Interview with 2 Authors: Debra Mullins & Debra Holland

 I have the task of contributing this column, “Between the Lines,” to the chapter newsletter of my local RWA chapter.  I have permission to publish these interviews here as well.


Two Debras, Two Golden Hearts: Two very different paths to publishing

Between the Lines with Debra Mullins & Debra Holland

Debra Mullins is the award-winning author of over a dozen historical romances from pirates to cowboys to Regency England to the Victorian period. Born and raised in the New York area, she moved west as an adult and loves old swashbuckler movies, Star Trek and cats.

You are a previous finalist of the Golden Heart award for unpublished authors.  How did that recognition set the course for your career as an author?

Being a finalist gave me a great way to approach editors to pitch my manuscript. I was a finalist in 1996, pitched my book to an editor at RWA in July 1997 and had an offer in hand by January 1998.

You sold several books without an agent at the beginning.  Would you do it again?  Why or why not?

At the time, I had decided it would be easier to find an editor than an agent. Agents might love your work but turn you down for representation because they are unsure if they can sell it. Editors can buy work if they like it. So yes, I would do it again, though I have been agented consistently for the past 12 years or so. As a first sale author, you have a limited amount of say in what can be changed in a contract because you have no sales numbers to back up your requests. As an established author, the game changes and there is more than can be negotiated, so I prefer having an agent at this stage in my career.

What attracted you to Regency Historical fiction?  Will you / Have you ever tried your hand at any other subgenre?  Would you like to sometime?

My first book was a pirate adventure, my next two were Westerns. At that point Westerns were dying, so my editor requested I switch to England or Scotland. I’ve always enjoyed Regency romances, so that was the time period I picked. My current series, however, is Victorian, and I am also contracted for contemporary paranormal trilogy for Tor.

Can you describe your writing process—plot device first? or character first?

I am without a doubt a character writer. I start with characters and the internal conflict and theme, then have to find stuff for my characters to do for 300-plus pages (plot).

 How do you develop a character arc for your hero/heroine?

I usually know what kind of internal conflict they have and where they need to end up, then work from there. A lot of what I do is gut instinct. If it feels right, it goes in, everything from the character’s name to his/her deepest internal issues.

What do you do to keep your ideas fresh and unique?

Keep up with current events. Technology may be changing, but people are essentially the same all through history. People today care about the same things people in past centuries cared about: survival, family, love, respect, etc. You can make that work in any sub-genre, and it resonates with the reader.

How did you develop your writing discipline?  What keeps you making deadlines when you have a job and family?

Necessity. In order to meet my contractual obligations, I have to schedule things. I put my kids and day job first, then my writing. It has to be that way so I can keep my household afloat. This means I don’t have much of a social life outside of the writing community, which is probably why I met my husband at work. <G> My goal is to someday become a full time writer.

And last but not least, the one I ask everybody : )  What one piece of advice would you give a struggling unpublished writer?

I would say get feedback on your work, but don’t try and incorporate every suggestion given to you, and don’t ask twenty people when three will do. This is something that I see time and time again. Beginning writers get advice from too many people, then try and apply every suggestion. The result is a book that has lost its spark and doesn’t sound like yours anymore. Take the feedback and try to drill down to the underlying meaning. Example: Let’s say several different people tell you your hero shouldn’t be a prince because he is coming across as too wimpy, that he should be an FBI agent or an assassin or a vampire. The real feedback here is not that your hero has the wrong job, but that he is coming across as too weak. Your beta readers can probably point out areas that made them feel this way, and by making the hero stronger, you resolve the problem while still keeping your prince.

Debra’s Latest, Too Wicked to Love is available now.

For more information on Debra Mullins, visit her website 


Debra Holland wears several hats when it comes to writing. As a psychotherapist, she writes nonfiction books. The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving is her first nonfiction book.  Debra also writes fiction–Historical Western Romance, Contemporary Romance, Fantasy Romance, and Science Fiction. She currently has her award winning Historical Western Romance Series, The Montana Sky Series, on Kindle.

Debra publishes all her work under her own name. She lives in Southern California, with two dogs, two cats, and a boyfriend. She’s a second degree blackbelt and teaches martial arts. She also is a corporate crisis/grief counselor.

You are a former winner of the Golden Heart award for unpublished authors.  Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

 I owe it all to the feedback I received from the Orange Rose Contest that year–2001. I revised the beginning of Wild Montana Sky because I had two judges tell me the hero and heroine met too late. In November, I entered it in the Golden Heart contest, and NEVER THOUGHT OF IT AGAIN! I didn’t know when calls went out–it never crossed my mind that I would final. The call was the BIGGEST surprise ever! I think I screamed because my boyfriend came running to see what was going on. He wasn’t sure if it was a happy scream or a bad scream.

