With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Anna Stewart
National bestselling and award-winning author Anna J. Stewart can’t remember a time she didn’t have a book in her hands or a story in her head. Early obsessions with Star Wars, Star Trek and Wonder Woman set her on the path to creating fun, funny, and family-centric romances with happily ever afters for the independent heroines she writes for both Harlequin and Berkley. Anna lives in Northern California where she deals with a serious Supernatural & Sherlock addiction, surrounds herself with friends and family and tolerates an overly affectionate cat named Snickers (or perhaps it’s Snickers who tolerates her). Visit Anna online at www.authorannastewart.com.
You describe yourself as a “geek girl.” How has this identity impacted your writing style?
I think being a “geek girl” has empowered my writing and probably my characters as well. I was raised on early girl power TV like The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman, shows that featured women who could take care of themselves and who didn’t need a man to ride to the rescue. My heroines can definitely handle life on their own. The heroes they find—and want—enhance their lives and make them better people and they’ll do what they need to in order to stake their claim. That said, I do have to be careful not to go too far in the other direction and make sure the hero is there for a purpose. I do write romance, after all.
I think my affinity for “out there shows” like Star Trek and Supernatural and the like helped me to identify with the outliers in society, the ones who don’t fit the mold of expectation. There’re more of us now than there were, but put me in the middle of a fan convention and I’m a happy girl. Aside from the science angle, I’d make a great addition to The Big Bang Theory. That’s what I try to bring to my stories. That we’re all human, just with different experiences and mind sets and guess what? We can all co-exist. How we handle those difference is what’s important…and life altering.
You’ve said that you always had stories in your head. What are some of your strategies for getting these stories out and onto the page? Do you remember the very first creative piece you wrote?
I remember doing a lot of play-acting as a kid. I’d make up my own episodes of Star Trek and act them out in my bedroom (please tell me other only children did this, LOL). I was also fortunate that the one thing my mother NEVER said no to was a book. We had a great used bookstore walking distance from the house and trips to other bookstores were frequent.
I discovered writing in high school when some of my friends and I started writing mini-romances featuring us and our favorite rock stars (an early form of fan fiction?). I became obsessed, much to the detriment of my education, and could spend hours writing out stories long hand which is still how I start each and every new project: a new notebook, a pen, and a copy of 16 Classic Archetypes along with The Character Naming Sourcebook. I actually still have a lot of those stories from all those years ago- in binders, under the bed, where they will remain forever!
What draws you most to the romance genre? Are there certain challenges that you face when writing romance?
As I said earlier, I’m a reader from way back. I think I might have emerged from the womb with a book in my hand and while I started reading adult books super early (there wasn’t any of the YA that’s available now), I was drawn to the romantic elements in those stories. The boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back struck a chord that, until I read my first romance novel I didn’t realize there was a whole genre for. It clicked immediately. From then on, I knew this was what I was meant to do.
There are challenges no matter what genre people write, but I think still, even after all these years, romance carries the stigma of being “easier” to write, or that it’s not a serious pursuit or that it’s all mental fluff. Wrong. Writing romance is hard. I think it’s one of the hardest genres to write because we’re writing about people’s emotions, what makes them tick, what makes them who they are and also we see them at their most vulnerable–right before they commit to another person.
Romance characters aren’t just people in circumstance working their way through a plot of external conflict. Romance authors dive deep and really dig into the meat of character examination and do it in a way that’s very accessible to readers. Every genre has its audience, but there’s a reason someone like Peter Jackson upped the romantic angle in his Lord of the Rings movies. There’s a reason Pride and Prejudice is still a favorite. People, whether they realize it or not, whether they admit it or not, love romance. And there’s also that happily ever after aspect. Nothing beats that, right?
Can you share some of your influences in terms of writers and books? What inspired you in terms of creating the Lantano Valley shared setting. Who do or what do you draw from when world building?
