Friday, May 4, 2018

Interview with Diana Munoz Stewart

Diana and I met back in 2015, when we were both finalists for RWA’s® Golden Heart® award for IamJustice_selectunpublished romance fiction. Last summer, I got to sit beside her at our annual meet-up and was thrilled to learn she’d received a three-book contract from Sourcebooks.
Question 1: Your debut novel, I Am Justice, released on Tuesday, May 1st. (squee!) Tell us about it.
The novel is about a secret group of female vigilantes that attempt to take out a sex-trafficking ring in the Middle East. More specifically, it’s about one of the members of this vigilante group, Justice Parish. I love this description:
She’s ready to start a war…
Justice Parish was rescued from a brutal childhood and adopted into a loving family and their not-so-loving covert sisterhood of vigilantes. Trained as a skilled assassin, Justice vows to protect and avenge others who haven’t escaped the cruel hands of injustice. Her next target: a sex-trafficking ring in the war-torn Middle East. She just needs the perfect cover to get close and take them down.
He just wants peace…
After years of witnessing the destructive nature of war, Sandesh Ross leaves the Special Forces and puts his heart and soul into founding a humanitarian group. Saving the world isn’t cheap, and when Justice walks through his door, claiming to be a PR agent who can help with donors, he thinks his prayers are answered. They’re both too busy saving the world to get involved with each other. But they might not be able to help themselves…
Question 2: You chose to go the traditional publishing route. What made you choose that over self-publishing?
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do all of the legwork involved with self-publishing. And now that I’ve been through the process—editing, production, marketing, design—I’m even more convinced it was the right choice for me. I’m incredibly happy with the team at SourcebooksCasa.
The crew at Sourcebooks has been professional, responsive, kind, and informative. They’ve gotten the word out about my novel. I’ve feel blessed by and blown away by the marketing. I also couldn’t have asked for a better editor than Cat Clyne. She did an incredible job. It was an absolute pleasure to work with her. As it was with my copy editors and production editors.
Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone organizes all of this on their own. Those writers are superheroes! Of course, I’m not ruling out anything for the future, but I’m more than satisfied with how everything has worked out so far.
Question 3: You have seven kids. How has the experience of raising a large family played into your fiction writing?
The novel is about a large family of covert vigilantes, so some things are definitely different. But my experience with a large family has definitely played a part. I think that one of the most interesting parts of having a big family is group dynamics. And I’m lucky, not only do I have a big family, but I also have a large extended family. And this group—somewhere around 34 of us–travel together at least once a year. This year we’re going to Montana. Last year we went to Colorado. All of those personalities are sure to make for memorable experiences. I guess it helps that I not only love them but that I also like them.

Another family that I really love is my romance writing family! I am inspired and buoyed by them in so many ways. From the moment I stepped into my first RWA convention, I was changed by the professional, talented, ambitious group of women I found. And kind. I can’t forget kind. My sisters in writing have taught supported and nurtured me and made me feel welcome. So thank you, Eight Ladies, for your incredible work educating and entertaining and granting opportunities like this interview to all of your fellow writers!

Diana Munoz Stewart
Diana Muñoz Stewart is the award-winning, romantic suspense author of the Band of Sisters series, which includes I Am Justice and I Am Grace and I Am Honor (Sourcebooks Publishing). She lives in eastern Pennsylvania in an often chaotic and always welcoming home that—depending on the day—can include husband, kids, extended family, friends, and a canine or two.
When not writing, Diana can be found kayaking, doing sprints up her long driveway—harder than it sounds–practicing yoga on her deck, or hiking with the man who’s had her heart since they were teens.
Hobbies and Interests: Writing, Reading, Hiking, Kayaking, Weight Lifting, Flying, Running, Gluten-Free Cooking, Traveling
Diana is represented by the wonderful Michelle Grajkowski of Three Seas Literary Agency.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Fiction Friday: Putting On the Swag

In July, thanks to my Golden Heart® final, I’ll be attending the 2018 RWA® National Conference in Denver. The conference will attract a couple of thousand romance writers, who are also romance readers. Because I’m planning to release my first books this fall, it’s time to think about swag for the Goody Room.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, swag are small, inexpensive items authors give away to publicize their work. (Also, apparently, it’s a new slang term for what used to be "cool." The things you discover when you’re googling something else.)

