An Interview with … Michael Caligaris

This week we’re chatting with agent Michael Caligaris of Holloway Literary. And we’re talking music, conferences and California.

What drew you to agenting?

Great question! When I lived in the Bay Area, I was a writer who cofounded a literary magazine. Over the years, I went to writer conferences, met agents, and became friends with many published authors and lovers of books. I guess when the opportunity to go down the path of being an agent presented itself I jumped at it. Good writing is what I live for and care about.

How has your experience getting an MFA from Saint Mary’s College shaped you as an agent?

I think it’s definitely helped me spot red flags in writing—common flaws that suggest the manuscript isn’t at the correct stage for an agent’s representation. Most importantly, it made me read, like a lot—especially novels, memoirs, essay collections that were completely outside my realm of interest. Funny enough, those books are what informed me the most.

What’s your fondest memory of the MFA program?

I got to teach a writing workshop to a retirement community in the Bay Area. The course was titled something along the lines of “Documenting Life”, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, I had about 16 students who were just incredible, fascinating, and warm people. The average age was in the 70s, so they’d lived some pretty wild lives!

Oakland_21534You were a cofounder of The East Bay Review and worked for the world’s largest academic science journal, PLOS ONE. What has been the best part of living and working in San Francisco? 

The best part is definitely the food, the culture, and the art scene. Oakland was where I spent a lot of my time, though. I love Oakland more than any other place in the world. And really, both cities are really alive and thriving regardless of the tech boom and flagrant gentrification—you just have to go find it.

What have you found is the most challenging part of working in publishing and living in another part of the country? 

This is probably the obvious answer: the pay. Publishing, and especially nonprofit publishing, will not necessarily make you a millionaire. But that’s not why you do it. The Bay Area rapidly changed during my time there. It went from reasonably expensive to impossibly affordable in about 4 years thanks to the start-up boom, the tech takeover, etc. It’s sad, especially for locals that live out in historic neighborhoods like The Mission. So, yes, making rent for a 450 sq ft studio on a publishing job salary was very challenging.

Any advice for authors looking to submit to you?

Yeah, please proof read many times over.

What does your dream manuscript look like?

I’d say my dream manuscript is 65-80k words. It has a prose style that is tight and minimal in a lot of ways. There involves a death—whether it’s a murder or natural causes I can’t confirm—and the themes of the books revolve around either music or some weird subculture.

You recently attended Michigan Writers Workshop. What was the most unexpected or exciting aspect of taking pitches there?Pitch-StockSnap_8I3JW46YVU

The most unexpected aspect—and this is truly me being honest—was how nervous some of the writers were. I guess I view myself as a pretty laid back and unimportant guy, and I’m just here to talk to people. But I totally understand that for many, this is their life’s work they are pitching! So that’s also the most exciting aspect.

What other conferences are you planning on attending where writers can meet and pitch to you?

I’ll be in Chicago and Nashville this summer for their Writers Workshops.

Any advice for authors who are going to be interacting with agents at conferences?

You usually only have 10 mins to pitch. Edit your pitch down to less than 5 mins and allow the rest of the time for questions or a conversation about your work!

What’s something about you that writers would be surprised to hear?

I’m a lacrosse coach!

What are you reading now? 

I’m guessing this is for books outside my agency queries. I just started Paul Auster’s new novel 4,3,2,1. I adore him, and he may be my favorite living author now that I think about it. The book is of course about New York but is also an immigrant’s tale. I love it so far. I’m also reading some John le Carré short stories on my Kindle. He’s the man.

What are your favorite books? As a kid? As an adult?

I think I was a pretty precocious child. If I’m being honest, my two favorite books as a kid were No One Gets Out of Here Alive (a Jim Morrison biography) and The Great Gatsby. As an adult, my favorite book of all-time is The Sun Also Rises—I even have a tattoo of the bullfighter, Pedro Romero, on my forearm. I’d say a close second is The Canterbury Tales.

Guitars-at-Wentworth-MusicYou’ve previously described yourself as “a guy who plays and loves music,” what are your favorite kinds of music? Bands?

