Author Spotlight: Talena Winters
Welcome to the second Author Spotlight post of 2022! Every month, I showcase an indie author and interview them to find out more about their writing life.
This month, the author in the spotlight is Talena Winters! Talena is a powerhouse in the indie author world. She approached me in 2021 to join a Mastermind group with her and a couple of other author-editors, and saying yes was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Talena came up with the title for my first novel, and she has been a fantastic mentor to me for various other aspects of the indie author business. She is a whiz at writing blurbs, knowing her strengths, and giving advice!
Bio: Talena Winters is addicted to stories, tea, chocolate, yarn, and silver linings. She writes page-turning fantasy and romance for teens and adults, coaches other writers, has written several award-winning songs, and designs knitting patterns under her label My Secret Wish. She currently resides on an acreage in the Peace Country of northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, three surviving boys, two dogs, and an assortment of farm cats. She would love to be a mermaid when she grows up.
Q: What made you want to be a writer?
A: I went to college for music (jazz piano with a composition focus) with the goal of becoming a professional songwriter. While there, I started writing a full-length musical theatre play with a friend of mine. Not long after graduating, we both got married and started having children. My dreams of being a songwriter were put on the back burner due to lack of funds to pursue the career (a single song demo costed more than $1,000 twenty years ago, and that was just to get something worth pitching) and lack of time.
Over the next decade or so, several dedicated bursts of energy got the musical to nearly complete first draft. In that time, I actively learned a lot about not only the business of musical theatre, but also the craft of storytelling.
I also started a blog in 2006 and was an avid scrapbooker while my children were small. The stories I captured about our family became my training ground as a writer. (Really, I’d been writing creatively since childhood, but I never thought of myself as a writer. I’d also been an avid reader since the age of four.) Meanwhile, the music industry was changing drastically, and I was no longer sure there was a place for a non-singing songwriter in the new paradigm.
Readers of my blog would tell me I should write a book. I always heard novel, and thought, “I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t have any ideas.”
That was true until 2010 when, while watching a guilty obsession show, H2O, an Australian YA production about mermaids, I got an idea for a mermaid world that my brain wouldn’t let go of. (I’ve loved mermaids since I was seven, and never grew out of it.) I knew I’d never seen anything like it, and I also knew that if I ever wanted to read it, I’d have to write it. So I took a course about novel-writing, and that was the beginning of my journey to becoming a published author. (And that mermaid story idea eventually became my Rise of the Grigori series.)
Q: Why did you choose the self-publishing route?
A: I was interested in self-publishing even before the Kindle revolution, mostly because I just love doing things myself. At that point, too, I think there was probably a bit of the thought process that I didn’t plan to be an author, so just figuring out how self-publishing worked would be good. I found a book about it in Chapters around 2008 or 2009, but never even got through the whole thing before I actually got interested in writing fiction. (At the time, I think I may have been looking into making a book from my blog.)
However, the course I took from author Holly Lisle also went over the basics of self-publishing, and by that time (in 2012-ish), Kindle was well established. I wrote a “short story” that turned into a novella for practice while writing the course, and then put it in a drawer because we adopted a one-year-old boy, and I just didn’t have time for anything but adjusting to our new normal.
Two years later, my mom (who had loved my story) was bugging me about doing something with it. So, for practice, I thought I’d try self-publishing it. So I did, again, for practice. (I highly recommend all authors start with something short when they’re learning! It’s so much less expensive to learn your hard knocks with a shorter piece of work.)
I self-published my next book, Finding Heaven, a romantic women’s fiction novel, because I didn’t think it would hold much appeal to agents and editors—it was too Christian to be secular and too gritty for a Christian publisher. (It’s currently my best-selling book, so I don’t regret that decision.)
I didn’t decide to go all-in with self-publishing until I was weighing how I wanted to publish the first book in the Rise of the Grigori series, The Undine’s Tear. I knew I had something that could be commercially viable. But by then, I was comfortable with the process of self-publishing, and even though I knew it would be a lot of work, I knew I’d rather do that work and have more control over the process and outcomes than traditional publishing could offer me. I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 18. The work didn’t scare me, and having control over my own business strongly appealed to me. So here I am.
