Romance novelist Denise Williams joins Queries, Qualms, & Quirks this week to discuss waiting for it to be your turn, debuting during a pandemic, your worst fears coming true (and it being okay), not reading your reviews, and no trade review ever being as harsh as her young son’s feedback.
Denise Williams wrote her first book in the 2nd grade. I Hate You and its sequel, I Still Hate You, featured a tough, funny heroine, a quirky hero, witty banter, and a dragon. Minus the dragons, these are still the books she likes to write. After penning those early works, she finished second grade and eventually earned a PhD.
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Transcript of Queries, Qualms, & Quirks: Romance Author Denise Williams and Comparison Being the Thief of Joy
April 22, 2021
Transcribed by Jake Nicholls
[00:00] Denise: You can look at other people’s journeys and compare yourself and lament, but it doesn’t do any good.
[Intro music: strumming guitar]
[00:08] Sarah: Welcome to Queries, Qualms & Quirks, the weekly podcast that asks published authors to share their successful query letter and discuss their journey from first spark to day of publication. I am your host, Sarah Nicolas. I hope you’re enjoying the podcasts and the stories authors are sharing with you. If you are, please consider leaving a review on your podcast app or sharing the episode on social media. If you’re interested in supporting the show with a couple of bucks a month, go to patreon.com/pubtalklive.
Denise Williams wrote her first book in the second grade. I Hate You and its sequel, I Still Hate You, featured a tough, funny heroine, a quirky hero, witty banter, and a dragon. Minus the dragons, these are still the books she likes to write. After penning those early works, she finished second grade and eventually earned a PhD.
[00:59] Denise: Hi! Thanks for having me.
[01:01] Sarah: Of course! Thank you so much for coming on. So, I love your titles from second grade! [Laughs]
[01:07] Denise: [Laughs] Thank you!
[01:10] Sarah: I am terrible at titling books, so that is probably better than anything I’ve come up with in my adult life, so… [Laughs]
[01:18] Denise: I hate coming up with—oh, I love coming up with titles, but they’re never the ones that the books are published with.
[01:24] Sarah: Mm… well, maybe you can come up with some of my titles. [Both laugh] So, let’s start and kind of go all the way back to the beginning. Your bio mentions it, but when did you first start getting interested in writing, and then how long did it take before you started getting serious about pursuing publication?
[01:43] Denise: Well, I have always loved to write. I did write those early stories in the second grade, and a lot of very, very angsty, very horrible poetry in high school, short stories. And I just always loved to write, just to express myself. And usually it was little short stories, it was little vignettes, or essays, or poems. I just always loved to express myself creatively, and so that’s really been part of my life as long as I can remember. But I really stopped doing it very actively or intentionally when I got to graduate school. And that’s mostly because I was writing things that were not fiction, that were not creative, and almost never involved kissing! And so, I never really got back to writing until I finished my PhD, and I had my son about a year later, and at that point I just thought, “Gosh, you know, I need a creative outlet. I’m buried in momming, in work, in my academic writing.” And so, I sat down to write what I thought would just be a short story, or just this idea—this little story about a professor that was in my head, and then I kept doing it, and kept doing it, and kept doing it, and eventually I had a book! And I still wasn’t serious about publishing or even thinking about it, really, until I showed it to a friend who was like, “Oh, this is kind of good!” and I was like, “Oh, maybe…” And it was sort of through that process that I even learned about how publishing worked, and we’ll get into querying and everything, but I didn’t know what that was; I had to google it. So everybody was talking about these things, and for me, who is very much a planner, who is very intentional about most things in my life, I kind of fell into publishing in an unexpected way.
[03:18] Sarah: Can you tell us a little bit more about the moment that you realized that you wanted to be a published author? That, yes, you’re going for it and you’re going to try to get it done.
[03:29] Denise: I’m trying to think of what that very first moment was. I got involved in an online writing community called Scribophile, which—if folks are looking for critique partners and support, I found that site to be incredibly supportive and met so many wonderful people—and that’s where I learned about all the different publishing processes and options. And somebody had read my book, and they said, you know, “This is good. Are you going to try this out?” and I decided I would enter a Twitter pitch contest. I think it was #PitMad. I’d been on Twitter for about three minutes; I didn’t know anybody. And I didn’t know how to write a pitch, but I put it out there in the world and I think I got, like, three likes or [laughing] something like that. It was not a runaway success. But it was that first moment where I was like, “Okay, I’m doing this. I’m putting it out there. I’m gonna send this query letter out that I’ve written, and I’m going to try for this and kind of admit that I want this.” And I still have that tweet somewhere. Thank goodness, got a little bit better at pitching. But that was that first time I kind of stuck my toe in the water and prepared myself for rejection—and got it—and had that moment. And so, I think that was really the first… that first step.
