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Writing coach interview: Romy Sommer on romance and founding ROSA

Who forms the team at the heart of Now Novel? Meet writing coach, hybrid-published romance author and writing webinar host Romy Sommer, who discusses writing romance and beginning writers’ challenges with Lascelles Marais.

We chat to Now Novel writing coach and hybrid-published romance author Romy Sommer about writing romance, founding the Romance Writers of South Africa non-profit (ROSA), and the joys of helping other writers fulfil their true potential. Watch the video and read the full transcript to learn more.

Lascelles Marais 00:00
Hello everyone, and welcome! My name is Lascelles Marais and today I’m going to be interviewing one of our very own coaches and published authors, Romy Sommer. I hope you enjoy.

Romy Sommer 00:09
My name is Romy Sommer and I am a hybrid romance author meaning that I am published both traditionally, through HarperCollins, London, and also I am self-published.

I live in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I used to work in the film industry and in film and television advertising, before I started writing, and now I’m lucky enough to work full time as a writing coach.

I’ve been with Now Novel since the end of 2018, I think it is. Yes, so now I get to work as a writing coach and write novels full time, which is just wonderful. The best job you can do in the world.

Lascelles Marais 00:49
Wonderful, amazing. And what is your role at now novel?

On being a writing coach

Romy Sommer 00:53
I work as a writing coach, which means I have one-on-one coaching clients that I work alongside as they write their novels. I help them set targets, teach them about writing, and I also present webinars.

Roughly every third week we do a webinar on a different aspect of writing craft, or the business of being a writer.

I’m also quite involved in the group coaching which is a new Now Novel initiative where instead of having one-on-one individualized coaching, a whole group gets trained up at the same time.

Why helping aspiring authors is fulfilling

Lascelles Marais 01:30
What is the most fulfilling part about coaching?

Romy Sommer 01:33
Just seeing writers grow and develop and watching their writing improve month after month is just so incredibly rewarding. I learn a lot from the process as well.

Often when I’m teaching somebody something else, it sparks something in me and I go, ‘Oh, yeah!’ even if it’s just a refresher.

So it constantly keeps me active and on top of the game. And the amazing thing is I’ve actually become friends with some of the people I’ve coached over the years, which is … that’s just incredible. It’s a real, wonderful ‘side effect’.

And I’ve had clients who’ve been with me for years now and we’ve actually become friends.

Why coaching writers is rewarding - Romy Sommer quote

Writing romance novels and doing research

Lascelles Marais 02:08
Which novel that you have published so far has been your favorite and why, if you have a favorite?

Romy Sommer 02:15
It’s like picking a favorite child.

The one that’s definitely not my favorite is the one I’m working on right now. Because right now it’s hard work and it’s a slog. But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d probably say it’s my book Last of the Summer Vines, which was set in Tuscany on a wine farm.

I loved doing the research for that, researching I landed up buying a lot of Italian wine while writing that book, and eating a lot of Italian food, but the book I’m writing right at the moment is a sequel to that. So of course I keep referring back to the initial one and going, ‘Agh, so good, how am I ever going to live up to this?’ Huge imposter syndrome.

But it was fun to write and I must say, it’s fun to get back into that world again.

The challenges of writing romance stories

Lascelles Marais 02:59
That’s incredible. I would love to do research with a lot of wine. That sounds amazing. What would you say is the most challenging aspect when it comes to writing romance novels?

Romy Sommer 03:12
Romance specifically, I would say the biggest challenge is the emotional payoff for the reader. Because we all know how it’s going to end, we all know that the couple’s going to land up together which is why people read it – because they know that it’s a safe place to go when they just want an escapist read.

But it’s so focused on emotion, and you’ve got to deliver a certain payoff for the reader, otherwise they feel cheated.

So it’s quite difficult crafting that, and a lot of people think romance is formulaic. It’s not, because emotions and people’s relationships and people’s psychology is different every single time. So getting into the characters’ psychology and really into their emotions is quite…

It’s also what I love about it, but it is a challenge.

Lascelles Marais 03:59
I’ve never thought about it that way.

Writing fiction vs working in film and advertising

Romy Sommer 04:00
I actually used to work in the film industry as well, behind the camera, and I love writing because film work, as you probably know, is very much directing by committee. Everybody has their little part to play.

But as a writer, you are the location scout, you’re the director, you’re the casting director, you’re the wardrobe, you know the costume supervisor. You get to do all of that. You know, if you’re a control freak, writing is wonderful.

But yes, you do have to think about every single aspect, from where the book is set to how the characters are dressed, to their performances, the dialogue, saying everything.

