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February 2016

Brought To You By the Letter J

There was never any question that I love books. Some of my earliest memories are Mom reading me fairy tales, me attempting to “read” to my baby sister, and the magical day I discovered the school library in kindergarten.

And there wasn’t much question that I was a writer. Mom’s nickname for me was Ink-Spot. My hands and clothes were perpetually stained from the hours I spent scribbling in journals and spiral notebooks with cheap ballpoint pens. Before I could write, I did my storytelling through Barbie dolls. You would not believe the plot twists that went down at the Dream House. In school, I was known for writing. If there was a geography lesson, I failed. If there was a math test, I cried under my desk. But if there was an essay? I lost count of the times a proud teacher would read one of my paragraphs—or an entire paper—to the class. I knew in my bones I was a writer, I just wasn’t sure what to do with it (except, obviously, pen hundreds of tragically bad poems in my teenage years.)

Then, at a middle school slumber party, someone handed me a Jude Deveraux historical romance, one of the books from the Velvet series. That was the beginning.

Sexy men meeting their matches in smart, sassy women. Ballrooms! Pirate ships! The Scottish Highlands! I can’t tell you how many Jude Deveraux and Johanna Lindsey books I read after bedtime by flashlight. In high school, a friend added to my reading list Julie Garwood, who always made me laugh, and Judith McNaught, who always made me cry. After sobbing my way to the end of another McNaught historical, I knew that Jude, Johanna, Julie and Judith had led me to my destiny. I was going to be a romance writer. (I even saved up my babysitting money and bought a book called How To Write A Romance and Get it Published.) My mother suggested that, inevitable fame and fortune aside, I still go to college. Which I did, focusing on history. To assist with all my romance novel research.

After graduation and getting married, I joined Romance Writers of America and learned a lot about the business side of publishing. Still, I couldn’t sell any of my historical romances. What was I doing wrong? Did my writing suck? Were my London Regencies not original enough? Was it because my name didn’t start with J?! I was fortunate enough to final in several unpublished contests and get my work in front of judging editors, but I never won. I came close in 2000, when an editor placed me second and left the margin note “strong writing, but not a historical voice.”

HOW COULD I NOT HAVE A HISTORICAL VOICE? I’d been mainlining historicals for years and had been fantasizing about my historical romance career since I was sixteen. (I love historical romances to this day, btw, and am currently reading books by both James, Eloisa and Jenkins, Beverly.) But after several years of being told no, I began to wonder. Trying desperately to find a place for myself in the market, I began reading many different subgenres. I read some good books, but nothing really cut through my frustration and confusion. Until.

Jennifer Crusie. (Fine, I have a thing for Js. Just ask my husband. Jarrad.)

Sidenote that isn’t as random as it seems: I remember being delighted while watching the Season 4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer finale “Restless,” written by Joss Whedon. The whole episode is bizarre dream sequences, and I literally told my husband, “This is what it’s like inside my head!” (To which he replied, “You frighten me.”)

The first time I read a contemporary romance by Jennifer Crusie, I had that same feeling of joyous identification. Beyond her storylines or sexy banter, there was something in the rhythm and cadence of her words that spoke to me, that felt like the more sophisticated version of how my brain works, or at least aspires to work. After falling madly in love with her books, I was no longer too stubborn or too scared to try something new. Instead, I was inspired.

My first book, a contemporary romantic comedy, was released in 2003, and I’ve now published/sold almost fifty books and novellas.

I found my voice and achieved my dream through a lot of trial and error–but it was other authors’ voices that inspired me in the first place and motivated me to keep trying. Thank you Jude, Johanna, Julie, Judith, Joss, and Jenny.

(Author’s note: Obviously I don’t only read books by people with J names—my love for Kresley Cole is well documented—but I must say, Jeanette Grey continues the glorious tradition of J-awesomeness. Don’t miss her upcoming contemporary romance Eight Ways to Ecstasy.)

Me with Jude Deveraux, New York City, 2015:

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Their Eyes Were Watching gods in Alabama from the Midnight Bayou while playing The Westing Game

This month we’re talking about the authors and books that inspired us to become writers. I get asked this question all the time: why did you decide to become a writer?