I don’t know that I would never submit something to a traditional publisher, but I can’t think of anything right now that would tempt me to do so, unless it was a strategic marketing move to make more people aware of me and my brand. But I’d be so careful about the kind of contract I committed to… it would definitely be a marketing choice for my business, not something I was pinning all my hopes and dreams on. I don’t need the validation of having someone pick me, and I already know that I’d be giving up a lot of control and options with that piece of intellectual property, so what they offered me instead would have to be pretty darn interesting.
Q: How do you choose your characters’ names?
A: Sometimes I just go with something that pops to mind if it’s a character where the name doesn’t really matter. But most of the time, I carefully choose names based on their meaning, origin, cultural history, popularity at a given time period, the way the name reflects on the parents' personalities, and pronounceability. I also consider whether or not I have multiple characters whose names start with the same letter for ease of reading. (In my current work-in-progress, it seems like every new character’s name starts with D or M. I didn’t plan it, and I was 10,000 words in before I noticed. But I keep landing on new D and M names. Yikes! I’ve had to change so may already!)
Q: Have any of your characters surprised you? If so, how?
A: My characters surprise me all the time. While I work from an outline most of the time these days, I am still a discovery writer while I’m in a scene. And sometimes, my characters say or do something that I did not see coming. And then I have to think about it to see if I can make it work in the plot. Most of the time, I keep it.
My general rule is, if it passes the five-second-test, wherein I can’t think of a reason within five seconds why this thing should not stay in the manuscript, it should probably be there. My subconscious often knows why it’s the best choice, and even if it causes some minor complications to work around it, my story is almost always stronger for having it there.
Q: You write in multiple genres. Can you tell us about your experience switching from genre to genre? Do you find it difficult to switch? What motivated you to write in multiple genres?
A: Whew! I think I’ll work backwards on this one.
I write in multiple genres for several reasons:
1. I am interested in way too many things to stick to only one form of creative output, and that includes genre. If I had to stick to one genre forever, I would quickly lose interest in writing and go find something else to do. Part of the fun of writing for me is in learning the ways different stories work and learning how to tell those kinds of stories, or in exploring different situations that would be found in different genres. (I am a multi-genre songwriter, as well.)
2. Other than general vague terms like “fantasy” and “science fiction” and “romance,” I didn’t know much about the division of book genres when I started writing. I grew up reading everything, and still read in most genres. (Tried slasher horror. Didn’t like it. And I don’t care for steamy romance.) I kid you not, I was in a workshop in 2016, the year after my first book was published, and the definition of women’s fiction came up. That’s when I realized that my current project was women’s fiction. Didn’t know that before. I now advocate for writers in this boat to become students of genre as early as possible, because knowing the genre you’re writing makes it so much easier to market. It took me five years to really nail the genres I actually wrote and should market to. That’s an expensive learning curve.
I don’t find it difficult to switch. In fact, when the writing gets hard, my Muse will often supply me with a bright shiny distraction in the form of a fantastic idea from another genre. I have solid story and series ideas in at least four other genres that I’ve outlined in my notebook, but I write way too slowly to pursue any of them right now. So I’m currently trying to focus on putting out more work in genres I’ve already entered. Since that’s four right there, that should be enough to keep me busy for a while.
As far as switching… I find it necessary to do so occasionally. (See point number one above.) I’m currently taking a break from YA epic fantasy to write several books in a sweet small town romance series. It was just the breather I needed for my mental health, and I’ve fallen in love with writing again.
And you didn’t ask, but there are special marketing challenges associated with writing in multiple genres. It does take a lot longer to build up steam for your brand when you’re doing several different things. But since it was do that or give up on being a fiction writer, I chose to write in multiple genres anyway. I work within my brain’s needs by trying to stick to the few genres I’ve got going (for now), but there are still days when I’m like, But I really want to write a cryptozoological science fantasy adventure right now. Why caaaann’t I?
And lately, my brain’s been noodling with musical theatre ideas again…
Q: The Rise of the Grigori series is incredibly complex in terms of worldbuilding and multiple storylines. What advice do you have for other fantasy authors working on a complex series?
A: Keep good notes! Haha.
I use Microsoft OneNote to keep track of my story bible. Even though I write in Scrivener, I find OneNote easier to wrangle for the messy kind of world-building that I do. But it is immensely helpful to make sure you update your character and setting sheets with at least a couple of quick facts every time you insert something new into your story. Saves a lot of time later.