Genre assumptions and expectations

Lascelles Marais 04:36
Because a lot of people will say … will write [that] romance offers something that’s an easy genre to write. But actually, there’s so much more to think about because it is something so rewarding to read or to watch. But if we don’t … if it’s not true, if we don’t feel for these characters, like you said, it’s not the same emotional payoff.

Romy Sommer 05:02
Absolutely. I think that goes for writing any genre, in fact. You know, whether you’re writing a cozy mystery or a thriller or a sci-fi, there are certain genre expectations. And in fact, that’s what makes it hard, is that you’ve got to fulfil the reader’s expectations, while still at the same time being creative and writing the story you want to tell.

So knowing your own genre and how to … what the reader is wanting to get out of it, is hugely important.

New writers’ top three challenges

Lascelles Marais 05:27
And what are the top three challenges that you find with new writers and how do you help them with these challenges?

Finishing a novel

Romy Sommer 05:36
The biggest one, I think, is just finishing. Finishing a novel. Because we all … it’s wonderful when we first get started and you’re passionate for the project, and then after a while it becomes work. And especially if you’re not really sure where you’re going with the story, it can be so hard and I see so many people give up. And no publisher ever publishes an unfinished novel.

So really, finishing is the number one thing you need to do, even if it’s a messy first draft, just knowing that you’ve got that first draft written. It’s so much easier then to go back and edit and fix it. So the very first thing is finishing.

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Dealing with ‘imposter syndrome’

The second one I think is imposter syndrome. You know, we all suffer from … We all doubt ourselves, we think, ‘Ah, we’re never going to be as good as …’ you know, our favorite authors. We compare ourselves to other writers.

And it’s hard to be creative when you’ve got this voice in the back of your head constantly saying, ‘I’m not good enough’. But the fact is, you are good enough because every single person has got a story to tell.

Every single person has something unique that they bring that even their favorite author couldn’t bring to that story.

So, I find a lot of it is just getting people over that hump just to know that what they’re doing is fine. It’s good. They must just keep on and they will get there.

Learning writing craft

Third thing, third challenge … possibly just learning the craft.

When you start out you don’t know what you don’t know. So I think that’s also because I come from generations of teachers, I just really believe in ‘learn as much as you can about the writing craft’, about story structure, about character arcs, about how to write dialogue. Because it’s all great when you’re starting out and you think your own writing is great, but you don’t know when you’re telling or when you’re showing.

But just the more you learn, eventually it just feeds into your writing and it does improve and it does grow. But it takes time. It’s not something that happens overnight.

You can’t wave that magic wand and push out this ‘perfect’ novel. It takes work.

Lascelles Marais 07:39
So it’s finishing, believing in yourself, and learning as many skills in writing as possible.

Romy Sommer 07:49
Absolutely, yes.

Romy Sommer quote - no publisher ever publishes an unfinished novel

Founding ROSA, the Romance Writers Organization of South Africa

Lascelles Marais 07:40
Amazing. You are a co-founder of ROSA, The Romance Writers Organization of South Africa.

Could you please elaborate on what this organization is and why you started it, and how other writers could potentially join.

Romy Sommer 08:07
When I first started writing romance, I felt like I was the only romance author in the whole of Southern Africa. And I used to sit on Google and just type in ‘romance writers South Africa’ and slowly started connecting with people. We formed a Yahoo group back in the days of Yahoo groups, I think that was probably round about 2009-ish.

And slowly this little core group grew bigger and bigger until the point where, in 2014, we decided we wanted to have a conference. But in order to have a conference, we needed a bank account. So we thought well, let’s go legit. Let’s make this a proper organization.

So I registered ROSA as a non-profit organization in South Africa and we opened a bank account when we had our first conference. And it’s just grown from there.

We’ve had annual conferences now for seven years. We’ve grown from a core group of about 10 or 15 members to over 120 Members, I think at the moment, and it’s just phenomenal. Who would have thought when we started out and I was just Googling people to find someone else out there that it would grow into this whole organization of wonderfully supportive writers.

Forthcoming releases

Lascelles Marais 09:16
And also, big, big question – well, you touched on it before. You’re going to be releasing some new work in the future and you said that it’s a sequel. Could you please elaborate on this story, without giving too many details? Just a sneak peek.

Romy Sommer 09:36
Okay, well, I don’t have release dates yet. I’m still in the process of writing the book, which is actually overdue don’t tell my … well my publisher knows [laughs]. Don’t do what I do.

