Monday, September 14, 2009

RITA Award Winning-- Irene Hannon

Irene Hannon, who writes both romance and romantic suspense, is the bestselling author of more than 30 novels. Her books have been honored with the coveted RITA Award from Romance Writers of America (the “Oscar” of romantic fiction), the HOLT Medallion and a Reviewer’s Choice Award from RT Book Reviews magazine. A former corporate communications executive with a Fortune 500 company, Irene now writes full time from her home in Missouri. To learn more about Irene and her books, visit

Tell us about your latest project.

An Eye For An Eye, the second book in my Heroes of Quantico romantic suspense series, is now hitting retail shelves. As the series title implies, the three books revolve around the FBI. Two of the heroes are members of the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue
Team, and the third is a special agent. While all of the main characters appear in each story, the books stand alone—meaning the plot wraps up and doesn’t carry over to the next book. Book 1, Against All Odds (my debut suspense novel), has a two-continent setting and involves a diplomat, his estranged daughter and a terrorist plot. An Eye For An Eye is a psychological thriller in which a reunion is shattered by a sniper who’s still on the hunt. And Book 3, In Harm’s Way (April 2010) revolves around an infant kidnapping, a Raggedy Ann doll, and a heroine who must convince the FBI her strange story is true.

Although these books have introduced me to many new readers, Against All Odds was actually my 27th published book. (Prior to that, I’d written only contemporary category romance.) And the results of my leap into suspense have been phenomenal. Against All Odds was on both the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists for multiple months and has gone into a third printing. One radio interviewer even likened it to a Robert Ludlum novel! An Eye For An Eye has been called “superbly written” by Booklist, which said it “delivers all the thrills and chills Suzanne Brockmann’s Team Sixteen series with the subtly incorporated faith elements found in Dee Henderson’s books.” So I’m really glad I broadened my horizons!

As you mentioned, your novel Against All Odds debuted on the CBA bestseller list and stayed there for months. To what do you attribute that success?

Dee Henderson’s endorsem
ent. And here’s how that came about. When Against All Odds was in production, the Revell team and I tossed around names of authors we might approach about endorsing the book. But none of the ones we discussed wrote the kind of book I did—except Dee Henderson. The problem was, no one at Revell had a connection with her. Nor did I.

But I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. So I went on her Web site, sent her an e-mail cold, and asked if she might consider reading the manuscript. She responded immediately, and graciously said she would—but warned me she endorses only about half the books she reads. I was fine with that. So I sent her the book and made a note on my calendar to follow up in about six weeks if I hadn’t heard from her.

Less than ten days later, I woke up one morning to find an e-mail from her waiting in my in-box. It had been sent at 1:42 a.m. She said the book had made her late for an engagement the evening before and had kept her up late to finish it. She offered three fabulous quotes, including the one that appeared on the cover of Against All Odds: “I found someone who writes romantic suspense better than I do.” I was blown away by both her kindness and generosity.

Countless readers have told me that this quote is the reason they picked up my book. So I will be forever grateful to Dee for her role in my successful launch into this genre.

We love to hear about your journey to publication.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember! In fact, I like to say I made my professional debut at the age of 10 when I was one of the honorees in a complete-the-story contest sponsored by a national children’s magazine. But much as I loved writing, in college I became enthralled with psychology and ended up choosing that as my major. (I did work on the college newspaper, though!). Sometime during my junior year, however, I realized that to make a living in psychology, I’d need to get a master’s degree. So I was at a crossroads. Since I needed a master’s anyway, I could go on in psychology—or I could switch directions and get a master’s in journalism. In the end, writing won out.

After college, I got a job in the corporate communications department of a Fortune 500 company. I wrote executive speeches and magazine articles by day and worked on my novels at night. By the time I sold my first book, many years and many rejections after I began writing fiction, I had three completed manuscripts ready to go.

