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Interview & Giveaway: RWA Rita Best First Book Finalists

Interview & Giveaway: RWA Rita Best First Book Finalists

Welcome to this year’s interview with the finalists in the Best First Book category of the RWA Rita Awards. Changes in the contest scoring this year mean that (among other things) all five novels are double finalists: Elizabeth Byler Younts’ Promise to Return and Carla Laureano’s Five Days in Skye in the Inspirational category; Laura Drake’s The Sweet Spot and Beck Anderson’s Fix You in Contemporary; and Samantha Beck’s Private Practice in Erotic (a new category this year). Winners will be announced at the RWA awards ceremony at the annual conference in San Antonio on Saturday night.  We’ll have winners here at Dear Author, too, so let me know in the comments which novel you’d like.
Rita 2014
First sentence:
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  The scent of cherry pie and warm taffy tickled Miriam Coblentz’s nose.
Carla Laureano: “At least they couldn’t fire her.”
Samanthe Beck:  “To be honest, I’m glad Roger and I called off our engagement.”
Laura Drake:  The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.
Beck Anderson:  “It’s a bluebird day.”
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  Books by Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall, Beth Wiseman, and Kelly Long.
Carla Laureano:  Becky Wade or Nora Roberts (Wow, that sounds like a lofty comparison! I promise, I’ve had readers tell me that unprompted.)
Samanthe Beck:  My attempt to play Amazon algorithm: If you like visiting Lucky Harbor, but you wish it was Southerner, and smuttier, you may enjoy Private Practice!
Laura Drake:  That’s tough. My stories are a romance, but can cover heavy subjects on the way to an HEA. I think my style is a bit like Barbara Samuel O’Neal, only with a western flavor.
Beck Anderson:  Kristan Higgins.
How the hero/heroine meet:
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  Henry and Miriam meet in their Amish community in Sunrise, DE.
Carla Laureano: They meet in the London gastropub that my celeb chef hero, James, owns. Andrea has no idea that the man chatting her up at the bar is the client she’s supposed to meet in Scotland the following day, and her mouth gets her in a bit of trouble. Fortunately, he’s terribly amused by her, and the fact she’s utterly unimpressed by his celebrity status just makes him want to win her over all the more.
Samanthe Beck:  He shows up on her doorstep at two in the morning with a jealous drunk’s bullet in his butt.
Laura Drake:   Childhood sweethearts, they married at nineteen. The Sweet Spot is a reunion story.
Beck Anderson:    Kelly, the heroine, is out on a run when she breaks down crying.  She’s losing it when a person taps her on the shoulder to see if she’s okay. This person turns out to be the hero, Andrew.  Who also turns out to be a famous actor!
They argue about:
Elizabeth Byler Younts: The war. Henry has been drafted and while he planned to serve out his draft in the Civilian Public Service camp, after a year he chooses to enlist instead. This heart-wrenching decision pulls the two apart, not to mention rocks their pacifist Amish community.
Carla Laureano: Just about everything, it seems. He’s determined to make her slow down and smell the roses (Highland heather?) and she’s equally determined to get her job done and go home. She just underestimates how persuasive he can be.
Samanthe Beck:  Whether she will tell the cops about him showing up on her doorstep at two in the morning with a jealous drunk’s bullet in his butt.
Laura Drake:  Almost everything, in the beginning! In the first scene, my heroine throws her ex off the family ranch.
Beck Anderson:  Kelly maintains that she’s too awkward and normal for Andrew’s Hollywood world.  He argues that she’s exactly the kind of person he wants: someone real.
They make up:
Carla Laureano: … in the last place either of them would choose to spend a spring holiday. And it happens to be in front of a church, which is somewhat inconvenient when it comes to PDAs.
Samanthe Beck:  …in the kitchen, hallway…front porch…
Laura Drake:  …in the kitchen.
Beck Anderson:  … in a swanky hotel room in Hollywood.
If the book were a movie, what song would be playing under the final credits?
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  The classic song “Sentimental Journey.” I can just hear the lyrics… “I never knew my heart could be so yearny, Why did I decide to roam, Gotta take a sentimental journey, sentimenal journey home.”
Carla Laureano: I’m very inspired by music, so I have playlists for each book I write. The song that best fits this story is probably Daughtry’s “Start of Something Good.”
Samanthe Beck:  “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks.
Laura Drake:  “Forever and Ever, Amen,” by Randy Travis.
Beck Anderson:  Coldplay’s “Fix You,” of course!
This was your first  published novel. Was it the first book you wrote?
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  No, I also have a nonfiction book called SEASONS: A Real Story of an Amish Girl. This is the story of my Amish grandmother’s life of poverty through the Great Depression.
Carla Laureano:  This was actually the fourth book I wrote, and my fourth book to be contracted. The process with David C. Cook just moved faster than with my other publisher, so it ended up being the first one released.
