Hi from Mary (waving from the Pacific Northwest) and Dianna (waving from the Southeast)!

Thanks for stopping in to find out more about us and Break Into Fiction™.  The following questions are some we’ve received while at Plotting Retreats, Book signings, Conferences, Reader events…anywhere writers gather.  We love talking to writers so please make a point of introducing yourself when you see us at an event (check out Appearances page for a list of events we’re attending).


Mary, what is your favorite…

QuoteLife is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather a skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming…wow..what a ride!

Place to write – In bed. When the kids were small this was the only room I could close the door to get any kind of privacy long enough to think. The habit has stuck.

Way to spend time off – What’s time off?

Food – Anything cooked by someone else.

How long have you been writing and when did you make your first sale? I’ve been creating stories in my head for as long as I remember. The gap of time between sitting down to write my first novel and selling my first novel was probably 8 years. During that time though I wrote and sold hundreds of free-lance articles, a non-fiction travel guide, was a Magazine editor and Contributing Editor, worked full time and was raising five kids.

Mary in Thailand

Did you study creative writing in college? Nope. I went to college for a Major in International Relations and a minor in Sino-Soviet History and to travel --- lots!

Do you have critique partners?  If so, how do you suggest finding one and, if not, what’s your opinion on having them or not?   I don’t have critique partners that read and give feedback at each step in the process but do have trusted writer friends who will read the first chapters to make sure I’m on track – or final drafts to make sure what I think I’m saying is what’s coming across on the page. If critique partners challenge you to grow and push yourself as a writer, and don’t hold you back or make you constantly second guess yourself, then they are great. Also if they don’t become a crutch for you, meaning you’re afraid to submit without their input or secretly want them to help “polish” the book, then by all means find and work with them. Always look for someone to compliment your skills – if grammar is a speed bump for you, find someone who lives and breathes grammar. If plotting is not your thing, track down someone who can see plot holes from a mile away. Look for critique partners who read or at least can read what you write so they understand the nuances of the genre and are not critiquing the wrong elements of your story.

Did you query an editor (or agent), or did you pitch your book at a conference appointment?  And what do you recommend? My first book sold through a query but always, always avail yourself of the opportunity to pitch or network with editors and agents. Business is about relationships and the contact you create face-to-face can pay off in many ways, and not just in buying a particular manuscript.

What do you start with first – character or plot? This is the chicken or the egg question to me because story is about a particular character coming up against certain obstacles and situations that challenge them to grow and change both internally – in how they think or feel – and externally – in the actions they take or don’t take. Sometimes a story develops from a situation that compels me to think about it deeply and from there I think about what kind of person/character would be most impacted by having to deal with this situation. Other times a character comes to mind first and I wonder what kind of situation would challenge them most. An example would be a young man going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for dinner to ask for permission to marry. This happens all the time and in and of itself does not stand out as a story plot. But what if the young man is the son of a celebrity who committed murder? What happens now when he meets his prospective in-laws? Will the actions of his father impact his ability to meet a great woman and marry into a family structure? Lots of potential for conflicts and issues when the right character meets the right plot line.

What do you find is the most challenging part of writing? The revisions. I was taught my first 12 grades by nuns who gave the message – loud and clear – that one should write a paper or project and have it “correct” and “right” the first time through. So learning to revise – and not beat myself up over the process – has been a journey.  I love that schools have shifted away from that absolute frame of reference.

What can a writer do to get past writer’s block? Stimulate their creativity. For me, that’s seeing new places, stepping outside of my routine, easing up on the pressure to write and write now because I may not get any other time to create, which is all or nothing thinking. Read a great book. Laugh. Play. All of the above.

Do you find conferences and/or online workshops helpful?  Absolutely! One of the golden benefits of this business is that there’s always something new to learn. I go into every workshop, every learning experience expecting to find gems and I do. Sometimes they’re small gems, sometimes large, many times not what I thought I’d learn, but there’s always something to learn to improve my craft as a writer. The day I stop learning is the day you can buy my burial plot.