In the intervening years, I’ve written for four different publishers. For the past 11 years, I’ve been writing contemporary romance for Steeple Hill. But a few years ago I decided I also wanted to do bigger books. I dabbled with a longer contemporary romance, but the market didn’t seem interested. One editor I met at a conference said my story (about two estranged sisters who reunite one summer when their mother has a stroke) needed a stronger hook…like an Amish theme. Not my thing. So I tucked the completed manuscript away in a drawer, where it remains.

At the same time I was struggling to find my longer-book niche, I was also struggling, period. My corporate career had vaulted me into an executive position that left me no time or energy for fiction writing. Plus, fighting rush hour traffic, battling corporate politics and being indentured to a relentless BlackBerry that never slept had lost its appeal. So after winning the RITA award in 2003, and with a 3-book contract on the table, I was able to ditch the corporate world without becoming a starving artist. And once I was able to write full time, I had time to pursue an idea for a suspense book.

The next hurdle was finding an agent. I didn’t need one for category, and I was always comfortable handling the business side of writing. Moving into single-title, however, I knew I’d need an agent to shop the book around for me. I assumed, after selling more than two dozen books, that finding one would be easy. Not so. Seems category doesn’t count much when you want to move to bigger books. But after a several-month search, I connected with Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary at a conference.

By then my first suspense book had morphed into a series. Two more FBI characters had appeared, begging to have their stories told. So without even a nibble from a publisher, and in between category commitments, I took the plunge and wrote the whole series on spec. I’m happy to say my leap of faith paid off when Chip sold the series to Revell!

What is one weakness you have as a writer and what do you do to overcome it?

I have a tendency to overuse certain words and phrases. An editor pointed this out to me a few years ago about one word in particular (gaze). I thought she was overreacting, so I did an auto search of the manuscript and…yikes! As I told her, if the word had been graze instead of gaze, there wouldn’t have been a blade of grass standing! That sensitized me to the issue, and I began to notice other words that appeared too often, too. So I started a list. Now, whenever I finish a chapter, I search for every one of those words and revise if they appear too often. Same with adverbs. (An editor told me I used too many of those as well. So “ly” is also on my search list.) This fine-tuning process has become almost an obsession—and a bit onerous as the list continues to grow—but I do think it’s improved my writing.

What is one strength you have as a writer and to what do you attribute your success in this particular area?

I think through every point in my story very carefully. As a result, I rarely have plot holes. I also love doing dialogue—to me, it’s not so much writing as simply transcribing the conversation taking place in my head between my characters. I just listen in. I was born with a logical mind and I’ve always been fascinated by interpersonal relationships (remember the psychology degree?), so I think that’s why I do well at both those things.

If you could go back to the young writer you were when you were just beginning, what advice would you give yourself?

Learn as much as you can about how the industry works. Read exhaustively in the genres that interest you. Target your work carefully. Join a professional writers organization. And I did do all those things as best I could. But when I started writing, there were almost no resources for romance authors. Romance Writers of America, a fabulous organization, wasn’t chartered until 1981 and was in its fledgling days when I began writing. Today I consider it an invaluable resource. The monthly magazine alone is worth the price of the membership.

What’s one publicity tip you can share that you’ve gotten a good response with in promoting your work?

First, a word about promoting category books—I’ve come to believe it’s an exercise in futility. Category books sell huge numbers, the majority through book clubs, and they’re on retail shelves for a very short time. So any marketing efforts an author makes will have very little impact on total sales. I no longer do any promotion or publicity specifically for my category books, unless asked.

Single-title novels are a whole different ballgame. There, you may sell fewer copies, but the return on each is far higher. So every sale counts. My suspense publisher, Revell, does a great job with promotion and marketing, and I feel very blessed to work with such a dedicated and professional team. They set up radio interviews, arrange blog tours, buy high-profile, targeted ads and distribute my books to key reviewers. All of those things are important, and many authors have to do them on their own. I do send out e-mail notices to readers on my suspense list, accept every offer I get to guest blog or do an online interview, and answer every reader e-mail or letter. That personal touch takes time, but I think it goes a long way toward building a loyal reader base.

