Interview with Michelle Rowen!

From time to time, I plan to use this blog to post interviews with authors. This interview with Michelle Rowen was first printed in the Toronto Romance Writers newsletter ROMantics in January, 2006 soon after Michelle’s debut novel, BITTEN & SMITTEN hit the shelves. Her second novel, ANGEL WITH ATTITUDE, is in stores July, 2006.

So, Michelle …
When did you first know you wanted to write novels?

I can pinpoint the moment I “knew” I wanted to be a novelist. It when I saw the scene in Romancing the Stone when Joan Wilder finishes her manuscript and celebrates with mini airline bottles of booze in her New York apartment surrounded by framed posters of her covers. I could see myself doing exactly what she was doing: creating characters and stories that other people could read and enjoy.

Tell us about your first sale. How long did it take? Were you agented first? What did you do to celebrate?
I made my first sale in December 2004. My agent had nine copies of my manuscript going around New York for one week and we’d already received an offer. Warner Books counter-offered. That’s as far as it went. Alas, it didn’t turn into an exciting bidding war. The first offer was for three books, but Warner’s was for two. I spent a great deal of time considering the pros and cons of either before I made my final decision…even speaking with my prospective editor on the phone. I feel that I made the right decision.

What do you think was special about BITTEN AND SMITTEN that clinched your sale?

I think everybody knows that paranormal is majorly hot right now in the book world…especially the romance world. Most have been quite serious and melodramatic. Then MaryJanice Davidson came along with her comedic Undead series and it sold like hotcakes. This was exactly the time when I was querying, so I’m sure MJD’s success had a huge hand in my book’s sale. My book also flips the vampire legend by having the vampires be the good guys and the slayers as the villains. The editors at Warner also told me that they “loved my voice.” So I think it was a mix of several elements that helped to clinch my sale.

Where do you get your inspiration? Characters first? Plot? Dreams? Divine intervention?
Yup, all that, but definitely character. Developing the character helps put everything in its proper place. If the character is “alive” enough, then she will show me the way the book should be written by knowing her motivation, needs, wants, etc.

Are you a plotter or a seat-of-your-pantser?
I am a loose plotter. I know the rough framework for my novel, the beginning, the middle, the end. I know what twists I’ll be adding. But if I get to a point where something in my outline doesn’t make sense to my character I will change it as I go.

You’re a big blogger … (no, that’s not an insult), which came first, your book or your blog?
I am a big blogger! I’ve been blogging consistently for two years now. The book and the blog began at about the same time. At the time I had a mini-website to go along with my writing aspirations. A few pages with writing samples, photos, and my new blog that was meant to chronicle my path to publication.

Chocolate or vanilla?
Chocolate. Though, the older I get the more it gives me a headache if I eat too much.

Do you write full time? What’s a normal writing day like?
No. I’m a full time graphic designer. I always say that writing is my secret identity. I think even if I was a full time writer I couldn’t possibly manage more than four hours every day or I might fizzle out of existence.
Since a normal writing day for me would be on a Saturday, I would get up at around 11 a.m. I need to sleep in. I would eat breakfast, watch an hour of television. Then I’d go upstairs to my desk, pull out my laptop computer. I’d read through the writing journal I keep alongside each project, and add to it. Then I have my little ritual of lighting two candles. When the candles are lit I know I have to do some Serious Writing. I would write till about four, and then take a break. I get back to the writing at around six and write until eleven while trying very hard to avoid the internet. A good day would net about 20 pages.

What are you reading right now?
I’m always reading a few different books. Right now I have an ARC of Julie Anne Long’s latest book BEAUTY AND THE SPY on the go, WINDFALL by Rachel Caine, and EX AND THE SINGLE GIRL by Lani Diane Rich.

What’s your #1 piece of advice for aspiring pre-pub’s?
My writing advice changes from day to day. Today, I strongly suggest writing what you love to read or your interest and passion for the story will disappear during the long road to a finished book. Loving the subject matter is a great way to hold your interest.

And the burning question on everyone’s minds …What’s your favourite drink?
No contest: A raspberry Margarita.

Writing a novel… talent or skill?

Yesterday’s discussion on misconceptions about writing and publishing reminded me of something… This winter, on my way down to the US for a writers conference, I almost got into a fight with the US immigration officer who interviewed me at the Toronto airport….

Okay, no fight. I’m not that stupid (but maybe sometime if you get me really drunk I will tell you about a past run in with another US immigration officer… not a pretty story) But what this particular officer said was so typical of what so many non-writers think about writing a novel.