Tell us something most writers would not know about you, but find interesting? Hmmm… that I never learned how to type. I use two fingers and hen-peck my way through life. One of these days I’d like to learn how to type now that I realize that the skill will not limit my job opportunities which is what it would have done at one time.  That my five children were between the ages of 3 and 10 when I first started writing and never let raising them be a limitation on reaching my writing goals. They taught me focus and perseverance and how to juggle multiple demands simultaneously. They also taught me perspective many times over.

What do you do for recreation when not writing? I read, and watch movies and travel. I also collect ethnic textiles and items such as Beetle nut containers, Namiji figures or Ndebele dolls so I do a lot of study of  Central Asia, SE Asia, India and African cultures.

Ndebele Doll




Dianna, what is your favorite…

QuoteNothing is Worth More Than Today, by Goethe – I cut that out of a magazine many years ago and have always stuck that note somewhere near where I sit in every home office.  I live at full speed and hate to waste a minute, an hour or a day.

Place to write – Anywhere that I have a window.  I’ve spent most of my life working outside before taking up writing so I like to see the outdoors when I look up from typing or writing on a pad.

Way to spend time off – hahahaha…that’s a joke, right?  I do love to fish and ride my motorcycle when I’m not writing another suspense story. 

Food – Anything my husband cooks (he’s a terrific cook) and I love to eat…hmm, guess the closest I can narrow this down is seafood, Thai food and ice cream.

How long have you been writing and when did you make your first sale? I was fortunate in that I sold that first book I wrote (published as Worth Every Risk) after it won nine awards.  I started writing in 2001, finished the book in 2002, won a Golden Heart award in 2003, sold in 2004, book released in 2005 and won the RITA award in 2006.  My next book – PHANTOM IN THE NIGHT – will be out June 2008.

Did you study creative writing in college? Nope.  In spite of having the grades (I was on the honor roll continuously) for college when I graduated high school, I didn’t get the opportunity to attend college.  Instead, I started my first company at seventeen and never looked back.  I’m an avid student who attacks anything I want to learn, analyzing what others have done before me that I consider successful.  That’s how I gained the knowledge to create unusual outdoor marketing projects that eventually led to working with Fortune 500 companies.  I approached creative writing with that same analytical attitude and passion that I’d brought to my other businesses.  I read books by excellent writers (not just top authors, but new authors) over and over, analyzing what they did to get from point A to point B.   That is the single best suggestion I can offer anyone starting out on their first book – read, read, read in the genre you intend to write. 

Do you have critique partners?  If so, how do you suggest finding one and, if not, what’s your opinion on having them or not?  I’ve had critique partners since starting to write and met regularly with several at one time that are all terrific writers and some have also published during that time.  I have a business and write constantly so my schedule interfered with continuing to meet with them.  I do have several author buddies who read for me on occasion and I read for them, plus outside “cold” reads I like to use prior to sending in a final manuscript.  We morph and change as writers so I’m happy with my current arrangement.  I’m going to echo what Mary said about critique partners.  You must always put your writing first.  You do need someone to read your work before you submit and this person should not be your mother, best friend or anyone else whose instinct is to protect your feelings and not tell you what you need to hear.  On the other side of the coin, don’t let someone just trash your work.  A critique should be professional and completely unemotional.  If someone marks a part of your story as “wrong” they should be able to explain exactly why there is an issue such as “I didn’t care for your heroine because she’s coming across whiny” or “having the villain show up at this point seemed contrived because he had no reason to be at that location.”  A good critique partner will say, “Your heroine sounded whiny here and here, but if you had her do X that would fix it and I’d like her a lot” or “It seems contrived for your villain to show up at this point, but if you foreshadowed that he needed to be here because of X it would work.”  That’s constructive criticism.  If you can’t handle that, you won’t enjoy the publishing process. 

Did you query an editor (or agent), or did you pitch your book at a conference appointment?  And what do you recommend? When I was first writing I heard horror stories about waiting two and three years to get an answer from the point of query to proposal request to the full manuscript requested to getting a final reply.  I’m a type-A, which translated means “lacks patience.”   So I decided not to query, but to pitch live so I could at least cut out some of that time and I entered contests since the final round judges were editors and agents.  I pitched live at my first national conference and the editor asked for my full. It took 9 months to reach a senior editor and during that time the story won nine awards.   Another 9 months after the story was with the senior editor, my book was bought by a mass-market publisher in New York.  I recommend you do WHATEVER it takes to get your book in front of an editor and/or agent.  If you don’t have the resources to travel to conferences, then make your goal writing the most smoking query letter out there.  Join online writing groups to learn more about the business within the genre you’re targeting if you can’t travel.

