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I love getting to know other writers, particularly those who work in a literary area other than mine. (That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? This is my area. That over there is yours. Stay out of here.) I love hearing about their work habits, the way they cultivate ideas, how they sharpen their stories. In general, I find more similarities than differences, although the differences can be stark.
Take today’s guest, Jamie DeBree. Like me, she’s an author who lives in Billings, Montana. Like me, she’s holding down a day job and pursuing her novel-writing dreams in her off-hours. Like me, she doesn’t sleep (very much). Unlike me, she writes sexually charged romances. In, uh, doing research for this interview, I read her novel Tempest and was impressed with how well she developed her characters (and, yes, she certainly brought the heat, too). Romance is not my preferred area of reading, but I enjoyed Jamie’s book very much. More than that, I had to find out what led her down this particular path, as a romance writer and the proprietor of her own publishing house, Brazen Snake Books.
Here’s her story:
What lit your fuse for writing? Do you recall an a-ha moment where you thought, “OK, this is what I want to do”?
I think I’ve always “felt” like a writer — it was back in high school that I first voiced my desire to write books. To which my parents very logically responded, “You’re gonna need a real job first.” Turns out, they were right. It was only a few years ago that I really decided to get serious and try to make some money with my writing, but I don’t remember any specific moment, because writing has always just been there, a constant in my life, even during the years I wasn’t writing anything.
You came into the business as a committed independent, even though your genre is certainly well-covered by traditional publishing houses. What was behind that decision?
When I was young and dreaming of being a writer, I always thought I’d self-publish my writing. I’ve always tended toward the control-freak side of things, and I’m kind of an outsider anyways, so doing it myself fits my personality. When I finally decided to actively work at publishing my books and joined the online writing community, I was hit on all sides by the “self-publishing is bad and self-publishers suck” stigma, and bought into it for a while. But the whole process of trying to write for a specific line, the hoops (that had nothing to do with writing) required to even get a manuscript on an editor’s desk and the fact that as a new author I wouldn’t be making much money anyways was just so overwhelmingly against the idea of building a successful career that I nearly quit writing altogether. It wasn’t what I wanted from my writing experience. That’s when I hit that question I think all writers eventually have to come to terms with: “Why am I doing this?”
I decided that the reason I wanted to write was simply to entertain people. And to do that, I didn’t need a publishing contract with a house, I just needed a venue. I started posting a draft on my blog, I got some nice comments, and at the same time, self-publishing was starting to be a more acceptable option (the stigma is still there, but it’s far easier to deal with these days). Excited that finally I could do it myself, I jumped into the self-pub pool and haven’t looked back since I made my first sale.
You and I have talked a fair amount about characterization. Why is it so important to your sexually charged stories?
Characters are the heart of any story, in my opinion. My characters drive the plot, and what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time is what keeps that all-important sexual tension high, and determines what happens next both in the story and in their growing relationship. To that end, I do my best to get deep into my character’s heads and pay attention to what they would logically be thinking and feeling from moment to moment and write from that, even if it doesn’t fit the plot I originally envisioned. I think this makes the entire relationship more realistic than if I try to make it fit a certain “box,” though it does get pretty messy sometimes as far as fears, insecurities and stubbornness go. Unlike real life though, the relationships in my books always work out in the end — usually without any extra help from me.
What’s your personal aesthetic for a sex scene?
Hot, but not crass, if that makes any sense. A sex scene without emotion is porn, and that’s not what I write. I like frank language and I want to feel what each character is feeling throughout. I think a lot can be learned about characters in the heat of a very sexually charged moment. I try to invoke a physical response in the reader, to bring them right into the story with the characters so they’re just as invested in the relationship. Emotions are often invoked or magnified by the senses — touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. I try to use all of those to make the scene very real, and show the reader the emotions that my characters are going through at that point in time. If it makes things more complicated when it’s over, all the better.
You and Carol Buchanan — two writers who are working entirely different parts of the literary universe — have teamed up to write a series of blog posts on sex scenes. How in the world did that partnership come about?
Actually, it was Carol’s idea. She e-mailed me last fall, having read one of the draft sex scenes on my blog, and asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on a comparison in styles for writing sex scenes. Naturally I couldn’t turn down an offer like that. It’s been a lot of fun to study the angle from our very different genres and perspectives. I think we’re both learning a lot from each other, and clarifying our own processes as we explore the subject in blog articles.
You’re a transparent writer, in that you post weekly your progress on a story. Why do that, as opposed to rolling it out when you’re done?
Motivation, mostly. I’m a writer who needs an audience — while many writers claim to write for themselves first, I write predominantly to entertain others. While I do occasionally work on drafts that aren’t serialized, I’m happiest when I know someone’s waiting for the next installment.
