Women’s Fiction Author Cathy Lamb Talks About Collecting Rejections, Writing Books and Eating Chocolate

I discovered author Cathy Lamb when a good friend handed me Henry’s Sisters and said, “Read this book now.”  What she didn’t tell me was that I would read it in under forty-eight hours, use a whole box of Kleenex and then proceed to read the rest of Cathy Lamb’s books in the next six weeks, only to go through author-withdrawal upon finding out the next one doesn’t come out until…get this…August!  

When I emailed Cathy about participating in the blog she was friendly and gracious even thought I’d apparently left her off the sidebar author list. (How many ways can you say: mortified?) Anyway, at least I knew I’d blabbed about her books in early posts so she knew my reverence was sincere. (Just don’t tell her about the shrine, ok? ;-))

I’m thrilled to share her insights with all of you — and hope you’ll add comments below!

Many thanks to Cathy for her time and enthusiasm.

Women’s Fiction Author Cathy Lamb Talks About Collecting Rejections, Writing Books and Eating Chocolate

ASN: What was your journey like from concept to publication of your first book, Julia’s Chocolates in 2007?

CL: A brutal rejection slip actually was the best thing that happened to me as a writer.

I had published many articles in a local newspaper, but hadn’t published any of the category romance books I’d been writing for years.  To be baldly honest, the reason I was trying to break into the category romance field was because I didn’t think I was smart enough to write women’s fiction. I didn’t think I could create interesting enough characters or develop a deep enough plotline with cool twists and turns and the right pacing to be published. Yes, I know, that doesn’t say much for my self esteem as a writer.  The romance editors at major houses were very encouraging. I’d sit down, write up the first chapter and a synopsis and send it in.  They would then ask for the first three chapters. So, I’d sit down, write the three chapters up, and send it in. The editors would then ask for the whole book. So I’d sit down, write it up, send it in. Then the publishing house would reject it, usually with detailed two page rejection letters, and ask me to try again.  This was, of course, tremendously disappointing. All that work, for nothing. Still, after flinging myself against a wall a few times, I hung in there and kept writing. The brutal slammer was when I went through the above process and had an editor with a name that starts with S who worked for a company that starts with an S tell me over the phone she was pretty sure they would buy my book if I made a few minor edits. I made the requested edits. To make a long story short, the editor didn’t actually make a final decision on the book for two years.  I wrote a scathing letter and the publishing house ended up apologizing to me for the length of time the process took. They encouraged me to write again and submit all future work to the head editor.

The book, however, was rejected.

Crushing.

I could either start banging my head against my keyboard and muttering strange things to myself, or I could quit writing category romance completely.

I quit.

And then later I finally, finally, finally wrote something that meant something to me. I let my imagination fly and I let my characters be the wild, devoted, screaming, lost, strange, quiet, secret-harboring, desperate, joyful, lusty, pig-loving people they needed to be. I let the plot grow organically instead of trying to shove it into a rigid formula. I addressed issues I wanted addressed that were close to my heart and I tried to inject humor. I wanted to reach women. I wanted to give them a book that would allow them to escape from life for a few hours, a book with characters they could relate to. A book that would make them laugh.

I sent Julia’s Chocolates to the five top agents/editors I could find. I figured I could then say I was rejected by the best. The editor never answered. Three of the agents asked for the book. I went with my favorite agent. He sold it to Kensington Publishing in about a month as part of a two book deal.

ASN: Since 2007 you’ve published a book a year. What’s your writing process — or more specifically — how do you write so many books? (Not that I’m complaining!)

CL: My first book, Julia’s Chocolates, sold in 2005 and was published in 2007. Since then I’ve written The Last Time I Was Me, Henry’s Sisters, Such A Pretty Face, and upcoming in August, The First Day of The Rest of My Life. I have also had short stories in the following anthologies: Comfort and Joy with Fern Michaels, Almost Home with Debbie Macomber, and Holiday Magic with Fern Michaels.

The novels take seven to eight – ish months. Or so. Around that. Something like that. Give or take a week or month or so and some head banging time on the computer. The short stories, two to three – ish months.

ASN: I hear the blog readers gasping for breath. How do I write so many good books?

CL: Well. I don’t sleep much. I have stories wandering around in my head and characters talking to me. I feel completely out of sorts when I’m not writing a book, even if I’m wiped out from writing the last one. My life is a mess and disorganized and unfocused without writing. I love to write. I love to tell stories. I love to live in my imagination.  It’s an excuse for staring into space or talking to myself, out loud, on my walks.

