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DA3 Interview: Favorite Conference Speakers

DA3 Interview: Favorite Conference Speakers

With reader and writer “conference season” upon us, I thought I’d bring to Dear Author a few authors who also make great presenters on panels and workshops. Grace Burrowes was a wonderful discovery to me last year–I didn’t know her when I went to see a panel of headliner historical authors last year, but her wise words on craft and publishing had me seeking out both her other appearances and her books by the end of the session. Dani Collins and Cathryn Parry were another accident: Because I wasn’t familiar with all the auxiliary audio controls on my car, I ended up listening to lots of sessions on the RWA conference flash drive I might have otherwise skipped. Dani and Cathryn’s joint presentation was one of those, and I was happily captive to the honest, moving stories of their journeys before and after publication. Finally, Courtney Milan will be well known to the regular DA readership. I recently made the suggestion to “follow Courtney Milan” to someone who was asking for advice about publishing. She asked, “You mean on Twitter?”and I replied, “However you can, as much as you can.”

We’re talking about the authors’ latest releases and their workshop approaches (and their own favorite conference presenters), so read on…


A six-word memoir for your protagonist:

Grace Burrowes: Love is lovelier the second time….

Dani Collins: Brave and tender, devoted to family.

Courtney Milan: I’m in ur genetics, making ur discoveries.

That looks like seven, but I use the word ur twice, so it’s really only six words.

Also, I know ur is not a word.

Cathryn Parry: Committed to her community and Malcolm


The heroine:

Grace Burrowes: Makes living things heal and grow beautiful.

Dani Collins: Is in hotel management

Courtney Milan: Is a countess. That’s where she makes her money, such as it is. But she’s also a geneticist, which nobody knows about.

Cathryn Parry: Is an Industrial Engineer for a small body-care-products factory in Vermont.


Readers will fall in love with the hero because:

Grace Burrowes: Real men hurt, fail, stumble, and try, try again when true love is in the balance, even when the odds are against them.

Dani Collins: He’s terrified of babies and rallies to love his son unreservedly.

Courtney Milan: How can you not love Sebastian? He’s funny, always in charge of a situation, and yet willing to sacrifice anything to support his dearest friends.

Cathryn Parry: Malcolm is a strong Scotsman, willing to risk it all for his love of Kristin


The first kiss happens:

Grace Burrowes: On the threshold between the beauty of the gardens and the loneliness of the house.

Dani Collins: In the hero’s suite in his family’s hotel chain.

Courtney Milan: In his house, right after a bath.

Cathryn Parry: On the heroine’s snowy Vermont front porch after a (Scottish) Burns Night celebration


Let’s say you’re going to use this novel as an example of something you’ve taught or discussed in one of your presentations. What would you tell the audience about it?

Grace Burrowes: Get creative with your reflection characters, particularly if you want to emphasize that your protagonist is emotionally isolated. The horse, the dog, the portrait, the gravestone, the roses growing riot… an interesting conversation can be had with any one of them, and they won’t need a backstory or a book of their own. They can express themselves in wonderful symbolism—using bodily functions, for example—and most readers will enjoy them.

Dani Collins: I touched on the writing/day job balance in our Joy Of Writing workshop in Atlanta. It’s such a tough situation to be in. When I was writing this book, I was looking down the barrel of two other deadlines for fifty-thousand word books, all due between October 31st and December 31st. I was working fulltime at a day job and was unexpectedly asked to fly to head office for two weeks.

Obviously you need a support structure around you if you’re trying to launch one career while holding down another. If my husband, kids, parents and friends weren’t willing to pitch in with cooking, driving and heck, even folding laundry—thanks, Mom!—I couldn’t have done it.

I won’t say that every day was joy during that spell. It was a lot of work and more than one anxiety attack, but I learned a lot.

First of all, it’s important to find the lesson in any adversity, that way you’re turning a negative into a positive. This is a huge step toward returning to your place of joy. The faster you reframe something, the quicker you move into a happier head space.

That situation showed me how much I could accomplish under the gun, but also taught me not to bite off more than I could chew. I found my limit and can protect myself from burn-out in future.