I didn’t choose to be a writer; writing chose me.

You could say it started with my affinity for Go, Dog, Go! At the tender age of three. Or the L. Frank Baum  and Nancy Drew books I plowed through a little later. I fondly remember Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly in which the main character’s uncle is a writer who’s always working on his magnum opus. Then it was thumbing through my mother’s English textbooks to read Twelve Angry Men and “Harrison Bergeron.” Or The Westing Game or Jane Eyre or. . . Certainly my love of reading was one half of the equation.

Two writing experiences stand out as the other half. In fourth grade we suddenly had a new assignment: writing stories with all of our spelling words. I loved the challenge of fitting words that didn’t go together into a story, the sillier the better. Then in seventh grade, our gifted teacher had us write a story round robin style. While several members of the class bellyached about it, I thought it was the best assignment in the world. So did a couple of my friends. We started our own round robin soap opera and cast all sorts of celebrities as well as ourselves into a crazy world where the best trick was to put characters in a sticky situation and then pass the story off to someone else. *Ahem* It’s possible there was kissing in these stories.

When my friends couldn’t write fast enough for me, I started writing my own stories on the side, sometimes writing two or three at a time. I wrote historical, gangster stories, even an episode of The Love Boat.

This is what I did in junior high AND high school. Because I am a nerd.

By the time I got to college, I had a pretty good idea I needed a major that would put bread on the table. Despite this, I chose English. Extracurricular reading and writing took a hit in college, though, for a couple of reasons. One, I actually did all of my class reading instead of binging on Catherine Coulter and Judith McNaught, an offense fellow bad girl Tanya Michaels won’t let me forget. Two, college is a time of trying to find yourself, and I didn’t feel as though I had anything important to say to the world just yet.

Within a few months of graduating college, though, the writing bug had found me once again. I fell in
love with Nora Roberts’s Midnight Bayou. It was a romance, but it wasn’t like the ones I used to, um, “borrow” from my mother. Since I wasn’t ready to write a *sniff* literary novel, I thought I would write a romance. After all, as a summa cum laude English major how hard could that be?

The cast of Austin Powers mocks my naïveté.

So, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard, y’all. I could smack myself for ever thinking it would be easy to craft a love story that focused on only two characters and brought something new to the table while still working within the constraints of the genre.

Okay, so the next idiot who says he/she is going to whip out a romance because it can’t be that hard, I say we just challenge them. I wrote at least six manuscripts trying to write a romance and learned some very valuable lessons. The most important of these is that the best romance writers can teach you more about craft and the business of writing that colleges, mainstream writing groups, or just about anyone else. 

But I digress.

Another pivotal moment in my life came when I read Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama. I fell in love, y’all. I fell in love with southern fiction, with trying to capture the essence of that weird place where I grew up. I told myself I was going to write whatever story I wanted to write, and The Happy Hour Choir is what came out. I named my honky tonk piano player heroine after an apparently obscure hymn I grew up singing in my little church. To ensure the proper amount of shenanigans, I had her fall for the last person in the world she would want to love, a minister. With their story and that of Ginger and Tiffany, I found my voice.

My current WIP has been indirectly influenced by another novel that has inspired and continues to inspire me, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I read Hurston’s book for the first time while I was studying for the GRE Literature subject test, and I put the book down knowing I’d just experienced something monumental. I didn’t know how that book was going to change my life, but I knew it would.

Fast forward to a year or so back when I reread Heart of Darkness and then treated myself to a reread of Their Eyes Were Watching God just to redeem my faith in literature. Hurston’s prose is still gorgeous. Her characters are complex. Her dialogue reflects her anthropologist’s ear for idiom and dialect. I don’t think I’ll ever write as well as Hurston, but I’ve shifted to third person in an attempt to juxtapose my English major prose with the southern vernacular of my characters’ dialogue. Wish me luck on that one!