Yeah! I’ve played an instrument for as long as I can remember—starting with banging on pots and pans as a toddler. I started on the guitar when I was 12 and have played ever since. I’m big on buying new gear and guitars, whenever I have the extra money. My favorite kind of music is earnest music. I say that because I like so many different types, and all I’m looking for is genuine songwriting. There’s just so much contrived music out there that tries to cash in on trends and/or the current zeitgeist. So I love Bjork, I love Johnny Cash, and I love David Bowie, and I absolutely love Radiohead because they don’t do those things and never have. But as of late, I also dig stuff coming from Kendrick Lamar, Mastodon, and Father John Misty (who is sort of the post modern answer to contrived music).

How do you combine your love of literature with your love of music?

I think that every writer’s prose style has a certain musicality to it. There’s a rhythm of course, which is a product of combining syntax, cadence, and narrative voice—and in good writing, these factors sort of tie into the themes of the book. For example, you read a pop fiction book such as Fight Club, the sentence structure and voice is so in your face and blunt and has all the makings of a punk rock album. And this ties right into the nihilism, the anarchism, and the masochism that is presented in the book. And clunky writing is a lot like clunky songwriting. Neither sounds good to the ear, and I won’t finish a book or a song if this were the case.

 

Michael, who has a Creative Writing MFA from St. Mary’s College, is an agent with Holloway Literary.  Learn more about him here and then follow him on Twitter @mikecali31.

Ready to get published? Register for Mountain High 2017 Writer’s Retreat located in the mountains of North Carolina. Learn more at Bookish Retreats and follow us on Twitter.

Author Natalie Charles Dishes On Meditation, Quilting & Story Structure

By Kortney Price

 Natalie Charles is the author of six romance novels, and we are discussing how she deals with stress, craftiness and her latest contemporary romance, Seeking Mr. Wrong.

Do you find it challenging to find the perfect work-life balance? How do you handle it? Can you offer any tips for other busy writers?

The balance comes in knowing your priorities. As a general rule, my family comes first. My children will not always be begging me to read them a story and tuck them in. Time with my husband is precious. Writing is very important to me and I make space for it, but when my family needs me, I set it aside and try not to feel guilty about it. The writing will always be there. That said, dreams take sacrifice. Sometimes I tell my children that I’m working and they need to respect that. But they’re still young and so usually the sacrifice comes at the expense of my own free time. I write instead of watching television or visiting social media.

Some writers meditate, others practice yoga. How do you de-stress? 

I do both of those things. Meditation especially has brought so much peace into my life and helped me to detach. I try to meditate daily, though I’m not perfect. Practicing yoga for an hour and reminding myself to simply breathe can alter my stress level for days. I also enjoy exercise, like running and weight lifting. I’ve also found that calling up a friend and having a good laugh is priceless.

In your last interview with us, you mentioned that you like to “always have a project going” and that you’re “a person who wants to try All Of The Things” Any fun new projects you’re working on?

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Natalie made this cool soap bar!

Yes! I just made a quilt. I thought it would be a fun, quick project, but then I decided to cut it up and make it more complicated.  Sigh. I’m really happy with it, though. I’ve also made a few batches of soap: one with essential oils and one with milk, honey, and oatmeal. It’s fun to stretch other creative muscles.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

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And she made this!

Besides “be yourself”-type advice, learning about story structure changed my writing life. Understanding that good stories follow a similar pattern was profoundly helpful. It’s like seeing the wizard behind the curtain. There are so many resources and books out there but I thought Libbie Hawker’s book “Take Off Your Pants!” was fantastic.

What are you reading now? Who do you read for fun?

Right at this moment I’m reading “In the Cards” by Jamie Beck and enjoying it very much. I just finished “Concrete Blonde” by Michael Connelly (I’m a Harry Bosch junkie but I jump around in the series) and next up I’m reading “The Marriage Lie” by Kimberly Belle. So, a romance, a mystery, and a romantic suspense. I read mostly genre fiction and I’m partial to anything with a puzzle in it.

Do you ever run into writers block? How do you deal with those moments?

So…yes, I have in the past. But I haven’t for a very long time because I’ve come to understand that writer’s block is really about fear–fear of failure, humiliation, rejection and any other nasty thing. Meditation has helped me to release a lot of my anxiety about writing and experience has taught me to surrender and trust the process. That helps. I give myself permission to write something terrible that I would never show to anyone. I write with the mindset that the words are for my eyes only and I never have to show them to anyone else. In other words, I try to create a safe space for myself before I begin writing.

What is your biggest challenge in writing?

