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The countdown to our writers’ Retreat to the Springs! in Yellow Springs has started: only four more months! To whet your appetites, here is a Q&A with presenter Donna MacMeans. As you can tell, she is very personable!

WHB: When did you first want to be a writer?

Romantic fiction writer Donna MacMeans

Romantic fiction writer Donna MacMeans

DM: I always thought I’d be an English teacher, not a writer, but I changed that plan after taking my first education course (grin). I switched to journalism so perhaps that was the moment. I was on a two-year scholarship at OSU. When my two years were up, I went home. I got married, moved to Cleveland and went to work at a company that would pay my way through school if I majored in Business. That’s how I ended up in Accounting. I finished up at OSU and became a CPA. I wrote a lot of inventory memos, but I’m guessing that’s not what you had in mind. 

Fast forward to the 1990s. I’ve always been a big reader, but not of romance. As a business executive, clinch covers were frowned upon. Then I read a book named Outlander. I loved it!!! Accolades of how this was a great romance filled several pages in front of the book. I figured if this was a romance, then I was a fool. I went back to bookstore and looked for a similar story. I found a romance with a similar premise that wasn’t a time-travel. However, I wanted to throw that book against the wall. I knew the solution to the story question by the end of the first chapter. Surely, it wouldn’t take a whole book to come to that solution—but it did. I figured I could do better, so I tried. My third complete manuscript won this big contest. I was called by an editor at a NY publishing firm who was interested in publishing that story. I didn’t say “yes” but I did call an agent. She sent the work to another publishing house that wanted it. A third house also was interested. My book was in an auction! Very cool. I think I considered myself a true professional author in that moment. Before that, I thought of myself as a writer, but perhaps more as a hobbyist. Either way, it’s been a fun journey!

All that said, I met the author of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, many years later. She swears her book is not a romance. Go figure. 

WHB: What were the first meaningful things you wrote?

DM: Other than those long thank you notes that I wrote as a kid, and a short story that I wrote in high school that made my classmates think I was contemplating suicide (I wasn’t. It was fiction, people!), I wrote two full romantic suspense manuscripts that didn’t really go anywhere. Then I was invited to contribute a short story to a paranormal anthology. I did that and earned my first publishing credit—and total royalties of $50. I faced my first reviews! Fortunately, they were all good. Bad ones would have devastated me at that vulnerable time. I give away that short story to entice readers to sign up for my newsletter. No story is ever wasted! 

WHB: Is there anything you wish you had not written?

DM: Not really. I write the sort of stories that I want to read. I do wish, however, that I had published the stories in a different order. We’ll talk about that later.

WHB: Do you read your books after they’re published?

DM: LOL. Not really. You read the story to death while writing it, then you read it again in revisions, then again in the printing proofs. By the time the book is published, you’re really sick of the story. It’s lost its magic. But here’s a funny story. I recently got the rights back on two of my early books: the one that won that contest years ago and the first sequel. Because those were written in a time of paper revisions, I had to re-read the books and make corrections before I could put them back out as independently published books. I read the first book, The Education of Mrs. Brimley, and thought—I can’t believe I wrote this book. This is a really good story. The pacing is good, it’s funny, I like it. (It’s a Victorian Striptease, btw). After I published that first book, I started re-reading the second, The Seduction of a Duke. I thought—This book really stinks! Why didn’t someone tell me that the pacing was so slow! It’s taking me forever to get to the action! Fortunately, it did improve and it has a really good ending. Whew! I noticed it also had a lot of typos in the original published version—I don’t know how that happened with all the eyes editing the thing. But I fixed everything except the pacing and put it out there. The reviews have been good so I’m satisfied.

WHB: How do you feel about self-publishing?

DM: This will be long, so go refresh your drink. I’ll be here when you come back.

Back when I won that contest, there was a real stigma to self-publishing. The only, and I mean only, way to publish was through a traditional publisher or a small press. For a traditional publisher to sign you, your story had to fit in a rather narrow box. They had to be liked by thousands of people, which meant you had to write in popular tropes. Self-publishing was very expensive. There were a few small presses that published ebooks, but that concept of reading on a device didn’t catch fire until Amazon entered the market with their Kindle ereader. Amazon needed stories to fill those Kindles so they actively solicited authors to independently publish their stories on their platform. Many people who had stories rejected by the New York publishers tried their luck on Kindle. Some of those writers were really good, but they wrote stories (like Vampire stories) that appealed to smaller audiences (according to NY). Suddenly, no story is wasted. If NY didn’t buy it, it could be self-published at a minimal cost.