Examples include:
  1. Bookmarks
  2. Candy
  3. Pens
  4. Stress balls (for squeezing)
  5. Lanyards
  6. Lip gloss
  7. Emery boards
  8. Hand cream
  9. Micro-fiber cloths for cleaning screens
Last year, I did a volunteer shift in the Goody Room, refilling bins and baskets, which gave me an opportunity to really look at the items authors had placed there, and to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. So, what constitutes good swag?
  • People pick it up.
What makes people pick up one item out of a room filled with other, similar items? It needs to be eye-catching. obviously, but it must also feel like it’s going to fill some need they have. Candy, particularly chocolate candy, appeared to work very well for this.
  • People hang on to it for a while.
After the person picks it up, they also need to keep it, for at least long enough to have an opportunity to check out the book(s) it represents–probably till they get home from the conference. Candy is a consumable. No matter how much eye-catching, book-related info you put on the package, once they eat the candy, they throw away the package.
So, for retention purposes, something less ephemeral works better—basically, everything else on the list.
  • It’s clearly branded so recipients associate it with you.
A friend who works in marketing suggested that having something that people will keep is less important than having something that’s so strongly branded it makes an impression.
The branding question is a lot broader than just swag. Spark Creative Partners developed some really great branding for my demon books, which you can see at my website.
As I’ve started to think about swag, though, I realize I will need a logo, too, that I can apply to whatever swag I decide to use.
  • It prompts them to check out what you’re promoting.
The same marketing friend strongly recommended putting a QR code on the item that the recipient can scan with her phone. The QR code should link to information about your product, along with a buy link.
I plan to release The Demon Always Wins on September 1st. This means that, for my swag item and my QR code to have real value, I need to have the book set up on Amazon for pre-order before the conference. Is that possible? Amazon will allow me to load the book this up to 90 days before my release date so, technically, yes. The bigger question is, can I finish my last round of edits and get the book proofread, formatted, ISBN-assigned, copyrighted and loaded by July 15th?
Deep breath, Jeanne, deep breath. You can do this.
  • It’s affordable, so that you’re not spending more on a single piece of swag than you’ll receive in revenue if the person buys your book.
The books are going to sell for between $.99 and $2.99 (I think). I view the money I’m spending on getting the first three books to market (website, editors, covers, etc.) as sunk cost. However, I plan to restrict what I spend on future books to whatever I make from previous ones, so it’s important to think about return-on-investment.
Even for a great opportunity like the RWA®  national conference, my unit cost needs to stay low. This rules out most of the items on the above list.
Have you ever picked up swag items? Have you ever bought something based on swag you picked up?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Fiction Friday: Is it a Romance or a Love Story?

When I got The Demon Always Wins, the the first book in my Touched by a Demon series back from my editor, Karen Harris, she said my story didn’t know whether it was a romance or a love story.
I was mystified. A romance is a love story and vice versa, right?
Wrong.
Karen explained that romances always have happy endings, while love stories don’t.
As part of the general background she provided on how she analyzes story, she also explained that the issues keeping the couple apart in a romance might be internal to the characters, or their external circumstances. The same polarity exists in love stories.
Eight Lady Jilly and I spent the next couple of weeks puzzling over this and sending each other dozens of emails with examples, and where we thought those examples fell along the two continuums.
Then, of course, given my background in working alongside computer geeks and statisticians, it occurred to me that this conundrum really lends itself to a matrix analysis. If you make the vertical axis internal vs. external circumstances and the happy/unhappy ending the horizontal axis, you come up with a matrix like you see above.