Also, we should all be less terrified that publishing is temporary. I took a long time to sell and knew plenty of authors who went through dry spells even after they were published. This means I feel (felt!) a certain pressure to get my life’s work out yesterday. We all need to relax. Readers will always be there and will always be hungry for books. If it takes an extra month or two to put yours out, that’s okay. Give yourself time to enjoy the process.

Courtney Milan: Enhhhhh. I never use my own books as examples of good writing in my presentations. I really prefer to use other people–it doesn’t smack of hubris as much, I can be both objective about their work (in terms of breaking things down) and subjective about their work (being able to say “I love this!”) in a way that I can’t do with my own books.

Look at me, fightin’ the hypothetical. I recognize this question is supposed to allow me to pimp my books to the DA audience, so let’s just do that directly. Buy my books! Some people think they’re good, and who knows, maybe you will, too.

(Also, I realize this is a lie–I did a panel with friends called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Second Books” where I did talk about my book, but it was really more in a “Let me be an example to you” kind of way, and not at all of the “Hey, this book rocks” variety.)

Cathryn Parry: Keeping the joy in writing can be challenging, particularly if a writer has written a number of books to deadline and the process seems to be getting a bit stale.

The Sweetest Hours was written in a different, special way for me.  During the revision stage, my husband and I took a vacation in Scotland. I brought the manuscript with me, physically carrying it in a tote bag over my shoulder as we drove across the Highlands and explored castles, battlefields, and lochs, while meeting and talking with the delightful Scottish people.  Each night, I edited the story with the romantic feeling of Scotland still within me.  This brought a spark to my writing that still inspires me today.

After I’d turned the book in, I knew I had to create more stories in that fictional world.  The point is, to keep up my joy in writing, I needed to shake up my routine a bit and make it more personal.


What motivates you to do workshops or panels?

Grace Burrowes: I learn a lot with every presentation, both as I reflect on the material to be presented, and when I’m at the mike. It’s also great fun to be with writin’ buddies, and an elegant question can spark all manner of creative and useful pondering.

Dani Collins: I haven’t done a ton of them. Self-promotion is definitely one of the motivators, but the workshop at RWA-Atlanta was definitely born out of feeling like an expert on the topic of finding the joy in writing.

Cathryn and I were having one of our pep talk chats in Annaheim the year before. We realized that after years of rejections, and navigating the other ups and downs of publication, we have both developed really strong coping strategies. I think I jokingly suggested we should do a workshop and somehow we made it happen.

Courtney Milan: Forgetfulness and the inability to say “no.” Every year I tell myself I’m going to travel less and speak less, and every year, I end up doing MORE. Usually when I decide the subject matter for a workshop it’s because I hear people discussing a problem that I’ve grappled with more or less successfully. I think to myself, “Huh, I think I’ve dealt with that one before and I maybe have something useful to say.”

Cathryn Parry: I try to give talks at organizations that have in the past inspired or helped me, and I try to speak on topics where I feel I can further help or inspire those members.  RWA has been a big part of my life for the past 15 years, so I give talks at chapters whenever I’m asked.  And the joint workshop with Dani at the national conference in 2013 was so much fun, I’m hoping we can speak together more often in the future!


Your top two or three tips for delivering a killer presentation: 

Grace Burrowes: Humility first. If I’m presenting to a room of fifty writers, chances are good their combined experience adds up to centuries of writing. They’ve read dozens of craft books I’ve never seen, they’ve attended scads of workshops I haven’t, they’ve read enough fiction to stock a library. I’m there to share a few insights, and encourage everybody else to share theirs. I’m not the last word on anything, and collectively, a group that size commands a lot of wisdom and potential for mutual empowerment.

Honesty also first. When I don’t know something (which is often), I say so. When conventional approaches didn’t work for me, I say that too (also often). A good presenter inspires as much as they inform, and writing well is often about courage and persistence rather than any particular craft recipe.

Humor first too. Writing is hard, it can be lonely and frustrating. As Julia Quinn says, luck plays a significant role in success and failure (in financial terms). If you can’t occasionally laugh or neener-neener at the whole business, that will probably show up in your stories (and nobody will want to be your CP for long, either).

