Toasted Cheese Success Stories: Interview with Janet Mullany

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In her author bio, Janet Mullany states that she “has worked as an archaeologist, classical music radio announcer, arts administrator, and for a small press.” Janet was also one of Toasted Cheese’s original forum hosts. A few of Janet’s stories can be found in the archives, including “Snow, The Seven and The Moon,” which won the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest.

In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in various romance sub-genres. Her books aren’t your typical romances, though; they’re infused with comedic elements and clever wordplay. Even if you don’t consider yourself a romance fan, you might be surprised to find yourself won over by Janet’s witty (erm, dare I say snarky?) sense of humor.

Her most recent book, Hidden Paradise, a contemporary erotic romance, was released in September 2012. I interviewed Janet by email earlier this year.

Toasted Cheese: In your bio, you state that you were “raised in England by half of an amateur string quartet.” I’ve always been curious—how did you end up on this side of the Atlantic? And do you have any musical talents of your own?

Janet Mullany: I marry Americans. Serially, that is. I’ve done it twice so far. As far as musical talent goes, I used to play the flute, but my major skill is being able to identify the composer within a few seconds of hearing a piece, within reason—I can identify most popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire but sometimes only the nationality of the composer. I’m not any sort of idiot savant.

TC: Well, that seems like a talent to me, perhaps even one that might come in handy when writing historical fiction.

When you hosted at TC, it was prior to the publication of your first book. Can you take us back and tell us a little about your first book and how it came to be published?

JM: That was Dedication, which I wrote over a period of a couple of years, and which underwent a lot of rewrites and had some near misses. Then it won a contest sponsored by the Beau Monde, the Regency special interest chapter of Romance Writers of America (R) and I was offered a contract for it as a Signet Regency which was the traditional line. Now this was a bit of a problem. It was a very sexy book accepted for a notoriously “close the bedroom door” line, and when the editor made the offer and asked me to cut 20,000 words, I said, “Fine, but the sex has to stay.” To my surprise, she agreed. I didn’t know then but the Signets were on their way out, and I think they just weren’t that concerned about content; or, in a more charitable mood, they thought having a bit of heat mightn’t hurt. There was quite a bit of buzz about it because it had an older hero (early 40s) and heroine (late 30s)—children, their children—both of whom had been around the block and although they had fallen in love two decades before had since got over themselves and had gone on to have real relationships with other people. Apparently that was something new. Then a couple of years ago I had the rights back and put even more sex in it and published it with Loose-Id (excerpt).

TC: That’s quite the story, and an excellent lead-in to my next question. You write romance, which is known for having rules (or, at least, ‘rules’) about how stories should play out, but you write in several different sub-genres and play with conventions. Clearly you’re not afraid to break rules, but I imagine there are limits. Is working within the constraints of the genre part of the fun of writing for you? Do you have a favorite sub-genre?

JM: I always feel like I’m attempting to crack the romance code. I didn’t “choose” to write romance in the sense that I loved the genre or was even particularly widely read in it, but I was very impressed with romance writers writing to sell and being smart about the market. I also figured out that since it is such a huge genre I could find a niche in it.

The limitations are irritating. One is that readers and many editors are not particularly interested in language, whereas I love playing around with words and admire good, clean cliché-free writing. Also readers and editors expect a moral message (so eighteenth century) with a tremendous emphasis on sexual-emotional healing. To be honest I’m not that interested in people who look to a relationship to solve their problems. I wrote an erotic romance (well, I thought it was a romance! But obviously, what do I know…) called Tell Me More that was quite fantastically filthy with a heroine who screwed anything that moved and suddenly the editor asked what she learned in the course of the story. Um, that she liked sex? Sure enough, some readers loved it but others screeched that they hoped the heroine would get crotch rot and die [Found and read this review. Dying. Laughing, that is. -TF] and that she was incredibly screwed up emotionally. And it was odd, because I saw her as this daring, adventurous, yet very level-headed woman. I tend to like characters who are grown up enough to take responsibility for their behavior but also capable of making mistakes.

Fav sub-genre—to write, oh, I guess I’d say historicals, but so much of the market is obsessed with dukes wearing the wrong sort of shirt. I’m English and I don’t like aristocrats much, and I’m very fond of eighteenth-century shirts with frills and man cleavage.