There are the classics of course, the ones that influenced a lot of writers: To Kill A Mockingbird (no comment on the sequel), Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Richard III (Shakespeare), and Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) were the ones for me, but three authors turned me into a writer: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Nora Roberts. I read Carrie when I was eight (no YA books, remember?). That book spoke to me on so many levels, as that “geek girl” who definitely had her own drummer banging away in her head. I could not stop reading (The Stand, to me, is still his best book). I glommed on to anything and everything I could get my hands on. And then I read The Watchers by Dean Koontz. He combined everything I loved about King and Roberts into his own style. I fell in love! By the time I put that book down (I think I was 13 at the time?), the doors in my mind opened. So I did what any geeky fan would do: I wrote her a letter to Nora Roberts and she wrote me back. I still have that letter in my signed first edition of Naked In Death. Write, she told me. Learn. Keep writing and don’t look back. Don’t let anyone tell you know. Don’t let anyone stop you. It took me a while, but I took her advice and I can never thank her enough for it.
As far as creating Lantano Valley, I wanted to set my Tremayne stories in a town where I wanted to live; one that has a real sense of community and camaraderie. I always prefer to create my own cities and settings so I can set things up the way I want (probably comes from when I was writing paranormal).
I also wanted to establish that while the Tremayne family (featured in Asking For Trouble, Here Comes Trouble (both out now) and The Trouble With Nathan, out 2/16), is incredibly wealthy, that they also have a very strong sense of social obligation. Creating Lantano Valley allowed me to have that social divide for a purpose. That’s not to say everyone in Lantano Valley is wealthy. It’s definitely a middle class strong environment, but that’s the great thing about fiction. I can make it whatever I want. Or whatever my characters need.
For world building, I think I draw a lot on my TV and movie addiction (which is serious). I’ve always been a TV junkie, back to when I’d watch Saturday morning cartoons (remember that?). TV can be a strong style of storytelling and literally shows you the world characters inhabit: the Enterprise from Star Trek, or Paradise Island from Wonder Woman. More recently, Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even modern day Britain for Sherlock. Each of those worlds (and so many others) is distinctive, but each is also relatable and draws people in. That’s what I strive for when I create a new world, be it in contemporary romance, paranormal/Urban Fantasy, or any of the other genres I’m fortunate enough to write.
Your Tremayne Family romances, including Asking for Trouble and Here Comes Trouble have become bestsellers in their markets. Why and how do you think this particular series has attracted such a large audience?
I hope the audience is growing! It’s been a little scary diving into the single title market even though I spent so many years preparing for it (and dreaming of it). At its core, the Tremayne Family Romance series is all about family. I love creating large casts of characters, probably because my own personal circle is pretty small, but those large circles create support systems every one of us (or my characters) need.
Let’s face it. Life doles out a lot and there are so many ups and downs and emotional upheavals and tragedies. While I deal with a lot of real-life issues, I try to balance them out with humor as well as other human desires for revenge, tendencies toward deception and…so many other relatable issues. But at the end: there’s love. The Tremaynes will always have each others’ backs, no matter how far someone pushes the boundaries, legal or otherwise.
It’s nice to think, even if it’s in a fictional world, that that’s possible. Not everyone is so lucky in their familial connections, so if I can give readers that, even if it’s through the fictional Tremaynes and Lantano Valley (or Butterfly Harbor), then I’ve accomplished something.
Since a Barbie doll represents each of your heroines, can you explain just why they are so significant to you?
Remember how I said I always had a book in my hand? I’ve also always had dolls. My great grandmother made hand-made clothes for all her porcelain dolls and it passed down to my grandmother, to my mom, and then to me. My doll fascination happened to coincide with Barbie’s peak in the market and as I started diving more deeply into writing, choosing the right Barbie, finding the right clothes, looking at her face, coloring her eyes…helps me to flesh out my heroines in my mind.
I like the unusual dolls, the ones that aren’t the generic blonde and blue eyed because very few of my characters fit that mold. In fact, most of my heroines would never fit any Barbie mold, ironically enough (Morgan Tremayne, for example, is definitely on the curvier side). But when I see a doll that’s just different enough—super curly hair, an odd expression on her face, an interesting pose in the box—she catches my interest and I ask myself who she is. Soon…I’ve got my next heroine. I think that’s my long-winded way of saying, it’s a family tradition. Dolls have always meant something to the women in my family and I’m happy to continue that in a different way. Also gives me an excuse to go to Toys R Us (since I don’t have kids, haha).
In addition to writing, you also spend some of your time making dollhouse miniatures. You’ve done quite a variety too! How were you drawn to this particular kind of creative fascination? On your website you have Tinkerbell’s cottage listed as being one of the upcoming miniature projects, and I know she is your favorite Disney character. Have you completed it yet?