In the end, though, I think the single most important promotional tool an author can have is a website that’s updated regularly.

What do you do to improve as a writer?

I listen to every bit of feedback I get from my editors and constantly put my writing under a microscope. I read other authors’ work with a very analytical eye and try to learn something from each book. I go to as many workshops as I can when I attend conferences. I’m very cognizant of the fact that complacency is deadly and that there’s always room for improvement. So I’m open to every opportunity to hone my skills.

What are a few of your favorite books not written by you?

Mila 18 by Leon Uris, A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn, The Guardian by Dee Henderson and The Gamble by LaVyrle Spencer.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

Every reader letter touches me, and many have been memorable. A few stand out. With my category romances, I recall one from a very atypical romance reader—a 23-year-old man who stumbled across my book, read it because he was bored, and told me it inspired him, taught him some valuable life lessons and gave him the guidance he’d had trouble finding himself. Another reader said one of my books helped her see through the darkness and pulled her back into the light. Very powerful stuff. And I love the reader who wrote, “No one but Nicholas Sparks can grab me and get my attention after reading only a few pages—until YOU!”

With my suspense books, I’m getting feedback from both men and women, and I’m loving the letters that contain lines like this one: “I bought your book this past Tuesday evening and spent the entire day today reading it! I did have to put it down a few times just to breathe.” And I was thrilled with this comment: “I have been a Nora Roberts fan for a few years now and have just worked my way through all of her romantic suspense books. Your book was just as captivating.”

Do you have a pet peeve to do with this business?

One of my biggest pet peeves is how commercial fiction—and the romance genre in particular—is often considered less worthwhile than “literary” fiction. There was an excellent article about this in the August 29 edition of the Wall Street Journal, called “Good Books Don’t Have To Be Hard.” It suggested the pendulum may be swinging back to an appreciation for novels with strong plots that entertain as well as enlighten—including genre fiction. I hope so!

As for romances, I’ve never understood why so many people dismiss them as trivial. Not long ago, I read a review about a romance that said readers must pick between mental nourishment and romance—snarkily suggesting that stories about two people working to overcome often formidable obstacles in order to build a life together can’t engage the reader’s mind as well as the heart. The reviewer also denigrated what she called “the best romance tradition” of an ending suffused with “a sense of almost religious redemption and possibility.” What a sad commentary on our world when a hope-filled ending seems so implausible that it renders a book too unrealistic to be taken seriously.

What’s your favorite part of being a writer/least?

I love working with words. Put together in just the right way, they can be incredibly powerful. So I love the polishing phase, when I can massage a sentence until I reach the point where I say, “Yes! That’s exactly right!”

Least favorite? No contest. I hate working on proposals and synopses!

What has surprised you most about this industry?

When I was unpublished, it was the difficulty of breaking into the published ranks. I had no idea it would be so hard! Once I was published, I was surprised how my new status changed the complexion of writing. When you’re seeking that first contract and writing for the pure joy of following your muse, all you have to worry about is creating your best story. Once you’ve landed that contract, however, you realize that publishers don’t want one-book wonders—they want authors who can produce regularly. The first sale isn’t the summit; it’s the start of a whole new journey. And in addition to being expected to continually create new books, you now also find yourself doing promotion, creating/maintaining a website, answering reader mail, keeping accounting records, proofing galleys…the list continues. So the pressure is on, and writing becomes a business as well as a passion. It’s still fun, but it’s a job—with deadlines. Which means you now have to plunk yourself in front of the computer even when you’d rather be doing something else. And that’s an adjustment.

Advice to aspiring authors?

I’ll share a few thoughts from an article I recently wrote on this topic.

1. Read a lot—especially books similar to ones you’d like to write. And read with a critical eye. Why does a particular scene work? How does the writer use dialogue? How is point of view handled? Does the book drag anywhere—and if so, why? What is the mix of narrative and dialogue? Does the author break any “rules”? If so, how did that help—or hinder—the story development? What made this book stand out for you? It’s amazing how much you can learn if you analyze what makes a book a tick. Even better, do this exercise with some fellow writers and learn from each other.

