Frequently asked questions
Of the three books in your “Dreams Come True” series—DREAM ON, SWEET DREAMS, and DREAM LOVER—which was the hardest to write?
When you're "in labor" writing a novel, that novel always feels like it's the hardest one to write, doesn't it? The beautiful thing about being a novelist, however, is that you are creating worlds where none existed. What that requires is huge amounts of concentration.
The most difficult part of writing, I find, isn't writing; it's marshalling your focus.
The creative, world-building part of you is very child-like and, frankly, irresponsible. That's what makes it fun! Forcing it to sit down and pay attention can be a daunting, joyless process. The playful, child-like part of you wants to watch cute animal videos on YouTube. The meticulous, deadline-meeting part of you--with a whip and a chair--makes sure the job you're doing gets done right.
Having said that, SWEET DREAMS was the hardest book for me to write--although, oddly enough, it is one of my favorites. Why? Because I have a nice middle-class girl's deep suspicion of billionaires. It's why I worked so hard to make mine so human. And human he is. Money didn't make Jake Sutton the man he is today. Jake Sutton is the man who made that money. So ... big difference.
What's the most common trap that new writers fall into?
In the beginning--and trust me, I was no exception to this--we suck so hard, we don't know how hard we suck. So that when a far more experienced professional points out where we need improvement, 1) we usually don't see it and, 2) we usually hate them for it.
The remedy for this is to keep sucking. Suck HARDER, in fact. Because at some point in the whole pride-swallowing process of suckage, we get to a place where that great advice we once heaped scorn upon ... makes sense. We not only get it, we achieve proficiency in writing. That's what happens when you apply yourself, stay humble, are willing to take criticism as it is intended, which is not personally, and Learn Stuff.
So if you're new, just remember: you're not there yet and that's okay. Keep going. You've got to want it. You've got to need it. Otherwise, the apprenticeship it takes to get there is just going to be too much.
Talent will only take you so far. Persistence, on the other hand, will take you everywhere.
What is your all-time favorite book/favorite author?
That is an IMPOSSIBLE question! I don't know how anyone could answer it definitively. And even though I have a longish list of writers who have influenced me, if given that silly one island/one book scenario, I would have to say Edith Wharton's SUMMER.
The first time I read it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up because I couldn't believe I was witnessing something so powerful. I read it twenty-two more times, and no, I'm not exaggerating. Like D.H. Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, Wharton's SUMMER is about so much more than sexual awakening. In Wharton's case, it's about socioeconomic class, identity, gender inequality--and in the end, the differences between passion and love. Real love.
Edith Wharton is the most exquisite writer America has ever produced. Despite her affluence, hers is a tragic story, which may be one reason why she became an exceptional artist. Such was the fate of Gilded Age society women. But emotional impoverishment never kept her from writing magnificent stories like SUMMER, which was intended as a companion piece to ETHAN FROME. She also wrote THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY, HOUSE OF MIRTH, and over eighty-five short stories. Wharton was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1921. In 1916, the President of France appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, that country's highest award, in recognition of her charitable efforts on behalf of World War I refugees.
Although I am a rabid Wharton fan, there are many other authors--especially English ones--to whom I am personally indebted. Compiling a comprehensive list would be impossible, but here, at least, is an abridged one:
Emile Zola, Jane Austen, Frances Burney, William Shakespeare, Thomas Carew, John Keats, D.H. Lawrence, Gustave Flaubert, Somerset Maugham, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Alice Walker, Flannery O'Connor, Toni Morrison, Kate Chopin and Cormac McCarthy.
What is your all-time favorite children's book?
THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER by Barbara Robinson. It had everything--story, heart, vivid characters, Herdmans ... I LOVED IT. I was crazy about A CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE and all the Bill Peet books: JENNIFER AND JOSEPHINE, THE WUMP WORLD, and CHESTER THE WORLDLY PIG. I gained a sense of the possible FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER because Claudia had the ovaries to go live at the Met.
Books were my everything when I was growing up. They were my friends. And I was very loyal to them. I read constantly--a tragic addiction that has followed me into adulthood.
In fifth grade, I went to a progressive school in Southern California called Sequoia. The librarian liked to close up and go hang out with my poncho-wearing, joint-rolling teachers, Rich and Lily, but I learned how to take the waxy comics strip out of a Bazooka bubble gum, shove it inside the lock, and SHAZAM. The lock never engaged, and I was able to sneak inside and read all day long. By myself. In this incredible library.