Dani Collins: Preparation. Know your material and be confident in the delivery. My goal is for the audience to leave with a sense of well-being, either feeling armed for the task, or more confident and reassured that they’re on the right path.

Courtney Milan: Be just prepared enough that you know what you’re going to cover, what you need to say, how long to spend on each issue, and what to cut if time runs out. (Time always runs out.)

Cathryn Parry: Preparation, like Dani said!  My second tip is to go into the workshop feeling relaxed and inspired—try to find a secluded place to sit quietly and meditate for a few minutes prior.

Don’t be so prepared that you’re speaking by rote because that’s boring.


Recommendation, please: If a reader or writer asked you who she should go see in person, what would you say? Is there someone who has been particularly influential or inspiring to you as a writer?

Grace Burrowes:  Donald Maass and The Breakout Novel Intensive workshop that he puts on with Free Expressions Seminars has been a real boost to my writing. Don has studied the books that hover on the bestseller lists for months—a commonsense approach to honing craft most of us don’t have time to do. He focuses on what’s working and what isn’t, from scene structure, to characterization, opening hooks, closing hooks, micro-tension, symbolism, and much more. It’s a challenging curriculum, but well worth the investment, and Don brings to it the perspective of reader, agent, editor, and author.

Dani Collins: Lori Wilde blew me away in Atlanta. She not only knows her stuff, but delivers it in a way that the bulb comes on immediately. Jenny Crusie is always fun and incredibly smart.

Courtney Milan: Nora Roberts. She is funny, irreverent, and doesn’t pull any punches. Also she is hugely successful and hardworking.

Cathryn Parry: Recommendations for writers:  Michael Hague, for in-depth discussions about story structure and the way character arc intertwines with external plot.  Debra Dixon, for character GMC, especially conflict.

For readers and writers: I am a big fan of Dr. Wayne Dyer and his books, videos and tapes about inspiration.  I haven’t seen him in person yet, but I hope to someday!


Obviously, I’d recommend people come see you! Any upcoming chances for them to do that? 

Grace Burrowes: I’ll be presenting at the Central Ohio Fiction Writer’s Conference on October 10 and 11 in Columbus, along with James Scott Bell (whose workshops I’ve also really enjoyed).  Link:

Dani Collins: Cathryn and I are putting together a proposal for Romantic Times 2015 in Dallas. Still deciding the topic. I suggested love scenes. Maybe your readers have a topic they would like to see us cover?

Courtney Milan: I’m going to be at RT in May, the Crested Butte Writer’s conference in June, RWA in July, RWNZ in August, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Conference in September. Do you remember the part where I said I can’t say no? But since I’m going to be at all these things, come see me!

Cathryn Parry: Thank you, Alison!  :)   I’m presenting “Rediscovering the Joy of Writing” at the New England Chapter RWA Conference on May 2nd.  (Sadly, Dani won’t be with me, just because we live so far apart.)  I’m keeping fingers crossed that Dani and I can present together at RT in 2015.


Your favorite book when you were ten years old: 

Grace Burrowes: The Decameron, probably. I didn’t understand much of it, but I knew it was naughty and clever and forbidden. (This will happen when you have older siblings in college.)

Dani Collins: Anne of Green Gables.

Courtney Milan: Ten years old was a weird book vacuum in my life. I was living in a foreign country and we had almost no English-language books with us, because apparently my mom preferred to bring clothing. (Priorities. Pfft.) My eldest sister, who was not with us, sent us books for Christmas after general whining about our booklessness. We read those books over and over and over. None of them returned to the US with covers. Of those books, my favorite was Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper.

Cathryn Parry: Anything from the Nancy Drew series.  Also, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare.

My thanks to Grace, Dani, Courtney, and Cathryn–for sharing your insights as well as for the interview. Connect and find more about the authors:

Grace Burrowes: Website   Facebook   @GraceBurrowes

Dani Collins: Website  Facebook  Twitter 

Courtney Milan: Website

Cathryn Parry: Website







Interview & Giveaway with Meljean Brook

Interview & Giveaway with Meljean Brook


Full disclosure. I’ve been reading Meljean Brook long before she was a published author. She had a blog and wrote about fun (and kind of dorky) stuff. My favorite pieces were the Missy related ones ( Missy is the preteen? early teen? alter ego of Meljean who loved reading inappropriate category romances. When Meljean published her first book, I admit to being kind of shocked. It wasn’t adorkable at all. It was serious, sexy, and introduced me to a new level of world building in paranormal romances.

