Writer’s Corner for July, 2004

Marianne Stillings

One of Our Very First (and Very Own) Makes her Debut

I’ve known Marianne Stillings for six years, though we’ve never met face to face – or even talked on the phone. It’s amazing how well you can get to know someone through the written word. I “met” Marianne in July, 1998. I had just started reviewing, and she was AAR’s only editor. Early on, we all knew that Marianne was a writer. She’d post about the ups and downs, and tell us what she was working on. I also felt – very early on – that Marianne would eventually be published. I could tell from her reviews and from her funny e-mails that she had tons of talent and a rare sense of humor. I figured it was only a matter of time before a publisher figured that out too.

But as anyone who has tried to publish a book knows, it can be a long and discouraging process, fraught with rejection letters and sleepless nights. Watching from the sidelines, I saw Marianne plug away, try and try again, scrap old ideas, and try out new ones. She was always determined, and kept her sense of humor when she got discouraged. One time when venting about her latest rejection letter, she composed a fake sig line mimicking those of many authors. After each book she wrote, “Not right for our line at this time.” I nearly wet my pants laughing.

It’s hard to describe just how thrilling it was to hear that Marianne had gotten her first contract. Those of us at AAR felt like we had been there with her through the whole journey, and it was so exciting to see her finally achieve her goal of getting published. I also admit to getting a little emotional when I held the arc of Damsel in Distress in my hands (and when I saw Marianne’s real sig line, with real books, that finally were “right for the line at this time”).

We won’t be reviewing Marianne’s books for awhile, as it’s our custom not to review the books written by a former reviewer for a period of three years after they leave the site. However, I was lucky enough to read Damsel, and I can tell you that I enjoyed it very much. The most fun thing about it for me was seeing the humor and hearing the voice of the Marianne I had come to know, brought to life in the pages of her book. Marianne also kept a journal for us for a year about her publishing journey, giving us the scoop on the whole process. Now that the book is finally hitting the shelves, I was also able to catch up with Marianne and ask her a few questions about it.

–Blythe Barnhill

It’s been a little more than a year and a half since you got “the Call” about buying The Damsel in This Dress, then called Uppity Woman. That, of course, occurred after you signed with an agent. How many agents did you go to before you signed, and how many manuscripts had you written until that point?

Marianne Stillings: Uppity/Damsel was my fourth manuscript and wasn’t even completed when I started looking for an agent. I sent out queries to ten possible agents based on the list of approved agents I found on the RWA site. I chose ten agents who seemed to be looking for what I had to offer. Of the ten packets, one came back due to a wrong address, which left just nine. To make a long story short, seven of the nine asked to see the completed manuscript for Uppity/Damsel, and of those seven, two agents offered to represent me. I chose the one I felt the strongest connection with, and have been beyond pleased with our relationship.

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Do you think it was signing with the “right agent” that made the difference?

I don’t think you have to have an agent to sell. It might get your manuscript read in a more timely manner, but it won’t sell it. Only your own words will do that. Beyond The Call, however, you do need an agent. Pam is definitely the right agent for me. She’s a professional in every sense of the word and has terrific instincts. She’s fabulous.

After all, you’ve written several manuscripts in the past few years. What exactly do you think made this one the trick? I know Robin advised you not to try and follow trends or guidelines, but to trust your voice. Was that it?

Both Robin (Uncapher) and Nora (Armstrong) had graciously read two of my manuscripts and both had been very kind and encouraging, yet each had said in so many words: But, Where Are You? The humor and voice we see in your reviews are absent in your stories. What’s up with that?

I analyzed what they’d said and realized I had been afraid to let myself out, so to speak. I thought I had to follow conventional lines and write in a certain way in order to sell. I could not have been more wrong; Robin and Nora were right. I needed to infuse myself into my story. But it’s not just me. All writers have their own, unique voices, and I was stifling mine, terrified of what might come out if I let loose and threw caution to the wind.