 Carol Prescott told me that being a GH finalist was like being on the Prom Court in high school. And she was right. It was my first conference,New Orleans, and I was also giving a workshop, “Understanding Men.”  I had a BLAST.  The friendships you can make with the other GH finalists are priceless. I’m especially close with the GH finalists from 2003, but that’s another book and another story.

 I had several other finalists tell me they were not going to prepare an acceptance speech because they didn’t want to “jinx” winning. Since I’m a believer in positive, not negative, thinking, a few hours before the ceremony, I decided I’d better put something together. I was ironing my gown, thinking about what I might say, when I had this strong feeling sweep over me that I was going to win. I stopped ironing and went looking for a piece of paper, saying to myself, “I WILL be giving this speech. I’d better write everyone’s names down to thank so I don’t forget anyone.”

 So many people told me that selling was the next step to winning, but it wasn’t for me.

 Your book, however, languished unpublished for a decade due to marketing concerns for the genre you wrote in (i.e. Sweet Western).  What gave you the impetus to self-publish?

 By the time I’d finished the Wild Montana Sky (WMS) the historical market, especially Westerns, had tanked. Winning the GH led me to my first agent, and he couldn’t sell the book. Neither could the second, even though the historical market came back. The market is for sexy, not “sweet” books, that aren’t inspirationals. I was reluctant to sell to a small press because I didn’t like the covers on most small press books. (That has changed a lot in this last year or so.) I wrote another book in the Montana Sky series, Starry Montana Sky (SMS), which took second place in the Orange Rose contest. 

 In the meantime, I switched to writing fantasy, then, in the last couple of years, focused on nonfiction. While I was in “deadline hell,” writing The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, a couple of my friends from the Wet Noodle Posse (GH finalists 2003) began publishing their backlist and unsold books on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords and were doing very well. When I saw their success, I decided to self-publish WMS and SMS, but had to wait until I’d turned the grief book in. Because of my friends, I knew what to do (and what not to do.) We are sharing everything we know and learn about self-publishing with each other.

 Can you describe the steps you took to publish the books in ebook form?

I’d had the books edited years ago, but did another read through of both. I went to the Bowker site to buy ISBN numbers. (You don’t need them for Kindle or Nook, but you do for Smashwords, so you might as well do it). My friends assured me that converting to ebook formatting might be time-consuming and tedious, but doable. Just follow the steps in the Smashwords guidebook. Not for me. I got stuck early on. I contacted one of the formatters suggested by Smashwords and paid him the outrageous sum of $20.00 per book. (Couldn’t believe he didn’t charge more.  Would have paid $100 not to have to do it myself! ) Once he was finished, I uploaded the books on the Kindle site myself, as well as the others. All the sites are all similar. If I can do it, anyone can. Each took about 15 minutes, but a less tech challenged person could probably do it faster.

 Who designed those lovely covers?  What was that process like?

 Delle Jacobs, one of my Wet Noodle Posse friends, and the first of us to self-publish her books. Delle won numerous Golden Hearts, but could never sell toNew York, although she did sell to some small presses. Now she has her rights back. She’s doing VERY well. 

 I’ve looked at covers for years, trying to figure out what I’d want on my covers if the books ever sold. (Not that I’d have any say in the matter.) I never found one. Then, a couple of weeks before publishing, while looking through a catalogue of science fiction and fantasy books, I saw a cover for a fantasy novel, and thought–this is what I want–clouds opening up to the sky. I showed the cover to Delle, then described a big white house, a rainbow in the sky, and the couple looking at the rainbow.  For SMS, I wanted a night sky, stars, a moon, a horse, and a smaller house. She did a marvelous job.

 Now a question about pricing.  You had this finished product in your hands… how did you go about deciding how to price them and how was that a factor in the success of the books?

 I read a couple of blogs, but mostly followed Delle’s advice. She’s had fantastic success at selling a book or two at an introductory price of .99, then having readers go back and buy the rest at higher prices.

 Self-publishing percentages are 35% for books priced below 2.99 and 70% between 2.99 and 9.99. Obviously, I make way more money on Starry at 2.99. However, I’m an unknown author. Why should people take a risk on my book? That’s why WMS is .99. However, if you’re already published and have a following, I’d suggest 2.99. WMS is outselling SMS at about 4 or 5 to 1. Because of the low price, WMS has also made some of the Amazon top 100 lists, both Historical and Historical Romance. (Making the list was a wonderful surprise!)