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The Good and the Bad

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading, not only a vast number of books, but also a wide diversity of genres. I was that nerdy girl in high school who always, and unapologetically, carried around a book. With kindles and smart phones, it means I have access to hundreds of books at all times. I mean, seriously, you never know when you might be able to snatch five minutes to read, amiright?

James HerriotAt times in my life—and often simultaneously—I’ve read memoirs like James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small about his life as a country vet in Great Britain. (SO good!)  I was a huge science fiction/fantasy geek and devoured series like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series and all its offshoots. Cozy mystery writers like Sharyn McCrumb or Margaret Maron. Funny mysteries like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (Three to Get Deadly made me laugh so hard, I had to put it down for a few minutes while the tears cleared.) Gritty thrillers by Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson. Gothic romances by Mary Stewart or Victoria Holt or Jane Aiken Hodge. Family sagas by Rosamund Pilcher or John Jakes (North and South was my jam for a while there—especially when the mini-series came out. Orry Main!). Historical fiction like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan or The Other Boleyn Girl. Women’s fiction by Jennifer Weiner or Jill Mansell or Kate Morton.  Young Adult books like the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants or Suzanne Collins’s lesser-known, but fabulous series, Gregor the Overlander. “Serious” fiction like Louise Erdrich’s The Round House or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.Poisonwood

A rose in winter I inhaled adolescent/soapy romances like the Sweet Valley High series (Oh, Jessica Wakefield, you saucy minx!). I mixed in some Sweet Vally High category Harlequins in late middle school and progressed to full-on historical romances by Judith McNaught and Kathleen Woodiwiss in high school.

(I recommend all these books and authors, by the way—if only for nostalgia:)

First off, let me say I never felt a strong compulsion to write until recently. I spent thirty odd years thoroughly enjoying other people’s worlds. I never doodled story ideas or kept a journal. Never wrote fan-fiction. I was *grabby hands* for the next book to read…and the next… I was every author’s wet dream—a super-reader.

Still, none of these fabulous books or authors inspired me to create my own worlds. Instead, it was a bad book that spurred me to write. Not terribly written, but soooooo borrrriiinnnnng. After skimming the last hundred pages of the snooze-fest, I put it down and thought, I can do better than that. The “more exciting” book I sat down to write less than a month later became An Indecent Invitation. Readers have to be the judge of whether or not I succeeded.

To be honest, if I had held all my favorite books/authors up as standards, I’m not sure I would have ever been brave enough to start writing. So tonight, I’ll raise a glass to that bad, boring book for sending me on the journey of a lifetime—and hope one of my books *doesn’t* inspire someone else in a similar fashion!

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Confessions of a Closet Romance Reader

Hi. My name is Jeanette. And I’m a closet romance addict.

Now, that may seem like a pretty strange confession to make, considering how many romances I’ve published – not to mention how many I’ve read. But for a very long time, it was true.

You see, I’m the child of two engineers. My father never read fiction at all, and my mother’s tastes ran the gamut from hard science fiction to…hard science. (I’m not kidding. She read textbooks for fun.) In my household, girly things were worthy of ridicule. Nonsense was rarely tolerated.

And romance? That was the most non-sensical thing of all.

I internalized the values my parents instilled in me pretty hard. While I read basically anything I could get my hands on, I concentrated on genres my mother would have approved of, and when I ventured beyond them, I at least tried to read things of literary merit, which I judged very, very harshly.

My denial game was strong. And yet, looking back, it’s easy to see the hints of where my tastes actually lay.

I may have been a literary snob, but I remember clearly sitting in my grandmother’s house reading Gone With The Wind and rereading the scene where Ashley and Scarlett kissed over and over.

I remember my heart fluttering during Ethan and Mattie’s one night of being able to brush hands and enjoy quiet time together in Ethan Frome.

I remember reading Ender’s Game and desecrating the book by underlining the part where Ender said he hated himself.

I remember moments of impossible forbidden passion. I remember isolated, flawed characters who need desperately to be cared for and treated with kindness and love.

You put those together and you have every great romance ever written.