A writer named Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” That pretty much sums it up. Be honest. Be yourself. Go for it. So, I sat down and let Uppity/Damsel just come out the way it would have if I weren’t standing in the way. It’s so easy to hear the words (be honest, be open, dig down deep), and so hard to do. In honest writing, you open your soul and others can see in, but if you don’t risk doing it, you risk writing crap (you may end up writing crap anyway, but at least it will be honest, hard won crap.)

I wanted to write a romantic suspense, so I used that as my starting point. On my way home from work one day, I was stuck in traffic, and I was thinking about how I had recently met some authors whose books I had reviewed. Then I got to thinking, wow, wouldn’t it be interesting if a woman who wrote reviews met a man whose books she had panned? And what if she was cute and what if he was sexy and what if they found themselves attracted to each other but totally loathed each other, but then, she ends up in some kind of trouble . . . .

Well, the rest, as they say, is history, and newspaper editor Betsy Tremaine of the Port Henry Ledger, and author Detective J. Soldier McKennitt of the Seattle PD were born.

This was a unique premise, which helped catch editor Erika Tsang at Avon’s attention.

How do you feel about the titles you’ve given to the three books you’ve contracted for?

Titles are hard. They have to capture the essence of the story, set a tone so the reader will know what to expect, and fit the criteria the Sales Dept needs to create lettering that looks good graphically. Erika wanted Uppity Woman changed to something more romantic suspensy, so I spent a couple of hours coming up with 51 alternatives. At the last minute, I added The Damsel in This Dress, thinking, naw, she won’t go for that. Well, you know what they say (Don’t you? Because I’m not sure I do). When I was halfway through the revisions to Damsel, I realized the second book I was writing (which has a heroine named Evie) could compliment it, and that a third book could be written to complete a trilogy. It took about an hour of thinking and coming up with names to propose Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evie for the second book. The title of the third, Claire and Present Danger, came to me in about a split-second. The heroine’s name is Claire, and no other title even entered my head.

The cover for your first book is really great, and looks “expensive.” Do you feel Avon is really going to give you a big push, and if so, why (besides your awesome talent)?

Thank you. I’ve been lucky throughout every stage of my admittedly embryonic publishing career. Having a terrific cover is just another wonderful thing that’s happened. I like the cover a lot and think the artist did a great job. The same artist has been commissioned to create the cover for Midnight, and I hear from Erika that it looks fabulous. I can hardly wait to see it.

The only thing I would add is that the cover may make the book appear to be fluffier than it is. Damsel is not a fluffy book. It’s got its humorous moments, but it isn’t fluffy. And my heroine is no way that thin. Betsy is very curvy, which is one of the things that drives the stalwart Detective McKennitt wild.

I’m not familiar enough with the industry to know how other publishers promote new authors. I think if I were a politician, comedian, talk show host, duchess, or rock star and/or coming out in hardcover, I’d probably be getting a push, but I’m a regular person newbie mass market author, and as such, I’m a risk to whatever publisher takes me on. The print run for Damsel is 60,000, which won’t get me on any lists, even if every book sells. 60,000 is a good, solid print run for a debut author and I’m thrilled to get it.

I’ve been given a good cover, terrific quotes, Damsel has been sold to both the Doubleday and Rhapsody book clubs, and I’ve been provided with a ton of cover flats to use in my promos. Basically, mass market authors, especially those debuting, are on their own in terms of promotions. Any tours, book giveaways, book signings, and so forth, are up to me to arrange and pay for.

However, the fact that Avon bought my next two books a year in advance of the first book’s release, told me they have faith in my, eh-hem, “awesome talent” and in Damsel (and Midnight and Claire) and are willing to give me a shot. In today’s environment, that’s a “push” as far as I’m concerned.

You’ve worked as an editor for years, primarily at your paying job as a technical editor, and then as an AAR editor. How do you think that experience helped you when it came time to work with your own editor?

