Annette McCleave took top honors in the Romance Writer’s of America® 2008 Golden Heart® contest, winning in the Paranormal category with her story, Soul Provider. Because she was serving as her father’s primary caregiver, she wasn’t at RWA® Nationals. Even so, she may well have heard the roar that went up from the Pixie contingent. We were thrilled for her.
Annette tried her hand at banking, financial advising, and high tech marketing before finally figuring out how important writing was to her. After the death of her brother in 1999, she chose to make the most of every moment and become a positive role model for her daughter. She decided to follow her dream, which had long been in the back of her mind—to be a writer.
One of our Canadian Pixies, Annette lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her biggest fans: her teenage daughter, a black Labrador Retriever and a tuxedo cat, all of whom express empathy at the right moments and dole out tough-love as needed.
I met Annette through the Golden Heart loop. Her love and dedication to her father impressed me mightily. I’m thankful she was able to share news of her GH win and her first contract offer with him. Her caring nature and gentle manner shine through in all her interactions.
•Annette, I’ve gotten to know you as one of the Pixies, but you’re also one of the Wild Cards, which is what you 2005 finalists call yourselves. You attended the memorable 25th anniversary Nationals in Reno and sported the finalist ribbon. Even though you were unable to join us in San Francisco, you said in your blog that your 2008 GH final meant more than the first. Why is that?
I finaled in 2005 with a manuscript I’d been working on for a couple of years. I was thrilled to final, but at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I’d already changed it significantly since I entered, and had modified my writing style. I LOVE the judges who rated my manuscript high enough to final, but I felt like a fake by the time the ceremony rolled around. I was convinced I was the Accidental Finalist. I wasn’t expecting to win, and I didn’t. Then came three years of drought on the contest and query fronts. I kept writing, kept learning, kept improving, but it was hard. When I finaled again in March 2008 with my new writing style and a brand new book, I felt like it was real this time. It wasn’t a fluke.
•We Pixies whooped and hollered on your behalf when your name was called as winner in the Paranormal category at the Awards Ceremony at Nationals. When did you hear the news, and what was your reaction? How long did it take before your win felt real?
I found out when I got the call from my friend Sylvia Day, a RITA nominee who graciously agreed to get up on stage and accept the award on my behalf. She called me at 12:30 a.m. I probably should have been up—I had planned to “watch” the ceremony via the RWA website, but the three hour time difference between San Francisco and the east coast got the best of me. I never thought to leave my cell phone by my bed, so the midnight call went through to my voice mail. Luckily, Sylvia is persistent. She called back a few minutes later. I still missed the call, stumbling to the kitchen half-asleep, but my hands were shaking when I looked at the phone number. I knew her call in the middle of the night could only mean one thing.
I cried, just a little. Then I called her back.
The win only felt real when my necklace arrived and I held it in my hands. Sylvia FedEx’d it to me, sweetheart that she is.
•Just six days after Soul Provider won the Golden Heart you received The Call. Was the news a total shock or had your agent given you a heads up? How did you react when she shared the news with you? Who did you tell first that you’d sold?
I was completely shocked. I only signed with my agent, Laurie McLean of the Larsen Pomada Agency, in June and had been busy polishing the manuscript based on her feedback before the RWA National Conference. So, we hadn’t actually sent the manuscript out on submission yet. My agent was thrilled with my win, and she used it as a great lead-in with the list of editors we had agreed we’d target.
On Tuesday she sent Soul Provider out, and by Wednesday morning we had our first offer. When she called to tell me, she told me to hold onto my hat because she also had interest from several other editors. I bawled. By midday Friday, we had a wonderful three-book contract with NAL and I was dancing on the ceiling.
My daughter was home at the time, so she was the first person I told. The second person I told was Sylvia. The third person I told was my dad who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer earlier in the summer. He was so excited he leapt from his chair and gave me the biggest hug ever. Yes, I cried again then, too.
•You finaled in the Long Historical category in the 2005 GH and finaled and won in Paranormal this year. When did you switch from one sub-genre to the other?
I didn’t really make as much of a switch as you might think. My 2005 GH manuscript was a medieval, but it had paranormal elements including an ancient legend and a sword-wielding female warrior. I’ve always been fascinated by mystical stories and was a huge fan of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series when I was a teen. I also love ancient lore and can spend hours with my nose in a book about mythology.
•I saw on your blog that you were already hard at work on your fourth manuscript back in 2005 when you finaled in the GH the first time. How many manuscripts have you completed? When did you finish your GH winning story and soon-to-be released book, Drawn into Darkness, as it’s now called?
I’ve completed seven manuscripts. The first was a murder mystery I completed so many years ago I’d rather not recall. It was very poorly plotted and rampant with clichés, but I’m still proud of it because I typed THE END on page 440. As we writers know, finishing your very first book is a moment you never forget. Me, I was at work at one a.m. in the morning, and I remember dancing through the empty halls in my stocking feet shouting, “Yay, I did it!”