As I was developing my current series (the Peace Country Romance series), I tried to use Scrivener for more of the character and world stuff, but I’m still finding it clunky. I think I like being able to quickly switch back and forth between an open page in OneNote and my current document in Scrivener, so I’m probably going to go back to my old ways. However, I keep thinking I need to hire someone to put all my character names from Rise of the Grigori in an Excel sheet so I can sort them alphabetically. This helps with that whole “having character names start with different letters” thing I mentioned earlier.
This question is so big that I’m not sure what people would like to know. Structurally, there is a balance to how to work multiple POVs, but that’s a craft discussion that could get pretty in-depth and doesn’t really have One Way to Rule Them All. So my next piece of advice to someone who may be struggling with a story that got away with them is that a developmental editor and good beta readers are your friends.
You know, I did just think of a piece of advice that every writer needs to keep in mind about every story, no matter how complex—though it’s even more important for long books: Know the story you want to tell.
How unhelpful, right? Let me explain:
I start off planning most stories with a log line and/or a working book description. I often need to tweak them slightly as I learn more about my story (though not as much these days as I used to), but if you can’t nail down your primary conflicts, what’s at stake, and who the primary players in your story are before you start writing, it’s going to be really easy to get lost in the weeds.
There were so many times before I got better at outlining where I was starting to get overwhelmed with potential directions, and if I hadn’t had my log line and working blurb to go back to, there’s no way I would have made it to the end with something halfway coherent.
Even now, my outline tends to change as I go along. (Because my characters keep surprising me!) So knowing the story I set out to tell acts as a good compass to know if I’m still on course or lost at sea.
Q: Do you have any writing rituals? (e.g., lighting a candle before you write, meditating before you write, going for a walk to get ideas)
A: I’m not a morning person, but my writing time is scheduled for the morning, four days a week, to make sure the most important thing in my day actually gets done. (Note: I use Monday as an admin day to “clear the decks.” I really struggle with allowing myself to write if I have other pressing responsibilities like unanswered emails or marketing needs to attend to.) On writing days, I do about five to fifteen minutes of journaling, track my sales and ad spend for the day for another five minutes, and then it’s time to write.
To signal to my brain that it’s time to write and not work on other things (such as admin, marketing, or my “day job” income, which is editing), I use my laptop instead of my desktop PC to write from, and I sit in a recliner instead of at my desk. Not so great for my back and wrists, but being warm and cozy and facing away from my desk instead of toward it helps me switch tasks.
And, of course, I wouldn’t be much good without my morning coffee.
However, one of the key things to help me overcome the Resistance of getting started (because I still feel this most mornings) is that my most basic expectation of myself is to get started. Open the document and do my part to show up. But Resistance hasn’t gone away at that point.
So this is how I trick myself into starting the actual writing: I always start by rereading and revising the work I did the day before. Since that’s just tweaking the words I already have on the page, that is easy and un-scary to me. And by the time I’m done with that, my brain is back in my story world, and the blank page of the next chapter isn’t all that intimidating because I’ve already put myself into the space where I can access the words that will go there.
And I know if they suck, it’s okay. I can fix them tomorrow morning.
Q: What does your research process look like for your writing, if there is one?
A: Oh, yes! There definitely is! Even contemporary romance requires research. (Just a lot less than historical fiction.)
As far as a single process, I can’t say as I have one. But if I don’t know the answer to something that will affect the plot, I can’t just “write past it.” I have to research my way out of it. So I research until my brain latches on to the idea that solves my problem, and then I go back to writing.
I once spent an eight-hour day researching the history of all the different calendar systems and how they work so I could decide how the calendar system worked in my Grigori series. But most of the time, I don’t have to spend that much time on something so seemingly minor.
(Then again, in my first draft of The Sphinx’s Heart, when my character entered a synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados, I’d written myself a note along the lines of “research the synagogue and describe.” During revisions, that single paragraph of description was the result of a four-hour deep dive into the topic on Wikipedia, YouTube, and more. So some things require more research than others. And sometimes, you just can’t find the answers and have to fake it convincingly. I mean, we do make stuff up for a living.)
In another way, I’m always researching. I am constantly going down rabbit holes that I don’t think will be anything for my books but I’m pursuing for the sake of personal interest, but they end up in my books later. This past year, I started watching a lot of videos of YouTubers who had been cancelled and had recovered (or not), mostly because it was a topic that concerned me more than “interested” me. And now, the heroine of my current novel gets cancelled as her inciting incident. Even I’m curious to see how she manages to recover from it.