[04:37] Sarah: I’m going to ask you to date yourself a little bit, because I’m dating myself here. [Denise: Laughs] When you did your first Twitter pitch contest, was it 140 characters or 280 characters?
[04:48] Denise: [Laughs] It was 280. [Sarah: Oh, okay.] So, I’m pretty new to the writing game. I started writing How to Fail at Flirting in 2016. And then, that Twitter pitch was probably in fall 2018. So, I’m a little newer to the game, so I had the full 280.
[05:08] Sarah: Nice. Yeah, I started when it was 140, and I like to talk about it the way that my parents talked about, like, walking to school through snow, you know?
[05:17] Denise: Uphill both ways. [Laughs]
[05:19] Sarah: Yes. Once you decided that you wanted to be published, you mentioned that you started learning more about the publishing industry. So, how did you go about that? Figuring out how it worked, and how to query, and what querying was, and all that kind of stuff. Where did you get all of your information?
[05:34] Denise: Yeah. I’m a researcher as part of my professional life, and so, you know, doing research on that, for me, felt very comfortable. That was a lot more comfortable than putting myself out there and actually doing it. So, I found a lot of websites, a lot of blogs. I think I remember looking at Query Shark and a number of others. And then a number of my friends on Scribophile were talking about it as well, and then stumbled on some things on Twitter. So I just tried to gather as much information as I could about resources, about how to find agents, about how to write a query letter—all of those sorts of things. So, for me, it was mostly googling, internet searching in those social spaces. In part because nobody in my life, that I knew of, was involved in publishing, or really knew how this worked. And I’m in Iowa, which is a lovely place to be, but it’s not necessarily a bastion of publishing. And so, at the time, I didn’t really have a lot of people I could go ask, even though I know who some of those people are now. So, for me, it was a lot of googling.
[06:37] Sarah: So then what happened? Can you break down for us, kind of, your journey from then to signing your first book contract?
[06:45] Denise: Yeah! So I did that first pitch contest. I think I sent off to one agent and was rejected very quickly. That was in the fall of 2018. I think I had a fairly… as querying stories go, my journey was a fairly smooth one. So I learned a little bit more about writing a better query, about pitching, and I participated in #DVpit, maybe the next month. Which, if folks are not familiar with that, is a pitch contest for authors of marginalized identities, and that’s actually where I ultimately connected with my agent. In the interim, I think I probably queried for about three months and got a lot of rejections. I had a beautiful spreadsheet where I kept track of them all, because I’m a data nerd. It had been a while and I hadn’t heard back from anybody I had sent my full manuscript to or my partial manuscript to, so I sent out my queries in waves, ten or fifteen at a time, and tried to give everybody a couple months there. And it was January—I think January 2nd. I was like, “Okay: new year. 2019, it’s my year. Let’s send out this next batch of queries.” So I got them all ready, sent them out on January 2nd. January 3rd I got an offer of representation. [Sarah: Wow.] And so I did what you’re supposed to do: I nudged everybody, including the people I’d sent to, like, [laughing] nine hours before. I’m sure that was an odd email, to say, “Hey, I just queried you, um, yesterday. I’m sure you haven’t looked at it yet, but I have an offer, so I wanted to let you know that.” And then there was this whole flurry of communication with the agents who offered, and folks wanting full manuscripts. And, you know, querying is such a challenging thing because so much of it is getting rejected, and finding the right person to represent you and who loves your book, but, still, it’s a lot of rejection. And then there’s all of a sudden this flurry of, “They love me! They really love me!” And so that was sort of magical and stressful. And then I signed with my agent, Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, and then… signed with Sharon in January of 2019, and then went out on sub in March, and signed the contract in April or May. So, for me, that process was fairly smooth, and I was, I think, very lucky to connect with both an agent and then an editor who loved the book, and got the book, and shared my vision for the book, in a really kind of condensed time frame.
[09:10] Sarah: Yeah, that is probably one of the shortest journeys [Denise: Laughs] that we’ve covered on this podcast. So that’s—congrats, great for you! [Denise: Thanks!] Can you read your successful query letter for us?
[09:23] Denise: I can! And, you know, I really should have read this before I knew I was going to read it on the podcast, but here we go:
Complete at 90,000 words, THE PROFESSOR’S LIST is an adult contemporary romance novel that will appeal to fans of Mariana Zapata’s relatable characters (Dear Aaron, Wait for It), the hurt and resilience in Kennedy Ryan’s Long Shot, and the heat and banter of Christina Lauren’s Wild Seasons Series.
Professor Naya Turner’s life is her work and she’s avoided dating for years. Now, her flailing department is on the university’s chopping block and she’s in danger of losing her job. In an attempt to reclaim some part of her social life in the midst of professional turmoil and rejoin the dating pool, she adds ‘sex with a stranger’ to her to-do list.