What do you start with first – character or plot? I get ideas from the strangest places, but generally a character pops into my head first with some wild story he or she wants me to consider.  My stories are character-driven.  I woke up in the middle of the night last year with a battle going on between several characters, but one in particular just glowed in my mind. I love action stories so my people are usually in some sort of bad trouble…or I put them there. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to start a story.  I never even think about things like what the correct way is to do anything in a story.  I like to be very open minded, which allows me to be surprised.  I like to plot, because my plots are complicated and once I have the puzzles worked out in a way that gives me some fun twists and turns I am free to write the scenes with complete abandon.  But there have been times where several scenes kept playing in my head so I had to write those first before I had a clue what was going on with the story.  I start different ways on different books then once I have a sense of who the characters are and what the story is going to be about I start plotting.

Dianna's egg collection

What do you find is the most challenging part of writing? Research.  I love to research something that interests me, but it makes me nuts to stop in the midst of writing to go research something.  I tend to write and leave blank spaces or comments in parenthesis to remind me what I need to research, but sometimes I hit a point where I have to know right then if X will work or not.  Unlike Mary, I like the revision process.  I’ve always liked tinkering with something to clean it up or make it better.

What can a writer do to get past writer’s block? Writer’s block could be one of several things.  You could have hit a point in your story that isn’t working and your mind is telling you to move forward you have to consider changing something you really don’t want to change (we writers get attached to characters and scenes).  Or you could be burned out, regardless if you are published or not.  Whatever the reason is – take a break.  Leave your writing alone.  Tell yourself you aren’t just taking a break, but you absolutely will not allow yourself to even think about that story.  Every time it pops in your mind, think of your favorite place to go on vacation or your favorite restaurant.  Set a time frame (a date on the calendar with the time) that you will return to the story, but not before that.  Tell yourself you will use this time to do whatever else you want or whatever “has been worrying you.”  Sometimes we’re stressed over things we need to do that we think can wait, but those worries become bigger the longer we wait.  It’s hard to take a day off for yourself or to get some minor household chore done if you feel guilty the entire time.  I completely agree with Mary about changing your setting.  Give your mind some new visuals.  See someone you haven’t in a long time. I’ll bet when you get back to your story, you’re chomping at the bit to write.    

Do you find conferences and/or online workshops helpful?  Absolutely.  We are so fortunate to be able to attend conferences where we can meet industry professionals and take workshops on practically any part of writing.  In addition, online classes have allowed so many people who either can’t travel or don’t have the expendable funds to improve their craft.  I believe in doing anything it takes to create a better book – pick the learning strategy that best suits your lifestyle. 

Tell us something most writers would not know about you, but find interesting?  I fell out of the womb a realistic portrait artist and spent most of the past twenty-five years climbing over a hundred feet in the air painting huge ads on places like billboards and the walls of buildings.  I also fabricated large three-dimensional pieces (like 25 foot tall 3D Coca-Cola Bottles or giant 16 foot diameter chocolate chip cookies) for unusual outdoor marketing campaigns.  I’ve created 50 foot tall mega-electronic signs for baseball stadiums and on top of buildings.  I still refurbish and repaint the old Coca-Cola ads on brick walls from time to time when my schedule allows.  I was the odd creative person who also loved business, very right-brain/left-brain from birth.  In 1996, my company (www.ArtProductionsInc.com) created massive projects for the top seven Olympic sponsors. 

What do you do for recreation when not writing?  I love to ride my motorcycle on back roads and to small towns.  My husband and I (plus good friends we travel with) enjoy visiting small towns across the country.  I enjoy big cities for all the great restaurants, entertainment, tons of bookstores and museums, but a small town has a special personality.  We meet people on a very personal level and learn so much about our country that sometimes gets lost in crowds and noise. 

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