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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







Alison Atlee (also known as "Alyson" here at Dear Author) is fascinated by creative people and how they work, which is why she enjoys contributing author interviews to Dear Author. She likes her romance novels light on the internal monologues, twisty with the conventions, and brimming with voice. Her favorite book at age ten? "An Old-Fashioned Girl" by Louisa May Alcott.


  1. Kim in Baltimore
    May 07, 2014 @ 11:26:00

    Thanks for the recommendations. I recommend Cathy Maxwell – she’s upbeat, on target, and very funny. I could listen her chat about any topic.

  2. Cynthia Sax
    May 07, 2014 @ 15:42:25

    This was AWESOME, Alison, and a great idea! Buddies always tell me they have issues deciding which presenters to see.

  3. Alison Atlee
    May 07, 2014 @ 18:47:48

    @Kim in Baltimore: Thanks for the tip, Kim! Making a note.

  4. Alison Atlee
    May 07, 2014 @ 18:51:54

    @Cynthia Sax: Concurrent sessions can make for agonizing decisions, definitely. :) Glad you enjoyed.

  5. Iola
    May 07, 2014 @ 21:18:05

    I’m looking forward to hearing Courtney at RWNZ in August, and am pleased she couldn’t say no!

  6. Tessa Radley
    May 08, 2014 @ 22:18:38

    I highly recommend Stephanie Laurens and Tess Gerritsen as speakers. If you get a chance to listen to either–grab it. Both are so savvy…and so generous in sharing their knowledge. Christopher Vogler is simply awesome, too.

    Looking forward to hearing Courtney Milan speaking in Auckland in August!

  7. Tessa Radley
    May 08, 2014 @ 22:20:40

    AND Barbara Samuels–she always makes me cry…in a good way.

  8. Dani
    May 10, 2014 @ 23:13:51

    Oh yes! Barbara Samuels is amazing!

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