As far as the writing process, I sketch out my main characters to the tiniest detail in a journal, and in my head. I journal and scribble and make notes until I have a coherent story, although the story changes and morphs as the characters do and say things they were not given permission by me to do. They take on a life of their own in my head and do as they please. They are sometimes difficult to handle but I write what they say, even when they are throwing things or throwing fits. The plot changes then, too, and because somewhat fluid as I go. I usually know where the ending will end.

With my first draft, I write 2000 words a day, 10,000 a week, or I don’t let myself go to bed on Saturday night until it’s done. (I have had many late Saturday nights) I edit every book 12 times. I get input from an incredible editor and agent before I launch the book, and sometimes in the middle when I have questions.  I try every single time to write a better book than I did the time before. I really, really strive to do that. I try to balance the difficult plot lines with humor. I try to give the reader a 3 – D picture of the story and the characters so it’s in movie form for them.

And I eat a lot of chocolate and live part time at Starbucks slurping decaf mochas.

ASN:  One of the things I like most about your books is that the main characters find themselves in situations I’m unlikely to be in myself (I’m not a big naked runner) but I can still relate to them.  So the stories are both unusual and familiar. For example, because I feel like I know the characters so well, I understand Julia getting rid of her wedding dress on a tree in North Dakota in Julia’s Chocolates as well as Stevie’s obsession with chairs in Such a Pretty Face.  How did you come up with these particular actions or quirks?

CL: I had an image in college of a gal escaping on her wedding day and throwing her dress in a dead and spindly tree. That image, that picture, was one thing that later helped launch Julia’s Chocolates. Because I had to ask WHY? Why did Julia do that? Who is she? Why doesn’t she want to get married? Why did she leave it to the last minute? What was her childhood like?

As for the fantastical wooden chairs that Stevie cut and painted, that was inspired by the years of freelance work I did for The Oregonian.  I gave six Portland artists plain, wood chairs. I let ’em loose and they painted them to be auctioned off for the Children’s Cancer Association. The chairs were remarkable. Absolutely amazing. So my real life experience went into Such A Pretty Face.  Stevie turns chairs into magic, that’s what she does.  Part of her journey is to take the imagination and daring that it took to create those chairs and bring them into her ‘real’ life.

In Henry’s Sisters, Isabelle is promiscuous. I have several friends who have that in their backgrounds and it is very painful for them.  So, I gave that challenge to Isabelle. I asked myself, “Why was Isabelle promiscuous? Who is she? What in her childhood happened, or in her teen years, to make her promiscuous?” That set the story off.  Plus, I was writing that story after my father died and I was in a horrible, grief stricken mood. Isabelle, at the beginning of the story, inherited my black mood.

ASN: Can you give us the inside scoop on The First Day Of The Rest Of My Life, due out in August?

CL: The inside scoop? Well, The First day Of The Rest of My Life is about pink.

It’s also about a beauty parlor on Cape Cod, a lavender farm in Oregon, and a bit of history in France.  It’s about a troubled life coach who has a sister who explodes houses. It’s about two trials, gunshots, a yellow ribbon for hope, a granddad with a terrible secret in his past, the past catching up with the present, an Irish fisherman father, sailboats and ice cream, hurtful photographs, and facing your past head – on while wearing cool high heels.

ASN: What are some of your favorite books and authors, women’s fiction and otherwise?

CL: Favorite books…oh, so many. My motto: So many books, so little time.  I just loved Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Brilliant. I loved Escape, the Cellist of Sarajevo, One Thousand White Women, The Book Thief, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, The Color Purple, the Color of Water, Song Yet Sung, anything by Geraldine Brooks, Infidel, Night, The Art of Racing in the Rain, A Long Way Gone, American Bloomsbury, anything by Asne Seierstad, Of Mice and Men…the authors Kaye Gibbons and Bailey White.  (For more of my favorites, go to my website CathyLamb.net.)

ASN: Last, but definitely not least, what’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?  What’s the key to writing great women’s fiction?

CL: Ladies, the key to writing great women’s fiction is to read. All the time. Always read.  Figure out why you like a certain author, a certain paragraph, even a sentence. STUDY the writing. If you want to be a writer, you must study great writing. Ask yourself what you liked about the pacing, the descriptions, the sensory stuff, the characters, the plot itself. Ask yourself why you KEPT READING the book. Ask yourself how you can create characters that readers care about – and study how the author did it.  Do not read crap. Ever. It will effect how well you can write. Read amazing authors only across all genres. I read non fiction, fiction, memoirs…everything. Read.