The traditional publishers weren’t about to let the ebook market go untouched. They issued paperbacks, but they also uploaded books to Amazon—grumbling all the way. Soon people would go to a brick and mortar bookstore, check the shelves, then order a book they liked on Amazon. The brick and mortar stores began to disappear due to lack of sales. Some of the independent authors were racking up big bucks (but still had a chip on their shoulder about NY).

About three or four years ago, independent publishing hit a tipping point. Traditional publishers quit giving author advances except to their bestsellers. They started handing out digital only contracts—no print books. Authors realized they could publish their books independently without New York’s blessing. There’re still a lot of crappy books in the indie-world, but there’s some really good ones, too. Independent authors can generate print books through Amazon’s CreateSpace, but many bookstores won’t carry those books in their stores. They haven’t forgotten what Amazon did to their market share. I can’t think of a single traditional published author now that isn’t planning to independently publish some books. But it’s a bit scary to make the jump. It’s a whole new world for publishing.

For what it’s worth, I’ve traditionally published six books with a NY publisher, one of which is digital-only. The rights have reverted on three of my traditional books, so I’ve indie-published those to really good results. (One thing I forgot to mention is that I only get paid every six months from NY and until recently, didn’t have access to any sales information. With indie-publishing, I get paid monthly. Big difference!) I’ve sold one book and one short story to small presses. Fortunately, my rights reverted before they went bankrupt, and I’ve indie-published those stories as well. I’ve written one time-travel, one paranormal novella, and two historical short stories that have been indie-published from the start. I guess I’m a mixed bag.

WHB: From when you first started seriously pitching your first book, how long did it take to be picked up?

DM: I’m not sure how to answer this. Are we talking my first written book, or my first book purchased for publication? My first written book has never been published. Let’s face it. An author’s first book is a massive learning curve. You learn a lot by getting to the end, but there’s still a lot of craft to learn. The brain can only absorb and process so much information at a time. Heck, I’m still learning and I’ve published nine books at this point. Now my first book purchased for publication is interesting in that it was rejected by every New York house—including the editor that later purchased it. I’d say I collected rejections on that book for a couple of years—but I kept working on it, revising it, improving it. Personally, I think many of the rejections had to do with the fact that it was a historical romance. Historicals were not popular around 2004 & 2005. In fact, I once received a rejection from an agent that was the standard rejection with a handwritten line at the bottom that said “This book has a lot of promise. Too bad it’s historical.” What the heck? It’s a Victorian striptease. It HAS to be historical. Historicals were a hard sell back then. Then the pendulum swung the other way and I sold the book. Sometimes a rejection has to do with the writing quality. Sometimes a rejection has to do with market issues. Sometimes a rejection has to do with sending a query to a firm that doesn’t handle the kind of book you’ve written. The problem is that editors and agents rarely tell you the real reason they are rejecting the book. I’m not sure that time matters.

As for pitching, I’d like to pass along this advice from the NY editor that purchased my first book. I had pitched this book at a reader’s event in Cincinnati. She seemed totally bored by my pitch. I figured submitting my work to her was a futile experience, but I did it anyway. After the auction was over, she called me. I told her, “I must admit, I was really surprised that you offered for the book. From that pitch session, I didn’t think you were interested.”

She said, “I do that on purpose. Some people can really pitch an amazing book, but when you read their pages, the writing is not good. Some people can’t pitch at all, but their pages sing. When I hear a pitch, I don’t think it’s fair to react either favorably or not because I haven’t seen the pages. It’s all about the pages.”
Amen.

WHB: What is your writing routine? Do you have one?

DM: I’d like to lie and say I have a sharp disciplined routine, but that wouldn’t be true. Once I get caught up with the story and characters, I can’t stop writing. Until I get to that point, I can’t stop procrastinating. I’m basically a pantser (the opposite of a plotter). I know the structure of a book. I tend to know my turning points before I begin. But until I really understand my characters and fully work out their motivations…it’s a slow go.