TC: It’s interesting you mention romance readers expecting a moral message. One of the things I remember liking about your writing back in the day was your sense of humor, which definitely is on display in The Rules of Gentility. In fact, one of the notes I jotted down while reading was “hilarious.” However, when I perused reviews afterward, I noticed some readers seemed perplexed by the comedic elements. Do you think there’s perhaps a mistaken expectation that historical romances will be more serious than contemporary ones? How would you describe your style to potential readers? What reader reactions have most surprised you?

JM: I don’t think readers expect comedy in romance. Falling in love is a serious business! Most books billed as romantic comedies have a few funny bits with a dog or amusing secondary characters, or some snappy dialogue and one-liners. Mine have all that but a lot of physical comedy and I like to make fun of the most overused Regency clichés. My Regency chick-lits published by Little Black Dress did quite well in England because I have a very English sense of humor but sadly my niche in the US remains small.

TC: I’m not English, but I do enjoy your sense of humor, so I’ll keep those in mind.

2013, the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, is a big year for Jane Austen fans. You were a bit ahead of the curve with your ‘Immortal Jane Austen’ series. Mashing up two extremely popular but seemingly-unrelated things—Jane Austen and vampires—was genius. How did you come up with the idea? Do you have plans to write more in this series or do you have something different in mind for Jane?

JM: An editor dangled the challenge of writing something paranormal about Austen, hoping to jump on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies bandwagon. So I came up with the most outrageous idea I could, Austen as a vampire—my original titles were Blood Bath (the first book was set in Bath) or Austen Powers. I wanted to tie in the imaginary action of the books with Austen’s life, so I’m afraid she did die in 1817. But I set it in an alternate England where vampires—the Damned—are out and about in society and very fashionable, and I threw in a French invasion too. Why not. But I tried to keep the details about Austen as accurate as I could. I found channeling Austen very intimidating.

TC: Ok, those titles are fabulous. Just so you know, I now have visions of Jane Austen dancing to the Austin Powers theme and admonishing her fellow vampires with “Oh, behave.”

What would you say were the most valuable things you did to get to where you are today with your writing? Who or what have you found particularly helpful?

JM: Reading, absolutely essential, and outside the genre. I had a pretty strong voice right from the start because I’d read so much, and I instinctively knew to trust my voice, particularly when critique partners threw up their hands and cried “You can’t do that in a romance.” I have critique partners on and off, a community of cheerleaders including a very good agent, and a husband blissfully unaware of what I write. He likes books with pictures.

TC: Love the advice to read widely. What’s your writing process like? Are you a planner who outlines meticulously before starting to write or do you tend to write from the seat of your pants? Can you describe what a typical writing session is like for you—or is there one?

JM: I have to be able to write a synopsis to sell on proposal, even though I want to just let things sprawl. On the other hand my synopses are very vague and mercifully short. I usually start with an idea, which is basically a tagline, write a few chapters, and once I get to know the characters a little I can figure out what is going to happen, more or less. I claim to use the phrase “After many exciting adventures…” because god knows what they might be and possibly whatever they are might scare off an editor.

TC: This is a strategy I think many fiction writers don’t consider. Often the synopsis is thought of as something that can wait until the book is complete.

After seeing how many books you’d published in the past few years, I wondered if you were writing full-time now—but then I noticed you’d mentioned your day job in a recent blog post. As you know, many writers struggle to finish even one book while working another job. I’m sure our readers would love to know—what’s your secret to being so prolific?

JM: Ahem. At the moment I’m not particularly prolific, but when I was… I write very clean first drafts so I’m lucky there. On a practical level, I don’t get out much, have very little in the way of family responsibilities, and if I want to write I don’t watch TV. I think TV sucks the life out of you creatively. I use a kitchen timer, set it for twenty minutes and write like crazy, gritting my teeth at the beginning but hopefully getting into the zone by the time the bell rings and I jump out of my skin and keep going.

TC: The timer’s a great idea. I’m a big advocate of making appointments to write.

You have a website, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and you blog at The Risky Regencies. How important do you think social media is for writers? Did social media play a role in the pre-publication process for any of your books or do you find it’s more a place to connect with readers?

JM: Apparently social media is very important although I suspect writers spend their time marketing to each other rather than the readers who probably have better things to do. What does sell books is word of mouth and we have to try to make that happen using social media. I find the general chirpy niceness we’re expected to project online exhausting; I’m not naturally chirpy. I get the most traffic on my Facebook page when I post pics of the cat or things I have baked.

TC: Why does that not surprise me?

What’s next for you? What are you working on? Do you have anything forthcoming this year?

