My interview today is with an author who writes both contemporary romance and romantic suspense novels. Her books have been honored with three coveted RITA awards from Romance Writers of America and she is a member of that organization's elite Hall of Fame.
She has also received a Career Achievement award from RT Book Reviews for her entire body of work. Other awards for individual books include National Readers' Choice, HOLT Medallion, Daphne du Maurier, Retailers Choice, Booksellers' Best, and Reviewers' Choice from RT Book Reviews. She is also a two-time Christy award finalist.
I am in awe at the number of books you have written and how you continue from one series to the next. How many books in did it take until you thought, I can make a career out of this?
To be honest, I was never sure I could make a career out of this, which is why I stayed in my corporate job for more than two decades and wrote fiction on the side. The notion of leaving behind a steady paycheck, benefits, and a host of other perks was scary.
By the time I did decide to become a full-time novelist, I’d sold 16 books to three publishers (Love Inspired was my third) and had just signed a three-book contract. I also had a financial cushion from my years in the corporate world. Still, there are no guarantees in this business, so it was a leap of faith.
I never switched genres—I just expanded! For quite a few years, I continued to write category romance while writing suspense. I still write contemporary romance, but the trade-length variety, which lets me delve deeper into characters and introduce subplots.
Which is harder to write for you?
Both genres have their challenges—and writing is hard work, period—but for me suspense is more difficult because of the complexity of the plots and the amount of technical research required. When I finish a suspense novel, I always have 100+ single-spaced typed pages of research notes and citations.
What type of research have you done to make your suspense novels plausible with the characterization of law enforcement, suspects, and criminals?
In addition to online research, I’ve also developed a large cadre of trusted sources, including a U.S. marshal, FBI agent, police chief, police detective, PI, sheriff, forensic pathologist, and many others. These experts help me put the polish on the technical aspects of my story to ensure I get the real-life parts right.
I got an agent when I decided to write trade-length suspense. It’s almost impossible to get a larger book in front of an editor without one—and the odds are worse if you’re switching genres. Nor did it matter that I’d written more than a dozen books. Turns out trade-length publishers believe the line, not the author, sells category romance books, and they prefer to work with authors who have name recognition and traction.
So, I was starting from scratch with suspense. My agent did help me connect with my current publisher, but what I discovered is that most agents offer a smorgasbord of services, including reading (and sometimes critiquing) manuscripts, submitting to publishers, author hand-holding, contract negotiations, etc.
Once I signed with my current publisher, I was only using my agent for the contract part—and after decades in the corporate world (and years learning the inner workings of publishing), I felt comfortable negotiating my own contracts. I now work with a literary attorney in New York when I need a contract review. For me, that fee-based system is much more cost effective than paying an agent a percentage of royalties forever.
Starting, hands down. The initial concept and story development is always painful. Getting my head wrapped around the characters and basic premise and plot of the story is like pulling my fingernails out one by one. On the flip side, I love writing snappy repartee. It’s as if I’m listening in on the conversation and recording it.
What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
The best encouragement I had in the beginning was from my parents, who were always 100 percent supportive of my endeavors. I also had third-party, more impartial encouragement from a high school English teacher. These days, my husband is in my cheering section. And I get great encouragement from positive reviews and the many wonderful notes I get from readers. All of those have kept me going.
We have all experienced rejection. How have you learned to write past it?
Rejection is part of this business, which means a career as a writer is not for the thin-skinned. In the early days, when rejection letters were a way of life for me, I kept going because I wanted to write and believed I could succeed.
These days, I experience rejection more in the form of occasional bad reviews. Those are never fun. But I’ve learned to accept the fact that people give bad reviews for many reasons. Sometimes your subject matter just hits a personal hot button that sours them on the book. All you can do is let the criticism roll off and move on.
There have been lots of surprises! One was that writing books doesn’t get any easier the more you do it. In fact, for me it gets harder, because with every book I raise the bar. It’s also a challenge to find new and inventive ways to plot stories after 60+ novels. Another surprise was discovering how much non-writing work being a writer entails. A social media presence is expected today, and if you work with a traditional publisher you’ll also be pulled into their marketing and promotional efforts. In addition, there’s a time-consuming nuts-and-bolts business side to being a writer—more so if you dip your toes into self-publishing.
What has frustrated you the most?
In terms of frustration, I’d put revision letters near the top of the list. I know some authors love them. Not me. When I finish a book, it’s done. In category romance, I’d often be asked to make changes to ensure a book conformed to the template for that line—not necessarily to improve the book. Much to my relief, I no longer have to deal with that. I turn in books clean and complete, so the frustration of major revisions has disappeared. These days requested revisions relate to minor clarifications or inconsistencies.
Too many things to mention—and I learn more every day. But in a nutshell, I wish I’d learned early on to stay in one POV; use fewer adverbs; show rather than tell; eliminate dialogue tags; and a host of other tips that are now part of my technical repertoire. I’m beginning to reissue older books as rights revert, and I’m spending a great deal of time doing extensive edits to bring them closer to my current technical level, which is leaner, cleaner, and less flowery.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
Learn the business—and not just the writing part. Even if you have an agent, make sure you’re savvy about contracts and industry trends. Because no one will ever care more about your business than you do…nor look out for your interests better than you will.
Are there any other points about writing you would like to add?
Don’t give up your day job unless you’re making enough to live on with your current writing income and have money in reserve. The latest statistic I read was that only two percent of novelists make a living wage from their fiction. Also, this is a long-haul career.
If you want to write a book, by all means give it a shot. If you want fiction to be your career, be aware that when publishers sign writers, they’re looking for long-term partners. Once you sell that first book, they’ll expect more if it does well. So be prepared to produce on a regular basis…with all the attendant pressure that entails. No matter what else life throws at you, deadlines still roll around!
My next novel, Point of Danger, will be out October 6. It’s Book 1 in my new Triple Threat suspense series, which features three sisters in truth-seeking professions that lead them into danger.
In Point of Danger, radio talk show host Eve Reilly is used to backlash from her pot-stirring on-air commentary and interviews. But now it seems a disgruntled listener is resorting to more than angry words to express their displeasure. When a suspicious package arrives on her doorstep, Eve turns to law enforcement for help. Police detective Brent Lange can’t find any evidence to link the string of unsettling incidents that follows, but he’s convinced they’re connected. As the harassment grows more menacing, it becomes clear someone wants Eve’s voice silenced—permanently.
I’m also writing a contemporary romance series called Hope Harbor set in a charming Oregon seaside town. Readers are loving this special place—which means that Book 7, Blackberry Beach, will be out in April. It’s the story of a woman who’s no longer certain she wants the life she’s pursued with single-minded determination, and a coffeeshop owner who left a successful corporate career to pursue a different dream. I hope you’ll visit this delightful town and see what happens when these two meet!
That’s all for today’s interview. You have a lot of choices of where to start if you’re new to Irene’s writing. Here are some ways to get started.