here is a boiled-down version of the chat that took place. It looks like a transcript but I only capture about 60-70% of what is actually said, and I don’t always get exactly the right words, so don’t take this as quotable gospel. Also I only include here the portion with moderator questions. The audience questions were also fantastic and I learned a lot, but you know, if you want ALL of it, you have to start coming to these conventions yourself… (or buy the audio recordings of the convention, which are available through the RWA!).
Why did you chose paranormal?
Nalini: I write about telapths and shapefhuters and vampires and angels…why? I started with that because I’ve always been fascinated with the potential of our minds, if we could use 100% of our brains 100% of the time. But what’s the cost of that? What it drove you insane? That was the genesis of the Psy series. The shapeshifters just kind of showed up in the book, as they do because it’s a paranornmal. I wanted to write some shifter that were at home in their skins because I had just read a bunch of books wher the shifters are never happy! I thought I would love to be able to change into a tiger. Why aren’t there any shifters in books who like being shifters? So mine are. The Guild Hunter series… there are angels and vampires and… I just believe in not thinking too much about it. If you think too much about it you think, wow that’s weird… I really believe just let it out and it might be bonkers but let it be awesome bonkers.

Heather: I grew up on the Hammer films and Twilight Zone so I just loved [paranormal stuff]. So I have done all of it [vampires, ghosts, etc] except shifters. Well, except for the one where I wrote a guinea pig shifter–in that one he ate the wires and saved the day. I did a vampire one where Shannon Drake was turning into a vampire, she goes away every 70 years so she can return as her own descendent. Of course bodies pile up in her shop…(laugher)
I really love history but you can get history into your contemporary if you talk to the ghosts. In a really good way you can use ghosts because you don’t go through life without wanting to see the people you lost again. I would love to have Abe Lincoln and Lee at the same dinner table so we could discuss the whole [Civil War]thing.
Rebecca: I had a lot of advice saying not to write paranormal. They told me don’t do vampires, they’re over with, write anything else but vampires… so I wrote vmapires. I don’t like it when people say don’t do something–it makes me want to do it more. I was on these loops [author email discussion lists] and they were changing their heroes to were-muskrats and stuff. I had read a bunch of sad vmapires and I thought I want to write some that are happy with who they are. The secret is write what you want to write.
Is paranormal dead?
Nalini: No of course not because we are the undead. (laughter)
Heather: Look at how huge zombies are now. The Walking Dead is huge. Though maybe it would be a bit hard to have a romance with zomeone whose parts are falling off (laughter) But seriously people predicted the death of vampires 15 years ago. Hasn’t happened yet.
Rebecca: Yeah, paranomal is not dead. Maybe some book buyers [at chain bookstores] narrowed what they shelved but in digital it hasn’t been the case. I think internationally they are preparing for a big paranormal push right now.
Nalini: Everything goes in waves. Remember a couple of years ago the bloggers were doing “save the contemorary”? And now contemporary is this big wave. Do what you love. That’s what gives your books passion. You can’t follow the market. If you write to the market by the time it arrives it’s too late. Write something that is unique to you. The readership is there.
Heather: We are a visual society. I like to look at TV and movies, and I’ve been around for a long time. For a while everything was categories, then it was historicals, and then glitz and glamor, and then paranomal. So you remember the EF Hutton commercials? That’s the sale department calling. They asked if I could write a western and I listened. At the time I had never been west o f the Mississipi but because Dances with Wolves had just come out, everyone wanted westerns. So I sold them a trilogy about Custer and it was going to wrap up at Little Big Horn. After the second book they wanted me to take my Sioux Indians and put them in kilts, because Braveheart had just been a huge movie. I’m not kidding. I was picturing bagpipers at Little Big Horn. I had to come up with a way after the battle to get them to Scotland. The thing of it is things are always changing. I think it’s important to want what’s going on around us. I love Supernatural. They hired two very alluring actors, but they left the door open to use everything: angels, demons, you name it.
Nalini: Maybe Pokemon paranormal next! (laughter)
What’s next in paranormal?