JM: The latest attempt to crack the romance code is a partial for a three-book historical series doing the rounds. There is an indirect duke and the closest I can get to an alpha male hero. I’m also one chapter and a synopsis into a partial for an erotic contemporary; I ended the first chapter on a tremendous hook and am now congratulating myself on a job well done, rather than setting the timer and squeezing out another two chapters. I’m also rewriting a book that did fairly disastrously a few years ago to be self-pubbed later in the year, no title yet, and a couple of novellas, one self-pubbed and a new one to go with the full-length book. So technically I’m very busy.

Thanks so much for the interview, Theryn!

TC: Thank you, Janet! Congratulations on all your success and all the best with your many works-in-progress.

Where you can find Janet:


Final Poll Results

Enter At Your Own Risk:
The Strange, Twilight World
of Writing Competitions

Absolute Blank

By Janet Mullany

Writing competitions are everywhere, offering fame, fortune, and great expectations. It’s fairly simple. All you have to do is meet a deadline, follow a few simple directions, and write something so outstandingly good that it beats the pants off dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other entries.

If it sounds like Publishers Clearing House, you’re not that far off the mark. The world of writing competitions is addictive, frustrating and exhilarating—just like writing itself. Entering a competition can be as simple as polishing your story, writing a check, and mailing both into a black hole. The only evidence that you entered at all will be your bank statement showing that the check cleared. Someone, of course, has to win. But it might not be you, and depending upon the size and prestige of the competition, the odds vary tremendously.

“Be aware that there are tremendous odds against you,” writer Loree Lough, a judge in the prestigious Writers Digest competition advises. “You have a much better chance of placing in a small competition.”

Her category, one of the smaller ones, the Inspirational Short Story, received a mere 2,000 entries, from which she had to select 100 entries to proceed to the next round. She reports that a surprisingly large number of entries were just not ready for submission to a major competition, and even though they may have had good points, she had to toss them onto the slush pile.

Ms. Lough added: “Make sure that you’re entering the right competition for the right reason. Accept that in most competitions, you will never know the reason why you didn’t place.”

So why enter writing competitions at all, with those sorts of odds? Many offer winners a publication credit, and a competition win is one of those useful things to mention in a cover letter when you submit to an editor. As with any other submission, you must make sure your work is polished to its highest sheen, formatted correctly, and like the US army, as good as it can be. Some competitions, particularly smaller ones, do offer feedback to contestants, and that can be both valuable and frustrating. What your critique group may have loved, may leave an anonymous stranger unmoved. As with any critique, you must take what you can, and disregard the rest.

One advantage to submitting your work to a competition is that there are specific time frames to which the sponsoring organization or publication is committed. Finalists or winners will be announced—generally only those who reach this stage receive personal notification—so you escape the agony of never knowing whether your baby is working its way up the food chain of a publishing house or languishing behind a file cabinet.

One genre in which competitions play an important role is romance. Many regional Romance Writers of America (RWA) chapters sponsor competitions as a fundraising activity. Generally an entry consists of a partial—the synopsis and the first few chapters of a novel with an entry fee in the range of $15 to $50. It is implied, or at least expected, that the work is finished, although some competitions, like the Golden Heart Competition sponsored by RWA National, require the inclusion of the full manuscript along with the partial. Most, but not all romance competitions, are open only to writers unpublished in full length romance fiction.

Volunteer judges handle preliminary rounds, and each contestant receives written feedback. Very few of these competitions offer anything substantial in the form of a cash prize-some offer a token such as a pin, a certificate, or even chocolate—but finalists’ entries are judged by an agent, or an editor from a major house. Potentially this could lead to a request for a full, an offer of representation, or a contract. More likely the reward will be euphoria, something to mention in cover letters, and then back to work. If you don’t make the final cut, you will at least get feedback and a scoresheet from people seeing your work for the first time—not always a pleasant or positive experience, but one from which you can learn something. At the very least, you can add to that extra layer on your skin that writers need to survive.

So what sort of competitions are good to enter? Just about any, so long as you win. The ideal competition does not charge any, or exorbitant, entry fees, offers feedback—and prizes are always nice, too—and a publication credit for at least the first prize winner, with copyright reverting to the writer at some point. A final piece of advice from Writers Digest judge Loree Lough: “Go into it hoping you’ll win, disregard mean feedback, and view it as a source of valuable free information.”


Janet Mullany is currently a finalist in the Missouri Romance Writers’ Gateway to the Rest Competition, and will shortly judge the first round of another RWA competition. So far her short story competition prizes include a mug, a t-shirt, and a book she gave away. She still uses the mug and the t-shirt.

Final Poll Results