Jake, a sexy, charming, out-of-town visitor is the perfect opportunity for Naya to shed her inhibitions without consequences. He makes her laugh, shows her the best sex of her life, and helps her find her confidence. After a few days, he doesn’t feel like a stranger at all and she can’t believe her luck. Except for one problem. That chopping block? He’s wielding the axe.
To make matters worse, Naya’s abusive ex returns, threatening to reveal her darkest secrets and ruin her professional reputation. She’s reminded why she shied away from intimacy for so long. Naya must choose between the cold comfort of her self-imposed walls and risking all she’s worked for in order to be with Jake, whose axe still hangs precariously close to her career. For Naya, sex with a stranger was easier to cross off the to-do list than truly trusting someone new.
New to fiction, I have worked at colleges and universities for fifteen years and have a Ph.D. in education. My published works are academic (three journal articles and a forthcoming book chapter) and about military students in college. I look forward to hearing from you and I have attached the first 10 pages of the manuscript below.
[11:07] Sarah: I love that there are so many sources of conflict in that letter! [Laughs]
[11:11] Denise: [Laughs] There’s a few sources of conflict in the book! [Sarah: Yeah!] I did have the opportunity to work with an editor on it, which was very helpful. There was a Black Friday deal, and so it was ten dollars to get a query letter looked at. And I’m glad I did that, ’cause it’s definitely a cleaner version than what I had been using before.
[11:32] Sarah: How has your experience been since signing your book contract? Were there any surprises for you along the way?
[11:40] Denise: I think publishing is, like, ninety percent surprises! [Both laugh] But, again, I think my journey has been fairly smooth. It was about eighteen months between signing the contract and the book coming out, so, for romance, I was probably on the longer end of that process. But Jen DeLuca, who wrote Well Met and Well Played and Well Matched, just coming out—she’s with Berkley—said something to me that I thought really defines, kind of, that period for me, and I think is such good advice. And it was that ninety percent of publishing is waiting for it to be your turn. [Laughs] And so, you’re waiting for your book to be in the spotlight, or to have the time where your book is kind of centered, and then that happens, and it’s amazing, and then you go back to the end of the line again. And so, [laughing] that’s where I am now. But I think really the only thing that surprised me was the time it took for everything. And on a logical level, I knew that—I knew what eighteen months was, I knew when my publication date was. Just sort of the waiting, I don’t know if I expected that. But, of course, that was also debuting in a pandemic year, so [Sarah: Mm.] I think everything was a little strange that year anyway.
[12:48] Sarah: So, this wasn’t one of the planned questions, but do you want to talk a little bit about that—debuting during a pandemic year?
[12:55] Denise: Sure! Sure. So, yeah, my book came out in 2020. And, in March, when everything shut down, I thought, “Oh, man! I was not excited about my December release date, but whew, we should be fine by then!” [Sarah: Oh no!] I was so naive. But I was a part of the 2020… we had a group of debut authors across genres—there were a couple hundred of us—in a Facebook group, and that was a wonderful support. And so, I actually got first-hand insight into a whole lot of people putting their books out in the pandemic: figuring out how to do virtual events, what worked and what didn’t, what the changes were with publishing houses. I think, you know, we even processed things like: nobody who debuted that year got to do in-person events, at least folks who were March and forward. And so, in the grand scheme of things, that’s a small loss and we all understood why it happened, but even just mourning those sort of author rituals that we’d all looked forward to for so long, that we didn’t get to do those. So, I think we’re all just claiming a do-over [Both laugh] with our sophomore books—at least, I am.
For me, that also made the time go a lot faster. I was home with my kid and working full-time for six months, which is not normally my jam, nor what I would ever choose to do, but that did make that waiting time go faster and so that was nice. I think an upside that a lot of people saw is there was a lot of support for books coming out in 2020, but especially debuts coming out in 2020, sort of knowing those challenges. And people were reading more. So there is, I think, some upsides, but I don’t have anything to compare it to. But I am really thankful I had that group. And a subset of us who are all people of color had a group, and we met every couple of weeks and had a Zoom. We actually still chat once a month. And so, it was just finding those support structures, was so, so huge in that.
I don’t recommend it—I mean, if you can avoid debuting in a pandemic, I suggest avoiding that! But no plot twist that you ever write was gonna compare with that year, so [laughs] pressure’s off.
[14:54] Sarah: Tips for listeners: do not debut during a pandemic. Just write that down on the list. [Both laugh] I think with a romance… so we were seeing a lot of stats come out that people were gravitating towards the kind of lighter, happier, fun books that felt like comfort in such a weird, confusing time.