(both Nalini and Rebecca hand their mics to Heather, much laughter)
Heather: Zombies I guess? But really write whichever one you love most.
Nalini: Yeah, I got nothing.
What are some of the bestselling tropes?
Nalini: Alpha heroes have always been big and they are still going strong. In paranormal you can break the rules so you have these super-alpha guys. Also the mates, fated mates and things like that is still very strong.
Rebecca: Alpha male is definitely selling. And really smart and diverse heroines, differently shaped heroines. They’re not all tiny anymore. If that’s a trope? That’s a character element, maybe.
Heather: One of my favorite things isn’t just the alpha male but what goes with him. In slasher films she gets out of the car when she shouldn’t and then trips and falls down while being chased… ugh. You want two people fighting in my opinion. Even with Disney, Sleeping Beauty, she pricks her finger and goes to sleep! That’s not an active heroine. Be a little more proactive. Get everyone working together.
Nalini: I agree. You want partnerships. There’s a lot of action, a quest, adventure–you don’t want anyone helpless. Competent is sexy.
What do you consider the best thing about writing paranormal?
Rebecca: The freedom to make your world however you want to make your world. You can let your imagination run wild. And how do you make real world applications in your world? You study some string theory and make your vampires teleport.
Heather: I love that you can’t have Conan or any of the morning shows say they know more about vampires than me. Whatever rules you create for you people ore creatures you have to stick with them and then you can go anywhere you want to go.
Nalini: There is so much depth to it. You can write a mystery or historical or all the subgenres within the world. I can have serial killers, but they’re telepathic serial killers.
What’s the hardest thing about writing paranormal?
Nalini: I do two long-running series. I’m writing book 16 now. So it’s continuity. They’re all connected. So I have 10 years of continuity to keep track of. That’s the toughest thing. That’s just the kind of books I write. It took three weeks of continuity fact-checking along on the last book alone!
Hetaher: I agree. The Crew of Hunters are FBI, they go though the real FBI academy. I have to keep coming up with dead people who don’t know who did it. Other agents come in to work with them so I have to remember what they need to know. A friend did a series with a guy with blue eyes but in the next one the eyes were green. By the third book they were… blue-green. (laughter) Once we’re done we have to be true to them or readers will catch you.
Nalini: You might have spent years between books but a reader is bombing through them in a week.
Rebecca: The hardest part for me is the after-school parties where there are always these two moms who are all put together and perfect who ask me “what do you do?” And I say I write books. “Oh about what?” Vampires. (Blank look) “Oh, what else?” Um, I also write postapocalyptic fiction? (Blank look) They just don’t understand.
How big is world building?
Nalini: It’s critical. I just jump in but I have friends who map it all out in advance.
Heather: My base is reality. But to me I find it very strange, this is the most demanding reader of any genre. I belong to every genre club out there, but no one is more discerning that the romance reader. You can do paranormal historical and you are given the least slack on the history.
Rebecca: I jump in. Sometimes you write yourself into corners and you have to backtrack.
Nalini: Changing your world takes the tension out of the story, if readers think you can just change it whenever you feal like it. You have to stay consistent with your rules.
Rebecca: And make it relatable. The fun part, too, is making these creatures relatable to readers.
Can you give some advice for those breaking into paranormal?
Rebecca: Write that weird little voice inside you that you’re afraid to share. I never would have written my first book if I thought my first grade taceher was going to be reading it. Pretend no one’s going to read it. I just write the book and let my editor worry about it. Write that book in the back of your head.
Heather: Read read read. If you forget to read you forget why you wanted to do this. If we’re going to do this you have to have that little seed of ego that says “yes I can do this.” When you read a book that makes you love it, you also think “but I would do it this [other] way!” And about how your voice is going to come out in it.
Nalini: Trust your voice. I would say if you are new into paranormal, don’t share too easily. Write in isolation for awhile until you get your voice true. Sometimes people are too helpful and your voice gets generic. Do the beta reads and stuff later.
Heather: Never forget this is subjective. You can give it to a ton of people and they won’t agree on the feedback. Some will think the plot needs work but the characters are great and some will think the plot is great but you need to work on the characters. If ten peope told you it’s a cliché it probably is, but if someone says they want to buy your manuscript that’s the one you should listen to!
