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

Combining Your Passions:
Interview with DeAnna Cameron

Absolute Blank

By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

DeAnna Cameron started her writing career as a journalist before switching to writing fiction. After taking a writing class where she was inspired to combine two of her passions, writing and belly dance, she wrote and published her first novel, The Belly Dancer, about Dora Chambers, a young bride trying to find her place in society, who finds herself entranced by belly dancers at the 1893 Chicago’s fair. Her second novel, Dancing at the Chance, follows Pepper McClair, a dancer in New York at the beginning of the vaudeville era, who tries to realize her dreams as a dancer and find love.

Here she answers some questions about writing, marketing with a niche audience, and her love for belly dancing.

 

Toasted Cheese: You’ve said that when you published The Belly Dancer you had to learn how to market your novel very quickly. Did you change anything about the way you marketed Dancing at the Chance?

DeAnna Cameron: I did handle things differently the second time around. I think some of it worked better, and some of it didn’t, but it’s almost impossible to know for sure. The reality is an author can rarely pinpoint exactly what is working, so my philosophy is to do what you can and what you enjoy (belly dance parties!), but never to let marketing one book replace the importance of writing the next one.

One thing I did differently, and which I wish I had been able to do the first time around, was to attend reader conferences like the ones held by the Historical Novel Society, RT Booklovers and RWA, where I could participate in the huge book-signing events they hold. Another thing I did was to connect with a lot more blogger reviewers. As bookstores disappear, readers are less likely to discover new authors by browsing bookshelves. Following book bloggers has become one way readers have filled the gap, so it’s important for new authors to go where the readers are.

TC: For marketing The Belly Dancer, you reached out to the belly dance community. How would you say that helped get your book out there, and how did it help when it came time to market Dancing at the Chance?

DC: It was a terrific help. My love for the art and history of Middle Eastern dance was the driving force behind the story, so it felt natural to want to share it with other belly dancers when it became a book. And I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive community. Every belly dance publication I can think of featured either a review or article about it, and I’ve heard from belly dancers from all over the country about how much they enjoyed the story. When Dancing at the Chance came out, I think its connection to vaudeville appealed to them as well because it’s an aesthetic that’s popular with so many belly dancers. There’s a lot of cross-over appeal between belly dance and vaudeville, and of course there is some pure belly dance in Dancing at the Chance as well, and the main characters of The Belly Dancer make a cameo appearance.

TC: They say “write what you love.” How much of your novels began as just a personal interest in the Vaudevillian era and the late 19th century and in dance?

DC: Dancing at the Chance actually began as a sequel to The Belly Dancer. Since many of the Egyptian belly dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair stayed in this country after the fair ended and went on to perform in the vaudeville circuits, I intended to continue their story in that milieu. And what’s funny is that I thought I already knew a lot about vaudeville. But when I started doing the research, I realized I didn’t know it at all. It was so much crazier and more interesting than I ever imagined. And it wasn’t the belly dancers and the other headline acts that I found most interesting, but all the performers who worked at the opposite end of the spectrum, the acts that filled the least desirable spots on the bill. The scrappy, struggling performers who lived on little more than hopes and dreams, and all the people who worked behind the scenes to create the magic that happened onstage.

TC: What’s your tried and true method of organizing all your historical research?

DC: I don’t know if it’s tried and true, but my method involves a fat three-ring binder to keep my handwritten and typewritten notes organized, a slew of tabbed and earmarked historical resource books, and a carefully catalogued index on my computer of any online resources I come across that I think I might want to revisit later. It could be anything from a picture of a period dress that would suit a character or a picture of a building I plan to reference, maybe a biography of a historical person referenced in the story, or perhaps just an archived menu from a restaurant the characters will visit.

TC: How does your interest in belly dance fuel your passion for writing? Do you believe that they are both sides of the same coin or that they are two separate things you just happened to combine for your novels?

DC: I think it’s what you said before, about “writing what you love.” I’ve started stories about dozens of different things, but none of them hooked me long enough to turn them into novels. The story about The Belly Dancers at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and then later with the plight of struggling vaudevillians in Old New York, captivated me and I think that passion fueled the stories and hooked other people too.