Samanthe Beck:  Hell no.
Laura Drake:  This was my first book published. The first book I wrote, my ‘biker-chick’ book, Her Road Home, was published later that same year.
Beck Anderson: The first book I wrote is titled The Jeweler and is actually coming out soon — I’m working on it with my editor as we speak.
Tell us something about the day you got the Rita news:
Elizabeth Byler Younts: I was in the parking lot ready to go with my daughters to a homeschool field trip with hundreds of other families when I got the call. I almost dropped my phone! And then to hear that I double finaled—talk about the shock of a lifetime! It was so unexpected. I had time to call my husband and my mom and then during a quick break during the field trip I called my agent. A beautiful day and memory…I won’t soon forget—or ever.
Carla Laureano:  I actually forgot it was announcement day! I had a tight deadline, and my brain was completely in storyland. When the phone rang next to me, it almost gave me a heart attack. I think I said something really intelligent like, “Oh wow, cool, thanks” when she gave me the news. I was too stunned to come up with anything more eloquent.
Samanthe Beck:  Picked up the phone, and a nice woman named Nichole said, “Hi, I’m from RWA—” and I said, “Don’t even.” And she said, “I have to. It’s my job.”
Laura Drake:  I had just moved to Texas. I was out by myself, buying furniture. By the third furniture store, the disappointment set in. I wasn’t getting ‘the call’. I had just settled in the car to drive home when my phone rang.  I sat in that parking lot for two hours, calling everyone I knew! By the time I pulled out of the lot, I’d lost my voice from all the yelling.
Beck Anderson:  The phone rang while I was in the shower, and I thought it might be my cousin from Tennessee, so I called back without checking my messages.  It wasn’t my cousin, it was a RWA board member, Diane Kelly.  She gave me the good news, and I proceeded to jump gleefully around my bathroom in a towel.
 Something you’ve learned during this first year of being published:
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  It’s hard work. It’s really hard work. I’m a young mom and I homeschool…balancing work, family, and play is definitely not something to take lightly.
Carla Laureano: It’s easy to get caught up in the blessings and challenges that come along with being a published author, but when it comes down to it, my focus always has to remain on writing the best book I can. Now that I have fans (!!!) I feel a responsibility to put out work that I know they are going to enjoy. Without the readers, we writers wouldn’t have a job!
Samanthe Beck:  I write slowly, and despite all the time it takes, it’s not gold.
Laura Drake:   A zillion things! Probably the one that surprised me the most though, is that the waiting that I so chafed against when I was trying to sell is never over.
Beck Anderson:  Keep moving forward and keep writing.  And gold Sharpie pens dry out really quickly.
Another book in the Rita finals that you’re rooting for:
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano. Carla is a fantastic woman and writer. I will cheer the loudest for her.
Carla Laureano: This one is hard! It’s been such a crazy year, I actually haven’t read many of the finalist books. I’m always a fan of Lizbeth Selvig, Nora Roberts, and Jill Shalvis. I’m also thrilled to be nominated in two categories alongside my friend Elizabeth Byler Younts. It’s hard to feel too competitive when I respect and admire her so much.
Samanthe Beck:  “Robin Bielman’s Her Accidental Boyfriend in the Short Contemporary category.
Laura Drake:  I know quite a few of the authors, and I’m rooting for everyone. But mostly, Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do. She’s a wonderful person, and a dear friend of mine.
Beck Anderson:  Bella Andre’s The Way You Look Tonight — she followed me on Twitter, and I felt like a celebrity!
Upcoming/latest release:
Elizabeth Byler Younts:  The second in The Promise of Sunrise series comes out in October of this year. It’s called Promise to Cherish and it will take the reader deep into a mental hospital where a unit of conscientious objectors served in during WW2 and from there the setting moves to the lush green fields of Amish country in Delaware.
Carla Laureano: The first book in my young adult fantasy series—Oath of the Brotherhood—just released, with the other two volumes coming out in 2015. My second contemporary romance, which continues the MacDonald family stories with James’s older brother Ian, will be out next summer. 2015 is going to be a busy year!
Samanthe Beck:  Best Man with Benefits, from Entangled’s Brazen imprint, part of the Wedding Dare continuity.
Laura Drake:   I have two books out in August. Sweet on You, the last in the Sweet on a Cowboy series, and The Reasons to Stay, the next in my small town, Widow’s Grove series
Beck Anderson:   The Jeweler, out this fall.  Trouble Me, the sequel to Fix You, shouldn’t be too far behind!
Many thanks to the authors for taking time out for my questions. If you’ve read any of the finalist novels or want to comment on the interview, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Want to win one of the five books? Be sure to let me know which one!
 More about the authors:
RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Paranormals

RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Paranormals

First Book Rita

Romance Writers of America honors authors through the RITAs, awarded each year in a number of categories, including Best First Book. Once again, I’m pleased to host those nominees here at Dear Author. Each of the three installments in this series will feature a different sub-genre. The books you’ll see today finaled in a second category as well, and though I’ve grouped them as paranormals, they all bring in elements from other genres. If you’d like to win a diverse bundle of books, read on and drop a comment—have you read any of these or found something that looks interesting?


First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT, by Darynda Jones: As long as you’re escorting a murder victim to his final rest, why not seize the opportunity to help the police bring the killer to justice as well? This thriller-comedy-paranormal is also nominated in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category.

Opening lines: I’d been having the same dream for the past month—the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to play doctor with me.

Charley’s six-word memoir: Likes dead people. Live people? Meh.

She is a… part-time private investigator, full-time grim reaper.

Readers will love the hero because… he’s dark, mysterious, and was forged in the fires of sin. Literally.

The first kiss happens… in my heroine’s dreams.

I vividly remember writing… the opening scene. I remember it so vividly and it was where everything came to me. I knew right then and there that I was going to have a paranormal character who helped the departed in one way or another, but she would have a very different view of the world. And she’d have ADD. ADD was a must.

An unexpected research detour: I became immersed in the history and mythology of varying cultural ideas about the grim reaper. A character who plays a role in death and escorting the departed to the other side exists in almost all cultures, and each one has its own set of mythological rules. It’s quite fascinating.

This book taught me… to let go and write as brazenly as I wanted to, no holds barred.

What readers seem to love about First Grave on the Right: This one stumps me as well. If I had to guess, I’d say readers are very drawn to my heroine, Charley Davidson. She is fun and cynical and yet has a huge heart. She wins readers over with how much she cares, deep down inside, for the departed people she is helping.


HOURGLASS, by Myra McEntire: Despite treatment in a mental hospital, Emerson still sees ghosts. One last-ditch effort to “cure” her before she starts her senior year pairs her with a therapist who not only believes her visions, but has some incredible things to tell her as well. Hourglass is also nominated in the Young Adult catgory.

Opening Lines:  My small Southern hometown is beautiful in the haunting way an aging debutante is beautiful. The bones are exquisite, but the skin could use a lift.

Emerson’s six-word memoir:  I came, I saw, I conquered. (Did you hear the Jay-Z in there? Listen again.)

She is... a runner. She’s also a ninja. No, really.

What readers will love about the hero:  He knows his girl can handle her own business. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to help her out, but he definitely doesn’t hold her back.

The first kiss happens… in the hero’s bedroom. ;)

I vividly remember writing… The scene when they’re on the patio and they almost kiss. I remember why, because in the first seventy-billion drafts, they did kiss. But anticipation, she is a boon and a blessing.

An unexpected research detour… The Novikov Principle.

Hourglass taught me… that stubborn isn’t a bad personality trait.

What readers seem to love about Hourglass: Hope is a big deal for me, and it’s a big deal for Emerson, too. I hope readers are drawn to that. That, and the kissing. I like the kissing.


WARPED by Maurissa Guibord: A single unraveling thread in an antique tapestry sends Tessa on a time-traveling quest to save what she loves in both the Past and the Present. Warped is also nominated in the Young Adult category.

Opening lines:  On a hillside stood three figures. Black cloaks billowed over them from head to toe, while hoods cast a pall of darkness over their faces.

Tessa’s six-word memoir: Tessa tangled with the threads of Fate.

She… goes to high school and in her spare time works in her father’s used bookstore.

