Monday, April 5, 2010

Welcome to Cheryl Holt's guest blog

Welcome Ms. Cheryl Holt to Love Romances and More, thank you for joining us.

Did you always want to become a writer?

Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I was one of those people who walked around for decades saying, “I’d like to write a book someday,” but I could never seem to get started. I finally began writing when I had two babies—back to back—and I was suddenly stuck at home and not able to go back into the work force. I needed to earn an income at home, but I was very clueless about the publishing industry. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to write a good novel, or how difficult it would be to sell one. The first novel I sold was the 8th one I had written.

What is the most, and the least interesting fact about writing?

I would simply say that writing novels for a living is much different than readers imagine it to be. I talk to people all the time who think I have a very glamorous life, that I spend my days drinking lattes at Starbucks and having manicures and pedicures done at the salon. And of course, everyone imagines that I’m impossibly rich!

The reality is that it’s very difficult to write a novel, and it’s even more difficult to sell one. It’s big international business, carried out by multi-national corporations. I have some of the most powerful people in the world counting on me, waiting on me. The stakes are very high, and the pressure is enormous.

I write 2-3 novels per year, and I work 60-70 hours per week. I have huge deadlines and most of the work I do is editing, so it’s very technical, very labour-intensive and time consuming. The books don’t write themselves—I have to do it—and I spend my days and nights shackled to the chair at the computer in my bedroom. It’s a very isolating, stressful existence.

The big “secret” of writing novels is that the pay is very low. It’s just like acting. There are few people who make millions, but everybody else—particularly the women who write most of the paperbacks—make very little money. I was paid $2,000 for my first novel and $7,500 for my tenth novel. We’re independent contractors with the publishers. We pay all our own taxes and expenses, including any travel, conferences, or advertising. There are no exciting book tours or interviews on Oprah—unless you’re one of those writers whose books sell millions of copies. I sell well, but I don’t sell millions of copies. I’ve been writing for 15 years. For the majority of those years, I either made no money or lost money. A few years, I broke even. And a few years I made money.

It’s a very daunting, difficult, and stressful existence, and not anything like what readers imagine. But I was lucky to thrive at it; but I worked very hard, too. It’s been a good home business for me while I was raising my children.

How did you celebrate your first release? What was it like to see your book in a bookstore? Do you have a special ritual for celebrating a book release?

I didn’t “celebrate” my first release. I was bogged down with parenting my children who were still toddlers, and money was a big issue back then.

My first book was THE WAY OF THE HEART, an old-fashioned historical romance published by Zebra Books. Because I was a new writer, the print run was very small, and I never saw it in a bookstore; there simply weren’t very many copies shipped to stores, so it was hard to find. I actually saw it first in a Safeway grocery store. I was buying groceries, with my young daughter sitting in the cart, and it was a huge surprise to walk down the paperback aisle and see it sitting on the shelf. I ran home, got my camera, and came back to the store. I accosted a store employee and had her take our picture in front of the book rack with my book on the shelf behind us.

My “ritual” for celebrating a book’s release (if you can call it a ritual) is that I always buy myself a special treat—something I’ve been wanting and that is special so that when I look at it or use it in the future, I’ll always remember when and why I purchased it.

How did your family react to fact that you write romance novels? Have your family read your book?

I began writing novels when my kids were babies, so they grew up with a mom who was always a novelist. It’s just the normal fact of life in our family; it doesn’t seem odd to them. They haven’t read my books, though. I’m hailed as “The Queen of Erotic Romance” and my books contain adult themes and content. They’re still a tad young to read what I’ve written.

My husband has always been supportive, and he bought me my first home computer—a teeny, tiny Mac back in the 1990s—so that I could begin writing. He’s a typical “guy” though, so he’s never read one of my books. He’s proud that I write novels, but he’s not a fan of love stories.

Most authors are also avid readers. Is this the case with you? If so, who are some of your favorites? Have any influenced your writing?

I am an avid reader, but the more experienced I become at writing, the more fussy I am as a reader. I don’t have any “favorite” authors. I like any great book that’s well written and fun to read.