TC: There’s historical fiction, romance novels, and dance. What made you combine all three? Which part is more fun to write?

DC: I was so naive when I started writing The Belly Dancer that I didn’t even know I was writing historical fiction or romantic fiction or dance-related fiction. I was simply writing a story that interested me and that I thought might interest other people, too. It was only when it was finished, and when there was an agent and a publisher involved, that I realized how important these labels are. So there was no master plan on my part. Some authors figure out what kind of novel they want to write and then write it. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, and then tried to figure out how to label it.

TC: You went from a long journalism career to writing fiction. What did you take from your journalism career to help you write your novels?

DC: As a fiction writer, I think I use what I learned as a journalist every single day. I learned how to research quickly and the importance of vetting what you find. I learned to write fast and to write through writer’s block. I learned the importance of narrative structure and style. Really, it was an invaluable experience and I’m eternally grateful for all the mentors I had along the way.

TC: What are you working on now?

DC: I actually have a few things in the works. One historical novel is still in an early research stage. I’m also working on a young adult Victorian paranormal trilogy. And, finally, I have a contemporary romance that centers on a young woman whose life is changed by belly dance class. See? I always come back to belly dance.

TC: Any advice for the budding historical fiction or romance writer?

DC: To be a writer, you have to write, so make it a priority. Write every day if you can, but at least a few times a week. It sounds simple, but there are so many people who say they want to be writers but they never write anything. Or they don’t finish what they’ve started. If you can finish a novel, you’ve probably got the drive to do what it’ll take to become a published author. So keep writing, even when it’s hard.

Where you can find DeAnna:

Website: DeAnnaCameron.com
Twitter: @DeAnnaMCameron

Final Poll Results

Grabbing a Bite
with MaryJanice Davidson

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

What do you get when you cross Buffy’s attitude, Angel’s “vampire with a soul” schtick, and Carrie Bradshaw’s designer shoe fetish?

Well, you might get something like Betsy Taylor, the heroine of MaryJanice Davidson‘s popular “Undead” series.

For those not familiar with the series, here’s a quick overview: 30-year-old Betsy is hit by a car and wakes up in the morgue. She discovers that she is a vampire, but a strange one… sunlight doesn’t hurt her, she can touch crosses and other religious articles without pain, and she isn’t consumed by the urge to feed. As it turns out, these are the very things that make her the prophesied Queen of the Vampires. She teams up with “tall, dark and sinister” Eric Sinclair, a sort of vampire king, and you can guess what happens next.

Davidson is incredibly prolific, having published 26 books in four years, with 7 coming out in 2006 so far. (“I type fast,” she says.)

Undead and Unpopular, the fifth book in the series, was released this month, and we here at TC had the chance to pick Davidson’s brain.

Toasted Cheese: How long have you been writing professionally?

MaryJanice Davidson: I quit my SDJ (Stupid Day Job) three years ago and have been writing full time since. It was frightening to contemplate, since I’ve had “real” jobs since I was 16, and Minnesota was in the midst of a terrible recession at the time, and my SDJ was a good one (Ops Manager). Everyone encouraged me to keep my job and keep writing at night, except my husband, who told me to go for it. And once I did it I never looked back. And once my editors knew I was writing full-time, they went out of their way to try to find me lots of work. They knew I had a family to feed.

TC: What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Published?

MJD: The first book I ever wrote was The Adventures of the Teen Furies and, coincidentally, it was the first book I published (the e-publisher HardShell Word Factory bought it, and it’s still in print, both as an e-book and as a paperback).

TC: How long did it take you to get published?

MJD: Years and years. I’ve been writing since I was 13, submitting since my early twenties, and I’m now 36. I have a stack of rejection letters from just about every romance publisher out there: Harlequin, Silhouette, Warner, Avon, Little Brown, Dorchester.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you admire? Is there anyone in particular that inspired or influenced you?

MJD: Stephen King (I love his rags to riches story), John Sandford, Laurell K. Hamilton (another rags to riches story, plus she was a single mom for quite a while), Carl Hiaasen (funniest writer ever), Ann Rule (amazing depth of research for her true crime stories), Charlaine Harris (just an outstanding writer in general, and such a nice lady in person, a total sweetheart!). I’m pretty eclectic; I read across genres. Frankly, I admire any writer who managed to get published; it’s a tough business.

