While studying accounting in college, Susan Mallery spotted an ad for an adult education course titled “How to write a romance novel.” In the sixth week of the eight-week course, she realized that writing romance was what she was meant to do with her life. Far too practical to drop out, she got her degree but never worked in the accounting field because she was published straight out of college with two books in January 1992.
Sixteen years and seventy-four books later, she hit the New York Times bestsellers list for the first time with Accidentally Yours. She made many appearances in the Top 10 before (“finally,” she says) hitting #1 in 2015 with Thrill Me, the twentieth book in one of her most popular series, the Fool’s Gold romances, and the fourth of five books released that year. So far, more than 80 of her books have been USA Today bestsellers.
As I am typing this, she’s probably made the list again. And written another book. I have never met anyone this organized, driven, authentic–and authentically hilarious.
Booklist says, “Romance novels don’t get much better than Mallery’s expert blend of emotional nuance, humor, and superb storytelling. She took the time to tell us her secrets in the Career Authors 11.
1. What book changed your life?
The first romance novel I ever read. I still viscerally remember one particular scene. It was a marriage of convenience story. On their wedding night, the heroine was sitting in front of a mirror, brushing her hair while wearing a silky negligee (as one does). The hero came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. Their gazes locked in the reflection. He said, “I want you to bear my sons.”
Zing! Instant tingles. I was hooked. I had “borrowed” the book without permission from the mother of one of my high school friends. She caught on pretty quickly and told me I was welcome to read as many of her books as I’d like, as long as I returned them.
At the time, I had no idea that I would write romances someday, but that book was the start of my great love affair with love affairs.
2. Was your first published book the first manuscript you ever wrote?
No! The first manuscript I ever wrote was terrible. It was so bad that I have shredded it to make sure that no one will ever, ever, ever read it.
3. Stephen King says, “The hardest part is just before you start.” What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Revisions. I have a short attention span, so when I’m done with a story, I’d love to be D.O.N.E. The next story is always more alluring. My dream is for my editor to tell me, “There’s a typo on page 127, but otherwise it’s perfection.” So far that hasn’t happened, and I’m beginning to think it never will.
4. Do you know the story’s ending before you start?
Yes, I’m all the way at the plotting end of the plotting>pantsing spectrum. In fact, I plot so thoroughly that it’s really like the world’s shortest first draft. My plotting for a 100,000-word story can be 20,000 words.
For me, it’s not restrictive. Rather, it allows me to fix all of the story problems in advance, which liberates me to get the story down as quickly as possible. (I wasn’t kidding about the short attention span.)
5. When you’re having a difficult writing day, what do you tell yourself to get through it?
That someone out there is going to need this story, and it’s my job to write it. I receive the most lovely emails from readers who tell me that their books helped them get through cancer or divorce or infinite other stressful times in a person’s life.
The right book comes at the right time, and it makes a person’s life better. It’s my job to write that book, even when it’s not easy.
6. Do you read your reviews?
Not voluntarily. I support readers’ right to express their honest opinions, but I can’t afford to let a negative review get in the way of my writing. I have deadlines! Everyone at my publishing house is waiting for me to do my job so they can do theirs. My assistant does review searches once a month. She sends some of the positive reviews to me, highlighting lines I can skip to if I’m busy. If she starts to see a trend in comments on negative reviews, she will gently let me know there’s something I need to watch out for.
7. Besides being persistent and correcting your spelling errors, what’s your best advice for a new author?
Never give up. You never know which book is going to be the one to break through. At any stage of your career—the one that turns you into a published author, or the one that turns you into a bestseller. There are a lot of very talented writers who will never make it because they stopped trying. You have to want it enough to keep going no matter what. (With a caveat—do everything you can to be better. Take classes, read books, and write, write, write.)
8. What’s your definition of writer misery?
Having what feels like a great story idea, but not being able to get it together. There’s one story that’s been playing at the back of my mind for years about a daughter tracing her late father’s relationships across the country in a quest to learn about him and about herself. But it has remained frustratingly vague. I’ve tried several times to plot this book, but it remains out of reach, and I’ve learned that I can’t force it. Maybe the time will come, maybe not.
9. What’s your definition of writer happiness? Speaking of which–what’s your newest book?
Writer happiness is right before I start writing a new book. When it’s an idea, it’s perfect because I haven’t had the chance to mess it up yet.
My latest book is The Stepsisters. I love these women! I wanted to write a friendship story that’s structured like a romance—they meet, there’s conflict, they grow closer, and the black moment—will they get together again, or is everything lost? But instead of romantic love, this is the story of two women who are falling into friendship. Daisy’s dad married Sage’s mom when the girls were seven and eight. Their childhoods intersected for the five or six years their parents were married, but it wasn’t a happy time for the girls. They didn’t get along at all, to put it mildly.
Now in their thirties, Daisy is married to Sage’s high school boyfriend, and it’s not going great. Sage has returned to LA from Europe with a few failed marriages in her past. The last thing these two women want is to see one another again. But their shared younger sister is in an accident and needs them to pull together.
The Stepsisters is tender and raw and ultimately uplifting as Daisy and Sage go from onetime adversaries to forever friends. Readers can enjoy a free excerpt here.
10. What’s your favorite book on writing?
My latest favorite is Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. I have no interest in screenwriting, but I’ve found screenwriting books and classes to be some of the most beneficial to my own writing. I grew up in LA, so when I started writing I was able to take countless amazing classes from world-class storytellers. I use screenwriting story structure on my own books, although I modified it to a four-act structure from the traditional three-act. Save the Cat made me think about conflict differently, and it’s on my mind every time I sit down to write a new story.
11. What book are you reading right now?
I’m writing a Christmas book right now (book two of my new Wishing Tree series), so I’m reading Christmas stories to help me get into the holiday spirit in the middle of the year. Right now I’m re-reading Same Time Next Christmas by Christine Rimmer, one of my all-time favorites. It’s everything a Christmas book should be—wildly romantic, funny, touching and filled with the holiday spirit. I highly recommend it.
SUSAN MALLERY is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of novels about the relationships that define women’s lives—family, friendship, romance. Library Journal says, “Mallery is the master of blending emotionally believable characters in realistic situations,” and readers seem to agree—40 million copies of her books have sold worldwide. Her warm, humorous stories make the world a happier place to live.
Susan grew up in California and now lives in Seattle with her husband. She’s passionate about animal welfare, especially that of the two ragdoll cats and adorable poodle who think of her as mom.
(Photo courtesy Annie Brady)