Officer: Why are you visiting the US?
Me: To attend a writers conference.
Officer: What do you do at a writers conference? Learn about writing?
Me: Yes, and meet agents and editors, other writers.
Officer: What’s to learn? Either you can write or you can’t.
Me: (Getting agitated but really not wanting to be strip searched or sent off to Guantanamo Bay) Well, there’s more to know about writing than many people think.
Officer: When I did my masters degree I was just good at writing. It’s easy for me. If I had time, I’d write a novel.
Me: I smile and nod, while thinking…. Officer, you ignorant slut! Do you tell a doctor there’s nothing to learn in medicine because you once put on your own bandaid? And what kind of masters degree do you have, anyway, that you ended up interviewing tourists flying to the US at the Toronto airport? (Okay, that was mean, and probably uncalled for, but I was angry.)
Angry or not, I smiled again, implying agreement and she handed me back my passport and let me enter the US.

Even given all the naivete and ignorance I was guilty of regarding the publishing business when I started — particularly ignorant about the romance genre — I always knew it would be hard to write a novel. (In fact, when pages turned into scenes, scenes into chapters, chapters into a story… it was all quite miraculous to me. Made me feel super powerful… Like I’d unleashed some kind of magic.)

I suppose I’d always wanted to try to write a novel, but secretly feared the idea. What if I failed? What if it wasn’t good enough? How did one even start?

That last question was how I, a non-reader of romance at the time, ended up in a class called “How to write the romance novel”. It was the only novel writing course I’d come across that didn’t require a work in progress or some kind of pre-admission review of my work. (Also, the course description mentioned some of those lovely RWA statistics about how big the market for romance is … The non-risk-taker accountant in me LOVED that part…)

Back on topic… Yes, I’ll buy that it takes talent to write a novel and that writing or storytelling or both come more naturally to some of us than to others… but there is so much skill involved, too. And the craft of writing well, like any other skill, can be learned. Stephen King has a great line in “On Writing“. He said (I’m paraphrasing because I’m too lazy to dig up the book and find the quote) that learning and practice can turn a bad writer into a good writer, but great writers are born.

Still, I’ll bet those great writers had some learning to do, too…

I’m glad no one told me….

This past few weeks, I’ve posted a few perhaps-too-brutally-honest comments and/or answers to questions on my local RWA Chapter’s e-loop — Toronto Romance Writers. Yesterday, something dawned on me. In my attempts to be honest… To share what I’d learned about the industry over the past four years – lots of it depressing – I may have inadvertently discouraged some newer members of our group. Writers who still have visions of being plucked from slush piles dancing in their heads. Writers who think self-publishing will bring them fame and fortune (or even satisfaction). (Okay, these things happen… People win lotteries, too.)

I didn’t/don’t mean to be discouraging… If I was, I’m very, very sorry.

And it got me thinking…

I’m glad no one told me how hard getting published would be, because if I’d known, I might not have started. (Not a risk taker by nature… my first career was in accounting and even though I realized I was going to hate it in my first year of University… I didn’t actually stop doing it until I was so burned out and depressed I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.)

Time to be honest with myself. People did tell me how hard getting published would be, but I didn’t completely believe them. I started out on this whole novel writing journey (did I just use that heinous reality TV word, “journey”?) by taking a class at Ryerson University. And the class was good. And the instructor told us it would be hard… And told us how little writing actually paid for most published authors…

But… I somehow didn’t think this bad news applied to me. Was I arrogant? Probably. But I had reasons:

  1. I’d been told I had talent — high school English teacher, creative writing professor at UC Berkeley, my mommy. (I didn’t know at the time that 90% of us trying to do this have similar stories of encouragement to tell…)
  2. I know I’m pretty smart – again, lots of smart people doing this… Who knew? (by the way the media often portrays authors of women’s fiction, it’s easy to be mislead)
  3. I am lucky. (When I look at my life, I’ve always been pretty lucky.)

So, when I heard that most people complete several manuscripts before they sell, but that some writers actually sell their first book – I just assumed I’d fit into group two. I was going to sell my first book and it would be a huge smash and I’d be on my way to earning a modest living from writing within a year – 18 months tops. I gave myself 2 years to be safe. (remember the not-a-risk-taker confession?) I had a plan.