I think the best motivation for sitting down and writing every day is a contract. If you decide to indie publish, then you need to set your writing goals and stick to them. Right now, my husband and I are babysitting my one-year old grandson for his young parents. That really kills my writing output as he’s here when I’m normally writing, but I’m not turning away this opportunity to spend time with the best grandson in the world. These times don’t last. I’m trying to change old habits and write at a different time of the day. We’ll see how this works.

WHB: If you didn’t write in your genre, what would you be writing?

DM: I’d probably be writing cozy mysteries. I even have a basic plan for a series of three connected cozy novels. But I love romance and don’t plan to write in a different genre for the moment.

WHB: What was your harshest rejection? What was your best?

DM: I hate to keep harping back on that first NY published book, but that’s when I received rejections. I understand editors don’t send out rejections anymore. They simply don’t respond. If they want your book, you’ll hear from them but no news is no longer good news.

You’d think my harshest rejection would come at the beginning of this journey, but those were actually gentle. The only rejection that brought me to tears came when I knew I was close to selling my book. Central Ohio Fiction Writers had brought in a NY editor, Kate Duffy, to take pitches at one of their events. Kate had purchased books of some of my friends. I really thought she’d like my story. At the event, she mentioned that she thought the next big thing would be historicals. I sat up straighter. She held up a historical romance by Lisa Kleypas and said, “bring me something like this and I’ll buy it.” I’d already read that book. It was funny and sexy, just like my book. I pitched my story to Kate and she requested a partial (three chapters and a synopsis). I volunteered to drive her back to the airport so I could talk further with her. At one point she said, “Well heck, just pull over and I’ll write you a check!” I laughed and said, “Just wait, you’ll see. You’ll love this book.” I sent the chapters she’d requested in the October 2005 convinced that she’d be my editor. Then I heard…nothing.

In April 2006, I learned that my story was a finalist in that prestigious contest. I sent an email to Kate reminding her that I hadn’t heard anything from her and that this story was a Golden Heart finalist. In late May, I got a reply. It was a rejection. A very kind and complimentary letter, but it was a rejection. I was so close…SO CLOSE…but it was a rejection. I called a published author friend whose editor was Kate Duffy and we talked, and I couldn’t help it, the tears flowed. My friend was encouraging. She pointed out the good things Kate said…but it was a rejection and it really, really hurt. That was in May. In July, I left for the RWA convention where the winners of the Golden Heart would be announced. Kate’s rejection convinced me that I would always be a runner-up, I wouldn’t be a winner. I didn’t bother writing an acceptance speech – what was the point? I didn’t buy a new dress or wear spanx to the ceremony. I figured if I was going to sit in the audience, I might as well be comfortable. I didn’t expect to win that contest, but I did, and everything immediately changed.

About four years later, I heard from a group of writers that Kate Duffy spoke to their local chapter. Someone had asked her if she ever regretted rejecting a book. She said that a few years ago, she’d had the opportunity to hop on the Victorian bandwagon but she passed on the book. She regretted that. The author said, “she was talking about you.”

Kate Duffy died in 2009 at the age of 56. Many of her authors were released from their contracts. Others were reassigned to other editors who may or may not have wanted them. In hindsight, I was fortunate not to have been purchased by Kate Duffy, but I sure didn’t feel fortunate when I opened that rejection letter.

My best rejection letter was one that I received for that same book probably around 2003. I had written two Romantic suspense novels at that point and had built a sense of suspense around the opening chapters of my historical. That editor sent me a rejection letter but strongly encouraged me to include more humor. She said not everyone can write humor but that she thought I could. I took her suggestion to heart. I think her suggestion made the book more fun for me and more unique to the market. I’ll be forever grateful for her comment, even though it was a rejection.

WHB: Where do you think your genre is going? What are the changes you’ve seen?

DM: Romance continues to have more market share of fiction books sold than any other genre. I don’t think Romance is going away any time soon. But the pendulum continues to swing as to which sub-genres are popular. A few years ago, erotic romance was the big thing. Now, it sells well but not as strong as it once was. LGBTQ romance is growing. I think there’s a big push right now for more bi-racial and more diverse romances. So the sub-genres are expanding to reach new markets and it’s all good.