Any writing or editing experience you have under your belt is going to help. Having said that, editing and writing technical documentation is worlds apart from working with creative fiction. The transition from tech writing to free-flowing fiction is not necessarily a natural one and takes a different mindset and vastly different planning.

A publishing editor basically acts as an advocate for the reader, and a good editor is an author’s best friend.

How tough is it when an editor suggests changes or redlines something you think is wonderful? How hard do you fight, where does compromise come in, etc.?

Criticism – even when you expect it, even when you understand it, even when you welcome it – is tough to take. As an example, when I turned in Midnight to my editor, I was very pleased. I felt I had done what I set out to do, and that it was good. Imagine my surprise when I received an eight page revision letter detailing what changes she wanted, and oh, by the way, would I mind cutting out these two scenes? Those two scenes were, to me, the very heart of the book. C-Cut them? Out? Of the book?

I’m sure I’m not the first (nor will I be the last) author who broke down and cried upon reading a revision letter from her editor. I’m a fairly strong person, but I sank into despair at the changes to my “good” book that Erika wanted me to make.

My solution was, I didn’t fight it. I waited a day or two, then re-read the revision letter and realized the changes she was asking for would make the book much better. I outlined what I thought I should do, talked to my agent about it (who was wonderfully supportive and helpful), then sent Erika an email detailing what I planned to do, and asked for more time in which to do it.

The end result is a much more solid read and I am astonishingly much happier with it than when I thought it was a “good” book. Erika has terrific instincts. Having said that, I do have a few instincts of my own, and I kept those two scenes in the book, but pared them down a bit so they fit much better. My book still has its heart.

Since I’m the author of only two-and-one-half books, I don’t know yet about what to fight for and what to compromise on. I think it’s a matter of trust. I trust my editor’s instincts and professionalism, but I also trust my own. When those come into conflict – and hopefully, that will seldom happen – then I am more than willing to compromise. I’ve worked in the business world for a long time. If you can’t learn to compromise, you earn a reputation for being difficult and hard to work with, stubborn, even rude – even if you’re right. I’ve judged some contests and I’ve helped a few people with manuscripts and seen how people respond when their work is criticized. It comes down to this: if you are the kind of person who feels your writing is untouchable, beyond criticism, perfect, and resent anybody telling you it isn’t, your road to publication is going to be very long, and very hard. It’s true, there are writers out there who are brilliant from word one, but you and I are probably not among them. We need editors.

Are there any writers who have influenced you? If so, how?

Every writer I’ve ever read has influenced me to some degree or other, both in romance and mainstream. A turn of a phrase, a catchword, an image, a bit of dialogue, an intricate plot, any of those can catch my attention and make me wish I had written it.

I think the most important thing a writer can do is read – anything and everything. I write romantic suspense, so I try to read as many of those as I can, and I try to read books recommended by friends who know my taste. Gold is where you find it, and reading a variety of books will trigger ideas in your own head, as well as teach by example how you might do it better.

In terms of influence, I will only mention one author, one book. I had put off reading it for years. The step-back cover is sappy. A woman sitting on a porch in a rocking chair, two little boys playing near her feet, while a man sits on the porch near her with his arm resting on the rocking chair as he looks up adoringly at her. Gushie. Cutsie. How good a book could it possibly be? The book came out in 1989 and is called Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer, and if I were still writing reviews, I’d give it an A+ – a grade I never, ever awarded in the five years I wrote reviews.

Morning Glory is everything that is wonderful about romance novels, and about storytelling, and about people, and life, and truth, and heart. I will never be as good as LaVyrle Spencer, but I’m damned well going to try.

I think many romances readers (and probably readers in general) have a tendency to compare writers to each other. At AAR, we have our If You Like… lists and style poll, and frequently we will use other authors as points of comparison. What was particularly fun for me about reading Damsel was that it sounded like you – I could see all the humor and the passion that I’d seen during the years that we’d worked together at AAR. Can you talk a little about finding “your voice”?