[15:18] Denise: Yeah. I mean, romance is one of the best-selling genres, anyway, in a normal time. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] And I think the guarantee of ‘happily ever after’ is a big draw when nothing around us feels like it’s a guarantee at all. And so, I think that was definitely the case, that’s what it seemed like—it’s definitely what I felt. I almost exclusively read romance. I read a lot of things, but the bulk of it is romance, and those books made me feel better. They made me feel hopeful. They made me feel like, “Okay, things are gonna be all right, and I just won’t turn on the news or look at what’s trending today.” And so, that was, yeah, definitely true for romance and I think some other books as well.
[15:52] Sarah: Okay, it is time for the quick round. I call it author DNA. [Denise: Okay!] And it’s just kind of, like, the little classifications that we talk about when we talk about writers. Are you a pantser or a plotter?
[16:05] Denise: I’m a plantster. I get very into my spreadsheets and planning and mapping, and I map, like, forty percent of the book, and then I get bored and just start writing it. [Sarah: Laughs] Until I get to, like, the eighty percent mark, and I realize, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen!” and then I go back and kind of revisit my outline. But I always want to be a plotter, so I claim just, like, a little bit of it.
[16:27] Sarah: [Laughs] Interesting. Do you tend to be an overwriter or an underwriter?
[16:32] Denise: I am almost always an overwriter. I think… my book that’s coming out this fall, I think I cut about 20,000 words from that one. I definitely cut about 20,000 words from How to Fail at Flirting before we sold it. So, uh… less so now—I’m a bit better at planning, but, yeah, I usually write more than I need.
[16:48] Sarah: Do you tend to be more of a morning writer or a nighttime writer?
[16:52] Denise: Nighttime. Yeah, nighttime. [Laughs] I want my sleep in the morning, but if I could stay up ’til 3 a.m. every night, I would happily do that.
[17:01] Sarah: I started asking that question, by the way, and it was originally ‘night writer’, and that just made me think [Denise: Laughs] of the TV show, so… [Both laugh] I’ve changed it. When you start writing a story, do you usually start with character, or plot, or concept, or some other element first?
[17:20] Denise: Yeah, usually concept, then character, then plot.
[17:24] Sarah: Mm. Do you prefer coffee or tea?
[17:27] Denise: Okay, that should not be the hardest question. [Both laugh] I’m pretty down the middle. Usually when I’m writing, it’s water or Diet Coke. But I am a regular at Starbucks. They know my order—where ‘besties’ mean the baristas. So, on the way to work, it’s always coffee, but if I’m making it myself, it’s always tea. I know that was a really hard question.
[17:47] Sarah: Yeah. It sounds like your preferred caffeine source is Diet Coke, then?
[17:51] Denise: Yeah. Yeah, it’s an addiction. It’s probably a problem. [Sarah: Laughs]
[17:54] Sarah: When you’re writing, do you prefer silence or some kind of sound?
[17:58] Denise: You know, I’m really not prescient about it. If I have a soundtrack for a certain kind of scene that I’m writing, I like to just listen to a couple of those songs on repeat. But I work full time, a pretty demanding job; I have a five-year-old at home. So writing really happens when I can do it, aside from some specific coves I’m able to kind of carve out. So, you know, sometimes that’s writing at my desk over my lunch hour, where there’s students outside the door. Sometimes it’s narrating to myself in the car as I’m driving home. And sometimes it’s just in the glorious silence after my kid goes to bed. So I don’t—I’m not real specific about what I need to write, for sound.
[18:38] Sarah: Mm-hm. I think that’s really great. I remember I was talking to Jonathan Maberry a couple years ago, and he—well, in normal times, he travels a lot. He does, you know, thirty, forty events a year. And so he has to write when he travels, and I asked him how he did it, and he’s like, “I just… I can write anywhere, and I’ve made sure that I didn’t get in, you know, a rut where I had to have a certain element, or whatever, to write.” So he’s, like, one of the only writers I know who can write on an airplane. [Laughs]
[19:10] Denise: You know, one of my best—like, most productive—writing sessions ever was on an airplane.
[19:15] Sarah: Oh yeah? [Laughs]
[19:17] Denise: The upgrade to first class was pretty inexpensive; it was like fifty bucks, or something, on a two- or three-hour flight. And so I took it and I think I wrote, like, four thousand words on that flight, or something. [Laughs] I was like, “Okay, maybe first class is a good writer/author write-off for the future.” [Laughs]
[19:33] Sarah: Yeah, that’s how you can justify it.
[19:35] Denise: Yeah, right? I don’t know if the IRS would agree. [Laughs]
[19:39] Sarah: If there are any tax experts listening, let us know. [Laughs] [Denise: Definitely.] You have more elbow room in first class, so that helps.