What readers will love about the hero: Will de Chaucy’s discomfort as he tries to make his way in the modern world after being transported from sixteenth century England. He’s a bit stuck up when he first encounters Tessa but he’s also endearingly smart, strong and loyal. Easy on the eyes too!

The first kiss happens… in a grimy Portland alleyway after a near death escape. So much adrenaline could not be wasted…

I vividly remember writing… Ha-ha—the first kiss—because I had been waiting for those two to kiss for so long! And then I sent that chapter to my friend to read and she said: “Change whatever you want in the revisions- but don’t change this!”

An unexpected research detour:  I walked around the streets of Portland, Maine near the waterfront—and saw more feral cats than I could count. They live beneath the fishing warehouses. It was kind of creepy—all these wild cats, lying in the sun, winding in and out behind loose boards and watching you. It was like something from a Steven King novel.

This book taught me… So much! Mostly because it’s my first published novel. I think more than anything it taught me how to work with an editor in the revision process. Luckily I had a wonderful editor, Michelle Poploff and she was fantastic, very patient with all my newbie questions.

What readers seem to love about Warped:  Time travel seems to appeal to a lot of readers (me included) and I think it’s fun to see the clash between two strong characters who come from different times, different cultures.


Number of books I wrote before this one sold:

Darynda Jones: Three

Maurissa Guibord: Two—both of which I still love. Of course I’m not crazy about how I wrote them, the plotting and the over-description make me cringe—but the stories are good. I hope to find a way to make them work someday—even if it’s only in the form of short stories. There are characters in both of those books that I love and will not give up on!

Myra McEntire: One and many, many halts.

How I found my agent:

Darynda Jones: This manuscript finaled in the Golden Heart. That final garnered a lot of attention and I had a lot of interest even before I started querying. I knew I had to take advantage of the situation. It’s a rare opportunity to have agents seeking you out. I polished and did tons of research, then sent out about 20 queries. First Grave had eight offers of representation a week later from some of the literary world’s most amazing agents. I chose Alexandra Machinist from the Janklow & Nesbit Literary Agency and have never forgotten how blessed I am to have her.

Myra McEntire: Query!

Someone who helped me along the way:

Darynda Jones: My incredible critique partner, Tammy Baumann, has been one of my biggest cheerleaders. I cherish her so much. And she is a Golden Heart finalist this year. Go Tammy!!!

Maurissa Guibord: Janet Hutchings, who is the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine bought my first adult mystery story and published it. That story actually got nominated for an Agatha Award (didn’t win) but when I met Janet in person she was so lovely and supportive of my writing. Her kindness gave me a tremendous boost of confidence.

Myra McEntire: CJ Redwine. She read Hourglass in draft form and told me that she thought her agent, Holly Root, would dig it. Luckily, she dug it.

One piece of wisdom I’ve gained:

Darynda Jones: Only one? I’ve learned so much. I think the hardest thing about being published is finding that balance between promotion and writing. The writing has to come first. I have a saying taped above my computer that says, “No field ever got plowed turning it over in your mind.”

Maurissa Guibord: I’ve learned not to compare myself to anyone else. Not in writing, possessions, success, looks, relationships, anything. Life goes more happily that way.

Myra McEntire: Be nice. You’re responsible for you, and treating people the way you’d like to be treated keeps you sane, even if others don’t do the same.

Acceptance speech—wing it, prepare it, or something in-between?

Darynda Jones: I’m horrid at winging it. I get tongue-tied as it is, so I will prepare it. I used to think it was silly to do so, but a very wise woman (Laura Hayden) told the Golden Heart finalists that year, “Don’t be dumb. Prepare a speech. You’ll never remember what you want to say.” LOL

Maurissa Guibord: It feels like tremendous chutzpah to prepare a speech because I think I’m more likely to be hit by a Good Humor truck than win a Rita.  But I’ve read advice by seasoned pros who say prepare something, only if to feel more relaxed during the ceremony and not make a fool of yourself if the impossible happens. So I will jot down something.

Myra McEntire: Can I express myself through lyrical dance? Will that work?

What’s coming up next?

Darynda Jones: I just turned in the fourth book in the Charley Davidson series, Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet, and I am currently doing rewrites on the second in a YA series I also have coming out from St. Martin’s Press. The first one, Death and the Girl Next Door, will be out in October a mere 4 weeks before Fourth Grave will his the shelves. It will be a busy month!