Openings are always difficult. Even when I have an idea of how I want a book to progress, it’s like setting off to climb a mountain and being presented with an infinite number of trails. I come to the page with a lot of different ideas and it’s tough to pin down the story: the tone, the voice of the characters, the set-up, etc. It’s not unusual for me to write 40k words before I’m satisfied with those critical first three chapters. Once I wrote over 100k. The trouble is that I’m is usually working on a few books at once and I have to figure out how to separate them.

 How about the aspect of writing that you find comes the most naturally?

Dialogue comes pretty naturally. When characters are talking, I often feel like I’m watching them interact and simply transcribing what they say. I hear their voices.

mrwrong2How do you come up with your story ideas?

Writing a book is a mysterious process that I’ve decided I’m no longer going to pretend to understand. Sometimes stories feel inspired, but not always. Sometimes it’s work at first and the inspiration comes later. When I’m actively trying to plot a story, I like to put unlikely elements together in order to generate conflict from the premise. I ask, “What if?”  So in SEEKING MR. WRONG, I asked, “What if a sweet, mild-mannered kindergarten teacher had to write erotica?” There’s inherent tension from the start.

You’ve been writing and publishing for six years, how do you think the industry for romance writers has changed? Has it been for the better or worse?

Self-publishing has created a huge shift in the industry, particularly for romance writers. I think any time there are more options for readers and writers, that’s a good change, though others in the industry might disagree. E-books have leveled the playing field and allowed writers to connect directly to their readers. I love that people who live in remote areas can find my books in an online bookstore and read them immediately–that’s amazing. But there are also more expectations with technology. Authors are expected to be on all kinds of social media formats, send out newsletters, and blog. Writers can literally spend all day running their social media platforms. I’ve had to make choices about how to use my time and interact with readers while preserving most of my time for, you know, writing and real life.

You’ve published three romantic suspense novels and four contemporary romance novels. What is your favorite genre to write?

Right now I’m enjoying writing light contemporary romance because it brings me to a happier place. I love romantic suspense, but it can get awfully heavy. It’s nice to write about people falling in love when there are no bombs going off.

Is romantic suspense easier or harder to write than contemporary?

It’s harder. Talk about subplots! Right off the bat you have to balance a suspense plot with a plausible romance. The characters’ lives are in danger, but you have to make it seem reasonable that they would fall in love at that moment. Hard, right? And if you’re writing a suspense plot that involves an intricate mystery, you’ve got a lot to juggle. The suspense has to drive the romance and vice versa. It’s an amazing feat when it’s done well.

Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written?b1llzn6xhas-_ux250_

The book I’m currently working on is usually my favorite. But of the books I’ve published, my favorite romantic suspense is “When No One Is Watching” and my favorite contemporary romance is “Seeking Mr. Wrong.”

Do you think fans of your romantic suspense will enjoy Seeking Mr. Wrong? Why or why not?

I sure hope so! I always strive to write an intelligent, independent heroine and a strong hero with a heart of gold. If my romantic suspense readers have enjoyed the characters in previous novels, I hope they will give Lettie and Eric a chance. Even if there are no corpses.

For more information about Natalie and her latest book, Seeking Mr. Wrong, check out her website and follow her on Twitter at @Tallie_Charles!

Natalie Charles on Writing, Publishing and Projects

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Natalie is the award winning author of six romantic suspense and contemporary romance novels. Her latest book Seeking Mr. Wrong is scheduled to be released on February 17, 2017.

Where are you from originally? 

I’m from the Hartford region of Connecticut. I grew up in a middle-class town, the oldest of four children in a single-income household. My parents struggled. As a teenager I was acutely aware that some of my friends were vacationing in Greece while I’d never even been to Canada. They were shopping at stores I’d never heard of. (The GAP? What’s that?) The characters in my books reflect this experience: They are often a little bit off, a touch gauche, and slightly uncomfortable with wealth. Their clothes never fit quite right, or they can’t quite figure out how to carry a conversation with certain people. I can relate to that awkwardness.

What do you do for fun when you’re not writing?13051595_986624674763850_5662782988932496113_n

I enjoy reading, exercising (anything that doesn’t require coordination–Zumba is out), and going for walks or hikes. Besides that, I like to make things. I always have a project going. I quilt and sew, I knit, and I bake or do things like make my own sauerkraut or water kefir. Last spring I decided I’d start making my own soaps and lotions from scratch. I would visit with a friend and bring her four bars of soap, I had so much. Now I make my own laundry detergent, candles, carpet freshener…Yes, I realize this is strange. I just like to make things. I get curious about how something works and I go along with it.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Margaret Atwood has had a huge influence on me. I love her writing. I also love Gillian Flynn, Kristin Hannah, Michael Connelly…those are some of my favorites. But I read widely and I’m discovering amazing new writers all the time. I like to go into a bookstore and pull books I’ve never heard of off the shelf.