[19:47] Denise: You know, I remember—I will put this in a book someday, but the first time I ever rode first class, I was in college. And I got bumped and they didn’t tell me that I got bumped. And so, I got on the plane and they’re like, “Oh, you’re in row two.” and I was like, “Is there another row two?” [Sarah: Laughs] Like, “Oh no, welcome to first class!” And I sat on the front of my seat, clutching my backpack [Sarah: Laughs] as everybody else filed in, because I was sure they were gonna make me get up and move. [Sarah: Aww!] And then, there’s all these—you know, I was an adult, I was in college, but—people who I thought of as adults sitting around me, and they’re offering me, you know, “Oh, what do you want to drink?” and I was, like, “Can I have a rum and coke?” I think I just turned twenty-one. And it was just the most, sort of, surreal experience of my life. It was, like, a thirty-minute flight from Chicago, or something like that, but I always thought, “Okay, this is the way I wanna fly forever now.” [Laughs]
[20:33] Sarah: Mm-hm! When it comes to writing your first draft, are you more of a get-it-down kind of person or get-it-right kind of person?
[20:39] Denise: Definitely get-it-down.
[20:40] Sarah: And what tools or software do you use to draft?
[20:43] Denise: You know, usually I use Scrivener. It’s where I keep my drafts. I really like that it—I have it back up to the cloud every two seconds, I can use it across all my machines. And I really like how you can organize things, so I’ll usually—the part of my outline that I remember to create, I will import that, and then start writing. Again, since I’m kind of writing wherever I can, sometimes I’m narrating into, like, a Google Doc, and then I’ll move that in. I have a—it’s called a Freewrite, like an AlphaSmart, [Sarah: Mm.] so I can upload things there if I can just write on the fly or, you know, do that in, like, a doctor’s waiting room, or something along those lines. But Scrivener is really where I like to keep the first draft, and then I like to edit in Word.
[21:22] Sarah: Do you prefer drafting or revising more?
[21:26] Denise: I prefer the beginning of drafting and the end of revising. [Both laugh] Like, that first exciting moment where it’s all coming together and it’s so great! And then you have to figure out how to put it together. And then the start of revising, I feel like is so hard, because it’s like, “Where do I begin?” But then you get to that point, kind of, on the second half, where it’s, again, all coming together and you feel like you’re putting the pieces and things that were up in the air are falling into place, and it’s just that wonderful feeling of: “I wrote a book! And it might be good.”
[21:57] Sarah: Yeah, those are the most fun times, I think. [Denise: Yes!] [Both laugh]
[22:02] Denise: I’m right now doing copy edits, so I feel like I’m one end with one book, and I just finished drafting another book, and so I’m in both places right now.
[22:09] Sarah: Do you write in sequential order or hop around?
[22:12] Denise: I’d say in normal times, I write sequentially. The book I just finished drafting will be my third book, out in the fall of ’22. I wrote a large chunk of that during the pandemic. And I just wanted to write happy things, and so I write romance, I write fairly steamy romance, and so I just wrote all of the love scenes first! [Both laugh] And then, like, all the romantic sweet/cute scenes. So, it was actually a little hard to finish that book ’cause all that was left to write was the tension and the conflict. [Sarah: The angst!] Yeah, the angst! I was like, “Oh man, where’s the fun?” I was like, “Oh, I already wrote it.” [Sarah: Laughs] And so, usually I do write from beginning to end, but it was interesting to draft that one that way, because it did help me see some different angles of the story, because I was writing at different points in the timeline.
[22:54] Sarah: All right. And I recorded a couple interviews before adding this question, so if you’ve been listening, you may or may not have heard this in other interviews. Are you an extrovert or an introvert?
[23:05] Denise: You know, when I take the test, I’m right on the line. [Sarah: Hm.] So, I’m really right in the middle. I definitely can be very happy alone and kind of draw strength and energy from just being by myself, and writing or watching TV or doing anything like that. But I can also pull energy from being with people and around people. And so, I think I can draw from both, and then both can kind of drain me, depending on the situation. I feel like that extroversion has gotten an interesting, um… I don’t know, an interesting stretch this last little bit. With debuting, I’ve done a lot of interviews and been involved in a lot of chats and conversations, but because it’s pandemic, I also haven’t really been around people that much, either. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] And so, I guess that’s probably been good. Yeah, every time I take the Myers-Briggs, I’m right on the line, right in the middle.
[23:53] Sarah: So, you’re like a true ambivert.
[23:55] Denise: Yeah, seems like it!
[23:56] Sarah: Cool. All right, so the show is called Queries, Qualms, & Quirks. We already covered your query, and now we’re gonna do that second Q. What were some of the qualms, or worries, you had on your journey? And were they realized, or how did you overcome them—how did that shake out?