I think the big change, though, is the tremendous increase in ebook romance. Some have suggested that romance readers like to hide what they are reading. I think it’s more about being able to have so many romances at your fingertips. Plus, so many brick and mortar bookstores have closed that in rural areas, the only way a reader can find new books is to buy them online. Formerly traditionally published authors are going independent and making big money at it. I see that continuing to grow. There’s tremendous opportunity in romance right now, but it requires hard work and something more than writing skills. You need business skills and marketing skills as well.

WHB: Do you ever think back to your first book and wish you’d done something differently?

DM: My first published book was an author’s dream. I wouldn’t change a thing. However, I would have changed a whole lot of things about my second book. 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think my first book—a straight historical romance—would ever sell. I didn’t know why, but obviously, I wasn’t doing something right, so I decided that I might be better off as a paranormal author. I love paranormal books. I had an idea to set a story about a heroine with a supernatural power in my Victorian world. After all, I’d done all kinds of research for my Victorian striptease. I didn’t want to waste that. So I wrote a book about a woman who turns invisible in moonlight. She can’t help it, it just happens. She’s a little bit of a thief so if your husband is so foolish as to gamble away your jewelry, my heroine will get it back, but there has to be a full moon and she has to be naked. I loved this book and it was practically writing itself—then I sold my Victorian striptease on a three-book contract. The other two books had to be historical, but that was the only condition. My new agent turned the partial of my invisible heroine book and Berkley sent back a check. That was to be my second book.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have set that book aside and written a sequel to Mrs. Brimley. The invisible heroine story was a great book. It won an award for Historical Love and Laughter from Romantic Times magazine. But historical readers aren’t particularly fond of “woo-woo” in their historicals. Plus, my publisher gave me a really crappy cover for that book. The cover made it look like a sweet romance, and it wasn’t. The cover made it look like a contemporary romance, and it wasn’t. The book was a big flop and it shouldn’t have been.

I would have been better off to market strictly straight historicals, but no one told me that doing a paranormal historical would cause me to lose readers. I’ve learned that it’s important to build your reader base in one sub-genre before jumping to another. I’ve written four more straight historicals (and working on number five). I’ve released a contemporary novella that is based on my historical paranormal this year (2017). I did that independently and am hoping that novella will reintroduce that earlier book (with a much better cover). It’s really hard to have a foot in both historical and paranormal, but as I love paranormal, I’m giving it a go.

WHB: Do you recommend getting an agent?

DM: I think the answer depends on what you want to do. If it’s important to you to see your first book in a bookstore, you’ll probably need an agent. If you plan to write young adult or mystery, you should consider getting an agent. If you want to be responsible for just writing and not certain elements of publication, you’ll probably need an agent. An agent will get your work read instead of it languishing in a slush pile. A good agent will negotiate a better deal for your books, than you could by yourself. An agent can run interference between you and your editor when a problem erupts, leaving you free to write.

However, if you plan to publish independently, you don’t really need an agent (you’ll need a good editor). If you plan to sell to Harlequin, it’s possible without an agent (but I’d recommend one). It’s said that it’s harder to sign an agent than an editor. It’s also said that no agent is better than a bad agent. They can really screw up your career. So think about what you want to do. Do your research into agencies and agents and go from there. Only you can know what’s best for you.

Good Luck!

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Retreat to the Springs! is a roaming writers’ workshop that takes place in such places as Capon Springs WV, Yellow Springs OH and Steamboat Springs CO. Here’s our next one!

Oct. 26 to 28, 2018
Yellow Springs OH

Yellow Springs, Ohio
John Bryan Community Center
October 26 to 28, 2018

Join us for a retreat in a fantastic village setting, where you’ll receive expert instruction from fantastic writers: Ann Hagedorn, creative nonfiction; Donna MacMeans, romance; Jason Sanford, scifi/fantasy; and Valerie Coleman, self-publishing. Learn the strategies and tactics of being a successful, published author. Sign up for an optional one-on-one manuscript critique! (One-on-one manuscript critiques cost an additional $25.) Friday evening, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning are yours for only $195. Manuscript guidelines are here.


