Please note that because of the genre that Toni writes this interview does contain some ‘adult’ themes.
Morgen: Hello Toni. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Toni: I’m currently a retired (ha ha, what woman is really retired) sexologist. In the past, I’ve had many incarnations: dental assistant, insurance adjuster, juvenile parole, ward clerk for hospital, inpatient psychiatric social worker, and finally writer. I’ve always loved to read, especially mysteries and thrillers. Got tired of saying, “Gee, I can write this.” So I did. I was a single parent for most of my adult life. Raised two children, a boy and girl (both married) and put myself through college (on a wing and prayer) until I finally graduated with a master’s in social work. Now I’m now married (21 years) to a man fifteen years younger than me. Works well for both of us as he’s a bit older in mentality than his age and I’m a bit younger.
Morgen: “You’re only as old as you the man / woman you feel” apparently. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Toni: I write erotic thrillers, romantic suspense and two self-help books. Loved Stephen King so I tried horror but couldn’t pull it off.
Morgen: I blame Stephen King for me wearing glasses (read them under the duvet when I should have been asleep as a teenager) and I read everything as it came out but wrote limericks! 🙂 What have you had published to-date?
Toni: I wrote a short satire on sex toys found in a nursing home called Shaky Acres, a self help book for the families of prisoners called Outsiders Looking: How To Keep From Going Crazy When Someone You Love Goes to Jail. The first book in the SexToyMurder series is Deadly Vibrations and the second is Easy Entry, a Traveling Can Be Murder book. Both are available as e-books on Smashwords, Amazon and a soft cover edition on Create Space, also an Amazon product.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your books?
Toni: I have a blogsite called http://SexToyMurders.com. At this point, I’m just beginning to get the site off the ground. I spend so much time writing that marketing is almost a second thought. I must get better at marketing. This is a mantra I say to myself every morning but then I sit down and write. The next thing you know it’s time to make dinner and I’m too pooped to do anything else.
Morgen: I know that feeling although it’s the marketing (well, this blog, answering emails and the day job – not necessarily in that order) rather than writing. Actually I do very little marketing; every now and then I realised it’s been a week or two before I’ve mentioned anything on Twitter (I don’t tout on Facebook unless it’s with news – I find Facebook a different beast) and then it’s mentioning the free eShorts rather than the two $1.49 eBooks but then perhaps I’m going the reverse psychology route, hoping that by seeing the freebies that someone will buy one of the others. They do, occasionally, which is when I get to “yay” on Facebook. Too many people on Twitter have little to say other than “buy my book” (and they are that direct) and wonder why people de-follow them. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Toni: I won third place for Debt Bondage, a book about a sexologist caught up in human trafficking. The book isn’t out yet because I felt the suspense needed more work.
Morgen: You’re clearly doing something right to be place. We’ve mentioned eBooks – do you read them?
Toni: I don’t have an eReader. I can’t seem to get past the wonder of sitting in my recliner with a new book in my hand, a cup of hot chocolate at my side. I love the smell of books, the texture of the paper in my hands. But that’s just me.
Morgen: Ah, you’re not, by any means. I think I’ve had more interviewees say they still prefer books to eBooks but they key is that you’re sitting in your house so you can read whatever you like. Go on a 3-month break and that’s where eBooks come into their own – plenty to read for the same size as a book. Your books are available as eBooks, what was your experience of that process?
Toni: The process of building an ebook for Smashword and Amazon is easy. Go to Smashwords.com and download Mark Coker’s free Smashwords Style Guide. These directions will help anyone learn how to design an e-book. I must say that Create Space, Amazon’s version of a soft cover book publisher, is more difficult. First, you must learn to format the interior of your book to a specific size. Next you or someone designs a cover. After both are complete you send the digital version of your manuscript to Create Space for approval. Once approved, you can order a proof of your book to check for mistakes. If not approved, Create Space will explain what the problem is. You then fix the problem, resend the final product and again wait for approval. Create Space has an on site community support system where you can ask questions about each and every process involved in book publishing. To be honest, most of the mistakes I found came from my own computer ineptitude.
Morgen: At least it’s thorough, like the Smashwords style guide (70+ pages) which is why I went the Smashwords route first (the only route so far) but it was a breeze to work through. We’ve mentioned success, have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Toni: I had so many I could’ve papered my bathroom walls with them. I don’t believe the rejections came from bad writing only that I didn’t have what agents wanted. One told me to soften Debt Bondage. How does one make the horror of human trafficking a fun read? Another agent said the book scared her. My intention, exactly. The erotica publishers I queried wanted straight sex, no real or complex story line, and no suspense. Even I, a sexologist, found that boring.