What are some of your favorite television shows?

I don’t watch that much television and I’m probably about five years behind (thanks, kids!). Some of my very favorite television series are Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Office. Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model are guilty pleasures. Also, I’m a little bit obsessed with old Columbo episodes. I get a kick out of the dated clothes and that fact none of the investigators wear latex gloves, or that the key to the crime might concern new technology called “an answering machine”. It’s amazing.
10991260_772062062886780_2681714091044272467_nHow did you get into writing?

I have always been a storyteller. As soon as I could speak, I was asking my mother to write down my stories. I stopped writing for a while when I was in law school but I don’t have any idea why that is. Maybe I was thinking that I was too serious or something. But for years, I stopped writing fiction. I loved law school and did a lot of legal writing, but after I became a lawyer, I was deeply unhappy. I felt mismatched in the profession from the very first day. It wasn’t long before I returned to writing as a way of sorting through this unhappiness. For me, writing is both therapy and escape. It’s saved my life and I don’t say that lightly.

How do you juggle a professional career, writing and being a mother?

It used to be that I would work all day as an attorney, come home to make dinner and put my children to bed, and then sit down at my computer to write. That went on for about four years, and to be honest, I found it unsustainable. It was absurd to put on a pot of coffee at seven o’clock at night so I could stay up past midnight, then wake up at five with my children. Something had to give. My husband opened his own law firm and after a couple of years, I joined him. That has allowed me much more flexibility. I work part-time now doing non-legal work and I’m able to devote the rest of my work day to writing. I’m incredibly fortunate.

Has your career influenced or inspired your books? If so, how?

Some of my romantic suspense features attorneys, and a lot of my books–if not all–touch in some way upon the legal system. But I don’t really enjoy writing about lawyers. We’re sort of boring and we argue a lot. More than anything, my legal training has influenced my work by teaching the value of being clear, concise, and logical.

 

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How do you pick a setting for your stories?

My books tend to swallow me while I write, so I pick a place where I want to spend some time. I love to write about seaside towns for that reason. Lately I’ve been setting my books in Connecticut. I choose the kind of place I want to explore, basically. Most of my towns are fictional. I like the freedom of that. But they’re all inspired by real places.

How much of your story do you plan before you start writing? 

I usually plot the high points of the story: The premise, the first and second turning points, maybe the ending. But I’m more of a pantser to be honest. I like to have a general idea where I’m going but I don’t like to be told how to get there. Plus, the story will inevitably surprise me, so any outline I might make is quickly abandoned

Your bio says you first wrote literary fiction. Do you think you’ll ever go back and work in that genre again? 

Maybe? I’ll never rule anything out. My interest right now is in telling a good story in my own voice. I took myself too seriously when I was writing lit fic. Everything felt like it had to be so profound and important. I’m happier with my writing now.

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The first novels you published were romantic suspense. What made you transition to writing lighter contemporary romance? 

I love mysteries. I devoured Agatha Christie as a child. So when I started writing seriously it made sense to me to write what I loved to read. But reading a book and writing a book are two different experiences. My books consume me while I write them. With romantic suspense, I had to do a lot of research about forensics, which meant that I was reading about blood splatter and horrific true crimes. I’m sensitive, and this brought me to a very dark place. I don’t like violence and I don’t like guns. I like puzzles, but I didn’t want to be inside of a character who feared for her life. Even more, I didn’t want to add to the fear in the world. I felt like this wasn’t my purpose. So I set out to write something happy and joyful. I wanted my readers to leave my books feeling better than when they picked them up.


You’ve published traditionally and self-published some books. What made you want to make the switch to self-publishing and now back to traditional publishing? 