In your opinion, what is the single most effective marketing tool you used to promote your books?

 I actually haven’t promoted it that much, just posted it on Facebook and Twitter.  Just this last week, I’ve done a few blogs. I’ve had friends post on Facebook and Tweet, too. I have more blogs lined up. Reviewers, too.

 One thing we can all do for each other is post 5 star reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, whichever you buy your books from. Positive reviews make a big difference to any book, but especially self-published ones. For each review, my sales have risen a little to another level. I must confess that I’ve never posted a review until the last couple of months, but now I do every time I read a book I like.

 And last but not least (I save this question for everyone!)  What is the most important piece of advice you could share with an unpublished author?

 Don’t give up! Trust that there is a publishing path for you, although you don’t know what it will look like or how (or when) it will come. Keep honing your craft. Keep writing. 

 Not selling Wild Montana Sky was very discouraging.  It won the GH TEN years ago! Those first rejections hurt. Eventually, it happened enough that I shrugged them off when I got them. Now I’m SO glad I didn’t sell the books before. I guess there was a different plan for them, and I’m so grateful! 

Wild Montana Sky is currently available.

For more information on Debra Holland, visit her website

Going To My Happy Place: Exit Glacier

The world according to Bren…

I continue one of the features of this blog in this post, is a description of my “happy places.’    Every creator, whether writer, visual artist or peformance artist, needs to recharge his/her batteries.  Creative energy is not infinite.  It is not fair for us to expect to be able to continue creating/writing/sculpting/etc. without inspiration.

Regularly, I will describe here where some of my existing “happy places” are, hopefully showing pictures I’ve taken.  I’ll try to describe what it is I get from that place and maybe share some unique perspective on it.

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska (near Seward).  

After completing an exhilarating and whirlwind coastal exploration of Alaska (read: Cruise), we landed in Seward one temperate early August.  Summertime temperatures had reached record highs that year, in the high 70s (as a note, a week earlier, Seattle hit its all-time highest temperature and first time in the triple digits.  It was not a fun visit in the land of no air-conditioning!)

Exit Glacier sits the edge of the Harding Ice Field, first discovered in 1922 when Seward residents found it approachable from town.   At one time impenetrable (it was finally crossed in the 1960s), Harding Ice Field proved a massive and immovable expansion of ice from which a massive mountain range pokes its summits like scattered islands.

From the edges of the Harding Ice Field flow over 18 glaciers, including Exit Glacier.

 A small portion of the massive Harding Ice Field (over 1,000 square miles of frozen inland sea), the Exit Glacier, at its edge is an unstoppable river with the power to cut massive valleys and flatten trees in its wake.

The Exit Glacier is known for its approachability.  On a turn-off from the main road that leads from Seward to Anchorage, you can practically drive to less than a mile of its edge.

There is a short and easy trail from the parking lot to the glacier, during which you cross a rushing river that busily carries off the melting edge.  If that is not evidence enough of the warming of global temperatures, there are wooden signs as you ascend, helpfully marking out the edge of the glacier in years past, as far back as 1899.  These evidence that the warming of the area is not an entirely new thing.

Now that you know a little bit about the place, I’d like to share why and how it resonated with me.  As I climbed the trail to the moraine of the glacier, a cool wind assailed my senses, bringing with it the smell of ice and the cool, wet feeling resting on my cheeks.  And with it a calm peace.

When I reached the glacier’s edge, I was struck with the moonscape-like scenery, full evidence of a glacier’s power and devastation of all in its path.  New life had begun to spring out from parts that the glacier had not touched in decades, but anything newer than that was barren rock and dirt.  And the edge of the glacier itself, when I closed my eyes, sounded like standing beside a waterfall.

I felt that “click” of connection standing there, listening, feeling, smelling, letting the glacier reach nearly every sense: the blue ice, the relentless trickling water, the cool, wet breeze, the crunch of dirt below my feet, the smell of ice and minerals.  I imagined myself standing out on the glacier under a full golden moon, watching the glistening light across its surface.  I felt small and insignificant in the wake of such natural power.

It was a humbling experience.  One I’ll keep with me for a long time.

For more amazing pictures of the Exit Glacier and Harding Ice Field, go here.

Stay tuned to this blog for more of my happy places–which range from Europe to the West Coast of the United States, to Alaska, to the Northwest.

What makes Mr. Darcy so irresistable?