Once I had the matrix set up, I plotted in a few well-known stories along the axes.
On the Happy Endings end of the scale, I plotted romances. At the top, where the issues keeping the lovers apart are primarily internal, I put a couple of books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (It Had to be You and Nobody’s Baby But Mine) and Jenny Crusie (Bet Me).
As you move down the chart, external circumstances start to play a larger role. In Twilight, I treat Edward’s vampirism as an external circumstance–it was forced onto him from an outside agency. However, his controlling behavior and insistence that Bella can’t become a vampire, too, is an internal, character-based issue, and that plays a large role in why they can’t be together.
Most romantic suspense novels–think early Suzanne Brockman–fall into that bottom left quadrant–whatever creates the suspense serves to keep the couple apart, but generally, so do their own character flaws. At the very bottom of that axis, I put Princess Bride–Wesley and Buttercup would be perfectly happy to be together but circumstances force them apart.
Since happy endings are binary–they either are or they aren’t, there’s nothing in the middle of the diagram.
Over on the right, though, we have all the stories with unhappy endings. The issues keeping Rhett and Scarlet apart are internal (except when she’s married, and that never lasts long).
In Wuthering Heights, class-ism keeps Heathcliff and Cathy apart, but so does their wildness.
Still further down the axis, we find Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack are held apart by the danger of being openly homosexual in a profoundly homophobic world, but also by Ennis’ commitment to his family.
At the bottom of the axis lies Romeo and Juliet,  another pair of teenagers kept apart by the world.
Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? If you write romance/love stories, where does you work fall on this matrix?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Fiction Friday: Interview with Lark Brennan

Lark was one of the first writers to volunteer to be interviewed when I sent out my call, and I’m so glad she did! Since I always buy at least one of my interviewees’ books and read it before going on to research the author and put together what I hope will be interesting questions, this interview introduced me to a new favorite author.Dangerously Yours HR
Question 1: I truly loved Dangerously Yours. Your world-building was seamless, the characters of Lex and Bodie were engaging and the plot escalated smoothly along a trajectory linked to Bodie’s character arc. That’s pretty much the trifecta. Given that Dangerously Yours is your first novel, where did you learn to write so seamlessly?
Thank you, Jeanne! It’s always a thrill when someone loves one of my books. 
Dangerously Yours was my first published book, but not the first one I wrote. That was a 400 page, single-spaced mess which will never see the light of day again, but it taught me I could finish a book.
Then I discovered RWA and ate up every craft workshop at our three local chapters and the national convention. I kept writing and connected with a fabulous critique partner—Sarah Andre who you interviewed here in December. She, too, was serious about publishing and is still the first person who reads my polished “final” draft.
My next manuscript was a romantic suspense that finaled in some contests and garnered requests (and rejections) from several agents. Meanwhile on a trip to Paris I visited a wonderful place called Deyrolle and came up with an idea for a book about a man who had the ability to bring taxidermied animals to life. That man became Adrien Durand, the hero of what was eventually published as the second Durand book—Irresistibly Yours. I struggled with that story—wanting to create a serious conflict for a damaged man—and might have given up if not for Sarah’s insistence that I finish. That manuscript got me my agent, Becca Stumpf.
Although it seemed that my publishing career was about to take off, Becca saw both the potential and flaws in that manuscript and had me rewrite it for her twice before she’d submit it to editors. Unfortunately, after all our work, it was an out-of-the-box story and didn’t sell. I so loved Lex Durand in that book, I wrote her book while Adrien’s was out on submission and that became Dangerously Yours.
By the time Dangerously Yours sold, I was getting more confident in my writing and storytelling. Then my editor at Diversion, Randall Klein, ruthlessly cut out all the “boring stuff” and taught me about pacing. The end result was a book I am very proud of—thanks to everyone who helped me learn craft.
That’s a long answer but learning to write has been a long process for me—and I think it is for most people. And there’s always something new to learn from workshops, reading, talking with other authors, and most of all writing. Hopefully each book I write will be better than the last.
Question 2: You decided to publish with Diversion Books, the publishing company founded by Scott Waxman as the e-book arm of his literary agency in 2010. What made you select Diversion?
My agent knew the Diversion people and submitted Dangerously Yours to them along with other publishers. When they offered a contract, I felt we’d be a good match. They not only published e-books, but distributed print books of my series to bookstores including B&N and local indies. I loved working with my editor—a brilliant guy who didn’t let me get away with romance-y clichés and helped me hone my voice. Working with the team has been an invaluable experience that taught me a lot about publishing.
Question 3: From the bio on your site, it sounds like you’ve done a lot of traveling. What’s your favorite destination and why?
That’s a hard question. There are so many places I adore–sailing in the British Virgin Islands, and exploring England, Scotland and Ireland are trips I can do over and over.
That said, I love France and return there whenever I can. My husband and I often rent an apartment in Paris in the winter. It’s only a couple doors down from Deyrolle, the inspiration for Irresistibly Yours. Being Parisian for a week or two when all the tourists are gone is fun and relaxing, and we feel like we’re part of the life of the city, not just visitors.
In other seasons we rent houses in various areas of the countryside—the Dordogne, Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Côtes d’Azur/Provence. There are so many things to do—visit chateaux, browse village markets, enjoy beaches or mountains, or just watch the sunset from a terrace with an excellent glass of local wine. Plus we’ve made some dear French friends over the years. The lifestyle, food, and culture feel natural to me—maybe I was French in a past life or have French ancestors, and the country is in my blood.
Lark Brennan
Lark Brennan’s love of reading, writing and travel has led her to a string of colorful jobs and a well-worn passport – as well as several years spent sailing and diving in the Virgin Islands. Her travels have inspired her romantic suspense series, The Durand Chronicles, which takes place in some of her favorite destinations–the British Virgin Islands, Paris, Glacier National Park, New Orleans and Scotland.
Lark dreams of one day moving to the South of France, and in the meantime lives in Texas with her brilliant husband and two adorable canine “children.”