Maurissa Guibord: My next book, called Revel, will be out in February 2013. It’s also a young adult paranormal, about a girl who comes to a private island off the coast of Maine in search of her family. But when she arrives she discovers the island is ruled by demi-gods of the sea and their monstrous sea creature slaves.

Myra McEntire: Timepiece, from Kaleb’s point of view, is out this summer, and I’m drafting InfinityGlass, the follow up.

Oddest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:

Darynda Jones: Well, I am easily distracted, so I MUST block the internet. Not just turn off the Wi-Fi, but totally block it. So I check my email on my phone before I even get out of bed in the mornings and the minute I get on the computer, I use a program called Freedom that blocks access to the internet for the time you allot. It’s fantastic! I think I would still be on my second book without it. (Clearly, I have no impulse control.)

Maurissa Guibord: Is one that I wish I could break. I tend to write in bursts—lots of hours every day when I am caught up in a story—and then nothing for days or even weeks. I would love to develop the every day routine that some writers have. Still working on that.

Myra McEntire: Socks and hoodies are important. I also like to have a little pop culture in the background, maybe Vampire Diaries or the Harry Potter movies.

The worst part about writing a novel:

Darynda Jones: The first draft kills me. It is by far the hardest part. I love rewrites and revisions. I could do that all day, but that first draft is like pulling my hair out with my toes.

Maurissa Guibord: Having to finally finish revising it and let it go—no matter how imperfect you might think it still is.

Myra McEntire: The worst part about writing a novel: Doing it wrong.

The part I relish:

Darynda Jones: Rewrites, the part between the first draft and “official” revisions.

Maurissa Guibord: Brainstorming. I love brainstorming new ideas for twists or names, titles, anything like that. Especially with critique partners!

Myra McEntire: Finally getting it RIGHT.

How I fill my creative well:

Darynda Jones: I go to my “local” RWA chapter meetings almost every month, only they are four hours away from me, so it is a win-win situation. I daydream the entire way up and the entire way back. I plot and mix and hear voices in my head. And right in the middle of those either hours is a meeting with some of the most inspiring writers I’ve ever met, my LERA chapter mates. By the time I’m home, I am raring to hit the keyboard.

Maurissa Guibord: I love going to the movies. Something about being in that darkened theater and absorbing a story visually and immersively.  It just gets my mind going with new ideas, new stories. I find them very inspiring

Myra McEntire: Reading, listening to music, dancing, movies, tv shows. I love tv shows like Vampire Diaries because the story arcs are SO well thought out, and the twists are always surprising. I’m recently loving Supernatural as well, maybe because I’m a mom of two boys, or maybe because of Sam and Dean, or maybe because of all the Kansas usage. Carry on, my wayward son, and all that.

I’m a writer, but I’m also…

Darynda Jones: A wife, a mom, a grandmother, and a sign language interpreter. I love all my roles.

Maurissa Guibord: A mom to triplets.

Myra McEntire:  A ninja. (That’s a lie.)

Last class I took or skill I learned:

Darynda Jones: The last class I took was a graduate class in special education, and let me tell you, SPED teachers deserve medals.

Maurissa Guibord: This morning I learned how to solve a quadratic equation by factoring through an online tutorial. This was to help my 8th grader study for his math quiz. I’m really excited about it because math was never my forte. There is something transcendent about numbers, something that I’m a bit in awe of. I have an idea for a character who’s a math genius so I guess this might be heading into research territory…

Myra McEntire: I’m in the midst of learning how to use Pixelmator, which is kind of like Photoshop. It makes me angry. VERY, VERY ANGRY.

A book or author I recommend again and again:

Darynda Jones: JR Ward. LURVE!

Maurissa Guibord: Easy. As You Desire by Connie Brockway. For me it’s the perfect historical romance—two unforgettable main characters, Egyptian archeology, mystery and humorous banter.

Myra McEntire: One of the first things I ask a potential friend is if they read the Harry Potter series. I don’t get the people who haven’t. I think they need their own small island.

My favorite book at age ten:

Darynda Jones: Charlotte’s Web

Maurissa Guibord: I loved Half-Magic by Edward Eager. I remember walking home from the library, slowly, on a summer day while reading that book for the first time and feeling so perfectly happy.

Myra McEntire: Any Trixie Belden book. Every Trixie Belden book.

Thank you, authors! Readers, come back next week for Part 2 of this series. The RITA winners will be announced at RWA’s national conference on July 28.