Thank you, Blythe. I think I touched on that a little bit above when I talked about getting an agent, but I’ll elaborate here.

Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down.” True. You are exposed, and what exposes you? Your voice. When the reader feels emotion at what you’ve written, when words ring so true as to cause her eyes to widen, or she gives a little gasp, she’s heard your voice, and you are exposed. She then sees what you saw, knows what you think about things, maybe things you usually keep hidden from public view. But writers can’t keep anything from public view, not if they wish to connect with the reader. That’s the difference between okay writers and good writers and great writers. Okay writers tell the reader a story, great writers imprint that story directly into their readers’ souls.

Can you dish a little more about the push and pull of editing? I have heard authors (and readers) talk about editing in the harshest of tones. I’ve heard people say, for example, that publishers are editing all Regency Historicals to be the same, and authors seem to lose their individual voices. Do you think editing has led to homogenization?

Has editing led to homogenization? I haven’t been in the biz long enough to have a firm grasp of that and I’m not in the historical genre. However, in a more general sense, I can take a stab at an answer (which is pure conjecture on my part, and I’m willing to admit my assumptions may be totally wrong).

I don’t think editing has led to homogenization. I think the times we live in has. The evidence is in the TV shows that are popular, the movies that are blockbusters, the news we are fed, the cars we are sold, right down to what we see on our kids’ report cards. Time = money = streamlined processes = uniformity = homogenization. It seems to be an unhappy byproduct of the lightening-fast pace of the modern world.

While publishing is a business that must show a profit, editors are employees who support the business that needs to show a profit. To show a profit, books must sell. What sells? A sure thing sells, the known quantity sells, the familiar sells. Why do you think you can walk into any store and see a wall of books by big name authors, but a handful (if any) of the lesser-knowns?

Editors may not purposely and with malice aforethought be homogenizing books, but they do know what sells and may be herding writers in that direction. So, do homogenized Regency Historicals sell because they are popular, or are they popular simply because that’s all there is available? That’s a question for another day.

How different is the final product from your first draft? How were changes made along the way? Was there anything you added that you were very happy about, or anything that got left on the cutting room floor that you would like to have included?

In terms of Damsel, the final product is pretty much like the first draft in many ways, but the second half of the book is vastly different. It was weak, needed more action and humor, so I punched it up during the revision process.

I think I got everything in it I wanted and am extremely pleased with the final version. There was a lengthy scene between Taylor McKennitt (Soldier’s brother), and Claire Hunter (Betsy’s best friend), that Erika asked to be cut so the focus could remain on the main characters, but since, by then, I knew Taylor and Claire were going to get their own story (which I’m writing now), I didn’t have too much heartache over it.

One of my favorite scenes in Damsel was (if I’m not mistaken) something of an afterthought. Betsey’s mother gives her a dress that she bought in Paris, and Betsy wears it for Soldier…who is so blinded by lust that he immediately turns into a blithering idiot. I think every woman dreams of wearing something like that, something that turns men into slobbering sex slaves. Can you comment on how this scene came about?

The scene you’re referring to was written as a link to the revised title, and the proposed cover art. Yes, the cart before the horse, or the tail wagging the dog . . . one of those axioms.

As I said, the book was originally titled Uppity Woman. When it changed to The Damsel in This Dress, my editor asked for a scene with Betsy in the, eh-hem, titular garment. And since she had also asked for an additional love scene, I decided to combine them.

The cover hadn’t been designed yet; I could make the dress any color, any style, anything I chose. The scene basically wrote itself, and since Betsy would never have bought a dress like that for herself, it became a gift from her mother. It had to be little and it had to be black and it had to grab Soldier’s libido and not let go. I like the scene a lot, and I’m really happy you do, too.

I’d like to know more about your characters’ names. Did they practically name themselves, or was it something you struggled over?