Morgen: As would I. 🙂
Toni: The Twilight of Sunflower Blue, a time travel fantasy set in Springfield, Illinois in 1865, has garnered some agent interest, but I’m not sure I want to wait the required two or more years for the book to come out. As for how to deal with agent rejection, look at all the big names who write books and fail. There are so many would-be writers out there, so many who are good enough to get published yet they don’t. Why? I’m not sure I can answer that question, so my advice is to keep trying or go for eBook publishing.
Morgen: I think you got it spot on in your second sentence – just not the right thing for that agent. Harry Potter was rejection 14 / 16 times (depending on where you read about it) and that’s not done badly since. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Toni: Finishing Debt Bondage and Twilight of Sunflower Blue. I should have Sunflower ready by December.
Morgen: I love that title, both of them actually. You sound pretty prolific, do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Toni: I write almost every day. Some days my husband and I head to the beach with our dog, Avila, a greyhound mix we adopted from doggy death row last year. Other days, I clean house, shop and do all the mundane things married woman do to survive.
Morgen: Now there’s a story. 🙂 Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Toni: Writers’ block for me is to lose interest in what I’m doing. To cure this glitch, I pick up a book and read for an hour or two. That usually piques my interest and I’m back at the computer eager to write. However, if I write every day, I usually don’t experience the problem. I also go to the gym for water aerobics. Exercise keeps me alert.
Morgen: It does, a few people have said they go to the beach… lucky things (and you :)). I’m three hours away from the nearest beach, which is probably nothing in some countries but a trek (especially as it’s single carriageway roads most of the way) over here, but then half an hour often is to us Brits. 🙂 A question some authors dread: where do you get your inspiration from?
Toni: Oh boy. I’d say all sorts of places. I previously worked in juvenile parole and later at an inpatient psyche hospital, both rife with unusual topics for an author to write about. For instance, we once caught a very angry boy trying to break into the parole office with a sword stuffed down the back of his pants. The blade almost cut his leg off. Another time, at the hospital, we discovered a crayon-written note from one of the patients explaining to another patient how to break out of confinement by using chewing gum on the tip of his fingers to climb a ten foot brick wall in the yard out back. Mostly my inspirations come from an overworked, over imaginative brain, my travels in California, Arizona and Nevada, my dogs, my family and my friends.
Morgen: Wow, what a life. Once you have these ideas, do you then plot your stories or do you just run with it?
Toni: My characters carry me off on their own destinations. In The Twilight of Sunflower Blue a contemporary Sunflower Blue is zapped back to 1865. There she is arrested by the handsome sheriff who promptly throws her in jail. Later, once the romance between them blossoms, she is kidnapped and transported to the Deep South where meets Isaiah, a freed slave from the Union Army’s colored regiment. He becomes her guide, her teacher and pretty much her moral compass. I only planned to have Isaiah in a couple of the chapters. But darn him, he refused to leave, so I made him an integral part of the book.
Morgen: I love that about writing, where the characters take over.
Toni: Seems every time I plot a story something happens to change the outcome. Oh well, surprise is often better than disappointment.
Morgen: It is… and why I only plotted my first novel. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Toni: Like I said above, I’ve worked in some fascinating fields, met a gazillion interesting characters and somehow, they all found their way into my books. Names are rarely a challenge. For instance, in Sunflower Blue (an ex-hippie name) I christened the bad guy Morgan McCreedy. A good melodramatic name like that brings up visions of Captain Hook and Snidely Whiplash.
Morgen: Morgan, yes, you definitely get my seal of approval. 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction?
Toni: I co-wrote Outsiders Looking In: How To Keep From Going Crazy When Someone You Love Goes to Jail for a friend who’s son ended up on San Quentin’s death row. The Innocence Project is now reviewing his case and we think he has a good chance of coming home soon. We spent a lot of time inside San Quentin and Chowchilla (women’s death row), talking to other families about their hardships, and to inmates about how they endured on the inside. Eventually we founded a family of prisoners support group. We were even interviewed and videotaped for Japanese television.
Morgen: Wow. 🙂 Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Toni: My critique group. I rarely show my work to a non-reader. When I receive a proof, I usually have a couple of friends look it over for mistakes. And darn, I do find them.