In May 2002, I simultaneously started taking the novel-writing course and actually writing my first novel, a series romance aimed at no particular series (those of you in-the-know are seeing the red flags already!). In February 2003, about one-third – maybe halfway? – into the book, I selected a line at Harlequin to target. How? Did I do research on the lines? Read lots of them? No… I picked it solely because an editor from that line was attending a TRW meeting and was willing to hear pitches.

I pitched. She asked for chapters. Yippee! I was on my way to the big time. I pushed through and finished my manuscript in March or April 2003, so that it would be ready to go when the editor (without a doubt) called to beg me for the full manuscript. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t. :-(

But she did give me some good feedback and criticism, so I decided to revise… After messing around with that opus for another 6 months or so, and submitting it to another line at Harlequin (I changed my title… I’m a very bad girl) I finally figured out how to just let it go.

My writing was getting better. I was pushing myself. Attending workshops and conferences. Reading books on craft. Learning from my critique partners. Learning from contest feedback. Figuring out that romance heroines (especially at Harlequin) actually have to be nice… My next book would be better. I tucked the first one into a drawer.

Sadly, I chose the now defunct Harlequin Flipside* line for my next manuscript attempt. I never even got a chance to submit manuscript #2 before the line was cancelled – but ms #2 was better. People told me it was better. I could tell it was better. It placed in a couple of big contests (and bombed in some others). I had grown a bit of a voice! About time.

Speaking of time… Is anyone keeping track? Yes. By the time I had finished this second manuscript and found out it was dead in the water before even getting a chance to launch, it was 2004. MY TWO YEARS WERE UP! (I think the announcement of the line cancellation actually happened the same month that my personal publish deadline expired. Slit wrists were considered…)

So, what did I do? Did I go back to my much-hated career in business and accounting? Did I try to find another path to follow? No. I started backpedaling with all the people I’d revealed my two-year limit to… (family, friends – myself)

And started writing another book.

That third manuscript THE MISEDUCATION OF APRIL HILLSON, got me signed with a fabulous agent, Pamela Harty, and finalled in the Stiletto contest. I don’t have a book deal inked yet, but I’m super hopeful and guess what? Yup! Working on my fourth and fifth manuscripts.

May 2006 marked the fourth anniversary of my momentous decision to become a published author. Is it harder than I thought it would be? You bet. Do I wish I hadn’t started? NO WAY!

I’m glad no one told me how hard it would be… Correction. I’m glad I didn’t believe them.

    * Postscript: My CP Molly O’Keefe’s Flipside DISHING IT OUT won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for 2005! Yea, Molly!!!

    Be careful what you ask for…

    I realized today that I really don’t want to work…

    I have an opportunity to do some short term consulting work which is something I’ve been telling people (including myself) that I want to do. I am a writer* (I am) and I don’t want to get a full time job, but I really thought that making some money doing something short term would be ideal.

    Sometimes it takes having an opportunity put in front of you to find out you don’t want what you thought you wanted….

    * I have convinced myself of this now… but it’s amazing to me how hard it is to convince non-writers… let’s call them muggles 😉 … of this. It’s like they expect you to actually be earning a living at something in order to claim it’s what you do… Or they think writing is something people do as a hobby or in their spare time and it can’t possibly take much… After all, it only takes them 10 hours or so to read a book — surely I can write one in 30 or 40 hours… ha! Or they assume you must suck at it if you aren’t published yet and look at you with sympathy in their eyes each time they ask if you have any news about your book…

    Sorry for the rant… I shouldn’t blog with low blood sugar…..

    To blog or not to blog…. that is the question.

    At least the question that’s been on my mind this past week. My problem is trying to decide what I want this blog to be… I have plans for another blog with two writer friends — (it’s called Drunk Writer Talk, cool, eh?) — so I’m thinking if I want to blog on writing issues… I should save it all for there. (We’re still in the planning stages…)

    Besides, plenty of other people (notably Diana Peterfreund) already do great blogs with lots of info for writers… Seriously… what could I add to the blogsphere on that topic?

    Ultimately, I’d like to use this blog to interact with readers, but I have the small obstacle of not actually having a book, yet…

    So, I’m flummoxxed (also flummoxxed about whether one x or two in that word???)

    Any thoughts? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    Finally a blog!

    And you’ve found it!

    Okay, so this is something I’ve been meaning to do for at least a year. About time, right? Now I need to get working on that whole, content thing… This too will come!

    If you’ve stumbled upon me, drop me a comment to say hi! Love to know how you found my blog.