I love naming characters! It’s like having hundreds of puppies and you can name them anything you want. Secondary characters pretty much name themselves, but the hero and heroine take more work. There are certain names that are simply not perceived as heroic, some names that work in a historical but not in a contemporary, and some better suited to a romantic suspense than a regular contemporary.

I name my characters according to how I perceive their personalities. Betsy Tremaine is sweet and rather traditional. Her mother, Loretta (who really doesn’t know her own daughter well at all), calls her Elizabeth. As for Soldier, I wanted a manly name that was unusual. Some readers will probably not warm up to such a different name, and I can understand that (even though it’s his middle name and I explain how he got it), but to me, once J. Soldier McKennitt showed up on paper, my imagination would accept no other.

Occasionally, I’ll start with a name I like, but as I write, it just doesn’t work, and I can’t continue until I’ve pinned down the name. It can take hours and feel completely non-productive, but until I get the name that works for me, I can’t move forward.

How do you feel about pop culture references in books? The first time I laughed out loud was when Betsy’s mother said she had good teeth, and Betsy asked herself, “Who did her mother think she was, Trigger?” I also chuckled when Piddle became “the dog who lived.” I tend to like pop culture references, but I have also been annoyed by books (not yours ) that go overboard with brand names, etc. Where do you draw the line?

Normally, I don’t like pop-culture references, but if, as I’m writing, one pops (no pun intended) into my head, and it makes sense to use it, I will. These are things we can all identify with, references we all know and love or hate, but they can ground fictional characters in our reality, making them, hopefully, more real.

I only use brand names when they’re in the common vernacular. For example, I’d use Coke instead of cola because nobody in the real world refers to their Coke as a cola. Sometimes, I’ll identify the kind of car or truck somebody’s driving simply because readers can “see” it better. When I refer to Aunt Sadie’s “blue Ford pickup,” the reader is going to see that truck more clearly than if I simply say “blue pickup.” Beyond that, I’m not into brand names or designer labels at all.

As for the Trigger reference, I’m sure most people know who Trigger is, and if they don’t, that makes me feel very, very old.

What did your experience as a reviewer bring to the table for you as an author?

The first thing that comes to mind is that my editor knew my name from having read my reviews. I was new, but not unknown. Also, Avon has used my experience as a reviewer in their biographies and blurbs. In sales, it’s all about name recognition. I hadn’t anticipated any of this, but am thrilled with the result.

As far as the reviewing itself, it exposed me to an enormous variety of books, storylines, writing styles, sub-genres, and characters I would not ordinarily have been exposed to. The very best part was discovering a debut author with enormous potential and being able to tell everyone about her and her book. Or being assigned a book I never thought I’d like by an author I’d never read, and finding myself hooked, enthralled, enraptured, amazed.

Reviewing kept me inside the genre and kept me analyzing what worked and what didn’t work in a story. It forced me to examine the plusses and minuses of each book, dissect problems, and gauge what made a book successful – all things I could apply to my own manuscripts.

Has any author ever given you a hard time about your formerly being an AAR Reviewer?

“The author should be kicked out from all decent society as below the level of the brute. He must be some escaped lunatic raving in pitiable delirium.” — A review by the Boston Intelligencer of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855)

I can’t say it hasn’t happened, but the occasions have been rare. I am probably the most nervous when meeting an author whose book I personally reviewed. Most have been very gracious to me. One said, after reading my name tag, “Oh. You’re her.” Her original smile stayed frozen on her face for a moment or two, then she smiled genuinely.

I cannot change the fact that I am, indeed, her. I reviewed books for AAR and I loved doing it. If an author has an issue with that, it’s her right, and I understand completely.

Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, are there any reviews I wrote that I’m sorry about? Yes, actually, there are. Just a few, but, I have to admit, I do have some regrets. There are maybe five reviews out there that I would re-write if I got the chance, now that I’m a little wiser.

“The ineffable dunce Oscar Wilde has nothing to say and says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture, and attire. There never was an imposter so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. He makes me tired.” — Ambrose Bierce

Sure glad I didn’t write that.