You may have figured out that I’m a person who wants to try All Of The Things. I had to try self-publishing, just like I had to make my own soap. I wanted the experience of choosing my own cover, finding my own editor, funding my own audiobook, etc. And it was great! Self-publishing is a very brave act. There is no one who will validate you or tell you that your book is good enough. I spent a lot of time in sheer terror, but it was important for me to have the courage to strike out on my own. Still, I understand the value of having a team of people who can do things better than I can do them myself. Traditional publishers have leverage that a self-publisher may not. I still have a lot to learn from excellent editors and marketing professionals. So I’m back to publishing traditionally, but not necessarily exclusively.

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What have you learned from self-publishing that you’re looking forward to applying to your new books being published traditionally?

Self-publishing gave me the opportunity to hone my voice without the pressure to conform to a publisher’s standards. It’s liberating to sit down at a computer and think, “I’m going to tell this story my way.” Was I always successful? No. Every book is an experiment. But self-publishing gave me some creative space, and now that I have a better understanding of who I am as a writer and what stories I want to tell, I’m very excited to team up with Simon and Schuster. And I’m also a little more business savvy after self-publishing. For me, the experience of self-publishing has been great.

One aspect of your books that gets constant praise is your awesome characters. Any tips for authors looking to create great characters?

Well thank you! My characters are three-dimensional human beings to me. They have unique ways of looking at the world. Sometimes they are deeply flawed–who isn’t? But they often regret this and strive to be better.

My best advice for an author who wants to create great characters is to come to your page open and vulnerable. Please don’t give us a Mary Sue, some woman whose only imperfection is that she’s too darn good-looking and cheerful. That’s the worst. Give us a character with the parts of yourself that you try to hide. Drag out your shame, because that’s what we relate to. Oh, you’re painfully awkward at times? Me too. And sometimes you can be stubborn, or proud, or quick to anger? I get it. I want to read about something that’s honest and real. Writing is about connection, and those honest moments give us the best opportunity to connect with our readers. I won’t lie, it’s a scary way to write. You feel fully exposed. But if you’re a writer, you’re already pretty darn brave so you may as well go all the way. And then after you publish, stay off the internet. Don’t read your reviews. They don’t matter and they shouldn’t influence your work. Instead, write the next book with another flawed character.

If you could pick one character from your books to hang out with for a day, who would it be?

I’d spend the day with Jessie Mallory from my book A Sweet Possibility. First, because she makes chocolate and loves wine. But also because she is a person without guile: A real innocent. I love that about her.

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Your latest book Seeking Mr. Wrong comes out in February of 2017. Tell us about it!

Lettie Osbourne is a kindergarten teacher who writes children’s books about manners to supplement her income. But when her publisher is sold and Lettie is forced to write erotica to fulfill her contract, she sets out to find the right Mr. Wrong to expand her rather vanilla horizons.

This was such a fun book to write. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Keep up with Natalie and follow her on Twitter at @Tallie_Charles!

Writing a Query Letter: Tips from Our Agents

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Have you ever wanted to get inside the agent’s head about what’s really important in the query letter? Nikki and Rachel are sharing the best and worst things to see in a query and tips on how to put your best foot forward with your query letter.

 

What makes you want to request more from a query?

Nikki: The first thing I look for is a well-written query.  I want to see that the writer has done their research and understand how to write a query. Then common sense elements: are there spelling or grammatical errors,  is this a genre I’m currently looking for, has the author researched the agency and my submissions interests, is the word count in an appropriate range. And then I read for content. Is the story interesting, marketable? Does the writing compel me to read more? Can the writer…write. I am looking for a lot in a query. That’s why it’s so important that an author get it right.

Rachel: If the manuscript is in my wheelhouse (so one of the genres I represent); if the plot seems strong and compelling, without having been overdone; if the story seems marketable and would fill a need in the marketplace; if the sample writing hooks me in right away and has a strong set-up; if the characters seem fun and memorable; and—most importantly—if it’s obvious the author can write.

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What makes you want to reject a query?

Nikki: Grammatical errors, misspellings. Verbosity, i.e. I am the next Dan Brown! You will lose out if you don’t read this query! Too long bio. A summary lost in too much additional information I don’t need at the time. References to self-published materials that direct me to horrible reviews of your books. Multiple fonts and colors.  Queries for genres I’ve clearly stated I’m not interested in reading, or material that is too long for the genre. Writers that seem problematic.

Rachel: If I’m confused from the first sentence about the plot or genre; if the author seems like they’d be difficult to work with; if it’s not in my wheelhouse in terms of genre; if I’ve seen very similar queries and nothing about it feels unique or innovative; if the characters don’t seem likable; if I don’t connect with the voice from the sample pages.