There are a lot of other benefits I get from it — my drafts, while still rough, have improved immensely because I’m very conscious that people read them as I go. I tend to plot on the fly (i.e., I don’t really outline), and serializing forces me to maintain a linear plot and pay very close attention to continuity while I’m drafting — which means less work for me on the revision side. I also have to re-orient readers quickly at the beginning of each scene, and entice them to come back for the next one at the end, so it’s helped me learn how to keep readers turning the page (or so I’ve been told, anyways). It’s basically my practice arena, and I invite readers to watch just exactly how a story is “born” in my world. I see no reason for it to be some mystical, secret thing we writers hide away. Nearly all creative endeavors are messy in the beginning, and I don’t think we should be afraid or ashamed of that.
Like many (most?) other writers, you have a day job. How do you balance your time among that, the writing, your husband and home life, etc.?
I like quiet when I’m writing, which means my normal writing hours are between around 11 pm and 1 am (2 am if the scene of the day is particularly frustrating), after the dogs and my husband are settled for the night. I can’t edit that late (the analytical portion of my brain tends to fade out earlier), so a lot of revisions/editing take place while I’m watching TV in the evenings and on the weekends. I’ve been known to load my draft on my Kindle and head to the break room at 10 am and 3 pm for 15-minute editing sessions at the day job too. Writing is basically a second job for me — in the evenings after dinner I’m writing blog posts, updating my web sites, socializing on various online platforms (ie, marketing), and watching TV with my husband. Luckily, I’m a very good multitasker and also very disciplined (I love routines and keep fairly strict schedules), so somehow it all gets done. Although I’ve been trying to remember to order more business cards for three weeks now … and please don’t stop by without calling, so I have time to vacuum and pick up the dog toys.
What do you read for pleasure?
Whatever I can get my hands on, really — I generally have 2-3 books going at any given time. My parents always encouraged reading widely across genres for a well-rounded experience when I was young and I’ve kept that habit. So while romance (all sub-genres), erotica and thrillers are the genres I read in most, I also read mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, westerns and literary novels as they come my way. The only genre I really don’t read much of is young adult — I have nothing against the genre, it just doesn’t hold my interest (and didn’t really even when I was young).
What’s next from you?
I’m nearly finished with the serial draft of The Biker’s Wench, the first book in my Fantasy Ranch series scheduled for release this coming July. Monica Burns is running from a forced marriage and ends up at a ranch outside Reno, Nevada, that specializes in making adult fantasies come true. Her father finds her there, but before she can run again she gets an unexpected offer of help from Harley Majors, the owner of the ranch. She reluctantly accepts, but her father turns the tables on them and dangerous chaos ensues as they work to outwit her father and win her freedom once and for all.
I’m also working on revisions to Her Private Chef, a novel I wrote a couple years ago about a split-personality food critic and a popular TV chef with the power to ruin her career. I plan to finish that up and release it sometime next fall. It’s a fun story, and I’m excited to finally be working on it again.
Jamie DeBree’s website: http://jamiedebree.com
Purchase links for Jamie’s books: http://brazensnakebooks.com
Jamie’s blog: http://varietypages.jamiedebree.com
Jamie’s page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NovelistJamieDeBree
Jamie’s Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/JamieDeBree
Jennifer August’s debut novel, Her Dark Master, was released just days ago and has quickly racked up all sorts of good buzz. Whipped Cream (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up) gave it four-and-a-half cherries and said “Her Dark Master combines intrigue and suspense with pulse-pounding erotica, ensuring a reader squirms in their seats while they remain on their toes.” Night Owl Romance went with four-and-a-half out of five hearts, observing, “Intertwined within the Victoria and Lord Corwin story-line, the author has also peppered the novel with a mystery concerning blackmail and provided a glimpse of how the custom of arranged marriages, could potential leave a young woman with a very unsuitable choice in husbands.”
Obviously, I’ve ventured outside my usual genres here, but Jennifer has a great publishing story and some great insight into the various levels of the romance genre. And then there’s this: She’s a high school classmate of mine, though I must concede that I didn’t remember her when I stumbled across her profile on Facebook. That says nothing about her memorability or my advancing age and much about the size of the Richland High School Class of 1988: 620 members.
In any case, I’m glad to know her now and happy for her success. Here’s more about how she broke through:
Q: Tell us about Her Dark Master. When did you start writing? How long did it take? What was the road to publication?
My very first attempt at writing came about when I was 16 years old. I devoured series romance novels and the bigger historicals from authors like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Jennifer Wilde. One day, I decided I could do it too, which is howI think most authors start their careers. Unfortunately, I had no real clue about writing. By the sweat of my brow, I cranked out 32 handwritten notebook pages of a really dreadful romance. I still have it, just to remind me. I’ve been seriously writing since 1997. In that time I’ve finished 14 manuscripts and started countless others. Her Dark Master was the 13th book I wrote, and oddly enough, 13 has always been my lucky number.