Morgen: I think you can edit almost endlessly. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Toni: At first, I edited until I went nuts. After that, I joined a critique group. Back then, our leader only allowed us to read a chapter a week. A year later I was barely half way through one book. Eventually, I and two friends decided to start our own group. We critique fifty pages a week. That’s more realistic if one wishes to ever get published. I’ve also used online critique groups. At this point, my writing is in pretty good shape and I usually only need a nudge here and there to correct a mistake. I do believe having someone else look at your manuscript is important simply for the feedback.
Morgen: I run a critique group and belong to another and we only have about 15 minutes each because we only meet fortnightly and want everyone to have a turn (I’ll be the one who misses out if anyone, and Monica – the leader – will in the other group). You’ve mentioned going into prisons and who you talk to, how much research do you have to do for your writing?
Toni: I did a ton of research for both Debt Bondage and Sunflower Blue. Human trafficking has such a global impact that I wanted to make sure all of my facts were right before I put anything on paper. For Sunflower, I got in touch with the Historical Society in Springfield, Illinois so that I knew what the town was like in 1865. I had a lot of information about the Civil War but not about any particular towns or their inhabitants. As for the sex toy murder book, my doctoral project was on sex toys, how they were designed and how they were used. I worked with team members at Doc Johnson, the leading sex toy manufacturer in the U.S., so I had first hand knowledge, so to speak, about which toys were lethal enough to bump off an intended target.
Morgen: I’m sure a few people reading this will see them in a different light now. 🙂 What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Toni: Most of my ideas materialize while I’m in the dark, my head on my pillow, waiting for sleep, or else I’m in the tub. My brain never shuts down. I wish it would, but hey, why impede the creative process?
Morgen: Better that than struggle, as some writer do. Do you listen to music or like to have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Toni: Noise distracts me. If I do listen to music I like rock from the 60’s-80’s. Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, Alice Cooper. No flouncy pop or mind numbing hip hop.
Morgen: I love Pink Floyd – I’d say they’re the most represented group on my iPod. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Toni: I write first person for the main character, usually a woman. For secondary characters such as a love interest, I use third. Most of my books are written this way.
Morgen: Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Toni: Prologues are great if they’re used sparingly. I had a page and a half for Deadly Vibrations but took it out. People who have read the prologue believe I should put it back.
Morgen: Oh dear. Perhaps have it as chapter 1 instead? What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Toni: Write what you know and do this every day.
Morgen: Absolutely. 300 words daily is a 100,000 novel in a year. (pot, kettle, black) What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Toni: I love mysteries and thrillers. Authors I’d recommend are PD. James. No one describes a room like she does. Daniel Silva for his Gabriel Allon series and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, a new take on Dracula.
Morgen: In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Toni: I’m in the U.S. across the pond from you guys. The world is now so connected through the web that I don’t believe there is a geographical hindrance.
Morgen: Me too. Most of my blog readers (or certainly the ones who leave comments) are from the U.S. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Toni: As long as there are readers there will be writers. Hopefully mothers will continue to read to their children and those children will grow up to be readers. Hopefully.
Morgen: Hopefully indeed. Thank you Toni.
I then invited Toni to include a self-contained excerpt of her writing and this is from Deadly Vibrations.
I tossed and turned my mind as jumbled as the sheets. The numbers on the clock radio next to the bed ticked off the minutes with an infuriating slowness.
Daylight crept in like a burglar from behind the heavy curtains.
I recalled with certainty the exact hour I’d last used my vibrator. A week before the loss of our business. Now a forensics team has the evidence, six videotapes confiscated from a VCR in my garage. After Detective Tanaka’s visit tonight, a mental image flitted through my mind. Not of me in the shower, but of the sleek, exotic detective in a recliner in front of the television, a bottle of booze in his fist, his dark eyes absorbed in a study of me on screen with my vibrator. Faced with that vision, I worried about the little things. How I appeared in the flesh, the expression on my face the moment of orgasm. Had he paused the videotape on the good parts, rewound for a second or third look? What could I do except anguish over the notion that someone not of my choosing had watched me in an intensely private act?
It made me feel cheap. A thrill of the moment used to bring about a stranger’s arousal. Yet cops unearthed the bones of our privacy every day. They dug through our confidences and clawed their way up the hierarchy of our past with increasingly sophisticated gadgets. Of course, Eric Tanaka had watched me masturbate on film.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on the main blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have this blog, https://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com, on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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