TC: What about the “paranormal romance” genre interested you?

MJD: I love vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches… the idea of having “super powers” is just fascinating to me. What must it be like to be immortal, to be super strong, to see in the dark like a cat, to do magic? Fascinating.

TC: Was there any real life inspiration for Betsy?

MJD: I guess, maybe me. I’m six feet tall, like Betsy, and a jerk, like Betsy, and self-absorbed. I didn’t want a “Mary Sue” heroine, the type who can do no wrong. What I like about Betsy is that not everybody loves her; in fact, she irritates the hell out of a lot of people. Also like me!

TC: What are you currently working on?

MJD: I just finished SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES, my new paranormal series about a grumpy mermaid who doesn’t like to swim and is allergic to shellfish. And I’m working on another Alaskan Royal book, THE ROYAL SURPRISE. (What if Alaska was never bought by the US, was its own country and had its own royal family?)

TC: Can you tell us what’s next for Betsy and Sinclair?

MJD: Well, the wedding (if all goes well). Betsy really wants an “official” ceremony as opposed to the Book of the Dead simply stating she and Sinclair are mated for a thousand years. Whereas Sinclair thinks the idea of a ceremony is just ridiculous; they’re already husband and wife according to vampire lore. And Betsy badly wants a baby, which is a little tricky, since her ovaries stopped working the day she died. And she still has a lot of vampires to win over; many of them think Sinclair is the real power behind the throne, and she’s just a fluke. When, frankly, it’s the other way around.

TC: Do you have any advice for our readers?

MJD: Never ever ever give up. If I had quit submitting any time during those 15 years, I would never have made the New York Times list. I’d never be writing full time and, frankly, I wouldn’t have gobs of money. It’s a tough business, but persistence is definitely rewarded.


Billiard Recommends: Undead and Unwed

More MaryJanice Davidson:

Final Poll Results

Five Quick Tips
for Getting Your Story Published

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By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

The slush pile. It’s where no writer wants to be, and where no editor wants to go. As an editor at Toasted Cheese, I’ve had to wade into the slush pile on many occasions. As a writer, I’ve tried my hardest to keep out of it.

I recently had the good fortune to have one of my short stories published in the national-circulation women’s magazine Woman’s World. In light of this success, I thought I would share a few quick tips for keeping out of the slush pile, a vital first step toward seeing your name in print.

  1. Know your market!

It’s no mistake that the magazine that published my story is one that I’ve read. My mom has been picking up Woman’s World and reading it since I was a kid. And because I read just about anything you put in front of me, I’ve been reading it for about that long. As I got older, I started looking at the fiction with a writer’s eye, and truly believed this was a market I could succeed in. The stories that I’ve submitted to Woman’s World were written specifically with this market in mind.

Woman’s World publishes two types of stories; short romances and mini mysteries. Knowing this, I wouldn’t send them, oh, say a science fiction story. I was writing a short romance, and I know that Woman’s World‘s readers want uplifting, character-driven stories with endings that hint at the possibility of true love. With that in mind, I wouldn’t send them my angst-ridden piece about a young woman in love with a musician who keeps breaking her heart. You need to understand the magazine or journal’s readership, and you need to be aware of what the editors are looking for. If you don’t think your story will fit in, it probably won’t.

Read the publication before submitting. At the very least, send for a sample copy or spend some time online or at a bookstore looking at examples of what’s been published by this market. Getting published is kind of like dating or job hunting… it’s all about finding the right match!

  1. Follow submission guidelines carefully.

Always, always, be sure that you’re following the most recent submission guidelines. When I first submitted to Woman’s World, the maximum word count for short romances was 1,500 words. Sometime between when I submitted the story and when it reached the editor’s hands, that word count was cut to 1,100 words. Fortunately for me, the editor liked my story and gave me a chance to cut it down to fit their guidelines. But the bottom line is this; if you’re given a maximum word count, don’t go over.