Throughout the years, women have been swooning for Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy, even before Colin Firth epitomized him in the role that he was clearly born to play.  But what was it about Mr. Darcy that made him so swoon-worthy?

Was it his dark good looks, his heaping 10,000 a year?  Was it his surly, aloof attitude or his natural aristocratic superiority which appealed to these readers?

I would posit that all of these things (or most of them, in my case) do make a case for making Mr. Darcy irresistable to women.  Certainly Caroline Bingley found him desirable due to many or all of these.

But how does a fictional hero appeal to women across two centuries and the seven continents to epitomize the romantic hero?

Mr. Darcy is in clear control of his life, his estates, his family (after that little mishap with Mr. Wickham last year) and has his affairs in order.  Until, that is, he makes the acquaintance of one Miss Elizabeth Bennet.  And it soon becomes apparent that he can think of little else but her.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed that, were it not for the inferiority of her connexions, he should be in some danger.

[…and later…]

He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.

Finally, once Elizabeth’s time at Netherfield has ended, Darcy realizes that, despite his own warning signs of danger, his feelings have burgeoned.  He makes a last attempt to squelch them by sheer force of will.

Elizabeth had been at Netherfield long enough. She attracted him more than he liked …. He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him, nothing that could elevate her with the hope of influencing his felicity; sensible that if such an idea had been suggested, his behaviour during the last day must have material weight in confirming or crushing it. Steady to his purpose, he scarcely spoke ten words to her through the whole of Saturday, and though they were at one time left by themselves for half an hour, he adhered most conscientiously to his book, and would not even look at her.

He continues to  fight himself constantly–a struggle which, when outlined during his disastrous first proposal to the object of his affections–instills great distaste in her and “with such little effort at civility,” he is rejected.

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.”

[…and later…]

He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand.

Darcy is a man who has lost control of his heart.  “In vain” he struggles against the direction in which it pulls but he cannot divert his own feelings, no matter how hard he tries.  Even after she humiliates him.  Even after she accuses him of being the villain in Wickham’s story–a most vicious lie she has been led to believe.  Even after her ridiculous younger sister causes scandal and ruin by running off with that same Wickham and lives with him unmarried in London.

By the time the circumstances that bring about the second proposal come around, a lot of water has passed under the bridge between Elizabeth and Darcy, but he still cannot control his heart:  His “affections and wishes [were] unchanged.”

It is this desire–even though it brings about disastrous (though, thankfully temporary) results in his life–that he cannot control.  It is his compelling love for Elizabeth which draws readers to his cause and makes them swoon at the thought of being in Elizabeth’s slippers.

In the most excellent 1995 adaptation, the screen writer, Andrew Davies shows us this conflict within Darcy using various scenes not described in the novel.

One of them shows Darcy vigorously working out with his fencing instructor and claiming, at the end, as he turns towards the camera with a fist closed in determination, “I shall conquer this!  I shall!”

And, of course, not long after, Darcy, riding to his estate and (unknowingly) on an almost-literal collision course with his beloved, he pauses at a pond on his estate to douse his desire with a swim.  This scene has become iconic and one that has haunted Colin Firth for the entirety of his career.  To wit:


Though neither of these scenes were written by Jane Austen, they have become popular as a mechanism for the different medium of film to depict what is going on inside of Darcy.   Jane Austen gave us exquisite prose just to this purpose.

It is this quality:  this honorable man, in control of his destiny, his emotions, and a great deal more, losing control over his own heart which I find so incredibly appealing about Mr. Darcy and why he is a hero for my “all-time romantic hero” scrapbook.

*Bold added in all quotes by me

Going To My Happy Place: Lastours

The world according to Bren…

One of the features of this blog I plan to add, starting with this post, is a description of my “happy places.’    Every creator, whether writer, visual artist or peformance artist, needs to recharge his/her batteries.  Creative energy is not infinite.  It is not fair for us to expect to be able to continue creating/writing/sculpting/etc. without inspiration.

In the short term, many do this by reading, watching films, connecting/talking with others.  Meeting with other writers is always a way to get a short boost of this energy.  But it’s a short-term thing, at least for me.

As a self-admitted nature addict, I find myself drawn to the wild and natural places of the world. Some riddled with history, some just breathtaking by their remoteness.  When I’m there, I feel a tingle of energy buzzing through me.  I risk sounding “new-agey” by saying that.  But something within me connects with that place and I form a link with it.  I close my eyes and perceive it with all the senses: smells, sounds, the feel of the air and climate around me.  I take a mental snapshot of that place.  When I need a boost of that creative juice, many times, I sit in a quiet place (preferably outdoors, weather permitting) and close my eyes and visualize the remote place I have connected with.

