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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:
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