I guess because I’ve followed her for so long, going on eight or nine years now, I feel like I have an internet friendship with Meljean. I think her books are pretty amazing but you should know that I consider her a friend. Before this past year, though, it was definitely more me emailing her and her responding every four months. Now I get an email from her about every other month. It’s a big step up for us!

For those who know Meljean, she disappears into a writing cave for weeks at a time only to surface for a short time like a dolphin in need of oxygen and then she dives back into the writing waters. I try not to bug her because I’d rather have her writing books than answering my stupid emails which are often–when is the next book coming out or in this case, am I ever going to get Part 7?

With that caveat, disclaimer, and warning, let’s proceed on. The big question is are you doing this serial because you want all the money? I mean, really, don’t you authors get paid millions already?

Meljean Brook

MeljeanBrook1-200pxSee, now — the reason I only respond once every four months is because it takes me that long to stop laughing after you ask questions like that.

But, okay. I can be serious. I’ll admit to struggling with this answer, because as I mentioned on Sunita’s post a few weeks ago about length and format (, it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly how transparent to be online regarding sales, money, and so on. That’s pretty personal information and although I don’t mind sharing embarrassing moments online — how many times have I tweeted about wearing Wonder Woman underwear on a day when I need a little extra boost or spilling my drink down my shirt? — sharing details about my income seems a little different, because invariably it ends up putting a number on my “success,” (or lack of it) even though I don’t personally feel that the quality of my work and my income are directly proportional. There’s always the sense of “now everyone is going to find out what a loser I am.” I don’t believe I am; but still, it’s one of those fears that is difficult to quash.

Then, of course, it runs the danger of making readers feel a crazy obligation — either to reassure me or to support me. And that makes me twice as uncomfortable and makes it twice as difficult to be transparent, because how many authors have said crap like, “I need to pay my bills! I need to feed my kids! I’m going to quit because bullies are ruining my sales!” and I really *hate* that. So if I can, I’d like to preface this all with a statement that *I am responsible for my own livelihood.* Full stop. Readers are not responsible for it in any way, shape or form. I couldn’t make a career out of this without readers, of course, but whether my career fails or succeeds doesn’t depend on anyone but me (and my publisher, to a lesser extent.)

So I wouldn’t answer this at all, typically. I might make a joke and shrug it off. But that wouldn’t do anything to dispel what I think is a very common assumption about serials — that it’s all a money grab. (And for some authors, maybe it is.) But I’ve seen that “greedy” label come up over and over, and I’ll admit a little discouraging that, in this current online environment, the first response to an announcement about serials is: the author is just trying to grab more money. Which is not to say that isn’t the reason behind many serials, just that in all the discussions about the work, the first assumption is never: The author must have thought the story would be better that way. So I think that’s really sad … but at the same time, I can’t blame everyone for not assuming that authors care about their craft or their readers, because more than a few authors have made this bed, and now we all have to lie in it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t tuck in my sheets in my little corner, and maybe make it a little more comfortable for other authors like me, so that maybe the “greedy” label isn’t tossed around so haphazardly. So the very short answer is: No. I’m not making all the money. And I probably won’t make any more money on the serial + compiled release than I would have if it had just been released all at once. It doesn’t make any difference to me, financially, because the amount I received in my advance (which is a modest one) is probably all the money that I’ll ever see for this book, and the total royalties for the sales probably won’t exceed that whether it’s a serial or a compiled novel.

The long answer is: I didn’t write it as a serial for the money. I wrote it as a serial for many reasons, which I’ll list below and which we might not be able to address in the course of this interview, but which I’ll be happy to take up in the comments if anyone wants to know more.

--Three most important reasons for writing the serial–


I personally like the format, and I thought it would be an awesome challenge for me as a writer and would fit the steampunk/adventure genre perfectly. Plus I thought it would be fun to write this particular book as a serial because the heroine writes serial adventures in-universe. So it made the dork in me happy.