I haven’t! It’s actually killing me because I haven’t had the opportunity to work on miniatures for a while now. Those pesky deadlines for books have cropped up (silver lining!). But Tink’s cottage is waiting for me. Maybe I need to set aside a week or two to work on it. Maybe this holiday season when I’m between deadlines. Thanks for the reminder!
As far as how I discovered the hobby? Well, with Barbie (and her plethora of accessories), I’ve always loved little things (like the dishes and the shoes!), but a friend in college took me to her favorite store one day…one that happened to be five minutes from my house: The Elegant Dollhouse. The same thing happened that day as the day that I discovered romance novels. It just clicked. I actually ended up working at that store for almost eight years! Guess where most of my money went.
Can you tell us a little more about your plans to return to your “paranormal and urban fantasy roots”? Is there a way you approach writing in these genres that differs from how you approach your contemporary romances?
When I got super serious about writing 5 or 6 years ago, I went full-steam ahead with paranormal because I really felt that’s where my voice was strongest. At the time, it was doing really well in the market. But of course, I’m never one to write the expected, so even when an UF manuscript, The Devil She Knows, was a finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart (2012) and helped me get my first agent, New York didn’t know what to do with it. Great book, they said, we don’t know how to market it. Self-publishing was still something I wasn’t sold on and I had my eyes firmly fixed on a New York contract. That was always the dream and I wasn’t ready to give up on it.
My agent at the time asked what else I had…and out of everything else I’d written, I had my very first book, a contemporary romance about a heroine who was a CEO of a charity who was taking money from a criminal and falls in love with the cop chasing that criminal. I rewrote it (from beginning to end), ended up with a new agent, and sold it to Berkley (their digital first line). That book became Asking For Trouble. Around the same time, a good friend of mine asked to be part of a holiday anthology for the Harlequin Heartwarming line (their sweet romance line) and that sold as well. So…change of genres, some serious hard work, and poof! Sold to New York! It didn’t happen as easily as that sounds, trust me. But those paranormals are still knocking about the back of my skull. Big time.
I don’t think I approach the genres differently. The ingredients are the same in any genre or sub genre of romance. You need unique, motivated characters with a tangible goal, a strong emotional conflict between them (NOT one that can be solved with a conversation ~ that’s a problem, not conflict), and an external story that will keep a reader turning the page.
The preparation, however, is where the difference lies for me. I always joke I’ll never write an historical romance because of the research needed (and those historical romance fans KNOW their history). I love reading them, I admire those who write them and marvel at their abilities, but that is not my idea of fun. Contemporary romance gives me a little more leeway and I can research things I’m fascinated by (like con artists and art forgers and art heists as featured in Here Comes Trouble). Paranormal and UF for me is a gold mine because as long as I stick to the rules I establish, I can pretty much do what I want. I can make it ALL up and that’s a home run for this writer.
You’ve gone both the self-publishing and traditional publishing route. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Which has worked better for you?
Personally? I like what New York offers me. I’m still a very little fish in a big pond but I’m slowly building a readership and a solid footing in the publishing world. For me, I’m horrible at the self-promotion. I mean, how many ways can you say “please buy my books” without coming off as an ego maniac and in truth, I probably promote other people’s books more than I do my own (bad author!). No matter what people tell you, every author, whether traditionally published or self-published has to be a promotion machine. It’s been hard to get my brain around that. I want to write. I have a lot to write and the promotion just looms and I find myself wondering what’s enough? Where do I put my money? What’s effective? Is anyone even seeing this? Or reading this? It can definitely keep an author up at night.
That’s not to say I don’t like aspects of the self-publishing arena. There’s a lot to be said for control especially when it comes to covers and release dates and of course the money. Is that enough for me? Time will tell. My novellas have done okay, but I mainly wrote those to bridge the time gap between my Berkley releases (they take place in the same town).
I’ve just about decided to self-publish that aforementioned Urban Fantasy (The Devil She Knows) late next year…if I can get the other 2-3 books in the series under my belt. For now, I’m happy with how the traditional is going. Ask me again next year after I find out whether my publisher would like any more books from me (I’m hopeful!). For now, though, I’ve definitely got my foot in the door with Harlequin, which, given it was a Silhouette/Harlequin romance that put me on this path in the beginning, seems incredibly fitting.