 

What are your top best qualities in a query?

Nikki: A well-written query for the genre or themes in which I’m interested.

Rachel: All of the book’s relevant information is present and easily findable, preferably upfront: the title, genre, word count, etc. The story is actually in the genre the author says it is. The plot seems intriguing, unique and memorable. The characters feel lifelike and sympathetic from the get-go.

 

How about your top pet peeves in a query?

Nikki: Mentions of self-published material that have bad reviews or did not sell well.

Rachel: Top two are probably that it’s not a genre I expressly represent, and if clearly no market research has been done (i.e., this concept would never sell or it’s been done to death).

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Any other advice you want to add?

Nikki: Research the agency, the agents and their interests. Make sure you find the best agent for your work. And then send him or her the best possible query.

Rachel: Do your homework. It’s overwhelming, diving into the online world of agents and how to get published, but compile a spreadsheet of agents you want to query based on their current client list and sales. Targeting your manuscript appropriately is the best thing you can do when first putting your toe into the water of getting published (aka, looking for an agent). Putting in the effort upfront will ultimately help you get to the best agent for your work, and will save you both time in the long run.

 

If you’re looking to learn more about sending queries to Nikki and Rachel check out our submission guidelines. Want to learn more about query writing, check out our post outlining the basics of a query.

Ready to get published? Register for Mountain High 2017 Writer’s Retreat located in the mountains of North Carolina. Learn more on our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter!

Amber Mitchell on Great Characters and Writing Inspiration

By Kortney Price

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Amber Mitchell is the author of Garden of Thorns, which is to be released March 6, 2017. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in a small town in Florida with her husband Brian and their four cats.

On your site you mention that you love movies. Which are your favorites?

I think my favorite recent movie release has to be Zootopia. It was adorable! I can always watch Clueless, the Harry Potter movies and pretty much anything with Ryan Reynolds (loved Deadpool). However, I think the best movie I’ve ever seen is The Princess Bride. I can pretty much quote every word of it. I saw it when I was about 8 and it inspired my love of fantasy.

How have these movies influenced your writing?

I’m not sure how much the movies I watch influence my writing. I enjoy that they have such concise plots (which is something I struggle with in my own writing). Anything with a fantasy setting always captures my interest since I admire how movie makers (and game developers) create even the tiniest details that many people won’t even see for the backgrounds and sets.

You also call yourself a papercrafter. Tell us more about that.

Sure! My husband and I began a small business a few years ago crafting all manner of nerdy subject matter out of card stock. We take the shapes and layer them in a shadowbox frame using foam adhesive dots. It creates a 3D picture. We can make pretty much anything and it’s a great way to relax.

Here is a link to our Etsy shop: A Paper Place by ThePaperPonyPlace

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You seem to really be inspired by fairy tales. Which are your favorites? Have you based any of your writing on them?

There are three fairy tales that I’ve loved since I was a kid: Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. I was so excited to see Belle from Beauty and the Beast because of her adventurous spirit and her love of reading. I felt like I was looking at myself! The thing that stuck with me as an adult was how so many fairy tales were originally much darker than the tales I got as a child. I feel really inspired by that blend of childlike innocence and darkness. I think it’s also the thing that draws me toward stories where magic has a cost, a darker side.

As far as basing writing off them, I’d been searching for something that would be a good twist on the fairy tales I love but nothing ever seemed to be original enough. I finally came up with an idea I like for an Alice in Wonderland inspired story which I am writing right now. Alice’s theme of identity makes for a really good young adult novel and I’ll take any chance I can get to ship Alice with the Mad Hatter!

You’ve said that the characters are your favorite part of a novel. Who are your favorite characters and why?

I tend to fall for a different character in every book I read! A few of my favorites:

  • Tris from the Divergent series by Veronica Roth because I really admired her blend of toughness but also her vulnerability.
  • Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling because she was allowed to be clever and bossy but those are the things that made her endearing.
  • Yelena from the Study series by Maria V Snyder because of her unwavering strength

I recently finished Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo and fell in love with the Darkling!

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Any tips on creating awesome characters?