It took me many years to put together my attraction to stories about characters and relationships. It also took me setting aside a lot of my pre-conceived notions about the relative values of different genres and interests. I still struggle sometimes with some pretty serious internalized misogyny. But from an early age, it’s been clear that my heart cries out for romance.

And in the end, the heart wants what it wants. I only wish I’d listened to mine earlier.

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The One That Got Me Hooked!

sight for sore eyes coverEver since we started the current blog topic of the books and authors that inspired us to become writers, I’ve been wondering exactly how to approach it. I’ve been a reader since I was three, and a writer of stories, poetry, and embarrassing handwritten fan fiction for almost that long, it only occurred to me to try writing novels fairly recently. What flipped that switch was an intersection of some ideas, a creative itch, and a summer full of free time. I’m a visual person. I love stories that draw me into their world, that make me feel like I’m there–and I strive to achieve that in my own work. Also (and you may not believe this about me), I’m a talker. I love to tell stories. It’s probably this desire to entertain people as much as anything else that made me a writer.

There are so many authors that I love and have read religiously for years, but if I had to choose the most inspiring one, it’s the incomparable, late, Ruth Rendell. She was the epitome of the lifelong author, publishing her first novel in the 1960s, and she continued to write up to her death this past May… and in her later years, she did it while also being a Member of Parliament. She’s deservedly one of the queens of British mystery, because of her long-running Inspector Wexford novels, but my personal favorites are the more psychological studies she creates in her standalone books, both as Ruth Rendell and the more Gothic/Literary ones penned as Barbara Vine. Seriously, folks, there are more good books written by this lady than I can count! Do you like dark humor? Do you like razor-sharp insights into the stranger aspects of human nature? Do you like getting into the mind of the villain or weirdo character? Plots that weave the lives of random strangers together with shocking consequences? How about being immersed in London’s neighborhoods and atmosphere? If you answered “Yes” to one or more of these questions, my friends, then you owe it to yourselves to get on closer terms with this legend!

It all started innocently enough, about fifteen years ago, with A Sight for Sore Eyes. I found it on the shelf of the public library, where I was looking for some non-algae based reading material (I was in the midst of writing my Master’s thesis at the time…now that was riveting prose, let me tell you). I meant to read a few pages, take a little break before getting back to the scientific journals and my computer. Later, I realized the day was gone, it was the middle of the night, and I’d done nothing but read that book and pee since coming home from the library!

Her prose is cool and spare, no extra words anywhere, but you are right there in that story, witnessing the making of a sociopath. And sort of understanding him, if not actually rooting for him. And OMG, the hooks! Hooks at the end of every scene! The creeping dread and ominous buildup–and the absolute creepiest of poetic justice at the end! All bow down to the Queen, people.

Even though my light women’s fiction is about as far away as you can get from what you might find in the pages of a typical Ruth Rendell book, she still inspires me. Her hooks, her settings, the absolute realness of the inner and outer worlds of her characters…. if my stories could achieve half for what she did on the daily, that would be a lifetime achievement for me.

So what do you think? Have you ever read any of her books? If you’re a writer, do you have a favorite author who writes in a completely different genre? And most importantly, do you need any more awesome Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine recs? Hint: A Dark-Adapted Eye is just as awesome as ASFSE, but with added WWII intrigue!

Happy (and creepy) Reading!

 

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I Happened Upon a Jeri Smith-Ready Twitter Party…

Many of the Bad Girlz are posting about our favorite books or books that inspired us to become writers. Like many of you, I’ve been writing my entire life. At Central Michigan University, I majored in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing and an Emphasis in Poetry. That’s my degree. hahahaha

Because I write really crappy poems (you can read one of them in my first book, DELAYED PENALTY), I knew I’d never make a living at poetry. I didn’t think I was good enough to write a novel, so I stopped working on my dream of being published.

Fast Forward to 2010. My first son was born and I chose to stay at home with him. That lasted five seconds. For real. I still stayed home with him, but I had to do something else. So I started writing again. And I finished my second novel. (I wrote my first novel in high school. hahahahahaha) And then the novel sat on my computer–just chillin’.