That freedom to do what I wanted to do, which is the whole idea behind Montessori or "progressive" education, remains one of my fondest childhood memories.
Also, all the rule-breaking ;-)
What's your process for developing characters?
Writers, taken on the aggregate, fall into two separate categories: plotters and pantsers.
Plotters vigorously outline. Some do it very well. Every plot point is causally connected to the next plot point, all in a logical continuum. When a plotter starts out to write, she already knows where she's going.
But of course that's not me. I'm a pantser. That means walking the tightrope without a net. You must be willing to put up with a fair amount of uncertainty if you want to write this way. To me, it's that very discomfort and uncertainty that yields the most surprising results.
I like surprises.
So when I start a novel, I have only a vague idea of who these characters are. That can be frustrating sometimes, like when I'm blocking the energy (usually because there's this big beautiful world out there and I want to run outside, half-dressed and shoeless, to explore it).
But here's where it gets freaky: I don't create my characters. I listen to them. They're already there. It's my job to shut the hell up, get out of the way, and let them sprawl out on the page. If I come up with a good character, I really can't take credit for it. All I do is channel who they are and describe what's happening in the scene.
CRAZY, I KNOW. But it's the truth.
All the characters in my novels are very real to me. They exist as actual people inside my head. When I'm writing their stories, I can feel them pulling at me, as impatient to be heard as I am to hear them.
Great stories are character-driven. You have to care about the people in a story if you are going to invest your time and energy into reading--or writing--it. That's what makes the process of discovering who characters are so damned rewarding.
What made you move to Italy?
I heard you write all your novels longhand? Is that true?
Well, I guess the easy answer is I'm weird AF, but the more thoughtful answer is I'm a visual/kinesthetic. It doesn't feel right to put a machine/typewriter/computer between me and the finished product. Writing longhand forces you to consider the value of every word. With a computer, there is too much temptation to use five words when two will suffice.
I have a process.
First, I need my "You'd better give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars that you were born in Texas" mug--which is now cobbled together with Italian Crazy Glue (they call it Attac). I make my own cappuccinos, which are delicious. Yes, you may have one.
Second, I need my 5-Subject Notebooks, college ruled, which are not available in Italy. So I smuggle them in from the States. Italians don't do paper, for some reason. It's a little strange.
I only write with black Bic pens.
I never stay in the margins--in life or in writing. When I get ten or twenty pages down, that's when I'll go to the computer to transcribe. I edit as I go--and I prefer that because I am literally seeing the words in a different context. It helps me to edit ruthlessly. And ALL writers need to be edited ruthlessly.
After that, more cappuccinos (sooooo many more) followed by occasional breaks to look at cute animal videos of fat orange kitties, Frenchies, pugs, otters, pygmy hippos and manatees.
Let me have my issues.
Are sex scenes difficult to write?
Too many sexual mechanicals (i.e., he put blank in blank and she blanked), a scene comes across as crass and pornographic. Too many daintily constructed sentences (i.e., ones involving the word "manroot" or "lady garden"), you've got a scene that's funny instead of sexy.
Writing a sex scene is like composing a symphonic score: one wrong note and the music is ruined. The nature of the act itself, when described, lends itself to florid, or purple, prose. Always best to use a light touch, in the bedroom and behind a keyboard.
Therefore, a sex scene, to me, has to be emotionally connected. What does the heroine learn about herself when she makes love with the hero? What does she learn about her body or how making love to the right person can be such a transformative experience?
Remember when we were kids and we'd pick through boxes of cereal looking for the secret surprise? You actually don't want readers flipping through a book looking for the sex scenes. You want readers to read the whole book so the sex scenes have a "seizing the sword" quality (no pun intended) and extend, not eclipse, the love between the hero and the heroine.
What's the weirdest/quirkiest thing about you?
What genre do you write and why?
As a woman and as a writer, I reject the notion that romance novels are the lowly stepchildren of “real” literature. First of all, over 70% of books sold these days are romance or so-called “women’s” fiction, so hey, a little respect here, people, because we’re footing the bills for all kinds of books ;-) Second, the quality of writing has risen exponentially over the past twenty years. Pick up any novel by Nora Roberts, read ten pages in and then try to set that puppy down. You can’t. We have Rhodes Scholars, former litigators, and Oxford graduates in our writing ranks these days. Romance has arrived.
