Friday, August 03, 2007

Author Interview

Here's an author interview I just did for an online writer's group called RWAOnline. I had no idea I was so long-winded! :) If you've got a spare five minutes, pour yourself a glass of wine and learn everything about me you didn't want to know. :)

Terri, would you tell us a little about Dead Girls Are Easy?

Dead Girls Are Easy is the story of Nicki Styx, a former Goth girl who survives a near-death experience to find she’s developed a startling new ability: she can communicate with the dead. One day she’s a funky young woman with a vintage clothing business, and the next she’s a heart-attack survivor whose life is changed forever. The restless dead now sense a kindred spirit in Nicki, and when they need her help to take care of unfinished business, that wonky heart of hers is just too big to turn them away. In life, as in fiction, best laid plans ‘oft go awry, and Nicki’s plans never included becoming an unwilling “ghoulfriend” to the dead. Nicki uses humor to deal with life (and death), and feels that laughter is the best medicine, no matter how bitter the pill. Dead Girls Are Easy is dark humor with a Southern slant - the angst of a young woman on the edge, a healthy dash of sex and voodoo, a sprinkling of spookiness.

How did you come up with the idea for Dead Girls Are Easy?

I’ve always loved the idea of combining “spooky” with “funny”. Shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters, movies like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, going to the The Haunted Mansion at DisneyWorld, those campy old movies like Abbott and Costello meet the Wolfman - I loved ‘em all. I believe it’s the old “whistling past the graveyard” theory - it’s easier to deal with your fears if you can laugh at them.

It was a combination of other things, as well; strange happenings in a house which my family later learned was the scene of a murder/suicide, my mother’s inexplicable near-death experience during major surgery. I’ve always been fascinated with the paranormal, and I thought, “What if someone who thought the dark side was really cool (i.e., a Goth girl) actually had to deal with ghosts and spirits on a regular basis? How would it change them? Is it possible for a self-proclaimed “bad girl” to do the right thing without assuming the missionary position?” :)

Then one day I was visiting my sister in the Atlanta area, and she took me to this funky little neighborhood called Little Five Points. L5P is the “Haight Ashbury” area of Atlanta - lots of eclectic businesses run by eclectic people, surrounded by neighborhoods of beautiful old Victorian homes. Psychedelic murals on the buildings, teenagers with blue hair chatting with chubby tourists in socks and sandals, music and incense in the air. I loved it, and thought, “What a great setting for a novel!”

What was it about your book that made your editor want to buy it?

I think what most editors are looking for is books with interesting, memorable characters, and an author with a strong voice. A good editor can help fix a weak plot, but strong writing and strong characters are crucial.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing Dead Girls Are Easy?

In the beginning, it was making sure I had a perfect blend of romance, humor and spookiness. In the end, it was taking one book and turning it into two, which meant I had to come up with a completely new ending for book one, Dead Girls Are Easy, and both a new beginning and new ending for book two, Where The Ghouls Are. Talk about pulling your hair out!

How much research did you conduct for Dead Girls Are Easy and what was the most interesting thing you did while conducting your research?

I did a great deal of research, particularly into the Voodoo aspect of the story. Voodoo is an extremely secretive and complex religion, and I wanted my facts straight. I didn’t want to fall back onto clich├ęs like “sticking pins into Voodoo dolls” and “brain-eating zombies”. I wasn’t writing fantasy, after all - one of the main themes of the book is how someone goes from living an “ordinary” life into dealing with the “extraordinary”, and I wanted to keep it realistic. Well, as realistic as the idea of seeing and speaking to the dead could actually be.

The most interesting thing that happened was when I was doing research on book two, Where The Ghouls Are. Most of that book takes place Savannah, otherwise known as the “Most Haunted City in America”. My husband and I decided to travel there and stay in an 1810 townhouse in the historic district that was rumored to be haunted. Let’s just say that when we left there three days later, we were both absolutely convinced that it was! Several strange things happened, including finding a bottle balanced upside-down in the middle of the coffee table, a doorbell that rang when there was no one there but wouldn’t ring if you tried it yourself, and strange messages on the answering machine though the phone never rang. Even though it was a beautiful place, we will not be going back!

What is your process for writing a book? For example, are you a plotter or a pantzer? Do you start at page 1 and write your book sequentially or do you skip around? Do you start with your characters or the plot?

I’m a mix of the two. I start out with an idea, flesh out the main characters in my mind, plan the opening, and I’m off to the races. I have to stop every few chapters and do some plotting, but I don’t generally plot too far ahead unless I’m on a roll. It’s amazing how things eventually fall into place, but it’s never an easy process, and I’ve certainly done my share of rewrites!

Do you use any techniques, tools, or aids to help you write?

When I’m in the planning stages of a novel, I like to make a small collage using images and phrases that capture the idea of what I’m going for. Nothing big, just 8.5” x 11”, which I then post right beside my computer monitor. I also use a fresh, new yellow pad for every novel, jotting down thoughts, phrases, bits of dialogue, scene sequences, etc. There’s no order to it, just pages of stuff. Finally, when I’m doing my research on a particular area (Tarot cards, Ouija boards, fashion, whatever) - I print out specific facts and figures that I’ve found useful during the course of that research, highlight in yellow, and keep them in a folder so I can refer to them anytime I need them.

How do you make time to write?

I’m very lucky in that I left my full-time job as a computer analyst several years ago, and now have a full-time job doing something I love, which is writing. I spend as much time as possible at my desk, researching and writing.