Write all the time. I have a small journal with me at all times. I feel nervous without it.  Buy journals and scribble and write whatever you’re thinking. Go deep. Reach for the painful stuff in your life, in the past, in the present, and work that out through writing.  Deep writing, unfortunately, in MOST cases, comes from deep pain. Use the pain.

Read On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott, Writing Out The Storm by Jessica Morrell. Natalie Goldberg is very inspirational, too. Take writing classes. I took them at the University of Oregon when I was in school, I took them at the local community college.  I took private writing classes. Loved ’em all. Met cool people, too.

Widen your universe all the time. Meet new people, try new things, go to plays, the symphony, take walks, go to different neighborhoods…LISTEN to people. Listen to their stories. Find a character you can believe in.

Keep writing. If you start to hate it because the rejections are just too hard, take a break.  Not a LONG break, but take a break. Do something different, read more. And, consider doing what I did, change genres. I would never have published in category romance writing. I see that now. I couldn’t do it. My agent laughed when I told him I’d been trying to write category romance. He was right. I was too stubborn to see that for too long.

Enjoy life. That’s the most important.

Cathy Lamb was born in Newport Beach, California.  As a child, she mastered the art of skateboarding, catching butterflies in bottles, and riding her bike with no hands.  When she was 10, her parents moved her, two sisters,  a brother, and two poorly behaved dogs to Oregon before she could fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a surfer bum.

She then embarked on her notable academic career where she earned good grades now and then, spent a great deal of time daydreaming, ran wild with a number of friends, and landed on the newspaper staff in high school. When she saw her byline above an article about people making out in the hallways of the high school, she knew she had found her true calling.

After two years of partying at the University of Oregon, she settled down for the next three years and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, and became a fourth grade teacher.  It was difficult for her to become proper and conservative but she threw out her red cowboy boots and persevered. She had no choice. She had to eat, and health insurance is expensive.

She met her husband on a blind date.  A mutual friend who was an undercover vice cop busting drug dealers set them up.  It was love at third sight. 

Teaching children about the Oregon Trail and multiplication facts amused her until she became so gigantically pregnant with twins she looked like a small cow and could barely walk. With a three year old at home, she decided it was time to make a graceful exit and waddle on out. She left school one day and never went back. She likes to think her students missed her.

When Cathy was no longer smothered in diapers and pacifiers, she took a turn onto the hazardous road of freelance writing and wrote about 170 articles on homes, home décor, people and fashion for a local newspaper.  As she is not fashionable and can hardly stand to shop, it was an eye opener for her to find that some women actually do obsess about what to wear. She also learned it would probably be more relaxing to slam a hammer against one’s forehead than engage in a large and costly home remodeling project.

Cathy suffers from, “I Would Rather Play Than Work Disease” which prevents her from getting much work done unless she has a threatening deadline.  She likes to hang with family and friends, walk, eat chocolate, camp, travel, and is slightly obsessive about the types of books she reads. She also likes to be left alone a lot so she can hear all the odd characters in her head talk to each other and then transfer that oddness to paper. The characters usually don’t start to talk until 10:00 at night,  however, so she is often up ‘til 2:00 in the morning with them. That is her excuse for being cranky.

She adores her children and husband, except when he refuses to take his dirty shoes off and walks on the carpet. She will ski because her children insist, but she secretly doesn’t like it at all. Too cold and she falls all the time.

She is currently working on her next book and isn’t sleeping much.


22 thoughts on “Women’s Fiction Author Cathy Lamb Talks About Collecting Rejections, Writing Books and Eating Chocolate

    • Thanks! I love the cover of The First Day of The Rest of My Life.

      I can take ZERO credit for it. The art department at Kensington is the best….they think of everything, take the photos, run with the designs. I love all my covers.

      When I saw the dock on the cover, I added a dock to my book! 🙂

      Like

  1. Thank you, Cathy (and Amy)!

    A tremendous interview, and such great, HELPFUL advice. It’s so rare that authors talk about the analytic work they do in studying the other authors they read, or about taking classes. All of it helps, and it’s clearly working for you.

    Okay, now I gotta grab some of your books. But I won’t cry when I read them, because I’m a manly man, Instead, I’ll just coincidentally “get something in my eye” that makes them water. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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    • Dear Keith,

      Yeah, yeah. Get something “caught in your eye.” Then disappear into the bathroom and let the tears out like a real man… 🙂 Eat quiche while you read the books, that’ll complete the picture.