Do you feel each of your characters live with you as you write? Do their lives sometimes take over a part of your life? Can you name an example? Do you have living role models for your characters?

No, my characters don’t live with me when I write. I’ve been writing novels for 15 years now, so it’s a much more technical process than you would probably imagine. It’s a matter of getting character, emotion, and action down on paper in a good way. The characters are just part of the equation.

What do you consider to be the key elements of a great story?

One of my earlier editors used to say that she liked “really, really” books. By that, she meant “really, really sad” or “really, really funny” or “really, really scary.” I share her opinion. I like characters who are driven to behave in certain ways. I like them to have to make big choices. I like the stakes to be very dire and very high, so that it pushes characters to do things they normally wouldn’t do.

Could you tell us a little about how you develop your characters? Who has been your favorite character to write? The most challenging?

I have a list of traits that I think make a good character. It comes from research done by the publishing companies as to what readers look for in a great character. But I’ve also added some of my own favorite traits to the list. These were developed by me, but also were added after years of receiving fan letters and learning what readers like and don’t like about the characters I’ve created.

For example, in drafting a hero, the list includes such things as handsome, driven, vain, dynamic—and of course extremely heroic. He has to do something “heroic” for the heroine at the end. When I decide on a plot and stick a hero into it, I sit down and create a backstory for him that will build a personality so that he has all the traits my readers will expect him to possess.

Do you feel your writing is character driven or plot driven? How do you balance these two elements?

My writing has evolved over the years. At the beginning of my career as a novelist, I was writing standard historical romances, so my stories were very character driven. However, when I moved to St. Martins Press in 2001, I started writing “erotic” historicals. Back then, the subgenre was very new, with no common themes or trends to the books, so my books were still quite character driven. They were simply historical romances with more sex scenes added. But as the erotic subgenres flourished, various market trends developed, and my novels shifted with them. For my past eight books or so, they have been very plot driven so that now I would call them “action melodramas” rather than the character dramas that they were at the beginning of my career.

Where do you get the inspirations for your books?

I constantly get ideas, and I keep a notebook where I jot down any idea that occurs to me. When it comes time to plot out a new book, I go to the list and see which ideas jump out at me. It’s a daunting process. Not all ideas can be turned into a 360-page novel complete with subplots, secondary characters, and villains.

For example, my most popular and acclaimed novel was my ’03 release, COMPLETE ABANDON. It started with this idea, jotted in my notebook: A man gambles away his estate, and when he has nothing further to wager, he offers his sister’s chastity and loses.

Luckily, I was able to turn it into a fascinating, wonderful story, but not all tiny ideas can become books.

Do you find it difficult at times to write love scenes?

No. I’ve written many, many love scenes, and my books are marketed as “erotic” novels. If I couldn’t consistently write a great love scene, I’d have to say I was in the wrong business!

Do you have a problem with deadlines and have you ever suffered a writer’s block?

I always make my deadlines and I never suffer from writer’s block. What readers don’t understand about the publishing industry is that it’s very, very competitive and it’s international big business, and I mean very “big”. The companies have huge deadlines on their end, production deadlines, magazine ad deadlines and things like that, and they expect to work with professionals who can deliver on time so that their production schedules are not affected.

There are thousands of unpublished writers who would like to take my place, and if I couldn’t deliver quality work on time, I could easily be replaced by someone who could deliver what my publisher needs.

As to writer’s block, I never sit at my computer and wonder what I’m going to type onto the page. There simply isn’t time. I deliver 2 or 3 books per year to my publisher, so I don’t have time to fret or stew about what I’m going to write. Also, I’m a really experienced novelist, and I’ve written over 50 completed manuscripts, so I’m very thorough with my writing. I don’t actually begin a novel until I have the entire story blocked out into chapters, so I know exactly what is going to happen at any given point in the manuscript. So there isn’t any reason to have writer’s block. I know exactly what’s going to happen and when. And if I happen to come to a stumbling block, I simply make a decision and go forward. Then it becomes the “right” decision. I don’t have time to dither.

Do you prefer stand-alone books or series (As a reader or a writer)?