[24:11] Denise: Oh, yeah! I mean, I think the first one was fear of getting rejected. And then I did right away, and it didn’t kill me. And so, then it was like, “Oh, okay…” Again, I write—I do academic work, and critique and criticism and rejection is part of that world, too, and so, I thought I was ready for that. I wasn’t. [Sarah: Laughs] It was a very different beast to put my fiction writing out there. But yeah, the first worry was, “How will I handle rejection? What if nobody likes the book? What if nobody connects to the book?” And, you know, after a few months of querying—and you’re just getting rejections—it feels like that’s realized. It feels like, “Well, maybe my friends who read it were wrong. Maybe I was wrong.” And so, yeah, I think that’s real, and for folks who are querying, or who are about to jump into it: find your support system who you can go to. The #amquerying hashtag on Twitter, I thought was wonderful. It was a whole group of strangers who were ready to, like, throw down for you [Sarah: Laughs] and throw up hands for you. And that was sort of lovely to be part of that. And I think book Twitter is kind of like that in general, but definitely the #amquerying hashtag was that. So, definitely find friends who you can talk to and vent to and cry to, and then get back out there. But I definitely was worried about that.
Once I signed with my agent and we were out on sub, of course it was that same worry, like, “Will editors like it? Will they connect to it? Will they make me change it?” And then once you sign, and it’s like, “All right, my book is going to be real! Oh no, are readers gonna not like it? Are readers gonna dislike it? [Sarah: Laughs] Are reviewers gonna, you know, give me negative reviews?” and all of those. And what I loved about being part of that 2020 group is I got answers to all those questions for other people, and the answer was “Yes, absolutely!” [Laughs] You know, some people will love your book, and some people will hate your book. And some trade reviews will be glowing, and some will make you want to crawl into a tight little ball and hide. And, you know, all of that came true for me, and it was again that same note of, “Okay, it didn’t kill me!” I got out of the ball, I climbed out from under my desk after a day or two, and I could keep moving. And so, I think most of my worries in publishing have… I’ve realized that they’re not something I really need to worry about, or they’ve happened and I’ve realized, “Okay, it’s not that bad. Somebody’s gone through this before.” [Sarah: Mm-hm.]
And then, you know, “Will the book sell, and will it not?” And that’s a little hard, I think, in traditional publishing, because most of us don’t have a whole lot of comparison. Like, I know how many copies it’s selling, and I’m like, “All right! One person is reading the book! But probably my bar should be a little higher than that.” [Sarah: Laughs] So, I think then it’s just trusting—when I ask my agent or my editor if they’re happy, you know—what they say, and kind of going from there. So, that’s just a challenging part, I think, of traditional publishing, or at least my journey with traditional publishing, is not having a lot of context for some of that.
[26:59] Sarah: Yes, the lack of clear metrics is definitely anxiety-inducing.
[27:04] Denise: [Laughs] And Penguin Random House has an Author Portal, which is amazing. I’m a data person; I work with a lot of data in my job. And so, I can see my sales—not in real time, exactly; they’re pretty close to real time. So, I love that. If I can put something in a graph, I’m a happy camper, and so that is wonderful. But yeah, sometimes that context is missing, so it’s kind of just trusting the professionals you work with to, you know, tell you how it is.
[27:28] Sarah: It is time for the third Q in the podcast name. Do you have any writing quirks? Is there anything about your writing process that you think is kind of different, interesting, unique?
[27:37] Denise: I think I’m kind of a boring writer, other than the fact that I will jump on Twitter every, like, three sentences—which I don’t think is actually that unique; I think that’s [laughing] pretty common!
I do have a lot of ideas, a lot of meet-cutes, and I sort of just look at the world in meet-cutes of, “Okay, I’m waiting in line at the DMV. How would people fall in love here?” [Sarah: Laughs] And so, I do have this whole folder of ideas, and most of them are just meet-cutes—not a plot, not even characters, just, “Okay, these two people meet in this situation.” I don’t think that’s a writing quirk so much as a… I don’t know, a plotting, a creative quirk. But I definitely kind of look at the world that way, of like, “Oh, what…”—I’m already married, so I’m not looking for myself, but—”what love story can I put together here, in this situation?”
[28:23] Sarah: When you were in the lowest parts of your journey—you were talking about when you were thinking maybe, you know, your readers were wrong, and no one actually would like your book—what kept you going and why did you stick to it?
