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Interview: Leah Ashton, author of Secrets and Speed Dating

leah ashton Interview: Leah Ashton, author of Secrets and Speed DatingHaving catapulted into the romance genre's awareness as the winner of the Mills & Boon New Voices competition, Perth's Leah Ashton is making waves in the romance world. The competition has proved a boon to Ashton, whose second novel is currently getting ready to go to print.

But looking back a mere year or so, and Ashton's dream of publication was scarcely more than that. Even though she was spurred to a flurry of creativity by the mere mention of the New Voices competition, it took until the deadline loomed until pen approached paper.

'When I heard about the competition, I knew I had to enter. But the actual writing of my entry didnt take place until about ten days prior to the closing date,' she says with a laugh. 'This is very typical of my time management skills.'

Ashton suspects her delayed entry may have also had something to do with the highly public nature of the contest: all entries are posted online for anyone to view and comment upon. 'Fortunately, the prizepublicationmade the potential for massive embarrassment worth it,' she says.

Beginning with nothing more than a killer first line ('Just so you know, I can't have children'), Ashton just let things flow, fervently hoping that all would turn out well in the end.

'I didnt plot a thing. My hero had absolutely no back story. He just floated onto the page,' says Ashton.

When Ashton was advanced into the finals, she began brainstorming with her mentors, a Mills & Boon editor and widely published romance author Jessica Hart.

'They were very patient with my total lack of a plan, and I was fortunate enough to make the top four, and then go on to ultimately to win New Voices,' she says. 'Winning was a huge shock, and an incredible thrillbut even then I knew the hard work was to come.'

And it certainly did.

'Originally I decided to use the plot that Id come up with during New Voices, and sent my story in chunks to my editor for review. Unfortunately, after two aborted attempts, and a total of about 35,000 words, my editor suggested I put the story aside for a bit over Christmas.'

Ashton speaks of the suggestion with the calm acceptance of retrospect, but admits that at the time the very idea was devastating.

'As it turned out, she was absolutely right. In early January I started the story again, throwing out all but the first chapter and a page or two of chapter two,' she says.

This time around Ashton had a solid plot in mind, and a hero with a strong back story to boot, and found that the words just flowed.

'I realised that my heroine Sophie was an obsessive organiser, and she suddenly became so clear to meit was like a piece of a puzzle falling into place. '

Speaking of puzzles, one of the intriguing elements of Secrets and Speed Dating is that itboth structurally and in terms of the plotincorporates elements that aren't necessarily commonly seen in romantic fiction, one being the inclusion of Sophie's 'self-improvement project plan' at the beginning of each chapter.

'Mills & Boon are really modernising their novels, particularly the line I write forRiva in the UK, Romance in the US and Sweet in Australia,' says Ashton.

'In fact, a recent novel by Barbara Hannay, Molly Coopers Dream Date, which is also a Riva, is told almost entirely via email, so I was pretty confident that my editor would allow me to use the Project Plan structure for Secrets and Speed Dating.'

Ashton is pleased that this was indeed the case, as she felt that it was a great way to show her heroine's meticulous, pedantic personality, as well as the rigid structures that she was imposing on her lifeand not to mention the way that she was coping with the hero's disruption of it all.

Reflecting on whether romance novels must still adhere to the strict conventions for which they've been known, Ashton notes that it's really only the optimistic ending, or the 'happily ever after' that is a non-negotiable.

And even this is undergoing changes.

'Often it takes the form of a marriage proposal, or a wedding, but as long as the reader is confident that the hero and heroine will be together forever, neither is compulsory,' she says. 'A romance novel is about the journey to that happy ever after, and increasingly authors have great flexibility in how their characters get there.'

Ashton likes the fact that her ending can be considered a little unconventional, but points out that in no way is she the only author pushing the limits. 'Nikki Logan, another Australian Mills & Boon author and a friend of mine, is also doing so. She's written an alcoholic heroine and even a married hero!'