Creating characters is something I still strive to achieve. When I was a newer writer, I worried too much about what they looked like and spent a lot less time trying to understand the world from their view. I’ve found that the best thing I can do in when writing a scene is to look at that scene from every character’s perspective. I do a lot of writing in first person perspective which I enjoy but it also gets me stuck in one perspective. Pulling myself out of the main character’s head and figuring out how the other characters in the scene would react (even if it goes against how you originally saw the scene or plotted it) makes for a more exciting and real character!

One other tip is to give each character a few ticks or mannerisms. Even if they never get revealed in the book, I think it goes a long way to helping understand who they are.

You used to be a 911 dispatcher, how has that position inspired your writing?

Being a dispatcher definitely gave me insight into the different ways people react to stressful situations. I also got much better at reading between the lines of what people said versus what they actually meant. I haven’t had a chance to write an officer into a story yet but I’m also very well versed in police procedures and investigative techniques. Many nights, I would question whichever police officer that walked into dispatch about what it feels like to hold a gun or what they saw on a regular basis.

On your website you write about facing your writing fears. What have been some of the biggest writing fears you’ve faced?

I believe the greatest fear most writers have is that nagging question: am I good enough? Am I good enough to write this book, am I good enough to get an agent, to get a publisher and when all that happens, will people like my book? We spend all this time putting words to paper, having our character face things we’d never face in real life, and infusing our books with things we might not even want to admit to ourselves just to turn around and put it out in the world and let people judge it.

The ugly truth is that failure is part of every step of the writing process and something every writer faces daily. I’m not sure I have a good answer on how to face this yet. I just remember that we can only grow by trying.

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As you’ve traveled along the path to publishing your novel, what has surprised you about the publishing industry?

I’m a firm believer in doing research to prepare myself in whatever I do so I gathered as much knowledge as I could before going through the publishing process. Still, there have been a few surprises along the way. I’m in the very early stages of the process but the biggest two surprises have been how long each step of the process takes and my reaction to waiting. I’ve always considered myself a patient person but the publishing process has shown me that I’m clearly not. I’d always read stories of other writers constantly checking their email and thought that I’d be okay with just waiting for my phone to alert me if anything was going on but I was totally the opposite! Some days, all I could do was stare at my screen and wish for something to happen!

Your first novel, Garden of Thorns, comes out next year. Tell us more about it!

Garden of Thorns is a young adult novel that takes place in an Asian inspired fantasy setting. It follows 17-year-old Rose who escapes from the Garden, a burlesque troupe of slave girls, and joins a rebellion against the current Emperor. There she meets the handsome rebellion leader, Rayce, and tries to convince him to aid her in her quest to end the cruelty of the Garden and free the other dancers still held captive. But she harbors a secret that she fears might force the rebellion to use her as a pawn and she’s not sure who she can trust. There is lots of adventure and kissing and even a bit of science-inspired magic!

gardenMy book will be published by Entangled Publishing (who are amazing) March 6, 2017.

I’m so excited to share my YA fantasy novel Garden of Thorns with everyone! The main characters, Rose and Rayce, have been such a big part of my life for a long time and it has been so surreal to talk with actual people from within the industry who know and care for them as much as I do!

To keep up with Amber check out her website and follow her on Twitter @Amberinblunderl

Magnolia Smith On Romantic Suspense and Being A Military Spouse

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Magnolia Smith is the creator of the Black Orchid Series. Her debut novel, Tell Me No Lies publishes on May 17, 2016. She was born and raised in North Carolina where, when she isn’t writing, you can find her visiting vineyards and Civil War battlegrounds, watching her favorite shows: Scandal and Homeland, practicing hot yoga and blending her own herbal teas.

In your bio you mentioned that you are a military spouse?  What branch of the military is your husband in?

My husband is in the U.S. Marine Corps. He’s been in for almost 18 years.

Has being a military spouse influenced your writing?

I think so. I traveled abroad before I was married, but I’ve had the opportunity to really travel the world with my husband. My love for travel and diverse locations and cultures is reflected in my choices of story setting and or plot. For example in my novel TELL ME NO LIES, revolves around political intrigue and the Taiwanese government. Time spent stationed in Okinawa, Japan increased my interest in East Asian affairs.

I also enjoy making my heroes current or former military. That definitely comes from living on military bases and seeing real heroes, our Marines and our other armed forces on a daily basis. It also gives you a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices they make when they join the armed forces.

In your bio you also mention that members of the US Armed Forces and American Law Enforcement make great characters. What were some of the challenges of crafting characters in a field you respect so much?