Make sure you submit your manuscript in the correct format. If the magazine or journal wants a hard copy of your story, don’t send an e-mail (and vice versa). If the online journal asks for submissions in the text of an e-mail, don’t send an attachment. Check the most recent copy of the Writer’s Market for guidelines, or check to see if guidelines are listed on a web page. Don’t let your manuscript be thrown out over something you could have avoided!

  1. Submit only your best work (editing and proofreading are your friends!).

I cannot stress this enough—before submitting, make sure your manuscript is clean and error-free. Once, I submitted a story that had a punctuation error in the first sentence. It was immediately rejected (with the error circled), and I’ll never know if it was thrown out because of the story’s content or because of my mistake. Don’t let this happen to you! Post your story at one of our online forums for critique before sending it in. You want to be completely happy with what you’re submitting. Have a meticulous friend check your spelling and grammar. (Even the best of us make mistakes—trust me!)

  1. Be professional.

When submitting your work, always do so in a professional manner. Manuscripts should always be typed, and you should make sure to include all requested information such as address, telephone number, e-mail address, etc. When submitting manuscripts through regular mail, you should always include a SASE to help the editor keep you informed of the status of your submission.

DO NOT inquire about the status of your submission until after the time designated in the submission guidelines. If the publication’s guidelines state that they normally respond within three months from submission, don’t write an inquiry letter after two. Editors are busy, and bothering them unnecessarily is not recommended. After the designated four-month period had passed, I sent an inquiry to Woman’s World with another SASE, and heard of my acceptance via e-mail within a couple of weeks.

Be sure to keep good records of what you submitted, when and where. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and forever be tagged as an amateur by sending an inquiry letter to the wrong publication!

  1. Keep your cover letter and bio brief.

Brevity should be the soul of your cover letter. The editors don’t need to know your life story. My cover letter looks something like this:

Dear Ms. Granger:

Enclosed is my short story “A Mother Knows” (1,089 words). You are the first editor I am soliciting with this story, as I believe Woman’s World is the ideal place for it. [Your introduction. Name the story, give the word count, maybe say something nice about the publication. You might possibly also include a brief synopsis.]

I am a part-time college writing instructor and substitute teacher in Buffalo, New York. I am also a contributing editor at Toasted-Cheese.com, an online writing community and literary magazine. I have had short stories published in the online magazine NoNounsense.com and in Journal of the Blue Planet. [Your bio. Keep it simple. List any publications… if you don’t have any publications, leave this part out. Don’t draw attention to it!]

I will wait four months for your reply before approaching another publication. Please notify me of your decision by using my enclosed SASE. Thank you for considering “A Mother Knows”. [Your closing.]

Sincerely,

[signature]

That’s it. Simple and to-the-point.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that following these guidelines will get your story published. What I can guarantee you is that not following these guidelines will get your manuscript thrown out before anyone even reads it! Of course, submitting your work will always be hard, but knowing your market and following the rules of the game will make it a little bit easier. I know; I’ve been there.

Final Poll Results

On the Art and Business of Writing:
An interview with Wendy Corsi Staub

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

Last year, I picked up a new novel in Harlequin’s “Red Dress Ink” line titled Slightly Single by Wendy Markham. I was intrigued by two things; the author’s light, witty style, and the fact that the main character was from the geographic area I now call home.

I learned that Wendy Markham was a pseudonym for writer Wendy Corsi Staub, who grew up in Dunkirk/Fredonia, N.Y.—about 40 miles from Buffalo. I was soon captivated by another one of her books, In the Blink of an Eye—a thriller set in the nearby spiritualist community of Lilydale, N.Y. When I finished, I was inspired to write to Wendy and tell her how much I enjoyed her writing. Luckily for me, and for all of you reading, she graciously offered to chat with me.

Wendy majored in English with a minor in Creative Writing at the State University of New York. She sold her first novel at age 27, and she has published in several genres including historical and contemporary romance, television and movie tie-in, biography, suspense, and horror.

She is the author of more than fifty novels, published under her own name and three pseudonyms: Wendy Markham, Wendy Morgan, and Wendy Brody.

TC: How long have you been writing? How did you get your start?