Friday, April 6, 2018

Fiction Friday: March Progress Report

A funny thing happened on my way to accomplishing my March goals: I was notified that the second book in my Touched by a Demon series, The Demon’s in the Details, is a finalist for RWGH Finalist MedallionA’s® 2018 Golden Heart® award.
So, yippee!
I know that I can’t really claim that an event that didn’t occur until 3/4 of the way through the month constitutes a valid excuse for making so little progress on my goals, but it really was a complete distraction from March 21st onward.
Three years ago, when The Demon Always Wins was a finalist (under the title Demon’s Don’t), I got a request to see the entire manuscript from one of the final round judges. The book was far from ready for prime-time, and the anonymous editor or agent that requested the manuscript never followed up.
I’m 95% certain that I want to self-publish, since I’ve already invested so much of my own money to get the editing and the covers done. But, because of that remaining 5%, I spent the past week doing some edits to The Demon’s in the Details so that if a judge wants to see it this time, what I turn in will be stronger than last time. So, I spent the last ten days of the month editing The Demon’s in the Details instead of writing The Demon Wore Stilettos.
My goals for March, as you may recall, were:
  1. Get The Demon’s in the Details through developmental edit.
Status: Sent my manuscript off to Karen Harris, my developmental editor, on March 8th, right on schedule. To my knowledge, she hasn’t started work on it yet, but that’s out of my control. (Note about goals: It’s never wise to set goals that are not  within your control.)
2. Get a draft of the cover for The Demon’s in the Details. 
Status: Done. If you’d like to see it, along with the covers for the other two books in the trilogy, you can find them here.
3. Complete the scene list for The Demon Wore Stilettos.
Status: I have a list of 45 scenes.  Marking this one “done” with the proviso that the goal should have read: Complete a draft scene list.
4. Complete 15,000 words on The Demon Wore Stilettos.
Status: So about that… I was in trouble with this goal long before I got the call from Farrah Rochon, telling me I’d earned the right to display the medallion you see at the top of this post. I wound up with 4000 words this month.
I got really stuck on how to get the party started. I’m clear on that now, but not optimistic enough to proclaim that it will be smooth sailing from here on out.
Still, she persisted.
Goals for April:
  1. Write 15,000 words on The Demon Wore Stilettos.
  2. Prep my first-ever newsletter to go out May 1. (If you’re interested in receiving it, you can sign up here.)
  3. Design updated business cards with my branding to take to Denver for the RWA national conference in July.
  4. Decide on some swag to put in the Goody room at the RWA national conference. We’ll talk about what makes good swag (in my opinion) in another post.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A 1950's Easter Story

When I was four years old, my parents hid sugar cubes for Easter.