[28:35] Denise: You know, I think it was friends that I had. I knew that that was a common worry; I knew sort of everybody worried about that. And actually, being on Scribophile had helped with that, too, because I had done critique-partner work with so many different people, and read so many different stories, and read so many different critiques, that on some level I had that kind of firsthand knowledge of, “Everything isn’t for everybody, and we don’t love the same things in different books.” Even though I felt it personally, it, for me, wasn’t like a breaking point. I think I also… If you do, like, the Gallup StrengthsFinder, I’m an achiever—I like to achieve things, I like to check things off lists, I like to kind of have a plan and stick to it and accomplish that. And so, when I set out to do something, I am pretty goal-oriented, so it takes quite a lot to kind of push me off that goal. And that was my goal at that point. The queries were out, I was in the process, and so, I don’t know if I set like a timeline, like, “I’ll query for this long” or “I’ll query this many agents”—I hadn’t gotten to that point—but it was that point of, “Okay, I’ve started this and it’s hard but I’m gonna keep doing it.” And I think finishing a PhD was pretty good prep for that! [Sarah: Laughs] ‘Cause I wanted to quit that PhD about every third day at certain points. [Sarah: Laughs] But it was that idea that, you know, this is a persistence game. And getting a PhD is a persistence game; I think publishing is a persistence game—that you have to kinda gird yourself and keep moving forward, and so I just tried to keep reminding myself of that. And a lot of Diet Coke and some Cheetos helped, as well.
[30:07] Sarah: [Laughs] Did you feel like you made any mistakes on the way to getting published that if you could go back you would do it over again, or maybe you want to warn other people about so they don’t do it?
[30:20] Denise: Oh, gosh. I’m sure I made hundreds. [Sarah: Laughs] I’m sure I’m still making hundreds. Nothing comes especially to mind, and I think that’s because I was able to do some research on the front end. So, some of those, I think, maybe more common pitfalls, mistakes, missteps—some of those I knew about on the front end, like about researching agents, and the right questions to ask, and communication, and those sorts of things. So, at this point, none of those mistakes have blown up in my face, yet. So, I don’t know—ask me again in, like, another year and I might have [both laugh] better advice. But I think it is… you know, the whole process is a little wrought; like, there’s so many places you can mess up—whether that is in querying, whether that’s in drafting, whether that’s in how you publicize… But I think, for me, the missteps I have made, I feel like I’ve learned from. I think I’m moving forward, and so I’m a better writer, a better author, a better member of the book community, I think, now than I was before. So, in that way, I think those mistakes or missteps served me. But I can’t think of anything that would be, like, good advice, ‘never do this’—other than don’t read your reviews, which is advice I got and I did not listen to, until I did listen to it, and now I’m six months clean from reading reviews, and it was the best thing I ever did. [Both laugh]
[31:39] Sarah: Can you share with listeners one of the most important lessons you learned on your journey to publication that might help them in theirs?
[31:46] Denise: Yeah, it was actually definitely the advice I mentioned earlier: that ninety, ninety-five, ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s not your turn. And it’s so easy to see others being in the spotlight and to question your own work, I think. I felt that way, anyway. To see others being publicized by your publisher, or getting on the list, or whatever—there’s so many pieces where you have the opportunity to think, “Gosh, my book and me don’t measure up.” Part of it is, it’s not your turn. But also part of it is, you know, eyes on your own paper. [Laughs] Comparison is the thief of joy. And nobody’s book is your book, and no author is you, besides you, and so, you can look at other people’s journeys and compare yourself and lament but it doesn’t do any good.
[32:32] Sarah: Yeah, especially because it never stops. ‘Cause you think, “Once I get an agent, it will be better. Once I get a book deal, it’ll be better. Once I hit the New York Times list, it’ll be better. Once I get a movie deal…” And it just keeps going; there’s always gonna be something more.
[32:46] Denise: Yeah, something more, and something different, and somebody coming up—you know, we always say coming up behind you, but coming up beside you. And it just is what it is. Like, books sell more or less, and… I don’t know, I think that’s one of the hardest things about being an author, ’cause I’ll give that advice now, and I fully believe it, but I will a hundred percent be in my feelings the next time [Sarah: Laughs] a friend is on a list and I’m not. Like, I just will because I know myself. But I have that actually written on a post-it note, and it’s right above my monitor, so I see it all the time: comparison is the thief of joy. And I repost it on social media [Sarah: Mm.] fairly regularly, just as that reminder that people love your book.
The other thing that I do is, I have been very lucky to have readers who’ve been very engaged with the book and who have written me some just beautiful notes about what reading the book meant to them, and some of those I’ve saved. I either just saved it to my computer, or did a screenshot or whatever, and so I can look back at those, and that means a lot. Sometimes that’s just searching the hashtag of your own book—that can be, you know, you never know what exactly you might run into there, but… those messages from readers. I always say I don’t read reviews, but I get tagged in a lot of things on Instagram, and that’s like the little hits of dopamine that explain to you that no matter what list you’re on, or how well your book is doing, your book is touching somebody. It’s meaningful to somebody, it’s making somebody’s days brighter, or helping them reflect on an experience, or just giving them something to talk about with their friends—and that is… that’s huge, and that’s why so many of us got into writing. Most of us didn’t get into writing to make the New York Times list. [Sarah: Laughs] I say that ’cause I haven’t made it but— [Both laugh]
[34:22] Sarah: Next time, next time. [Denise: Yes!] I like to call this portion the acknowledgements section of the podcast. This is not a business that most of us succeed in completely on our own, so who are some of the people or organizations who helped you along the way?