What marketing tips have worked for you? Can you share some with our readers?
Facebook for me has been the most successful. Not hugely successful, but enough that I feel as if I’ve made some impact. I like interacting with people online and as they discover my books, they become friends because they want to know what’s next for whatever characters are introduced (another reason why I do large casts of characters. There’s always another story to tell). I do giveaways about once or twice a month on my author page and then for my newsletter subscribers, I do subscriber only giveaways in every email issue I send out. I think that’s working. I don’t have a huge list, but it’s growing.
I’m not completely sold on Twitter as a way to sell books, but I’m doing more on there to see what’s possible. I’m finding reviews make for nice additions to my website, and word of mouth is gold. If you can get people talking about your book anywhere–even on Goodreads, which honestly, scares the crap out of me–you really can’t beat that.
If I had to choose just one avenue to focus on—a website. Somewhere people can find you, read about you, read your work, about your work…and developing good interaction with your readership no matter its size. Nora won me over for life with that letter she wrote me almost thirty years ago. Personal interaction can have long lasting effects. I’m proof.
Why are you such a believer in happy endings? What value do you think happy endings have in contemporary fiction?
I wish I knew why I’m such a believer. I think it’s just engrained in my DNA. I loved fairy tales growing up, even though I rewrote a lot of them because I wanted the princess to be the one to save the prince and not the other way around. Maybe I can blame it on Star Wars’ and Han and Leia. That was the first movie I remember thinking, “Oh, they’re nice together.” Yeah, let’s blame Star Wars.
As far as happily ever-afters in contemporary fiction, I think it’s essential for me both as a reader and a writer. Happily ever after is literary optimism. It’s the hope that there’s something better, brighter, and greater than the real life we get bogged down in. It’s one reason I’m not a fan of heavier, issue driven fiction. I don’t want to read about things that I’ll see on the nightly news. I want to escape into someone else’s exciting and less than ordinary life. I want to give someone else that escape.
In Asking For Trouble, I have a number of children dealing with serious health issues like AIDS and cancer. Not fun topics at all, but they’re realistic and I make sure to balance that struggle with humor and affection because I know that’s how most people cope with those situations. It’s how I dealt with it in my own family. Those life struggles can and do have happy endings, but there’s also reality because it’s life.
Seeing my hero and heroine at the end of a book, knowing they’re going into the rest of their lives side by side, hand in hand, gives me, and hopefully the readers, hope they’re going to be okay.
That’s one reason I love interconnected stories harkening back to Nora’s MacGregor series or Linda Howard’s MacKenzies. In my books, in the communities I create, I don’t just leave the first couple behind. I bring them along into the next books! Maybe not as much as I’d like to, and maybe not for more than a quick appearance or two, but in my worlds, once a couple is together, they’re together. Thick and thin. Bad and good. They stick. That’s my idea of a happily ever after.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Are you able to share any information about what you’re currently working on with us?
I’ve just started my second Butterfly Harbor book for Harlequin Heartwarming (coming out June 2016). The first book, The Bad Boy Of Butterfly Harbor, will be out December 1st.
I’m also part of a boxed set inspired by last year’s Christmas, Actually, that anthology I talked about before. Melinda Curtis, Anna Adams, and I went to some of our fellow Heartwarming authors and brought them on board to tell all new sweet romances that take place in Christmas Town, Maine. That set will be out (for only $.99 on October 13th). We hit the jackpot when NY Times Bestselling author Kristan Higgins agreed to write our foreword. She made me cry!
Here Comes Trouble just came out (yay!) and Book Three in the trilogy will be released next February. I’m waiting on those edits now. Oh, and I have another anthology with Heartwarming for this upcoming Valentine’s Day called Make Me Match (Hockey-playing matchmakers set in Alaska: my story is “Suddenly Sophie”). I also have 2 more novellas in the Lantano Valley series to write…and another iron in the fire I can’t talk about yet, haha. Let’s just say it looks like I’ll be diving into yet another romance sub genre…and I can’t wait!
Thanks for interviewing with us, Anna!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho, where she teaches composition courses. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.