Well, I wanted to be accurate as well as entertaining. I am writing romantic suspense. Readers of this genre are looking for escapism as well as thrills. One challenge – a fun challenge – was making sure technical details in reference to weapons, mission protocol, etc. were correct.

Early reviews of your book have said that your books feature “strong heroines.” What makes a strong heroine? 

I think a strong heroine can be different things for different people. For me, a strong heroine will be intelligent, well-informed and purposeful. As part of their character arc, they may not begin that way but they usually end up strong and determined.

One of the taglines for the men in your book is “Sexy Alpha Assassin.” What makes a “sexy alpha assassin?”

lol I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. The men of THE BLACK ORCHID are gorgeous hunks – tall with ripped muscles, gorgeous faces… and they have Alpha – dominant, take charge – personalities. But they are not all the same. There are degrees of Alpha, and so the male characters in my stories reflect the varying degrees of “Alpha-ness” from hardcore extreme to borderline Beta.

Did your military influence and strong characters, naturally guide you toward writing in the romantic suspense genre? How did you chose this genre as opposed to another?

Yes, I think so. If you just start with a character – a guy who is a former Green Beret now working as an assassin… well, there really aren’t many options are there? lol However, since I am writing romantic suspense and the general audience is women (though I think men will love this book too!!!) I focus on romance and interpersonal relationships too. Something you wouldn’t necessarily see in a thriller. And I’m a big fan of thriller writers like Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. In fact reading those authors is what gave me the idea to write romantic suspense. I would read their stories and wonder about the women in the main character’s lives. As a fan of romance, I wanted to know more about the relationship with a man who was an assassin or spy. It seemed terribly interesting to me. And that’s what compelled me to create THE BLACK ORCHID SERIES.

Do you have any tips for writers who want to craft an “edge of your seat” romantic suspense novel?

Read thrillers, watch action-packed espionage films like James Bond and Jason Bourne for inspiration. Then plot out the suspense separately from the romance – make sure it is authentic, makes sense to both the romance and the action-elements of the story. Care as much about the suspense as you do the romance. The suspense should not be an afterthought.

In your bio you mention several interests outside of reading and writing, such as herbalism, cooking, wine, and travel. How do you balance work, fun, family and writing?

It’s challenging. I have a husband and three school-age boys! Time management is key. And making sure that writing stays a priority. (Along with soccer practice, cooking meals, helping with homework… : )

Let’s talk about your interest in herbalism. Can you tell us more about that?

Sure. I got into natural medicines when I lived in Okinaway and my newborn was allergic to everything! I started researching our food supply, medicines and alternatives to synthetics remedies. I was really afraid to give my son (now 8) anything that would cause him to have reactions. At the time he was allergic to dairy and gluten – would have horrible stomach cramps, gas and eczema.

I discovered essential oils, teas and other natural remedies to combat his reactions. This also included trying to eat mostly organic, non-GMO foods and keeping our home environment clean with plants and toxin-free cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, etc. Sorry, that answer incorporated more than herbalism, didn’t it?

Do you include herbalism in your writing? If so, how?

Not so much in this particular story, but the main character Rain drinks herbal tea, does yoga, eats organic – basically lives a really clean, healthy life. I have plans to write a story featuring a character that is a natural healer, but that’s later!

You mentioned in an interview with JustRomanticSuspense.Com that you view the food and beverages in your stories as props. Tell us more about the part food plays in your stories.

Yes, I love food! I’m a foodie. But really, who doesn’t enjoy a tasty meal, right?  I think a glass of wine or a burger or chocolate truffles, whatever adds… ambience if you will, to the story. When characters are eating or drinking in my stories, I think about what they would really eat. It’s part of the character development. One guy drinks craft beer, while another drinks wine and another shots, for example.  I just pay attention to the food and beverages I write about as if they were another (albeit) secondary character in the story.

Your travels are featured in your books through settings from around the world and a diverse cast of characters. How does this add to your story? Why do you think this diversity is important?

Everyone is talking about diversity right now. But it’s not a new concept. You have only to walk outside, go to the story or work or wherever and usually your world is diverse. I think part of creating an authentic story includes writing about the people that would actually be in the story. For me, there are just naturally characters of all colors, cultures and nationalities in my stories. I don’t make a big deal about it, the characters just are. Kind of like in real life, you know?

To learn more about Magnolia, visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @HunterSmith01.