[34:38] Denise: Oh, gosh! You know, I have to write my acknowledgements tomorrow, so this is very fitting! [Laughs]
[34:44] Sarah: It’s practice!
[34:45] Denise: Definitely my agent, who I talked about earlier, and my editor Kerry Donovan at Berkley have been just wonderful to work with, as well as all of the marketing team, the artists… We talked about earlier, like, publishing with the big house, there’s some of that… you know, things you’re uncertain about. But it’s been so wonderful to work with the team of just incredible—everybody I was working with in this capacity were women, but of folks who were just so dedicated and so kind and so caring, and I don’t know if I expected everybody to be so kind. I don’t know what my perception was, [Sarah: Laughs] but I thought it would feel more cutthroat or more corporate or whatever, but being in that kind of cocoon of people was very comforting.
I have a group of women I write with every Sunday for three or four hours. We don’t write for three or four hours; mostly we talk—the bulk of the time [Sarah: Laughs]—but we say we’re writing! And that’s the… we have a… I guess it’s a regular podcast—we just record when we have something to say—but it’s the Better Than Brunch crew. And so, Taj McCoy and Cass Newbould and Charish Reid are just wonderful supports. And then, Katie Golding, who’s another author, has been a great support. Nelson Ashley. They were both 2020 debuts, as well. So, kind of my writer friends, like, my people. There’s so many more that I’m not mentioning, but this is not an Oscars’ speech. [Sarah: Laughs] And then, of course, you know, my family at home. I mentioned my son is almost five, and so he knows that mommy has to write, and he knows what that means, [Sarah: Mm.] and sometimes he’ll go over to his little laptop and just write his own thing. My husband is very supportive, and so that’s been really wonderful. Even though I tell my son, like, he cannot ever read my book, and he says that’s fine because it’s not Paw Patrol [laughs] and it looks boring so [laughing] he’s, you know, a tough critic. But, like, no trade review will ever be that harsh, so I guess that’s good. [Both laugh]
[36:32] Sarah: You should put it, like, as a blurb on your book: “‘Not Paw Patrol’—my son.”
[36:37] Denise: I guess I’ve, you know, just prepared myself there. [Sarah: Laughs] But yeah, I definitely don’t think anybody does this alone, or if they do they’re better than I, because there are so many people I rely on for support, and inspiration, and laughs, and distraction, and that’s such a wonderful thing about being a kind of author community.
[36:54] Sarah: Your next book sounds super interesting, so do you want to tell listeners about it and let us know when we can expect it?
[37:03] Denise: Yeah! The Fastest Way to Fall will be out November 2nd, and it will be my second novel. It is about Britta Colby, who is working at a millennial-focused magazine called Best Life. And she’s trying to work her way up into a writing position and has the opportunity to review a body-positive fitness app that is just getting big. And so, she takes the opportunity to do that, and in the process works with an online personal trainer named Wes, who is a character from my first book. And, of course, falls in love with Wes. So, it has an epistolary component, where they’re writing back and forth—they don’t meet until a little ways into the book. And then he has a bunch of other things going on in terms of feeling lost, and finding himself in some family drama. And so, really together—she’s finding out the different ways that she can be strong as she’s going through this exercise journey, and he’s finding the ways that he can be strong as he’s going through this emotional journey—and so, together, they’re really holding each other up. This for me is very much an #ownvoices story: the heroine is a fat woman who stays fat (no spoilers there). [Sarah: Laughs] But I very much relate to the story of being a fat woman who is exercising and dealing with all of the societal stuff that comes with that. And knowing that you don’t want to change, but you want to be stronger. And so that’s part of her journey, but then it’s also, of course, finding him and the things that they draw from each other. So, I’m so excited for people to read this one! And it is truly the story of my heart and a very personal story for me, so I definitely will not be reading reviews. But if you review it positively, thanks, and if you don’t, thanks, too—I won’t see it. [Both laugh]
[38:37] Sarah: That sounds great! Thank you so much for coming on today, Denise, and sharing your story with my listeners.
[38:44] Denise: Yeah! Thank you for having me! It’s been such a fun conversation.[38:47] Sarah: [Outro music: strumming guitar] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Queries, Qualms, & Quirks. You can find the text of Denise’s query in the show notes, along with links to find out more about her and her books. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a review on your podcast app, tell your friends, or share this episode on social media. If you’re interested in supporting the show with a couple of bucks a month, go to patreon.com/pubtalklive. And if you’re a published author interested in being a guest on the show, please click on the home base link in the description, or go to sarahnicolas.com and click on the podcast logo in the sidebar—that’s Sarah with an h, and Nicolas with no h. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time!