I prefer stand-alone books—both to read and to write. As a reader, I hate linked books because I always seem to miss one of the releases in the story, and then, when I see the next instalment, I’ve lost track of many plot points. It’s too annoying to me, so I rarely read a book when I see on the cover jacket that it’s linked to others.

As far as writing linked books, I think it’s very, very difficult to do it and to do it well. My books are very action driven, and the stakes for the characters are very high. So my books are page turners, and I find it difficult to keep that level of tension going if the story continues on into the next book.

If you could change places with one character from your book, who would it be and why?

I don’t think I’d change places with any of my characters. My heroines are always very desperate and in very dire straits so that I can push them into making big choices they normally wouldn’t make. I wouldn’t want to find myself in any of their desperate situations!

What is your favorite book from the books that you have written so far? Who are your favorite hero and heroine, and why?

I have several “favorites”. I loved DOUBLE FANTASY, my last book released by St. Martins in ’08. And I always loved FURTHER THAN PASSION, that came out in ’05 and TOO WICKED TO WED that was released in ‘07. But they’re all fun.

My favorite heroine and hero, out of all the ones I’ve created, are Emma Fitzgerald and John Clayton, Viscount Wakefield, the main characters in my ’03 novel, COMPLETE ABANDON. It was just one of those times when plot, character, and writing combined in a magical way.

Would you like to give another genre a try?

I actually wrote a very creepy, very dark thriller in ’08, under the pseudonym, Vanessa Marlow. It was called SLEEPING WITH THE DEVIL, and Romantic Times Magazine picked it as the “Best Erotic Fiction of 2008.” It’s not for everybody, though, and it’s not a romance, so I always like to warn my readers. Some people would find it disturbing—especially when it’s so different from my love stories.

Which book was the hardest to write and which the easiest?

I wouldn’t say that any of them were harder or easier. It just takes an enormous amount of creative effort to write a novel, so they’re all difficult in their own way. The earlier ones—when I was a new author—were harder simply because I was learning my craft and honing the types of stories I was going to market. It’s easier now simply because I’ve been doing it for many years.

If you could choose of your books for a movie, which one would it be and who would you as the cast?

Actually, I’m hoping that one of my books will become a movie. Years ago, I wrote a contemporary romance titled, MOUNTAIN DREAMS, complete with a cowboy/country western singer and an exotic location in the Rocky Mountains. I have adapted it into a screenplay, and I’m hoping to sell it for possible movie production. I haven’t succeeded yet, but I’m always hoping. I live in Hollywood, so anything is possible.

What do you feel is the most important aspect a new author should remember when writing/creating their own stories? Any advice for aspiring authors?

A new writer should write all the time and read all the time.

It is very difficult to learn how to write a novel, and the only way to learn how is to write and write and write. There’s no magic trick to it. It simply takes years and years of practice.

Also, any serious writer should love books and should read all the time. I don’t know why it works, but you learn to write by reading. The publishing business is big, international business, and writers often forget that—on the publishers’ end—it’s a business. That’s how they evaluate everything they do. Your manuscript is a product that they will evaluate with one issue in mind: Could I sell this and make any money?

A writer can only learn what’s selling if she reads all the time to see what publishers are publishing. If a person is hoping to write romance, she should read every single romance that’s published and she should read every bestseller. The year I was finally published, I read 300 novels. There was an absolute correlation between my avid reading and the quality of my writing; the more I read, I could see myself getting better and better.

Have you ever been nervous over reader reaction when a new book come out?

I was nervous about my thriller, SLEEPING WITH THE DEVIL, but only because if was such a change from what I had written in the past. But it was actually one of my most critically acclaimed books, and readers loved it.

How much does reader response mean to you over your books?

I’m very fan oriented. I answer every letter I receive, and I constantly run contests so I can give away autographed books. I’m amazed and grateful that people love my books, and I try to interact with fans every chance I get. I personally read and respond to every letter, and my fans’ opinions matter to me very much.

What do you hope readers get from your books after they read them?

I hope my readers have fun reading my books. My books are entertainment. They’re fast-paced, action-driven page-turners that you would take to the beach or on your weekend getaway. They’re fun and exciting, and I work very hard to make them that way. I want readers to love them so much that they’ll buy the next one and the next one and the next one after that.