It sat because I was scared. It sat because I had no confidence. It sat because it was more about doing it than getting serious about publishing. I already knew my poems sucked–my novel probably did, too.

Shade coverIn 2011, I joined Twitter. And found voracious readers (like me!). And authors, agents, editors, bloggers and…WHOA! I didn’t know anyone else in my real life that fan-girled over books like I did. But here they were–my people!!

One night, I happened upon a thread on Twitter. Fan-girls were talking about book series–The SHADE Series by Jeri Smith-Ready. I started following the party hashtag and tweeted something about how awesome the book sounded and that I was going to read it. (YA paranormal – my favorite genre!!!)

AND JERI SMITH-READY TWEETED ME BACK!!!

She did. At that time, I couldn’t believe an author would tweet me back. They’re larger than life. They don’t talk to fans. They don’t…YES, THEY DO.

That party changed my world. Dare I say, Jeri Smith-Ready changed my world. I got excited about the interactions between authors and readers. I got excited about the community of people and knowledge sharing I had access to through social media. Which made me excited about revising the manuscript that had been sitting for a year.

Through #TeamKilt, I joined an online book club, Time Zones Will Not Defeat Us Book Club or #TZWNDUBC –if you ever see me post that. My Time Zones girls quickly became my best friends. They didn’t even know I was a writer. We developed our friendships over all the books we loved and fan-girled over. When I told them I decided to submit my book to agents and editors: They beta read for me. They critique for me. They became my biggest cheerleaders and supporters. From England, Australia, and Mexico to New Mexico and more.

My TZWNDUBC Girls 2In 2012, with a renewed love for all things writing, I went to RT Booklovers Convention for the first time and met Jeri. She’s just as awesome, smart, and kind in person as she is in her Twitter parties. Two years later, I met members of #TZWNDUBC at RT in NOLA. A year after that, I met even more members at RT Dallas.

So when you ask me what books or authors inspired me to write, I’ll tell you: Martin Cruz-Smith’s Gorky Park (series), Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Rachel Gibson’s Chinooks Series to name a few.

But when you get down to it, Jeri Smith-Ready launched my renewed love for writing. And her wonderful paranormal series introduced me to my best friends–who knew me when my name was Wendy–and have continued to cheer for me the entire way.

SHADE, SHIFT and SHINE are the books in the Jeri Smith Ready trilogy that changed my world. What book(s) changed your world?

Sophia Henry writes Heartfelt Flirty Fiction featuring hot, hockey-playing heroes. DELAYED PENALTY and POWER PLAY, the first two books in the Pilots Hockey series from Random House Flirt, are available now at all major e-book retailers.

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Reading, Writing and Romance!

books 1I’ve been an avid reader my entire life. There’s something thrilling about the way a book can transport you from the hum-drum life of housework and carpool, to an English ballroom with silk gowns and handsome Lords, in a matter of seconds.

However, reading didn’t always come so easily for me. I remember walking the rows of my elementary school library running my fingers along the spines of all the magical stories wanting to be told. Yet unfortunately for me, if the books didn’t come with a picture scattered here and there to help me follow along with the story, I could easily become lost. So my options were limited.

Having two children with reading disabilities, it’s so obvious to me now that I suffered from the same undiagnosed challenges, but in the seventies, it was labeled lazy or disinterested. At least, that’s what my teachers would write on my report cards.

Even with my struggles, I didn’t stop reading. I couldn’t. I found as I got older and with practice, reading became a little easier. I still missed important words in text and flipped words around, but I’d recognize my mistake by the awkward flow of the sentence. The constant challenge to read one sentence after another, however, led to frustration and I hardly ever finished a book in its entirety.

THAT IS, until my best friend lent me her copy of Shanna by the great Kathleene Woodiwiss. It took me forever to read that book. Have you seen it? It’s huge. But I eventually did finish and became hooked on the wonderful world of Romance fiction.

I fell head over heels in love with Johanna Lindsey and her hero Viking Gods. Garrick! Selig! A shirtless giant, slinging a sword-YES PLEASE! I couldn’t get enough. Johanna Lindsey fan for life!