2. Join a professional writers’ organization. I highly recommend Romance Writers of America, but there are many other good groups out there, too. Find one that focuses on the kinds of books you want to write. The networking and information exchange is invaluable.
3. Master the basics. I can’t emphasize this enough. A manuscript with typos, misspelled words, incorrect punctuation or bad grammar is unprofessional, and both the book—and the author—immediately lose credibility with an editor or agent. If you have trouble with any of these things, bone up on the technical aspects of writing or have your manuscript vetted by someone with these skills before submitting it.

4. Start writing—and keep writing! As I mentioned earlier, I had finished three books before I sold my first novel. (And all three sold in rapid succession.)

5. Once you feel your manuscript is ready for publication, start submitting it. As important as it is to polish a book before sending it out, remember that it will never be perfect. Waiting for perfection can paralyze you. So get all the technical aspects polished, make sure the book is the best you can write at this point in your career, and go for it.

6. Listen with an open mind to input from editors and other writers. This is often one of the hardest skills to master. We all make such a personal investment in our work that it’s hard not to take constructive criticism personally. But when we do that, we often get defensive—and that can blind us to very good suggestions. Remember that if an editor responds with a personal letter, no matter how many critical comments or suggestions it contains, it means your manuscript caught his or her attention. That’s a huge accomplishment in itself. So consider the comments a free class in fiction writing and learn from them. That doesn’t mean you have to incorporate an idea you don’t agree with, or change your voice. It just means you should take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the experts and use that to advance your career and develop your talent.

7. Set aside time to write—and do it on a schedule. It’s way too easy to find other things to do, but if you have a schedule you’re more inclined to actually produce. Making yourself write even when the muse is hiding or you’re not “in the mood” is one of the marks of a professional writer, whether you’re writing full time or juggling your writing with a day job. Even an hour three times a week is a schedule. And it signifies commitment.

8. Finally—believe in yourself and persevere. This is a tough, tough business rife with rejection. We’ve all heard stories about writers who get multi-million-dollar deals for their first book. Yes, it happens. But it’s very, very, very rare. Most novelists try for years to get their first contract. So don’t let rejection get you down. Continue to hone your craft, do another polish on your rejected manuscript and send it off again. And while you’re waiting to hear back, start a new book!

Parting words?

I’d also like to say a few words about Christian fiction. For years it’s had a reputation as being too preachy and heavy-handed in terms of evangelizing. In truth, some of that is deserved. But the genre has changed considerably over the past few years. Now, Christian fiction refers more to books with a certain worldview. In my books, the faith content is subtle and reflected more in characters’ actions than in words. As a result, any reader who likes compelling fiction without four-letter words, gratuitous violence or graphic sex would enjoy my books. I would love to find a way to convince more secular readers to wander into the Christian fiction aisle at their local bookstore. I think they’d be very pleasantly surprised.

Now, to wrap things up, I’m excited to announce that I just sold a new three-book suspense series to Revell! For more info, you can visit my Web site at


Gina Holmes said...


Thanks so much for the thought you put into your interview. Great job. That's one heck of an endorsement from Dee. Wow.

16shamrock said...


Thank YOU for inviting me to participate! I hope your blog followers find something of interest and value in the interview.

Irene Hannon

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow! Congratulations on the new sale! I loved your interview. I shall remember those well-grazed words next time I try to edit my work:)

pat jeanne said...

Thank you so much, Irene, for sharing your writing journey and the wise words of advice for writers. This was an inspiring interview. And congrats on your latest sale to Revell. All the very best. Pat

Lisa Jordan said...

Great interview, Irene. I read many of your Love Inspired novels and loved them. I recognized your name from being a favorite LI author. I started Against All Odds before bed one evening--BIG mistake. I was up until 3, I think, finishing it. Great book! I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Laura in Texas said...

Thank you for the thoughtful advice offered in this interview. It's appreciated by this novice writer.