It allowed me to write it in parts, which allowed my publisher to edit and format the story in parts instead of waiting for me to finish the book before beginning the production process. I was concerned about the two-year gap between Iron Seas novels, and the serial allowed me to get the story to readers faster than a full novel could have been released. (I’ve talked about this more on my blog, too.


I broke my brain on the final Guardian book, which was a 200,000 word novel that wrapped up an eight-novel + five-novella storyline, and which took me a year to write. I was pretty close to burnout, so I told my editor that I just wanted to write short things for a while (I really like writing novellas). So writing The Kraken King in eight novella-length installments allowed me to focus on smaller bits of the narrative at a time, and to hang the story on a completely different framework than a longer novel.

–Other factors that played in, but on a much smaller scale, because the above reasons are things that I can be sure about and the following reasons are maybes, and I don’t base decisions about my career on “maybes”–

Four years ago, when the first book in the Iron Seas came out, steampunk as a genre was being touted as the hot new thing. It was going to gain a huge audience. That hasn’t happened. And I don’t think that it’s because readers simply aren’t interested — it’s just that there are still SO MANY people who have no idea what steampunk is, or that it even exists. Even now on Facebook, after a status update from a reader that mentions one of my books, I often see comments from other readers/friends of readers that ask “What is steampunk?” Offline, it’s rare that I don’t have to explain what steampunk is to someone after they’ve asked me what I do for a living. Many people simply don’t know that it’s out there — just as, before Twilight, many readers didn’t know about paranormal romance or Young Adult romance, and there was a surge of new readers (and books.) Or even Fifty Shades. How many times have we gnashed our teeth because of comments like, “This is completely new and wonderful!” when most romance readers know that erotic romance has been around for a while? Yet whatever else it did, that book opened up a new audience for erotic romance in general.

So steampunk hasn’t had that moment of discovery in a wider audience. I would give anything for a blockbuster steampunk movie to come out, just because it would tell the audience that it’s out there and that it exists and it’s fun.

Now, I don’t think The Kraken King is going to do that. I think it’s a fun story and a romantic story, and I think readers will enjoy it, but I only mention the size of the audience because it leads into the other considerations for a serial novel:


All of my previous Iron Seas books have come out in trade format, which is listed at $16/$10 (print/ebook). For a reader who is new to the genre, $10+ is a huge investment to make in a book they really aren’t certain they’ll enjoy. So a lot of readers pass over the books, and even when the price drops after the mass-market reissue, the moment has passed and they don’t come back to it. BUT, even though the total of the serial is just as much as the print version, there seems to be a large segment of readers online who will try a serial novel for $1.99. So there is the hope — but not the expectation — that we might be able to broaden the audience by appealing to that population of readers who are buying serials and will give the first installment a try.


We don’t really know why it’s been so difficult for steampunk to catch on. I’ve received tons of emails that are basically, “I didn’t think I would like it, but then I read it and now I want more!” So the serial allows us to change up a few things in the presentation to (hopefully) make it more appealing. The covers, for example, are so gorgeous — and much different than the original gears-and-mantitty of The Iron Duke, or the costumes of Riveted (which was a cover I really loved.) And because the serial is released over an eight-week span, it doesn’t release like a flash in the pan. So it’s visible longer and, hopefully, will be talked about a little bit longer, and with the increase in chatter maybe some readers who are on the fence about steampunk might give it a try (either as a serial or a compiled novel, or someone else’s steampunk romance, it doesn’t really matter to me.)


It will give me a better idea of whether to continue the series as I’m writing it now. I don’t want to call this a last-ditch effort to broaden the Iron Seas audience, but it kind of is? At least as it’s being packaged and released now. Because if the audience is there but we (my publisher or I) can’t find out a way to access it — or worse, if I’m completely wrong and the audience isn’t there — then I’m basically spinning my wheels. And I don’t expect to get rich as a writer (cue laughter again) but I do want to at least see some upward progress — just as if I were in any other career. You expect to do better as you go along, not end up in a rut (or worse, losing sales and readers) and so if what I’m doing now isn’t working then I need to figure out another way to do it.