Our family usually celebrated Easter, as most American families did in the 1950's, by coloring eggs on Saturday night. Mom would dissolve little dye tablets in boiling water laced with vinegar, (To this day, I associate the smell of vinegar with Easter.) Then we'd take a dozen hard-boiled eggs and color them hues that don't occur in nature--the orange of circus peanuts. the turquoise of a Studebaker fender, the yellow of a polka dot bikini.

The next morning, before we got up, Mom and Dad would hide the eggs in our backyard and claim the Easter bunny put them there. We totally believed them. (It's no bigger leap to believe in a cheapskate Easter Bunny who simply conceals the eggs you colored yourself than it is to believe in a Santa who shops at all the same stores your parents do.)

But one Easter morning when we went outside for the big safari, instead of brightly colored eggs, the grass was riddled with sugar cubes.

This memory is crisp and perfect in my mind: my sisters and I tumbling out the back door, dressed in our Easter best, The sky is a cloudless blue, the sun is a yellow disk rising up from the Eastern horizon, the grass is a bright, spring green, and everywhere you look are sugar cubes.

AS an adult today, I realize this makes absolutely no sense. What kind of parents would hide sugar cubes? If the dew didn't melt the sugar into syrupy glop, they'd be covered with ants in no time. In my memory, though, they're all over the backyard, solidly cube-shaped and insect-free.

It's crazy. I know that, but there it is.

Last Easter, my sister Rita, who is sixteen months older than I, was up visiting from Florida. I told her about this ridiculous memory, expecting her to scoff at my over-active imagination. Instead, she burst out laughing.

"It was hail," she said. "It was the first time we ever saw hail."

In my memory, the corners on those dice-shaped Easter treats melt away. The sugar cubes of my recollection take on a more rounded form. Far in the distant past, I reach out a small hand to touch one and it's as cold as a popsicle.

Nope, I like the story better with sugar cubes.





Friday, March 30, 2018

Fiction Friday: A Series of Unfortunate Events

One of the things that’s different about writing in a series, versus writing a standalone book, is that the world-building requires a lot more planning. It’s kind of like playing chess. They say that chess masters, for each potential move, project out the next five possible moves before choosing one. That’s probably why I don’t play chess.
To be perfectly honest, my brain is not the least bit strategic. Back in my days of working as an IT manager at a Fortune 1000 corporation, they used to hold these planning sessions where people would sit around for days, blue-skying about all the things the company might want to do, and jawing on and on about all the potential outcomes for each scenario.
Those sessions made me want to stick a fork in my eye.
I would come up with any excuse I could (the shipping system is down! the file system  is full!) to get out of there. I was good tactically–you figure out what you want to do and I can make that happen–but I stunk at long-term strategy.
It was when I was finishing up  Book 2 in my Touched by a Demon series that I realized this may be a problem in my new career as a novelist, too. In Book 2, Keeffe, my protagonist, has Lilith, her antagonist and she demon, sign a contract in blood. Keeffe’s demon boyfriend later tells her she’s brilliant, that contracts signed in blood are the only kind that are enforceable in Hell.
Okay, that sounds reasonable.
Except it made me realize that Dara, the protagonist in the first book, signs a contract with Satan, but there’s no mention of blood. Since the first book hasn’t been published yet, I was able to go back and add that in.
But now I’m a little concerned.
I’m planning at least seven books in this series, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. What happens, down the road, when I have three books out in the world and I want to expand on the world I’ve built in some unforeseen way?
Before I publish the first one, I think I’m going to need to give some strategic thought to the entire series.
Could someone hand me a fork, please?

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