In the romance industry, we have a national organization called Romance Writers of America and within each state, as well as online, there are local chapters. I belong to several such chapters, as well as non-romance writers’ groups. A lot of these chapters have contests where the final judges are usually acquiring editors or agents. I entered HDM into one of these contests, it finalled, then won, and the editor requested it. She bought it within a few weeks.
Red Sage bought my book in December of 2008 and it was released as an e-book on Sept. 1 of 2009. The intervening months were spent with an initial revision letter, followed by line edits, the cover and finally proofs. It alternated between passing quickly and dragging on. Especially the last two weeks of August!
Q: Break down the romance genre. Are there levels of, for lack of a better word, steaminess?
Steaminess is a great word! There are legions of levels within the romance genre. There are sweets, where the sexual tension is apparent between the hero and heroine but no actual “on-screen” lovemaking is witnessed. At the top level is the extremely erotic — which is what I’d classify my book as — where readers pose as voyeurs and get to see every single aspect of lovemaking, written in graphic terms. In between is a wide range of levels depending on lines, readers and authors. These books run the gamut from just above sweet, where we might get a little more action and glimpses into the bedroom, to full-fledged lovemaking that’s not quite as graphic as an erotic novel. There is literally a taste of romance for every reader out there. Romance novels have expanded and adapted to what the readers demand, while ensuring the core of the story always remains the relationship between the main hero and heroine, or in the case of yet another evolving genre, the hero and hero. Or the hero, hero and heroine.
Q: An indelicate question: What’s your approach to writing sex scenes? Do you plot them out, or just go with the moment?
I have to say my sole plotting of sex scenes is “Sex here. Hot, super hot or nova” on my plotting board. For me, the characters dictate the way the love scenes go. More often than not, I’m just along for the ride (so to speak!). I know who they are before I start writing and I know their temperaments and experience levels and definitely their tastes in what turns them on, but when it comes time to actually write the scene, I just let the words pour out of me. I am very visual, so I usually “see” the scene in my head and work fast to get everything down on paper. I try to get the whole thing down in one fell swoop, then go back and make sure all the body positioning and emotional reactions are fully logical and engaged. It’s actually a very delicate operation and probably one of the things I spend the most time on. Of course, they’re wickedly fun, too, so it’s not a hardship!
Q: You write with a historical bent. How much research is involved?
When it comes to accuracy, I really try to get all my facts straight. I have a ton of research books that are specific to the romance industry, as well as more obscure works that might have one or two bits of useful information I might use one day. Of particular importance is ensuring when you bend history that you don’t break it. Readers do not like that. They’ll forgive some stuff, but if I made the Prince Regent king three years before he actually ascended, I’d lose my credibility. It’s a huge trust factor with the readers, and I don’t want to risk messing that up. But research is actually fun. I can get lost in the past quite easily and for hours on end. I’ve been tossed from the library at closing time more often than I care to admit.
Q: What sort of environment do you require for writing?
I’m a creature of habit. I must be at my desk with either a sporting event or music playing, a candle of the pumpkin spice variety burning and the lights on in order to write extensively. If I need to do revisions or line edits, I work from printouts, which is archaic but I find more stuff that way. I always carry around a notebook and favorite pen just in case I get inspired and need to jot something down, but for actual book writing, it’s gotta be in one place — my glass desk.
Q: Romance fans are among the most enthusiastic readers out there. What has your interaction with readers been like?
You’ve totally hit the nail on the head! Romance readers are genuine, fun, bold and supportive. I’ve received e-mails and posts from all around the country since the release of my book. They’re all complimentary and ask about the next book (soon!) and inquisitive! They ask how I came up with a plot point or how much is real life and how much is pure fantasy. Since my book is available only online, I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything face-to-face public, but I’m working on it.
Q: What do you read for pleasure?
My ultimate pleasure read is The Belgariad by David Eddings. It’s a sword and sorcery fantasy series, and I just love it. Other than that I read romance novels, usually historicals, but I’ve been getting into a lot of contemporaries lately. I like mysteries and fantasy, but not a lot of horror. My imagination is too vivid!
Q: What lit your fuse and convinced you that you wanted to write?
When I was little, I used to make up stories all the time. As I grew older and started reading, I became fascinated by how random words could come together to create compelling stories. In high school, I was encouraged by my English teachers to try creative writing and always did well on it. I also did a lot of “changing” books in my head. If I didn’t like the way a scene played out, I totally changed it in my mind. I had a lot of support from my family, too, who pushed me to give it a whirl. In fact, my brother is the one who really got the ball rolling. He bought me a ticket to a local writers’ conference and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. I’ve lived in my own land of make-believe for so long, that it’s nice to have it appreciated by others!
Q: What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m writing the sequel to Her Dark Master. It will be the story of Tori’s brother Ryder. After that, I’ll feature another character from the book, the mysterious Mr. Wolffe.
Jennifer August’s Web site: http://www.jenniferaugust.com/
Purchase link for Her Dark Master: www.eredsage.com