I completed my GH winning manuscript November 24, 2007. I used the GH deadline to spur me into completing the manuscript in a timely manner. Then, because I had paid the entrance fee, I sent it in, never believing it would final. To my immense surprise, it did, beginning a whirlwind experience I could not remotely have imagined at the time.
•You are one disciplined writer. I noticed your prime writing time is from 4–6 a.m. Yowzers! That’s early. Do you dive right into your work in progress, or does it take you some time to get your creative wheels turning? Do you set daily goals? How long does it take you to complete a novel length story?
I actually get up just before 4 a.m. because I’m useless without a hefty jolt of caffeine. While the coffee’s brewing, I check my email. Then I read the last portion of what I wrote the previous day to get back into the story and start typing, mug of java in hand. I usually end a day’s work in the middle of a scene to make it easier for me to dive back in. I set daily goals, but I’m not ruthless about reaching them. My primary target is my weekly goal, which allows me some flexibility for the days when the words just won’t come or life gets in the way. I usually target three months for a first draft, which I find much more creatively draining than edits.
•I saw something that piqued my curiosity. You said you’re a pantser turned plotter and that the switch allowed you to free yourself creatively. How did this change come about and why do you find it so freeing?
The first four books I wrote, I flew by the seat of my pants. I had some vague ideas about plot, some less-vague ideas about characters and a bucket-full of enthusiasm. Except for the second book, which I actually wrote in three weeks, those books were painful to produce. I had no idea where I was going, and I’d sometimes just sit there staring at the blank page wondering ‘okay, champ, what now?’ Not surprising, the books needed humungous revisions.
So, I changed the way I wrote. I plotted the book out ahead of time, and I found that it freed my mind to be more creative—I no longer had to worry about what came next. Now I could have fun with the story, test the boundaries I’d initially set, discover new depths to my characters. I know many writers say plotting takes the fun out of the creative process, but for me, it was the opposite.
•Voice. Finding ours as a writer can take time. You admit to having gone through a couple of years when you were searching for your style, your perspective. When did this take place? What did you do to aid the process? How did you know when your voice had emerged?
When I began writing, I had no idea what voice was. I was eager to learn and immediately began to hunker down and develop my writer’s craft. It took me a long time to realize that following the “rules” religiously and taking everyone’s well-intentioned advice to heart could actually take some of the voice out of my writing.
To develop my voice, I tried my hand at several different types of books. Light, dark, serious, funny, modern mystery, historical romance, and combinations thereof. I’ve learned a lot about my style. For example, I love writing dark stories, but my books can never be 100% serious. My characters won’t cooperate. At least one of them has to be a snarky smartass. My soon-to-be-published book, Drawn into Darkness, has a serious theme—the battle between good and evil, played out between demons and Soul Gatherers—but one of the major secondary characters dresses in Armani suits and hand-stitched shoes. Just imagine this guy working side by side with an old world Scottish knight whose fashion sense began with a kilt and bare chest. See my problem?
•What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Do you have a favorite hobby, sport or other activity?
Uhm, is there a life outside of writing? Does reading count? How ’bout watching TV? Once upon a time I used to make silk flower arrangements, but now? I’ve accepted that my talents lean more toward cultivating prize-winning dust bunnies and laundry piles.
•And now a question just for fun. Since you’ve written medieval stories, I’ll send you on a journey into the past. If you could go back in time and take one piece of modern technology with you to share with a historical figure, what would you take and with whom would you entrust the invention?
Hmmm, tough question. I suppose I’d abscond through the portal with that marvelous invention called watermelon-flavored toothpaste. Dental care was a very low priority in medieval times and everyone had horrible teeth. Had flavored toothpaste existed then, I’m certain more people would have kept their teeth. Toothpaste would have been handy for just about everyone, but I’d give it to Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. With her ability to sway the world, future princesses would have been guaranteed their Prince Charmings had white, sparkling teeth.
It’s been great having you as my guest, Annette. And now, in closing, is there a final comment you’d like to make or a question you’d like to ask your visitors?
Thank you for having me on your blog, Keli. I’ve had a wonderful time. I can hardly believe it’s Halloween tomorrow. In the spirit of that holiday and in anticipation of the Great Candy Sorting Ceremony that invariably follows a night of trick or treating in our house, I’ll ask you: out of all the treats in your bag, what was the one item you refused to trade? Mine was fruit flavored Chicklets gum. Sadly, my daughter also loves gum, so I won’t get any discards. But she doesn’t like nuts in her chocolate, so there’s hope for me yet.
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All those who leave a comment for Annette between now and October 31 will be entered in a drawing for one of three cool Pixie totes featuring Tink, the most famous Pixie of all Pixie’s.
Here’s how the drawing works. Between now and the end of October, I’ll be featuring interviews with six of my fellow Golden Heart finalists. After flinging truckloads of cyber Pixie dust for one another’s sales, submissions, revisions and the like, we dubbed ourselves the Pixie Chicks.
In honor of the fact that it’s Pixie Central here at Romance Writers on the Journey the rest of the month, I found Pixie prizes. These are the best prizes I’ve ever featured on the blog, imho. They are sturdy canvas bags about sixteen inches square, exclusive of the handles.