      But hey, hopefully the books will make you laugh, too. Because I do deal with harder topics sometimes in my books, I really REALLY try to balance it all with laughter, quirky characters, lighter sections, so the weightier stuff doesn’t get too heavy. Best of luck with your own writing.

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  2. Hi Cathy & Amy–

    Thanks so much for the wonderful interview! 🙂 I also spent YEARS trying break into category romance and then paranormal romance. Last summer, I made the decision to take a break and try writing something different and in the process discovered my “voice” that refused to come out in category.

    Also, as an aspiring women’s fic writer, your description of your writing routine was extremely helpful. I love how you aim to write 2,000 words a day/ 10,000 words a week; and then write Saturday until you reach that goal if you fall behind. Did you find this method “do-able”. The reason I ask is that I have two kids (ages 9, 16 years)but no day job. I believe I need to push myself more now that my kids are older.

    Now I’m off to check out your books! 🙂

    tina

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    • Hi Tina,

      Yes, I absolutely believe that 2000 words a day is doable. It was for me. Now, can I claim that all of those words that I wrote were “good” words? No. Absolutely not. I edit and re – edit, I edit until my head wants to bash itself against a wall. But the process, the continuation, shoving myself whole heartedly into the story, sticking with it, that helps me keep the storyline in – line, if that makes any sense.

      And, I have three kids. They are now teenagers, but when i started writing Julia’s Chocolates, in 2004, they were 11, 7, and 7, and I was also a freelance writer for The Oregonian. I often wrote between 10 at night and 2 in the morning. So, FORCE YOURSELF. If you want to write, do it. Just sit yourself down, make a goal, don’t let yourself override the goal for any reason. I have been brutal with myself with my writing goals and for me, that was the only way to get published. I have a lazy bone, and i would rather be out drinking coffee, walking, or going to lunch with friends, so I really have to FORCE MYSELF to work.

      Good luck.

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  3. Wow. This is a fabulous post, Cathy and Amy. I love what you say, Cathy, about “letting the plot grow organically instead of trying to shove it into a rigid formula.” I think this is at the heart of women’s fiction (and a hard lesson I learned on my first novel, where a writing “coach” FORCED a very formulaic approach on me. Needless to say, I didn’t write the novel I intended to write. But I’m working on that with novel no. 2).

    Your description of the new novel totally won me over — so complex, so deep. I can’t wait to read it, and I’m heading over to Good Reads to put it on my ‘to read’ list. Your bio was also a joy to read; your humor shines through, and I can only imagine that this same wit is exhibited in your novels, which will probably end up on my bookshelf in the same fashion they did Amy’s … Perhaps a summer reading sabbatical is in order so I can get caught up?

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    • Hi Melissa–

      I hope you don’t mind me chiming in on your reply. I recently had the same thing happen with me when I wrote the first draft(my first attempt writing WF) of my WIP with the support of a writing mentor. I assumed that having someone for support and someone who has been published would be a huge help.

      I also ended up being pushed into a formula. Trying to learn ‘lessons’ and take her advice, my characters and story ended up not coming for me. If that makes sense.

      Now my mentor absolutely meant well, but I now believe that she wasn’t at all familiar with the women’s fic market/expectations.

      Currently, working on my third draft, and I’m happy to say I’m just letting the story flow out of me and onto the page!

      In a way, your comment about what you experienced was another indication that I’m on the right path. I’m not the only one that experienced this! I wish you all the best with your new WIP!

      thanks,
      tina

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      • I’ll chime in here too and piggyback onto your comments! I hired an editor way back when — someone supposedly experienced with WF and she told me that a muffin could not cost $3 so I’d have to change it (that was when someone in my novel purchased a muffin, obviously). She also told me other things were incorrect and how to fix them. She was wrong (I had a great copy-editor plus after that) but it showed me that not all professionals have all the answers. We need to follow our gut — and take help that makes sense to us. Glad you are both on good tracks now. So am I!

        ~ Amy

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      • Amy and Tina … so I’m not alone? it was a very difficult lesson to learn – one that stopped me from writing for TWO entire years. The woman did not understand literary women’s fiction… at ALL… and crammed the fast-paced structure of thrillers and mysteries down my throat. As a newbie, I wanted to please and was very insecure, so I did what she said rather than what I instinctively wanted to do. “Follow our gut.” Best advice ever! I guess it’s all water under the bridge now, as what I am doing currently IS working. Thank you both for your support. And good luck to all of us on our WIPs!