WCS: When I was in third grade I wrote an essay about Abraham Lincoln and my teacher, Janet Foster, thought it was so good she read it aloud to the class, telling me I had real talent. I was encouraged by her reaction and went home and told my mom I was going to be an author when I grew up. I never wavered from that goal, believe it or not. I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and I’ve been writing “books” since elementary school, though I never finished one until I was in my twenties. I used to scribble chapter after chapter in longhand on that colored notebook paper that was so popular in the mid-seventies, ambitiously thinking that I would be the youngest bestselling author the world had ever seen. At least half that dream came true. I became a bestselling author…but not until I was in my thirties! I worked in a bookstore during college and moved to NYC right afterward, where I worked for several book publishers-always with the goal of networking and learning the book business inside out.

TC: When was your first publication? How long did it take you to get published?

WCS: Not counting the local newspaper column I wrote in high school and for my college newspaper, my first “real” publication was a poem in Seventeen magazine when I was twenty. They spelled my name wrong and I earned only $15, but I was thrilled.

TC: I noticed that you write in several different genres…do you have a favorite?

WCS: To be honest, while I love creating chick lit, romantic comedy, and young adult, suspense is my absolute favorite thing to write. I’m itching to finish my current project and get back to the new suspense novel I started a few months ago, because my books tend to be page-turners as I write them, not just as readers read them. Even though I know whodunnit, I can’t wait to see how, or why.

TC: A lot of writers have a hard time with the “business” of writing. Do you have any advice on the practical side of publishing?

WCS: If you’re going to write purely for your own pleasure and for the sake of art, then you can afford to think of your work as art. But if you’re going to write for publication, you have to think of your work as a product, which requires a certain level of professional detachment. Remember that you are a salesman, not an artist. You must have a thick skin. If a salesman’s product isn’t marketable, he doesn’t take it personally. He also should not be opposed to tweaking it until it works and should accept constructive criticism gracefully.

Too many beginning authors make the mistake of becoming too emotionally attached to the project they’re trying to sell, stubbornly refusing to adapt and write for the market’s needs, and then wondering why they’re not making progress. Pay attention to what’s on the bookstore shelves. More importantly, pay attention to what’s flying off the bookstore shelves. I’m not urging writers to engage in plagiarism, but it’s a good idea to note what works and what doesn’t, and which publishers are having success with which genres. Do your homework. Nothing turns off an acquiring editor more than a clueless or a cocky novice. I used to be an editor and I encountered more than my share of both.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you like to read?

WCS: I’m a big fan of nonfiction-biography, history, true crime. I have to read a lot of nonfiction as research so I rarely have time for pleasure reading. But I’m also a big fan of pop culture stuff and humor. Not cartoon humor, but humorists like Dave Barry. When it comes to fiction I love suspense—to name a few favorites: Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, Patricia MacDonald, Joy Fielding, and Tom Savage.

TC: Do you have any writing “rituals”?

WCS: Absolutely. I can’t produce fiction anywhere other than on my own laptop, on Word Perfect software, in my office at home. I can’t be wearing shoes, I must have a cup of coffee at hand, and one leg is always tucked beneath me, the opposite foot up on my chair in a comfortably contorted position. I write best when I rise at four or five in the morning, before the pressures of the day can “taint” my mindset. And when I’m on a deadline-which I always am lately-I have to have a set number of pages I’m going to accomplish that day. I don’t stop until I’m done. If I finish at noon, great. If it’s eight o’clock and dinner is over and I still have four pages to go, guess who has to miss Must-See TV?

TC: What advice would you offer to those writers struggling to balance writing and “real life”?

WCS: Discipline is the key. You have to treat your writing as responsibly as you’d treat an obligation to an employer. I would love to sleep in every morning and lounge around watching Matt and Katie till ten, but I make a point of hauling my butt into my chair without fail every weekday morning and most weekends. Writing is a fun and thrilling career, but it takes hard work to remain successful. I try not to answer the phone when I’m working, and I try not to let e-mail become a distraction. The one exception is my young children. If they need me, I drop everything. If they have a little league game or a cub scout program or school trip, I’m there, regardless of deadline pressure. They, and not my career, are “real life” right now. I love being a writer but Mommy is the most rewarding job of all.