One area where Ashton did decide to play it safe, though, is in rendering her native Perth in a way that would be accessible to an international audience. In Secrets and Speed Dating, famous landmarks, such as beach-side restaurant Indiana go unnamed, and Australianisms are converted to terms more recognisable to a global audience.

'I didn't want to confuse my readers with things such as a thongs vs flip-flops! But If I had my time again, I think I would have shown off Perth and Fremantle a little more than I did.'

Although she might have held back when it came to local geography and idioms, she doesn't shy away from addressing a difficult topic: infertility.

The decision to make her heroine infertile came about after reading a series of opinion pieces by women who had struggled to fall pregnant, but who eventually had had children.

'What really struck me was the idea 'what if they hadnt been successful?' How would that feel? What would that mean?'

She then took the idea a step further, envisioning the scenario of someone who had never even had the chance to try.

'I got all emotional even thinking about this idea, so I knew I needed to write a story where I gave someone like that a happy ever after.'

But it was important that she keep things realistic, rather than opting for an easy solution. 'I didn't want the happy ever after to involve a miracle baby. I wanted this woman to experience true, unconditional love.'

The idea brought with it further challenges for Ashton as an author, thoughin order to raise the stakes between heroine and hero, the most obvious hero would be one who desperately wanted to have children.

'Unfortunately, writing a sexy, fun hero who really wants to settle down is kind of hard!' says Ashton. 'It was also unrealisticwhy hasnt he already had children if its so important to him?'

To solve this mystery, she had to delve deep into her hero's past to find out why he didn't have children, despite deep down desperately wanting them. 'It was tough!' she admits.

But Ashton is clearly an author who relishes a challenge, and is the first to acknowledge her growth as an author since Secrets and Speed Dating.

'Prior to publication I took two years to write one booknow I know that I can squeeze in a lot of words between my full time day job, my husband and life in general.'

She also learned the importance of plotting her work in order to get the most out of her writing, although she has found that the words flow much more easily now; she wonders whether the validation of publishing has helped with this.

'Still, a big part of me felt that maybe my first book was a fluke, so I had to deal with my own doubt demons throughout the writing, and eventual rewriting, of my second book.'

The book, titled A Girl Less Ordinary, will be released in June 2012, and features a reclusive billionaire geek and a glamorous image consultant.

'Though they were best friends in high school, initially bonding over their shared status as hugely unpopular outcasts, they had a falling out thirteen years ago, and haven't spoken since'until the heroine is brought in to transform the hero into the face of a new advertising campaign, says Ashton of the novel.

The theme of this book is exposureboth characters are hiding themselves from the world, but in very different ways, and in the process closing themselves off to love.'

Like the characters in her second book, Ashton is also learning the value of promotion. 'I do think its important to have an online presence, and I feel an up to date web site is an absolute must have, for writers of all genres.'

Although many of her online connections through social media are fellow writers, she is curious to see whether the US release of Secrets & Speed Dating (June 2012) and the subsequent Australian release (July/August 2012) will result in more reader contact.

Ashton also relishes social media and the sense of connection that can result from sites such as Twitter and Facebook. 'Writing can be so solitary. I really value what social media can bring.'

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing'Mills & Boon Loves (which contains Secrets and Speed Dating)
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  1. Absolutely fabulous interview. Ive already read Secrets and Speed Dating and its one of my fave books for 2011!
    Rachael Johns recently posted..What would you wish for a Steampunk Christmas?

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks so much for your lovely words, Rachael! I really enjoyed Secrets and Speed Dating, too. I read it as part of the New Voices omnibusa four-in-one book. Not too shabby at all!

  3. Thanks Rachael and Stephanie! As my first published novel Secrets & Speed Dating will always be special to me and Im glad you enjoyed it too :)
    Leah Ashton recently posted..Bits and bobs ' and A Girl Less Ordinary

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