It’s set in Tuscany and it’s a follow up book to Last of the Summer Vines, and this time, it’s a romance featuring secondary characters from the previous book. So readers who read the first book will recognize quite a lot of the characters and the world that it’s set in. It’s set in Montalcino in Tuscany on a wine farm. This particular story, part of the reason why I’m overdue, is that it ground to a halt because the book was due last year and I just really struggled to write it in the middle of a pandemic with Tuscany … with Italy so badly hit.

It just felt wrong to be writing about people swanning off to hotels and wine shows. Now that we’re sort of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it feels easier to be able to go back and write it. But effectively it’s about a wine farm that’s in trouble and a woman from London, from the investment banking firm, gets sent out to come and investigate what’s happening at this wine farm and of course, she meets the son and heir of the wine farm who is the typical playboy that you see in romance novels. And of course, against this beautiful backdrop of lots of Italian red wine and beautiful sunshine and amazing landscape, they get to have their love story.

Romance, travel, and the value of escapist reads

Lascelles Marais 11:02
Beautiful, so sweet. Have you ever been to Italy?

Romy Sommer 11:06
I have, and I must say I love it. I would love to go back. There’s just so many parts of Italy I haven’t yet managed to explore.

I must say, for me the best thing was … forget about all the tourist sites and, you know going, to see some of the bigger tourist sites … I’m not a big one for standing in queues to go and see a national monument or a piece of art. For me just sitting in a cafe, and watching the world go by and eating Italian food – I must say I did eat my way across Italy [laughs]. That was just the the best part of the experience, watching people and just absorbing the culture and the vibe. It was incredible.

Lascelles Marais 11:52
I can tell, as a romance novelist, you probably have a very romantic view of life.

Romy Sommer 11:59
I’d like to think so. But I think it’s also, you know, life is so tough anyway. I do occasionally read … I love cozy mysteries, for example – and I’ll read the occasional crime or thriller, but there’s just something so satisfying about the escapist elements.

Now romance can be quite edgy, it can be quite realistic, but just knowing that there is always going to be a happy ever a- … well, happy for now, depending on how the book ends – or a happy ever after. There is something positive and uplifting about that and I think we can’t have enough of that in life.

Life is hard enough – when you pick up a book and you want to read it or you want to write it, you want to escape into a world that is somehow a bit more uplifting. That you feel like there is hope in the world, that there is joy, that there is love, community. So yes, I put that into my books because I think we all need more of it.

Speeding up the writing process with accountability

Lascelles Marais 12:53
Oh hundred percent, definitely. I wanted to ask, as a published author, in your opinion, why do you believe Now Novel is something writers should invest in?

Romy Sommer 13:04
Just from my personal experience, it took me years and a lot of mistakes and … As I said, when you’re starting out, you don’t know how much you don’t know. And I fumbled around in the dark for years. I felt so alone and I didn’t know anybody else and, you know. Trying to just learn on your own. Having a writing coach speeds up that whole process for you. Instead of wandering around in the dark, never quite finishing your own books, starting … I was a serial starter, I started quite a few books before I finally finished one and got published.

It’s just having somebody to hold your hand and guide you through that process speeds up the whole process and makes it so much less painful. So I really believe in coaching.In fact, I actually have my own coaches now. One of my coaching clients has now become my coach and keeps me motivated and helps me set targets.

So even as a coach, I feel that having a coach, having somebody to just keep you motivated, somebody who just checks in on you and keeps you accountable, it’s invaluable.

Lascelles Marais 14:11
Ja, definitely the accountability part. Because sometimes you can you can get so wrapped up in your own world that the days roll by. And I’ve always found that the longer time goes by, the more my imposter syndrome grows. Because I feel like, ‘Oh well this person has done this now, and this person has achieved this, but I’m still busy with this.’ So yes, that experience of just having someone there and keeping you accountable, is a very, very valuable thing.

Romy Sommer 14:46
And brainstorming. Just having somebody to brainstorm ideas with is … Sometimes you need to be able to say things out loud and let’s face it, your family and your friends, their eyes glaze over when you start to talk about your story. So having somebody who actually gets it is wonderful.

Lascelles Marais 15:01
A hundred percent. Thank you so much for taking the time today to speak to me.

Romy Sommer 15:06
Pleasure, thank you for this chat.

About Romy Sommer

Romy is the author of six novels published by HarperCollins London, as well as seven self-published titles. She is the founder of ROSA (Romance Writers Organisation of South Africa) and was the first South African to be nominated for the prestigious RWA Rita® Award.

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By Lascelles

Lascelles is a BA Drama and Theatre Studies graduate with a major in English Literature, working as a professional actress since 2020.

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