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Faculty

Ann Hagedorn, narrative nonfiction

Ann Hagedorn is the award-winning author of The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security and four previous books: Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, and Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. She has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News, and The San Jose Mercury News. She has taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Xavier University, and Miami University. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Denison University. Learn more about Ann at http://annhagedorn.com/. Hear from Ann in our Q&A.

Romantic fiction writer Donna MacMeans

Donna MacMeans, romantic fiction

Donna MacMeans is the winner of the prestigious Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America in 2006 and has since written sensuous Historical Romance for Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random), romantic suspense for a small press, and indie published fun paranormals just for her. She has won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Historical Love & Laughter, and has been a finalist for several times and in several categories. She has won or finaled in many regional contests as well. Her books consistently receive high praise and glowing reviews, and have been published around the world. A licensed CPA, Donna currently serves as the Treasurer for Romance Writers of America, as well as maintains a small tax practice. She received the 2013 RWA Service Award and the 2014 RWA Pro Mentor award for her work with unpublished writers. She has taught workshops for the Nora Roberts Institute, the Writer’s Boot camp for RT, The Thurber House, the Antioch Genre Fiction day, several libraries, several RWA conventions and numerous RWA chapters. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband of 40+ years, along with a demanding cat who likes to dive bomb her from the bed headboard at five o’clock in the morning. Please contact her at https://www.DonnaMacMeans.com. Learn more about Donna in our Q&A.

Jason Sanford

Jason Sanford, scifi/fantasy

Jason Sanford is an award-winning short story author and an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Jason has published more than a dozen stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which also devoted a special issue to his fiction. Other publications include multiple stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction along with stories in Year’s Best SF, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Analog, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other magazines and anthologies. Jason is a two-time finalist for the Nebula Award, a three-time winner of the Interzone Readers’ Poll, and the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. His stories have also been named to the Locus Recommended Reading Lists along with being translated into a number of languages including Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, and Czech. Jason co-founded the literary journal storySouth, through which he ran the annual Million Writers Award for best online fiction. His critical essays and book reviews have been published in SF Signal, The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Pedestal Magazine and other places. He also writes a monthly column for the Czech SF magazine XB-1. His website is www.jasonsanford.com. Learn more about Jason in our Q&A.

Valerie J Lewis Coleman

Valerie J. Lewis Coleman, self-publishing

Valerie J. Lewis Coleman serves experts and professional speakers to magnify and monetize their message by publishing quality books. She co-founded the Dayton Book Expo, the city’s premiere book event. Since its inception in 2010, the expo has hosted over 500 authors and thousands of book lovers. As a best-selling author and award-winning publisher, Valerie has helped thousands of aspiring authors navigate the mysterious labyrinth of self-publishing. With over fifteen years of experience in the book business, this expert divulges industry secrets on avoiding the top five mistakes made by new authors, pricing your book to sell and identifying dishonest publishers. Her dynamic presentation and knowledge of the business saves thousands of dollars, hours of research and tons of frustration by making publishing quick, easy and affordable. PenOfTheWriter.com | QueenVPublishing.com 888.802.1802

Restoring stepfamilies, empowering women, equipping writers to be greater!
Multi-bestselling author of “The Forbidden Secrets of the Goody Box” and “Blended Families An Anthology”
Like Valerie on Facebook for relationship advice and giveaways:

 

Facilitator

Wendy Hart Beckman

Wendy Beckman, facilitator

Wendy Hart Beckman is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, and author. She has published nine books of nonfiction (including 8 Wonders of Cincinnati, Founders and Famous Families of Cincinnati and Harlem Renaissance Artists and Writers), as well as more than 300 articles in print and online. She has an M.A. in English, with a concentration in editing and publishing, and a graduate certificate in professional writing. She has taught at the University of Cincinnati, Miami University, and Sinclair Community College, and has owned her own writing and editing business since 1994. She frequently speaks at writers’ workshops and retreats, including the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and Midwest Writers Workshop. Follow her at www.wendyonwriting.


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Other useful pages

www.yellowspringsohio.org/ About the town of Yellow Springs

http://www.stayyellowsprings.com/ Lodging in Yellow Springs

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