Regularly, I will describe here where some of my existing “happy places” are, hopefully showing pictures I’ve taken.  I’ll try to describe what it is I get from that place and maybe share some unique perspective on it.

One of these places is Lastours, in France.  My bio does describe me as a Francophile, so of course I am partial to the land that Julius Caesar once described as La Bella Gallia — Beautiful Gaul (the ancient name of France).

Lastours, itself, is a place rich with history.  The valley walls reverberate with it.  Mysteries yet to be uncovered lurk there.  One of them, a discovery in the 19th century of a young girl who had been buried like an Egyptian princess.  She is called “La Princesse au Collier” and it has never been discovered who she was or why she was buried in that way.

The valley itself is a refuge, chosen by “Les Cathares,” the Cathar people to defend themselves from the joint crusade launched against them by the Pope and the King of France.

I don’t want to give a history lesson, here, but I did need to explain a little of it to give you an idea of the history which reverberates throughout this area: from the tiny village at the base of  hidden valley in the Southwest of France, through the caves once inhabited by prehistoric peoples to the decaying towers at the top of the hills.

The experience started on a climb through the museum in this small village and up a steep hill.  It was daunting, but worth it.  At the top, the view of the fresh, green valley below, dotted with Italian Cypress trees and verdant foliage.  The fresh smells on the breeze assailed me.  And I felt it.  The connection.

For more information on Lastours, go here

Do you have a happy place?  Or two?  Where is it that you feel that connection–that rejuvenation of your creative energy?

Stay tuned to this blog for more of my happy places–which range from the West Coast of the United States, to Alaska, to the Northwest.

Advice on Creativity

A “shot in the arm” from artists of other mediums.

I read blogs from artists outside the medium of creating fiction and have found great tools given freely in their advice. It takes only a little mental tweaking to make it sound advice about writing as well.

The first comes from Dewitt Jones, a photographer who worked for National Geographic for many years. Check out his corporate videos on creativity if you ever need that boost of self-confidence and joy of writing.

Last night, I was having trouble finishing this column and decided to take a walk on the local golf course—just me and my pitching wedge. As I walked down the 2nd fairway, the light of the setting sun was almost blinding. I could barely look straight ahead, much less to my left toward that blinding ball. Then, another step, and the light went away. My head turned involuntarily. There, in the exact spot where I stood, the sun was momentarily blocked by the one lone tree on the fairway. What I beheld was magic. “Wow!” I gasped, on an inhale. And for a few moments, I just stared, lost in the connection.

If you hear a “Wow!” shoot!

Quote taken from Moments of Wow!

And my tweak? If you hear a “wow!” from a visual that pops into your head, the faint whisp of dialogue or the jolt of conflict of characters interacting in your mind–write!

The next comes from a comic artist Phil McAndrew.  He wrote an awesome post giving advice to young artists which I feel applies really well to aspiring authors. Go read it. Here’s one of the many quotes I liked and compliments the quote above as well.

My best work, the work that I get most excited about and that other people seem to enjoy and respond to the most, is usually stuff that I draw purely for fun. My big mental art breakthroughs usually happen when I’m mindlessly doodling. Sketchbooks are where you get to draw whatever you want and where ideas are born. Set aside a little time every day to doodle and explore. Draw for YOURSELF.

My tweak, of course: Write for YOURSELF. Write the stories YOU want to read. Write they stories that you MUST know the endings to. Write the stories that consume your waking thoughts and dance through your dreams.

Lastly, from a Forbes article on creativity:

Gregg Fraley suggests starting your creative journey by believing you are creative.

Believe it. Simply Believe You Are Creative. Your most basic beliefs drive how you think, your brain listens to the programming you put in via your thoughts, like punch cards on an old computer. If you keep feeding it the “I’m Creative” card, it starts acting like it. When we hit the wall seeking ideas, feed in the card “I’m going to think of something great,” or “I’ll have a great idea for this.” Even when your faith falters, as the songs says, Don’t Stop Believin, fake it until you make it — you will make it — make an active choice to be creative.

BELIEVE and CHOOSE to be creative and it will be so. BELIEVE you are a writer, and it will be so.
Twitter stream I find helpful. Cherry pick because there is LOTS of stuff here. (Creativity, Craft and Marketing advice, etc.)
Artists Road (a bookmark for myself to peruse during the dry spells)

What do YOU do to feed your creativity? How do you keep the juices flowing?

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