The blended culture and mythology in my Grigori series was born out of my long-standing interest in ancient cultures, and could be traced back to my dad having me read Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky when I was a teenager—and all the many books I read exploring similar ideas later. So you just never know what’s going to come out in my books.
Q: Do you have any specific authors or books that you've learned from on your writing journey?
A: Oh, way too many to name them all. I do have a curated list of resources on my website at https://www.talenawinters.com/author-resources where I’ve summed up some that I believe are especially helpful.
However, I’m so thankful for Holly Lisle’s courses and newsletters in developing my craft and helping me believe I could actually become a fiction writer. Author Kristen Lamb was influential in helping me start learning to market myself as an author. And besides the fantastic podcasts and resources and tools which are a continual part of my growth to this day, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am if it weren’t for the amazing friends and connections I’ve made along the way.
For craft books, I recommend anything by James Scott Bell, and I also recommend both The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King to practically every client I have.
Q: What’s your number one tip for tackling imposter syndrome?
A: Ignore it and keep writing anyway. It feeds on our attention.
Also, recognize that it’s probably not ever going to go away completely, you just learn to manage it better. You have to be incredibly vulnerable on a regular basis to make a career in the arts. If you didn’t question yourself, you wouldn’t grow. Recognize that it’s okay to be afraid. No one ever promised that you wouldn’t be. But fear is only a feeling. You don’t have to let it make your decisions for you. And it tends to go away when you ignore it.
For mindset work about impostor syndrome, I highly recommend everyone read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. And also The Call to Courage by Brené Brown.
Remember, getting into the ring is half the battle. And once you’re there, you’re no longer an impostor. You’re a warrior. The impostors are the ones throwing tomatoes at you from the stands, but they haven’t earned the right to judge your work because they’re not in the ring doing the work themselves. So ignore them.
Q: How do you refill your creative well?
A: Oh, I thought I’d get through the whole interview without mentioning Becca Syme and the CliftonStrengths, but nope. Refilling the creative well means feeding my top Strengths, which are Achiever, Connectedness, Relator, Responsibility, Learner, Input, Discipline, Intellection, Activator, and Context. My entire week is a balance of creating energy and refilling creativity through inputting and outputting and connecting with those who matter most to me.
However, that high Achiever, Responsibility, and Discipline can tend to take over so I’m outputting too much, so when I’m feeling rung out, I usually catch up on sleep, watch or read a whole bunch of fiction or non-work-related nonfiction, learn something new, do something different creatively (I design knitwear patterns as a “hobby” business, and I sometimes use cooking or baking or taking care of my plants or dabbling in photography to fill this need), or connect with someone I care about and haven’t heard from in a while. Getting some quick wins is also hugely helpful, so sometimes I do some cleaning therapy or knock a niggling task off my list. (#1 Achiever!)
And if you don’t know about the Strengths, check out Becca’s Quitcast podcast channel or Gallup’s channel on YouTube.
Q: Tell us about your new podcast: Coffee & Real Talk for Writers. What can listeners expect?
A: Thanks so much for asking this! I started my podcast at the end of 2021 as a way of sharing all the things I’ve learned or am learning with other writers on the journey. Each week, I talk about the highs and lows in my own business, things I’m trying and the results, and progress I’ve made. I hope to spend time each episode discussing either a technique or skill I think it’s important to understand or that was relevant that week, or my perspective on something happening in the business, or other pertinent topics. I intend to have guests once in a while.
It’s basically a heart-to-heart chat about the business of writing with the goal of helping others come up with ideas to be better writers and run their own businesses better. I’ve now published five episodes, and I’m loving it so far. What feedback I’ve had has been positive, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the community that this new venture could build could become. But while I supply the chat, my listeners have to bring their own favourite beverage.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: As I’ve mentioned, I’m venturing into a somewhat new genre with the sweet small-town Peace Country Romance series. It’s set in an analog of my current hometown of Peace River, Alberta, Canada, and I’m so in love with how it’s shaping up. The first book, Every Star that Shines, is a second-chance romance that’s due to come out in August or September of 2022.
If you'd like to follow Talena Winters on her writing journey or find out more about her stories, this is where you can find her:
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