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    • I appreciate writing coaches, if they are very good ones.

      That said, listen to YOURSELF. You. Listen. To. You.

      A novel has to come from your heart and head. It has to go the direction that it organically should go from plot to character. Any forcing and it’ll be just that – forced. It’ll come off forced. With me, I have to absolutely love the novel and the characters. Love them. I have to live with them, and their story, for months, so that they are living, breathing people to me. If not, how can I stay with them and write honestly and with guts and gumption?

      So, good for you with your second book, you’re writing the book that is right. Also, be wary of who you’re getting input from with your novels. Some of the input might be right, much of it is probably wrong. Listen to those you trust, who have no agenda except to give you honest opinions. I get my help from my agent, my editor, and my oldest daughter. That’s it.

      Keep writing, girlfriend!

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      • Oh, Cathy – thank you for your wonderful reply. I am printing it and keeping it at my desk in a very visible spot. You’re so right; you have to LOVE the novel and the characters. And I do!!! Love that your input is from three ‘strategic’ readers.

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  4. Thanks for the inspiration, Cathy (and Amy for sharing your discovery). Hearing how you discovered your VOICE couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I am renewed, and on my way to pick up at least one of your books. Best Wishes.

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    • Jocosa,
      Thanks!

      Voice is critical. Voice is really hard. Read books written with a great voice and study it. Study how the author stayed in that voice, and ask yourself what you liked about it. Ask yourself what kept you reading and why the voice was authentic and true to you. Why did you relate to it? Why were you sympathetic to the character?

      My general rule is this one: Put your character up in an apple tree and pelt her with apples until she falls out of the tree, then pelt her again, until the branches magically reach down, wind arond her, pick her up, and hold her above the tree and onto a rainbow.

      Oh boy, does that sound cheesy. But you get the picture.

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  5. As I get through my hopefully final revisions for my agent before The Glass Wives goes “back” out on submission — this is the inspiration I need. Just do it. Listen to myself. Don’t just set goals, keep to them. I am always relieved to get back to this novel and remember how much I love my characters.

    Thanks, Cathy.

    ~ Amy

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    • So, one more piece of advice: I do not stop editing until the editing I’m doing either leaves the novel at the same literary level it was at, or it lowers it. That’s when I know I’m done editing. I have to cry, and laugh, even when I’m editing for the eighth time or I know I just haven’t hit the emotional spots hard enough. Good luck with The Glass Wives! Neat title.

      And yep. Stay with the goals. Writing is one of those careers that if you don’t set goals, if you are not hell – fire determined to publish, you probably won’t. It’s just too competitive and hard to do.

      So, goal it!

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  6. Fantastic information! I like all that’s been said in the interview, as well as what’s in the comments. So many good nuggets.

    Amy, thanks for being so great with this website.

    Cathy, thanks for being accessible and real! Such a Pretty Face was the first of your titles I read, and it remains on my shelf of favorite, inspiring books.

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  7. I just want to say that I LOVE your books, Cathy. Great interview, great advice. I fell in love with The Last Time I Was Me. That was my first love. I thought it was hilarious and heartbreaking and totally relatable. I love how quirky your characters are! Since that first book, I’ve bought all your others. Please, keep them coming!

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  8. Pingback: New Release: “The First Day of the Rest of My Life” by Cathy Lamb - Reading Local | Reading Local

  9. Have read every book you’ve written and can’t wait for the next one. I love the vivid characters in all your novels . Hands down, I think “Henry’s Sisters” would make a great movie script. How do we make this happen. Elizabeth

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  10. My introduction to Cathy Lamb books came from a girlfriend who is an avid reader, has stacks of books on hand at all times and will not read a book more than once. She is always telling me to grab a few books, which I always do and that is how I came to read The Last Time I Was Me. I was hooked immediately and finished it in two days but then I had a problem, I couldn’t find any other books by her. I looked for two years and finally found her latest, The First Day of the Rest of My Life and again I loved it. My Mom bought me Julia’s Chocolates for Christmas and I had to force myself not to look at it for a week. I’m now on the hunt for the other two I have yet to read but I know I will love them as much as I have the other three. I love Cathy’s style of writing and am always sure to have a box of kleenex by my side when I read them. I can’t lend them to friends in case they don’t come back to me, I have read them over and over again, sometimes you just need a good cry! Thank you Cathy for writing such incredible books about such flawed but amazing women.

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