So the serial is basically an attempt to do something different — in both a writing sense and in a marketing sense. But I don’t expect to actually make more money from it.

Is this the last of the steampunk then? I mean, it’s not like I’m not going to follow you everywhere even when you tell me stop and that you’re annoyed with my questions about when the next book is coming out? But what’s next for Meljean Brook? I saw a new penname called Milla Vane? What’s she writing? Will I like her as much? 

MeljeanBrook1-200pxIt isn’t the last of the steampunk. No matter what else happens, I still have one more novel under contract with my publisher (it will probably be the Blacksmith’s story.) Basically, I’m just kind of in that period of “I need to figure out how I’m going to move forward” — which means a lot of conversations with my agent and editor in the upcoming year. It might be that interest/awareness of steampunk continues to grow and by the time contract renewal comes up, the issues we’re facing now won’t be issues anymore. It might be that we decide to go to digital-only format — which I hate to do, because I still have a print audience — but that the different pricing options available will help chip through that audience wall.

Or maybe I’ll do something completely different with my publisher and the steampunk (which I love too much to give up) will just have to be something I release on the side … like issuing it as a serial on my blog or writing more steampunk novellas and self-publishing them. (And because I imagine this will come up: Self-publishing as a primary activity is not really an option for me because I’m such a slow writer, and it’s really hard to sustain/build an audience in self-publishing without frequent releases. It’s a supplemental option for me, not a primary one.)

Milla Vane is another experiment for me. I actually picked out the name and bought the website a few years ago, because I knew the Guardian series was coming to an end and I needed to think about what I would be doing post-Guardians. I tossed a couple of different ideas to my agent and editor that had been kind of sitting on the back burner in my head for a while — mostly pretty safe options, like some contemporary romantic suspense and paranormal suspense. Those still interest me and I’d like to write them at some point, but the one that really, really, really grabbed me by the throat was a dark fantasy series about barbarians. Like Conan. Or the Beastmaster.

I know. I know.

So last spring I kind of chatted with my editor about it, and we both agreed we weren’t really sure of the market for something like that — and even if we did, we’d probably want to use a different pen name, because there are certain expectations that come with a Meljean Brook story, and I planned to have way, WAY more beheadings and a rougher edge to the sex and romance than my established readers were probably expecting. So the different name would have to serve as a warning, I guess.

But we put it aside. And then I had the awesome opportunity of writing a Red Sonja comic book story, so I got to dabble in a barbarian story a little bit, anyway. I was still thinking of it, though, and sketching out all of the worldbuilding and everything on the side, and planning to maybe self-publish a story or two in the next year, when I wasn’t so behind on other work and deadlines, and I didn’t have any other contracts looming.

Then my editor sent me an email that was basically, “I have an anthology coming up — do you want to try the barbarians?”

And I was like, “OH MY GOD, YES.”

So Milla Vane is writing dark barbarian fantasy. I’m going to call it “Barbarian heroes who can only dream that their dicks are as big as the heroines’ mighty swords.”

“Does Missy have any writing aspirations?”

MeljeanBrook1-200pxI think that Milla Vane *is* Missy, in a way.

The thing about discovering and reading romance that still sticks to me is how very visceral it all felt at the beginning. And maybe that’s because I was eight years old, and had no idea what those hard thighs really were, but even into my teenage years it seemed that my gut was always twisting and my heart was always being ripped out.

It all felt very raw. Every emotion, every story. And although I probably remember it that way through a selective filter — the stories that didn’t rip me apart didn’t make much of an impression, so I simply don’t remember them as well — that’s something I really want to explore with Milla Vane. Why did Johanna Lindsey’s work (not all of it, but especially the late 80s/90s stuff) work for me like it did? What is it about HPs that *still* get to me, even though I know what a terrible asshole the hero is? And why can I tolerate that in a HP but not a contemporary single title?

So there’s something about that very raw aspect that really appeals to me and I want to play with it some, feeling it all out. It might be that I end up crossing lines all over the place, and it goes beyond raw into horrible and uncomfortable. Even if it does, I don’t mind dwelling in that place for a while.

And now for our Giveaway


Kraken King Covers Poster
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