Just because a story is about relationships doesn’t make it the exclusive purview of women or women’s fiction. Just because a story is about emotional and sexual connections with men doesn’t make it any less feminist. There is no power in the universe mightier than love—except, perhaps the maternal instinct. If that’s not worth writing about, what is?
With romance, it is wise to check your prejudices at the door. Romance is read by intelligent beautiful women, women with jobs and responsibilities, women in relationships. It is not porn masquerading as commercial fiction. It is not consumed by crazy cat ladies or “chicks who can’t get laid.” If there is anything that drives me loonier than the aspersions cast on romance readers (all of which are not only sexist but untrue), it’s the notion that writing about love is itself a second-class pursuit. Those kinds of statements display an appalling ignorance of books and of living.
What advice do you have for other writers?
1. Be proud of your craft but humble about your abilities. And this holds especially true for new writers who, feeling vulnerable in the first place, tend to take criticism badly. Even established ones can get bristly. Look, it’s hard to know who’s right when opinions start flying. And yes, any critiquer’s motives may be suspect. So I do what I call a gut check. If the criticism feels right or makes sense or gives me pause, I pay attention. If what's said is poorly communicated or ill-considered or generally insipid, I ignore it.
2. Recognize that you’re playing the long game. It takes a ballet dancer ten years to achieve a state of technical proficiency. Ten years. Personally, I think it takes almost as long to become an effective writer. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. Of course there are. But to have true and consistent mastery of your craft requires a long apprenticeship. Are you ready to commit to that? Because even after you gain mastery, you are looking at an equally protracted grind finding an agent, landing a book contract (if you decide to go with a legacy publisher rather than self-publishing), and remaining commercially viable. If you’re serious about writing professionally, expect heartbreaks, setbacks, crippling disappointments. They are part of the process. Writing professionally is a raw Darwinian struggle where only the strong survive. Is that you?
3. Talent isn’t as important to commercial success as you think it is. Yes, I realize what I just said is tantamount to heresy, but it’s true. With all due respect to her huge commercial success, E.L. James (author of FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY) will never be accused of being a great writer, but she must be doing something right. Look at her numbers! So what propelled the FIFTY SHADES series to the top of the heap? James tells a compelling story. The way it’s written is secondary. Don’t get too hung up on crafting well-turned prose—half the time, the “artistry” of a sentence eclipses the flow of the narrative anyway. That’s not what you want. The brilliance of the writer or the writing should never get in the way of your story. You want the characters to stand out, not you or your writing.
4. Welcome failure and humiliation. And now you’re thinking, what kind of masochist is this woman? Who actually welcomes these awful, painful things? Yet I am here to tell you that every spear thrown your way by life, critique groups, beta readers, paying readers, agents, and book contest judges will either kill you or make you stronger. You need to be stronger. But being strong isn’t a mindset. It’s a process. Strength comes from having survived failure. And in order to survive, you must hazard your person upon the field of battle.
So every rejection letter you get is one more opportunity to be strong. Every bad review, every broken contract. The Buddha once said, “The fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon.” Once you’ve internalized that wisdom, praise no longer boosts your happiness and criticism no longer demoralizes you. You can achieve a state of Zen, but the cost is that the highs aren’t as high and lows aren’t as low. Are you willing to go there?
5. Make a choice: Results or excuses. If you decide not to write on any given day (because let’s face it—writing is hard), don’t lie to yourself. Don’t make excuses for your decision not to write, even if those excuses are valid. Just own that you aren’t going to write, thank you very much. At the end of the day, however, you will have one of two things: Results or excuses. Results can be half a page of stilted, awful prose. Excuses can put a salve on the burn of disappointment that comes from making “bad” choices. But you’re going to have a heaping plateful of one or the other. So don’t B.S. yourself. If you don’t write, don’t write. If you do write, give yourself props for that, even if production is slow or you feel it falls short of the mark.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the bad or good ones?
I do occasionally read my book reviews, mostly to discover what worked/didn’t work for the reader. What’s helpful: being able to read a clearly articulated analysis of what may or may not have worked. A writer can learn just as much by knowing what works as she can by knowing what doesn’t.
But what isn't helpful is this, and I see it all too often in my reviews and the reviews of other authors: a straight rehash of the plot. Book bloggers are especially guilty of writing plot synopses, which are not the same things as analysis. If a book falls short, it’s helpful to know why. If you ding it, explain it. As a judge of many book contests, I never ever take points off without discussing the reasons why.