What effect has Game of Thrones had on paranormal?
Nalini: I don’t know if it has. Twilight had a much bigger effect. Game of Thrones didn’t bring people in to romance.
Rebecca: Yeah.
Heather: We agree. We have no idea.
Who are some of the rising stars in paranormal?
Nalini: Us! (applause, laughter)
Nalini: That was a set-up right?
Heather Graham: I was going to say you! (points to moderator, a woman named Gina whose last name I didn’t catch, Fluehardy, maybe?)
Audience question: How do you keep track of worldbuilding?
Heather: I call it my Bible. I have all the info of who is connected to whom. I have it in the computer.
Rebecca: I have one of those big glass boards–a “murder” board–and I put pictures of the heroes and heroines on them and its a good way to procrastinate.
Nalini: I like to work in hard copy. I had a folder I flipped through. But as I went along it got to be too much and too large. I went to a private wiki online but I never looked at it. So now my assistant prints out the wiki and put it in a folder next to me. I also keep copies of the books because sometimes I remember where info is even if I don’t remember the information. And sometimes it’s just checking if the information is actually in the books and not only in my head.
Heather: I have a question for you guys. Have you ever had a parnormal experience?
Rebecca: Yes! I was a cocktail waitress one summer, and a woman had drowned at the lake where this place was. Big heavy doors would slam for no reason and it would get mysteriously cold. And I was the worst cocktail waitress because I spilled on people and the restaurant’s cleaning bills went up 185%. Next year they put me on the golf course cart instead.
Heather: In Miami-Dade I knew a cop there. One time there was a big multi-car accident on the highway and they were working trying to get people out of their cars because of spilled gas because it was going to blow. This cop dragged a guy out of car and the guy was saying get my daughter, get my daughter — so after dragging the guy out, he runs back and she’s hiding in the back seat. The cop gets her out of the back and runs back to the paramedic saying okay, where is the guy now? And the paramedic was like are you kidding? That guy was dead on impact with a snapped neck.
What do you read?
Nalini: I read very eclectically. I read all subgenres of romance and suspense and nonfiction.
Heather: Everything A cereal box if there’s nothing else availale. I love Poe, so creepy. But there are great nonfiction books out there that are just as creepy. I still love historicals. And paranormal historicals, of course.
Rebecca: I like reading law cases. [She’s a former lawyer.] If you can get a really good judge, the cadence of the opinion is like a story, there is humor inside that you can understand. I’m on a YA/MG kick right now. I’m reading the Jinx series right now. I really like alpha male across the genres.
Do you think there’s any topic or creature underrepresented in paranormal?
Heather: All of them! There is room for everything out there. Okay, I have not seen a lot of chupacabra books out there. But there are so many legends out there. I did a series called the Keepers a while back and one character was a leprechuan who was tall and good looking and he was fighting the stereotype of leprechauns being midgets. There are so many creatures and ways you can use them.
Rebecca: I say all of them too. If you have a story, write it.
Nalini: I guess if there are a lot of them out there, like vampire books, think about it why you want to go into that.
Heather: I talked to an editor who said yeah there are a lot of vampires out there, but if you have a really good vampire I want to see it.
Should the point of view be 1st or 3rd person?
Nalini: I think it depends on the author and what you’re comfortable with. I think there’s more first person in urban fantasy. That doesn’t mean you can’t write third person if you want.
Rebecca: We agree.
How sexy does paranormal have to be? Does it have to be spicy or can it be sweet?
Rebecca: I think you can definitely have a sweet one or you can do sexy, over the top, whatever you are comfortable writing.
Nailin: I just think it’s important to telegraph to the reader what you’re doing so they know. If it’s spicy and they think it’ll be sweet or the other way around they will be upset.
Heather: As long as people know what they’re getting they’ll be happy.


  1. Cecilia, thank you so much for taking the time to record and share these sessions with us. I hope to one day get to RWA and/or RT (I am sooo introverted and cons are really scary) but in the meantime this is such a gift!

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