My sister suggested I read Mary Jo Putney. So I did. I was so used to my heroes being the cover model of everything perfect, from big huge muscles and gorgeous chiseled faces. Putney’s flawed and imperfect men were a bit of an adjustment for me, but only for about two beats of a second. You can’t help but adore her vulnerable heroes and simple, yet lovely heroines.

These authors ignited something inside of me. A desire to create my own captivating land of make believe. I’d composed a few short stories in high school. When I was twenty-two, I scrawled my first full length, HAND WRITTEN novel in a five subject notebook. My hero was based on Don Johnson’s character from Miami Vice. Stop laughing!!! The point is I’ve loved telling tales, for as long as I can remember.

I lived secretly under this shadow of insecurity. Could I dare think it possible that I could become a published author with my challenges? It took me years, but I did get published and it was an unbelievable feeling. Don’t get me wrong, the struggle is real and it still affects me now, but my desire to write is ultimately stronger.

So Dear Bad Girlz of the world, the moral of my story is this: Don’t let anything or anyone keep you from accomplishing your dreams. We are more courageous than we realize.

By the way, all those report cards many years ago, also came attached with “Lori spends way too much time daydreaming.” And they said that as if it were a bad thing. 🙂 When I looked out the window to the playground, I didn’t see monkey bars and see-saws. I saw ships and planks and pirates.

What authors inspired you to become a writer or an avid reader? I’d love to hear about them.

Remember to Dream Big!

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February is the New January

Am I the only one staring in dismay at the new month on the 2016 calendar? It’s February already? How did this happen?

I began the New Year full of ambition and determination. Though I still have that same drive toward my goals for 2016, I’m not where I—perhaps idealistically—thought I would be after a month. I had it in my mind that after a month, I would have lost 5 pounds, finished my current manuscript, and have all of my work and domestic ducks in a row. After all, I’d created the Rules of 2 Plan at the first of the year. Basically in the Rules of 2 Plan, I would run 2 miles, write 2,000 words, do 2 loads of laundry, complete 2 work tasks, and complete 2 domestic tasks…every day. It was a great plan—for a robot. But alas, I’m human. Things happen, and my Rules of 2 Plan fell apart pretty quickly.

Last night after beating myself up for far too long for not accomplishing more, I decided to change my outlook on New Year’s goals. The Rules of 2 have officially been tossed from my office window. And now there’s a whole new thought process going on here, Bad Girlz of the World! I’m still working on a catchy name for this new system, mostly because C.R.M.R.M.G. doesn’t spell anything cool like S.H.I.E.L.D. But it goes something like this:

Congratulate yourself of any successes you’ve had.
I found that I was berating myself for not writing more words on book 3 when I should have given myself a pat on the back for completing the edits on book 2. New things are going to land on your to-do list, but just because you weren’t able to devote more time to another item, doesn’t mean you failed. You did what you needed to do. Go you! This also means that afternoon last week when you were too excited to write because something awesome happened in your work or personal life, is a time to be celebrated, not something to be ashamed of. Give yourself credit for your accomplishments thus far.

Reassess where you want to go.
Plans change. Today I’m working on promotional items that are needed for my next book release. [*cough cough* Coming March 1st! Preorder your copy today!] While this isn’t a bad thing, it requires that I adjust my word count goal accordingly.

Manage the size of your goal.
I am queen of setting impossible goals for myself and then mourning them when they go unattained. Perhaps it’s time to do the logical thing and set attainable goals. I know, that’s just crazy talk, but I’m going to try. Try it with me! Make a reasonably sized goal for yourself so you can celebrate it later.

Recommit yourself to moving forward.
Write your goal down. Make a list. Tell a friend and be held accountable. However you want to accomplish this, let go of the past and move forward. February is the new January. And I’m pretty sure that makes March the new February.

Manage your time.
Pay attention to how you spend your time and use every minute to work toward your goals.

Go for it! You’ve got this!

Let February be your new January. What reasonably sized goal do you have for this month?

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