What season is your favorite and why?

Summer is my favorite season. I love the long, hot days in southern California.

What would we find on your bookcase if we looked? What is one of your favorite authors?

I spend most of my time reading trade paperbacks (those are the larger, longer more literary paperbacks that cost around $15.00). I think the editors who buy trade paperbacks are giving us the best fiction right now. I’m constantly riveted; I’m constantly delighted.

I don’t have any favorite author. I love all books that are well written and well conceived.

What was the last book you read and did you like it?

I just finished THE STORY OF EDWARD SAWTELLE by David Wroblewski. It was one of the best books I ever read.

What makes a good book to you?

Great writing, great premise, and characters I care about.

What is your favorite movie of all time? The one where you can watch it and still get affected at the same spots each and every time?

I guess I’d have to pick the old classic, “Casablanca.”

If you were stranded on a deserted island, what 5 things would you have with you?

Food, wine, and an air mattress to sleep on!

What is your favorite way to relax after a hard day working and writing?

I don’t ever have much time for relaxing. I write 2-3 novels per year, plus I’m mother to two very busy teenagers. One is a Hollywood TV/film actor and one is a high school athlete. I have to write my books in between their busy lives, and I have to get them done on time. I’ve written a lot of books in my car while waiting for swimming or soccer lessons to end. I’m very, very busy; I rarely have any free time.

Do you listen to music while you are writing and if so what music is it?

No, I don’t listen to music. I work very hard and I work very fast, and I find music to be a distraction.

Big congrats to your latest release, can you please tell us something about the book?

I have moved to Berkley Books, and my first book with them, PROMISE OF PLEASURE, is coming in April, 2010. It’s the first book in my “Spinster’s Cure” trilogy. I’ve never written an actual trilogy before. While many of my prior novels have crossover characters, none of them has been connected through a common theme or plot. They’ve all been “stand alone” titles. As I made my exciting move to Berkley Books and became the newest Berkley author, I decided to try something different. So the “Spinster’s Cure” trilogy was born.

The main recurring character is a charlatan named Phillip Dudley. He’s a handsome peddler who fakes a French accent and goes by the phony name Philippe Dubois. He sells love potions to lonely women.

The heroines in the three novels are all spinsters in their mid-twenties who would love to wed, but circumstances—mainly lack of a dowry—prevent them. The three women are pragmatic, rational females who are too modern to believe in magic or superstition, but Phillip is very persuasive. They end up buying his Spinster’s Cure potion with the instruction that they swallow it while staring at the man they would like to wed. If they do, he guarantees their marriage will occur within a month. Of course, the heroines drink the potion at exactly the wrong moment, and they wind up gazing at the hero, rather than the man they’d hoped to marry. And then the fun begins!

Since I’m hailed as the “Queen of Erotic Romance”, I like to take common fiction themes and give them a racy, seductive slant. In PROMISE OF PLEASURE, I have penned a sexier version of Cinderella. The heroine, Mary Barnes, is a lovely, kind, and lonesome woman who is little more than a servant to her wicked stepmother and horrid stepsisters. When her stepsister’s handsome, debonair fiancĂ©, Viscount Redvers, comes for a visit, Mary is frustrated that her rich, pretty stepsister will get to wed the sophisticated aristocrat, while Mary is left to fruitlessly hope that her pompous, boring neighbor, Harold, might someday propose. To spur Harold along, she buys the Spinster’s Cure potion and drinks it.

But this is a novel of sensual destiny, and Harold is all wrong for her. Fate pushes Viscount Redvers in front of Mary just as she swallows the potion. The act sets her on a dangerous path of clandestine passion from which she can’t extricate herself. In the end, the cost of her thrilling, torrid, secret affair may just be more than she can afford to pay.

Book #1 will be here in April, and Book #2 and Book #3 in the trilogy are in production and coming very soon. The titles and release dates are:

DREAMS OF DESIRE December, 2010

Are you working on anything right now, and can you tell us a teaser about these projects?

While I hope to always be able to write historical romances (they’re very fun to write and I’m good at it), I hope to expand my career into a broader market. I’m working on a more mainstream fiction novel.

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