Sunday, August 08, 2010

From "Writer" to "Author": the FAQ's of My Writing Career

While I was in Orlando for the recent RWA conference, I did an interview with a reporter from local newspaper, the West Orange County Times.  It reinforced what I already knew, which is that people are often more interested in the story BEHIND how a writer becomes an author, and how we, as individuals, go about our process. So, just in case you're totally bored and have nothing to do this afternoon :), here's a list of the questions I get asked most frequently, and how I answer them:

How did you get started in the publishing business?

I decided back in 2001 that if I was truly going to succeed as a novelist, I needed to educate myself about the industry. I got on the Internet and discovered Romance Writers of America—they were having a conference in New Orleans that year, and it seemed like the perfect place to start. (The Garden District, the Cajun cuisine, Jackson Square… all of it dear to this Southern girl’s heart.) So, not knowing a soul, not knowing a query from a question mark, a synopsis from a synonym or “category” from cat food :), I registered, got on a plane and went to every workshop I possibly could, soaking it all up like a sponge.

I’ll be honest with you—it was baffling. It was overwhelming. It was more scary than the tour I took one afternoon of the local cemeteries and voodoo shops! :) So much to learn, so much to sift through. But it was also inspiring – I met so many women who were excited and enthused and interested in what they were doing. I remember seeing all the women in their beautiful dresses heading toward the RITA and Golden Heart Awards ceremony, and thinking how very special it must feel to be nominated for an award like that. It was truly a dream come true to be one of those women seven years later!

Lest you think I stopped there, forget it - that was just where the journey began.  I spent the next five years honing my craft, learning the hard way all the things I didn't know by sweating my way through four (as still unpublished) manuscripts, entering writing contests and learning from the feedback, submitting proposals to agents and editors and getting rejected, and in short, immersing myself in the CRAFT of writing bigger and better books.  Publishing isn't for the faint of heart, but if you're a writer, you write, you take your lumps and your disappointments, and then you write some more.

Any surprises? Biggest challenge so far?

I’d have to say that the biggest surprise for me was learning how little control an author has over the actual “marketing” of their book once it’s been sold. The cover, the title, the release date, the back cover copy—all the things that you envision as you’re writing it become subject to the decisions made by your publisher and their team of experts. My publisher, Avon HarperCollins, has been absolutely wonderful about allowing me input in all those areas, but the ultimate decisions are always up to them.

The biggest challenge? I’d say coming to the realization that once you’ve finished that book, you really need to get busy on the next one! We focus so hard on getting published—I think in order to truly succeed, you have to realize that as an author, your job is never really done. The book may be done, but your job as a storyteller isn’t. There are people out there who are clamoring for more stories!

What is the best part of being a novelist?

You mean besides hanging out with Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp? Fielding movie offers? Dodging the paparazzi? :-D The best part of being a novelist (besides making my own schedule and making up stories like the fairy tale above), is knowing that there are people out there who are reading and enjoying my work. The emails I get from readers, the fun I have knowing I’ve made people laugh and taken them out of their daily routine, if only for a little while, is by far the best part for me.

What’s the average day in the writer’s life look like for you? Are you scheduled and organized or are you more the “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” type?

I’m an “early-to-bed-early-to-rise” type who finds herself much more creative and productive in the morning than in the afternoon. I don’t have a set schedule, but after breakfast with my husband, I take a power walk with the dog and then sit down to work at my desk. I take a short break for lunch (usually reading while I eat), and then I’m back to work. I’m still there at 5:00, but I have a harder time focusing in the late afternoon, so lots of times I find myself blog surfing, answering emails or shopping online by then. (Don’t tell my editor!)

What are your inspirations for your stories? Any tips and tricks for someone who is stuck?

I get inspired by great settings or quirky things and/or people. I’m a big believer in the “real life is stranger than fiction” example. I find music is a great way to get my mind going, but I absolutely can’t have music playing while I write—I need quiet for that. Sometimes, to get the creative juices flowing, I do a very small collage at the start of each book, with pictures and phrases that represent what I’m “going for” in that particular story. I keep it by my monitor until the manuscript is finished.

Have you had a mentor, critique group or teacher that has helped you get where you are today? Have you been a mentor to someone else?

I’ve never had a mentor, but I’ve had a couple of really wonderful authors who encouraged me along the way, particularly NYT best-selling romantic suspense author Mariah Stewart. We were total strangers when we met at a conference in NJ, but she’d read my work in a contest. She took the time to sit down and give me some excellent career advice, which led (by a bit of a roundabout route) to me signing with my agent. I strongly believe that having a great literary agent is a necessity in this business.

The amazingly intelligent Madeline Hunter also took the time to do an in-depth written critique of one of my manuscripts, followed by a one-on-one career planning session when we happened to meet in person at a conference.  Her encouragement that I actually had the ability to succeed as a writer was key to me pushing forward until it became a reality.

As for critique partners, I've had some wonderful people who read my earlier work, and helped me make it better.  Since my editor is now the ultimate “critiquer” of my work, I don't have a "partner" per se, but I do have a dear friend I consider my "beta reader".  No scene by scene critiques - she'll read the finished novel and tell me if she sees any areas of weakness in the overall product. I’ve tried to “pay it forward” by acting as judge in writing contests, and try to be as encouraging and informative as possible to anyone who’s interested in writing.

What did it mean to you to be nominated for two different RITA awards? How did you feel when you got the call? And what do you think the RITA means for the romance novel genre?

Getting that phone call was one of the most exciting moments of my life—getting a second call fifteen minutes later was indescribable! I actually thought there’d been a mistake, and they’d notified me twice in error! It wasn’t until the very nice lady from RWA explained to me calmly that I’d finaled in two different categories (Best First Book and Best Paranormal Romance), that it sunk in. (Well, actually, it took another few minutes after I’d hung up to sink in… I think I was numb at that point!)

The RITA is the romance writing equivalent of the Oscar for actors, mainly because your work is judged and nominated by an anonymous jury of your peers.  Winning the RITA for Best First Book was incredibly humbling - a lot of good books come out every year, but somehow a book with a slightly scary cover and the odd title of DEAD GIRLS ARE EASY managed to bring home the romance gold.  I'm grateful every day for the experience, and for the chance to share my stories with readers.

Bottom line, I love being a writer.  It's the greatest job on earth.


Maryse said...

Great Post! Becoming an author seems like such hard work! You guys must have nerves of steal! To deal with all of the industry ins and outs, rejections, and finally, industry achievements while still remaining creative is an accomplishment in itself. I'm just glad you keep writing and entertaining us!

Maryse said...

Woops! Nerves of "steel" *blush* .... I need an editor ;)

Terri Garey said...

Some days are harder than others, Maryse. :-) Ultimately, you have to learn to let things go, and focus on the stories themselves. That's what it's all about!

Sharon S. said...

cool, thanks for the Q & A . Oh, and tell Johnny I said "Hi" :)