Learn more about Wendy Corsi Staub and her writing at WendyCorsiStaub.com

Final Poll Results

Interview With Edie Hanes:
Silhouette Intimate Moments Author

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

Ah, l’amour.

Since February is the month for lovers, we here at Toasted Cheese decided that it would be a good time to explore that much-maligned but ever popular genre—Romance.

I recently had the chance to talk with Edie Hanes (a.k.a. Lauren Nichols), a writer from the rural Pennsylvania town of St. Marys who has successfully published several novels for Silhouette books.

Her success was anything but instant. After first deciding to try writing in 1980, Edie worked for years at improving her craft before having her first novel, Accidental Heiress, published in 1998. In the following interview, she tells us about her journey and offers some advice for any budding romance writers among us.

Toasted Cheese: I know that there are a number of different lines published under the Harlequin umbrella. Which line are you published in?

Edie Hanes: I write for Silhouette Intimate Moments, which allows me to incorporate mystery and suspense subplots into my romances.

TC: How many novels have you published?

EH: I’ve published four, sold five. Accidental Heiress and Accidental Hero in 1998, Accidental Father in 2000, and Bachelor in Blue Jeans in July 2002, which received 4½ stars and a Top Pick from Romantic Times Book Club. My latest, RUN TO ME has just been turned in, and isn’t yet scheduled.

TC: How long have you been writing? How did you get your start?

EH: I’ve been writing since 1980, and it was only by accident that I began. Though I’d always enjoyed writing in high school, I never actually considered it as a vocation because I grew up at a time when women became wives, mothers, salesclerks, nurses and secretaries. Besides, I’d always thought that if I had any talent at all, it was in the art field. So when my 33rd birthday rolled around and I was feeling low about being all things to all people except myself, my husband asked what I’d like to do for me. I told him I thought I’d like to illustrate children’s books. He told me to just do it.

To make a long story a little shorter, when I finally found a publisher who would look at my work if I also wrote an accompanying story, I had such a good time with the writing, I did an immediate about-face. What a wonderful surprise that was! I wrote Arthur the Claustrophobic Ant, illustrated it, and put it in a drawer. (It was cute, but the reading level was all wrong for the age group I’d been targeting.) Then I scooted off to a bookstore and bought a category romance by Janet Dailey, who was getting a lot of attention back then. It was a quick, simple read, and I was sure that if she could do it, I could, too. Wow, was I in for a disappointment. After a few false starts, in 1981, I wrote what I considered to be the most marvelous romance ever and sent it off to Harlequin Enterprises in Toronto. They sent it back—but only after it had been sent to London, back to Toronto and then to the states, and been seen by several editors who had some good things to say. They eventually passed, but requested that I send them my next book—but I was so green to the publishing world, I thought they were being ‘nice.’ I didn’t try my hand at novel writing again for a long time.

TC: Did you take any courses or attend any workshops?

EH: Yes. When I’d sufficiently healed after that first rejection, I looked at the helpful comments that editors had written and decided I needed to find out what they meant. Every one of them said my biggest problems were not enough action, and poor pacing, so I eventually took a short story writing course from Writers Digest Books. That taught me to simply tell the story. Before that, I was filling pages with introspection, narrative and descriptions that dazzled the heck out of me, but left editors asking, “So…what happened to the story you were telling?” After that, I took a few writing courses that were offered locally. My big break came when I went to a workshop given by published novelist Susan Anderson (aka Lindsay Randall), and was invited to join the fledgling group that eventually became Pennwriters, Inc. There were three published romance authors in our little group of about twenty—Nancy Martin, Victoria Thompson, and Susan Anderson—and they were all eager to help the wannabes. To their credit, many of us went on to publish.

TC: When (and where) were you first published?

EH: My first publishing credit was an article for a real estate company’s newsletter. I got $20 for it!

TC: What interested you in romance writing? How did you “break in” to the field?

EH: I guess I chose romance because family values and relationships were all I really knew about. (I’m a high school graduate—no college degree.) I broke into the field when my first short romance was accepted by Woman’s World in 1990, but my second big break was hooking up with my current critique partner, multi-published Silhouette author Karen Rose Smith who took on the tedious business of shaping me into a novelist. Without her guidance…well, I wouldn’t be doing this interview, that’s for sure!