When you are writing, who is in control? You or your characters?

LOL It’s easy to say that your characters are in control, but mine aren’t. These people exist only inside my head - they’re not guiding my fingers on the keyboard. What IS true is that if you’ve done a good enough job creating those characters, you’re not going to have them doing something that is totally out of character. For instance, Nicki Styx is a bit snarky, but she’s also a good person, so I would never have her doing something deliberately hurtful. Her love interest, Joe Bascombe, is a doctor and a skeptic, so I would never have him behave in a gullible way. In that sense (and that sense only), the characters are in control, but I’m the one who directs their actions and reactions.

Who has had the most influence on your writing?

That’s tough to say. I’ve always been an avid reader, and every time I’ve read a fabulous book I wanted to be able to do just what that particular author did (meaning, write a fabulous book!). I owe Charles Dickens a debt of gratitude for writing David Copperfield and sucking me into reading when I was young, Kathleen Woodiwiss for writing the first romance I ever read (The Wolf and the Dove), Stephen King for sharing his knowledge that writing takes perseverance, Georgette Heyer for writing so beautifully, Anne Rice for keeping me up at night. I still read widely, on a variety of topics, and it’s hard to pick just one person.

Have you had any "ah ha" moments as a writer?

The “ah ha” moments for me usually occur when I’ve been stuck on a particular plot point, and I suddenly see my way clear on how to fix it. Those moments are golden! They make everything else pale in comparison. I’ve had other “ah ha” moments about the industry itself - it’s often so difficult to find out specifics in this business, that when somebody finally explains something to you and you really get it, it’s a gift. When something you’ve considered muddy finally becomes clear, that’s a great “ah ha” moment.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Don’t give up. Learn to take criticism. Learn to deal with rejection in a positive manner. Know when it’s time to leave one manuscript behind and begin another. Improve your craft by joining critique groups, entering and judging contests, and learning your weak points so you can turn them into strengths. And did I mention, don’t give up?

Would you tell us your story of getting "the call?"

It was Wednesday, October 12th, 2005, at 4:13pm. Ah… have sweeter words ever been written?

I was at home, sitting at my desk, expecting a call from my agent and trying not to jump out of my skin every time the phone rang. (And failing miserably, by the way.) I knew that she’d submitted Dead Girls Are Easy to Erika Tsang at Avon in late September, and that Erika had requested a three-week exclusive. The three weeks were almost up, and I was nervous as a cat!

My husband just happened to be home early that day. He claimed he just felt like leaving early, but I think he was just as nervous as I was while waiting for that phone call. My teenage son was home, too, so he got an earful… I don’t think he’d ever heard Mom squeal like that before! The three of us went out to dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. I spent the rest of the evening “cyber-partying” with my online writing pals.

I’d like to add, though, that none of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for some wonderful people who gave me advice and encouragement along the way. One of those people was romantic suspense author Mariah Stewart, who just happened to judge an earlier manuscript in a contest. She offered me the best advice I ever took, which was to find an agent immediately, and go straight to the top when starting my search. She recommended several editors and agents to query, including the Jane Rotrosen Agency. This advice was repeated again by the wonderful Madeline Hunter, who writes some of the best historicals I’ve ever read, and who was also a contest judge. Claire Delacroix has been incredibly generous with industry advice, and never made me feel stupid when asking. These women took the time to encourage an aspiring new writer, and advised me to aim high. I queried Annelise Robey at Rotrosen and received a request for the full of my historical. When she rejected it, I didn’t let that stop me - I was on a mission! I turned around and queried her again about my current project, Dead Girls Are Easy, and received another request for a partial, then another full. Lo and behold, perseverance paid off.

What was the most exciting thing that happened to you after you signed your contract – besides receiving your first check as a published author?

Seeing my cover for the first time. It didn’t seem real until I saw my name on the cover of an actual book!

If you weren't writing, what would you be doing?

Going nuts. :) I need to have a purpose, and while I love to garden and volunteer, I want to feel like I’m truly accomplishing something that I can look back on when I’m old and say, “I did that!”.

How does your family feel about your career as a romance writer?

My husband is my biggest supporter, and is immensely proud of me. My children think it’s great, and my three sisters do, too, but I don’t think they’ll really understand how exciting it all is until they see my books on the shelves.

What are you doing to promote your book?

I have a website and blog. I’m active on several forum boards, notably RWAOnline and Avon Authors . I do guest blogging at a variety of sites, write and distribute articles for multiple RWA chapter newsletters, have had bookmarks and buttons printed, attend conferences, and have some additional print advertising planned. There’s probably more, but mostly I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that what I’ve done so far will pay off.

What support are you receiving from your publisher?

Avon has been fabulous. They’ve taken out an ad in Romantic Times, sent ARCS to all the major reviewer sites, given me promotional materials to use at conferences and booksignings, and held special workshops designed to help me help them market my books. And they gave me a great cover. I love that about them.

What books can we expect to see in the near future?

The sequel to Dead Girls Are Easy is entitled Where The Ghouls Are, and will be released the summer of 2008. I’m working on book #3, If You Got It, Haunt It, and am hopeful there will be a fourth in this series, maybe more. I’m also participating in an anthology that will be out next summer, entitled Weddings From Hell, which will include other novellas by Maggie Shayne, Kathryn Smith and Jeaniene Frost.

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