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Courtney Milan

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







REVIEW: Unraveled by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: Unraveled by Courtney Milan

Dear Ms. Milan:

Thank you for sending me “Unraveled” for review. I have enjoyed (but been somewhat critical) of your past works but your novella, “Unlocked,” was one of my best reads of 2011. Smite’s book was hotly anticipated. Part of the problem I had with “Unraveled” was the result of my own expectations and anticipation. I had created my own vision of Smite prior to “Unraveled” through my glimpses of him in “Unclaimed” and “Unveiled.” Smite, to me, was a closed off man who held rigid beliefs and allowed only his younger brother any kind of intimacy, either physical or emotional.

Unraveled by Courtney MilanSmite in “Unraveled” met those expectations up until he began to interact with the heroine, Miranda, in chapter 2. From there I felt like I was taking a number of unsupported emotional leaps to get Miranda and Smite together, to get them both past their dark moments, and then into their HEA. I don’t know whether I would have bought into these emotional movements more if I hadn’t had preconceived notions about Smite.

Miranda is wig maker who lives in the Temple Parish, a slum protected by an unknown person named the Patron. If you do favors for the Patron, the Patron provides you with protection. This allows Miranda to live, work, and walk unmolested in this very bad part of town. Miranda is an educated young woman. Her father was the owner of a theater troupe, her mother an actress. Her family fell on hard times when Miranda’s mother died. Bereft of his soul mate, her father goes into decline and the theatre troupe falls apart and the source of the family income dissipates entirely. Miranda has made a meager life for herself and a young boy she adopted from the disbanded troupe. She tries to keep Robbie away from the more unsavory elements in the Temple Parish but as he advances in age (12) it becomes increasingly difficult.

As part of her deal with the Patron, Miranda uses her experience in the theatre to create different personas and she uses those personas to get disadvantaged youth out of trouble with the magistrates. Unfortunately, one of those magistrates is Smite and he recognizes her through her paint, her wigs, her clothes as someone who had appeared before him previously in a different incarnation. Smite takes his job seriously to treat the poor and the rich, the pretty and the misshapen, all with the same measure of justice unlike the other magistrates who either view justice as something to be sold or are too lazy to work at finding the truth. He knows that she is about to perjure herself and prevents her from doing it. He also seeks her out to impress upon her that she must stop or he will enforce justice upon her.

But there is something about Miranda that Smite finds compelling. So compelling that within a short time after meeting her, Smite offers to make her his mistress for a period of thirty days. Smite explains that he will set a time limit because he only allows himself a rationed amount of sentimentality.

Despite the fact that she is a virgin and despite that she slapped Robbie across the face just a few pages back for accusing her of selling herself to Smite, Miranda is delighted by Smite’s offer and moves into his newly purchased house forthwith.

I’m baffled. Why didn’t she sell herself before? Why was she so angry at the suggestion of selling herself but then readily accepts Smite’s offer? At one point, Miranda is described as “happier when your relationships can be framed in terms of commerce.  You never accept help from anyone.”  If that is true, I didn’t understand why Miranda didn’t choose the courtesan/mistress option previously. Was it simply not an option for her?

And what is it about Miranda, this person who does not have the same strict interpretation of the law, that attracts Smite to the point that he acts out of character?  Later I understand that Miranda moves Smite in ways he didn’t expect because she doesn’t try to fix him; because she doesn’t see him as flawed or broken or something to be changed.

“My brother. Mark.” He twined his hand with hers. “There is no former mistress, Miranda Darling. There have been affairs, mind, but they never lasted long. Usually, she decides I’m stoic and cold only because I have been unlucky in love. She thinks she’ll be the one to melt through my defenses. She thinks that she can fix everything that is wrong with me by simply weeping over me. It lasts until she realizes I won’t spend the night, she can’t touch my face, and I despise women who weep for no reason. I have no tolerance for maudlin affection, and less for women who want to fix me.”

“Fix you?” Miranda said. “Why would anyone need to fix you? You’re not broken.”

“That’s precisely what I’ve always said.” He slid down to lie next to her. “Oddly, few people ever believe me.”

“I know what broken is,” Miranda said. “My father was broken, after my mother died. He just stopped working. He wouldn’t sleep. Wouldn’t eat. Wouldn’t even get out of bed. He just lay there and cried.”

“Good heavens. How long did it last?”

“Three years.”

“Three…three years.” He shifted to face her. “Three years.”

“I told you I know what broken is. That is broken—staring at the wall and weeping, while creditors hammer on the door and your troupe slowly slips away, stealing the best costumes in lieu of wages. When your friends leave you and you still cannot move, and nothing your daughter says can break you out of the spell. No man is broken because bad things happen to him. He’s broken because he doesn’t keep going after those things happen. When you told me about your mother, and how it made you resolve to be the person you are… What I thought was, ‘Yes, please, I’ll take him.’ Because you didn’t break.”

There was a pause. He propped himself up on one elbow and then picked up the watch he’d left on the bedside table.

“Would you know,” he said, his tone a bit more businesslike, “this conversation has officially exceeded my daily quota for mawkish sentimentality. That’s it, then.”

“Quota?” she said. “What are you talking about?”

“My sentimentality quota. There’s a limit as to how much sentiment I will tolerate in a day. I’ve just reached it.”

“It’s not—” she glanced at the watch in his hands “—not yet three in the morning. And this is…a special occasion.”

“Nevertheless, we’re done. As much as my pride loves to be puffed up, I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from further compliments. And definitely no protestations of love—that would put me off for a good long while.”

There were portions of the book I loved, including the dialogue exchanges between Smite and Miranda.  Yet, I didn’t understand why Smite was suddenly telling Miranda all his secrets.  Or maybe his past, his night terrors, his fears, weren’t secrets.  They seemed secrets in previous books but maybe they were just secrets in previous books to build suspense for this book?  The speed at which Miranda and Smite fell in love; the speed at which Smite unbent; the speed at which Miranda fell into Smite’s bed, all happened too fast for me.   I felt like I understood where you wanted to go in your book such as awaken a character to how the rigidity of one position could be harmful but I never felt convinced once I got there.  The movements from emotional transition to emotional transition were missing.

I also was taken aback by the numerosity of love scenes.  For a great portion of the middle part of the book I felt like it was one love scene after another and while it was well done, I wasn’t sure why the movement of the book took place in bed for large swaths.

I did like the contrast between the justice handed out by the Patron and that by Smite, that justice done in secret and in the dark was unstable and uncertain and didn’t actually achieve the goals it sought. Justice shouldn’t make someone like Miranda afraid.  That part of the book was well conceived from beginning to end.   The prose is lovely in the book. I loved the dialogue.  I thought that the questioning of the concept of justice and who administers it was well done.  It was the romance that felt rushed. C+

Best regards,


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