TC: Is there a “formula” for writing romance novels?

EH: Sure. I know it’s not popular to call romances formula fiction, but the truth is, readers of romances have certain expectations. There must be an attraction from the get-go between the hero and heroine, followed by a conflict that keeps them from being together, and ending with a satisfying solution to the conflict and the happily-ever-after that keeps bringing readers back. That’s why the subplots, exterior conflicts and neat little sidelines that run concurrently with this tried-and-true formula are so important. It’s very difficult to keep coming up with fresh ideas, but with so many category and single title romances released every month, we have to try—or turn our spots over to someone who’s up to the challenge. Sometimes a fabulous setting or a quirky secondary character can add some color and juice to a story—providing that character doesn’t run away with the book!

TC: What about the dreaded “sex scenes”? How do you avoid clichés and “purple prose” when writing them?

EH: The cliché part is easy. If you’ve read enough romances, you know which plot devices are used time and again, and you try like blazes to avoid them. If your plot set up has you backed into a corner and the only thing that seems reasonable to you is the Love Scene in the Snowbound Cabin, you have to put on your thinking cap and find a way to make it unique.

The purple prose part can be easy, too—though I guess it would be up to unbiased readers to judge whether I’ve been successful or not. When I’ve finished writing a love scene, I read it and try to pretend it was written by someone else. If it makes me want to gag, I know I have some serious work to do! Also, I try to read my work after some time has passed—a week usually works. It’s easier to see the flaws, overwriting and excess adverbs and adjectives.

TC: What advice would you give to writers interested in writing romance?

EH: Gee, talk about clichés. This is the biggest cliché in the advice department: Read. Read many, many books in your chosen genre. It’s a good way to find out what kind of romance you’d like to write. It doesn’t hurt to read other genres either, because there are lessons to be learned from every kind of fiction—pacing, setting up and sustaining tension, tricks of the suspense and mystery trade… the list goes on. Once you’ve decided what line you’d like to target, be sure to read current works, not books that an editor purchased six years ago like the dime-a-bag deal we’ve all bought at yard sales. (And even those books are helpful.) FYI, most times there are 12-24 months between acceptance and publication, sometimes longer.

TC: Tell us a little bit about your current project.

EH: RUN TO ME (which will almost certainly have a different title when it goes to print) is the story of an abused woman running from her powerful ex-husband, a Chicago financial tycoon who wants Erin dead, and has sufficient funds to get the job done. He’s hired a hit man to kill her, then bring back his three year old daughter whom he plans to take out of the USA to a country without an extradition treaty with the US. There, he will raise Christie to be an agreeable, obedient young lady—not the duplicitous liar her mother had been. It’s the only way he can keep his child—his possession. He’s been judged unfit, and Erin has sole custody.

Frightened for her daughter, Erin flees Chicago, bouncing from state to small town, finally making her way from Maine to the Flagstaff, AZ area where she changes her name and takes a temporary caregiver job on a small ranch owned by Amos Perkins, a recovering stroke patient. It’s there that she meets his grandson, Mac Corbett, a man with emotional baggage of his own. Though Erin falls in love with him, she knows there’s no happily-ever-after with Mac. Charles will never stop looking for her and Christie, and simply associating with Amos and Mac puts them at risk. Erin fears that one young woman who befriended her has already paid with her life.

This was a lot of fun to write because I got to use the villain’s point-of-view a few times— keeps the tension high, and wakes the reader up a little when things are going too well between the hero and heroine. Also, the Flagstaff area—particularly the Sinagua cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon—turned out to be a neat setting. Well, to me, anyhow. The next book will be set there, too, in the same fictional town of High Hawk.

TC: That sounds great! We’ll be looking forward to it. Could you leave us with something to inspire all those beginning writers out there?

EH: Remember that editors don’t have to be nice—they’re too busy. So if you receive a personal reply from an editor who’s rejected your current manuscript, but has invited you to send her your next effort, do it. She wasn’t trying to let you down easy. She saw talent!

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