One of the most rewarding things about being a writer, however, are those sweet emails from people who were really transported by the world you created, who read the book and couldn’t put it down. Those are the great folks who make doing this job worthwhile. I treasure every single one of them.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a wannabe plotter! What fun it would be to know exactly what to write next without all that annoying uncertainty. It ain’t never gonna happen. Being a pantser is like walking a tightrope without the net. I’m forced to listen to what my characters want to do—without editorial direction from me. As wacky as that sounds, it’s true. If you can shut off your brain and just listen, your characters will tell you where to go next. And sometimes that can genuinely surprise you. It’s a spooky process, one that makes you question your own sanity.
In DREAM LOVER, the final book in my “Dreams Come True” trilogy, I had no idea what the climax of the story would be until I started writing it. I had no idea it would be so dramatic or so unexpected. But when I read that book now, it makes perfect sense. Of course it had to reach that fever pitch. Of course there was going to be emotional fallout. Of course Brandon and April had to make sacrifices. If it’s not real, it’s not worth writing about.
How long did it take you to write the DREAMS COME TRUE series?
2017 was nuts. Truly. I came back from a quick trip to visit family in Houston around Christmas time of 2016 and then hit the deck running. I wrote SWEET DREAMS in four months.
Then my terrific editor at Kensington Books invited me to contribute a novella to an anthology by New York Times bestselling authors Janet Dailey and Lori Wilde called A WEDDING ON BLUEBIRD WAY, which I wrote in ten weeks. After that, I was pretty jammed for time—and there was no chance of a deadline extension—so I locked myself in my office and wrote DREAM LOVER in seventy-six days. That was rough. There were times I was so overwhelmed, I put my forehead on the table and cried. Fueled by cappuccino, fear, and desperation, I stayed up for three days straight to get that book finished. And I learned that writers really can do the impossible. Even when they’re drunk with exhaustion, they can pull themselves over the finish line before finally collapsing in the pool of their own vomit. Amazing, but true.
Does your family support your writing career?
I’m the proud, happy mom of two great kids—my son, Dane, who is one of the youngest police officers in his Houston precinct, and Katie Scarlett (yes, that Katie Scarlett!) who is in her junior year of high school.
For most of their lives, I was a single mom, which meant that finding time to write was a pretty tall order. There were many Thanksgivings and New Year’s Days I would take advantage of having family around to hide out in my car so I could meet a deadline.
My decision to move to Italy had to do, in part, with the need to live more cheaply so I could devote myself fulltime to writing. My fiancé, John, who is a jazz musician—and fortunately, a fluent Italian speaker—has been the very definition of supportive. He gets it. But I would be the first person to confess that being a partner, a parent, a friend, can be damned difficult for someone whose profession demands monastic solitude.
John helped me turn a ruined garden shed on our terrace into a real writer’s studio, complete with heat and air conditioning. I love to paint and decorate, so that part was easy, but he did all the insulating, which isn’t. Now I have a view of Monte Soracte in one direction and 12th century Saint Gregorio (a church) in the other, close enough to reach out and touch. Talk about an upgrade from hiding out in my car!
Plus, I get to go to work in my pajamas. So there’s that.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I’m a hopeless sightseer. Where I live in Italy, a 3000-year-old village called Civita Castellana, affords me many such happy indulgences. There’s the 11th century Duomo where Mozart played, and the Forte San Gallo, former Borgia stronghold.
Just walking the streets here gives me joy. But all of Italy is like that—Rome, Florence, Venice, Bologna. And not just the major cities, but the hundreds of tiny medieval villages that are scattered throughout the mountains and foothills. I’ve gone from living in a moldy apartment behind a mall in Houston, Texas, to a mini-palazzo constructed during the Italian Renaissance that has a terrace overlooking the historic center.
Dues? I’ve paid them.
What's your favorite quote for writers?
Charles Bukowski: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” He wrote that in a letter, I believe. And it’s so true. Why do anything by half-measures? Why not let that lovely obsession of yours consume you? Why write and publish stories that fail to emotionally resonate, that don’t speak some truth about our lives, that fall short of what a reader deserves in exchange for giving up her time? There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good story, a story that transports you and keeps you turning the pages long after you should be in bed. Don’t let anyone shame you for your reading choices.
The act of reading requires active participation. When you read, you have a projection screen in your head. And that’s why readers are smarter than non-readers—and that has nothing to do with the material read; rather, the imagination it takes to keep that mental movie projector running.
Keep reading. If you’re a writer, keep writing. Above on, keep on being the unique and wonderful being that you are. There’s only one of you in the whole world, so make the most of it!