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Theresa's publishing journey (by Theresa Rizzo)

30 March 2016

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Another amazing #SelfPubSpotlight story, this time from Theresa Rizzo. Theresa Rizzo is an award-winning author who writes romantic crime fiction and emotional stories that explore the complexity of relationships and families through real-life trials. 
Born and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, she currently lives outside of Boulder, Colorado with her husband of thirty-three years. After attaining a BS in Nursing, Theresa retired to raise four wonderful children and write.

Her vision, the phenomenal amount of work she put into networking and creating content to support her book and her networking skills have paid off - but success didn't come overnight.

Keep those articles coming, we can't share them all, but we'll try our hardest!

Here's Theresa's Submission - Her own publishing successes. If you're pushed for time, you can skip to the short summary here

My Journey

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I graduated from college with a BS in Nursing—but I wasn’t well suited for that career and didn’t use it long before quitting to raise our brood. I really had no career ambitions; I always wanted to be the perfect stay-at-home mother and wife—at least that’s what I thought I wanted. Unfortunately, midway through raising our four kids, I was shocked and disheartened to find that I wanted more from life. Let’s face it . . . parenting is HARD –often thankless—work. I got burned out.
Friends and family really enjoyed my annual Christmas letter where I recounted our family exploits, so I thought maybe I would try writing a book. It was something fun I could do around the children’s schedules. Learning to write was doing something intellectual and creative, and it allowed me to breathe again and find me. Writing fed my soul and allowed me to be a happier person, hence a better mom and wife. It was a win-win.

I’ve been learning the craft of writing for the past 19 years. Every year I go to two to five writer’s conferences, I’m a member of four different writing organizations: Romance Writers of America, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association, and Colorado Romance Writers. I firmly believe that there’s a lot to be gained by getting involved and volunteering in writers organizations, and to that end, I co-coordinated the Crested Butte CO Writers Conference for five years and developed and ran The Sandy writing contest for eight years. I’ve been judging various writing contests (for unpublished authors) for the past ten years. I think writers contests can be terrific ways to learn and grow in the craft. 

"For many many years, I was a contest slut."

Workshops at writers conferences are an amazing way to learn from authors who are currently selling, and agents and editors. It’s a great way to network with other writers and industry professionals. The writer organizations do an amazing job of educating authors both in the craft and business of writing. 

For many, many years I was a contest slut. I entered dozens of writing contests and though my books did pretty well, finaling often and winning at times, they never sold to a traditional publisher. It was at the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) conference that I found a great NY agent, Jane Dystel of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, who shopped Just Destiny around, then helped me through a revision, and sent it out to editors again. Though she believed there was a market for this book, she couldn’t convince editors it was so.

So we amicably parted ways and I wrote my next women’s fiction book, The Lives Between Us. In 2009 I entered this book in the prestigious international Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest and it made it to the top 100 out of 5-7,000 books—but didn’t make that cut to top 10.

At the 2012 Crested Butte Writers Conference, I found another great literary agent, Helen Breitweiser of Cornerstone Literary, excited to represent TLBU, and after two rounds of frustrating submissions . . . she couldn’t sell it. She told me I should self-publish. She strongly believed there was a market for this book, but because the story was equal parts romance and legal drama she felt publishers shied away from it.

So I did. However, not until July 2015. I felt my first women’s fiction book, He Belongs to Me would be a better book for my debut because it had a stronger romance in it, and romance readers account for more than 52% of al fiction buyers. So I thought I would be best served to put out that book first and then move to a book with a lot less romance and more controversial issues, Just Destiny and The Lives Between Us.

And that was 3 years, 6 books, 10 awards (between 4 books) ago, and 3 Amazon bestselling books ago. I hired professional editors to whip my books into their best shape. I hired a professional cover designer, and digital and print formatters. It’s important to me to put out the very best product possible. Though the stigma of self-publishing is lifting, it still exists—especially when attempting to get quality reviews, and so I’ve always felt my books needed to be even better than those traditionally published to be competitive in this market place.

"My long journey gave me the opportunity to meet tons of amazing writers"

With my debut book, He Belongs to Me, I was fortunate that New York Times bestselling authors Susan Wiggs and William Bernhardt were so generous to read my book and give me cover quotes. I’d met Susan many times the years through volunteering at various writers conferences and she’d been super encouraging to me, and I met Bill Bernhardt at one of the Crested Butte Writers Conferences. They are both such talented and kind writers that I was thrilled at their generosity. 

So that’s my nearly twenty-year long, frustrating journey. To be honest, I don’t have any regrets and wouldn’t do anything very much differently. I’m not sad it took so long to hold my published print book in my hands because through writing contests and editorial and agent submissions, I got a LOT of professional feedback that helped make these books immeasurably stronger than they would have been, say, even four years ago.

I lament writers who don’t make the time to really learn the craft well and rush to publish books prematurely. Additionally, my long journey gave me the opportunity to meet tons of amazing writers, editors, agents, publicists etc and to me, that’s the other blessing in my story. Writers are amazing, generous, fun people! 

Right now, I LOVE seeing the way readers interpret and appreciate my stories and love being able to chat with readers through your blogs and Facebook. Writing keeps enriching my life and I'm very fortunate to be able to do this.


I’ve been writing and going to conferences, learning the craft of writing and business of publishing for about 19 years. I’m a member of 4 different writers groups. I developed The Sandy, a writing contest for unpublished writers, and ran it for 8 years. I co-coordinated the Crested Butte Writers Conference for 5 years. I still, judge a couple of writing contests a year; I really believe in giving back. There’s a video of my writing journey on my website.
I had 2 very good literary agents who failed to sell various books, and the last one urged me to self-publish because she believed there would be an audience for books like mine that don’t neatly fit in a genre. 
So in 2013 I self-published, He Belongs to Me, a child custody story that went on to win the National Indie Excellence Award for romance and The Readers Crown Award for Mainstream Women’s Fiction, finaled in 3 other contests, and became an Amazon #1 bestseller in romance.

My writing process

I’m a whimsical binge writer, so I write in the mornings, afternoons or evenings or all three—or none. Making use of my laptop’s portable benefits, I write at my desk, then I’ll often pick up the computer and move around the house, writing on my bed, or my favorite chair in my bedroom, or the couch in the family room or on my treadmill, because I need to get exercise each day and writing and walking also helps the ideas flow. 
As for my process, I’m very much a plotter. I need to have a general roadmap of where the story’s going each day before I sit down to write. I’m totally willing to change course when I discover something great in the research or have a terrific “what if?” idea, but in general, I need to know it’s going to hit all the necessary plot points needed. 

When I get an idea for a book, I do a bunch of research on the various topics I don’t know enough about, like for this book I needed to research, the mafia, police procedures, the accuracy of Gianna’s invention, Prometheus, Laparoscopic surgery—the hero’s expertise, Detroit gangs and the history of Detroit’s decline, bankruptcy, and budding recovery.

Then I work out the story’s major plot points and figure out what characters I need to support the story. I do character bios and search for photos of whom I think the characters most resemble at the beginning of the process. I get photos of the characters (usually celebrities since their photos are plentiful on the internet) and put them together in a photo frame on my desk so I can refer to it anytime. 

" the end of dozens of revisions, the characters evolve"

Over the evolution of the story, at the end of dozens of revisions, the characters evolve and may look a little different from my original thoughts of them, but to make them “real” to me in the beginning, I find those initial pictures very helpful.

Then I blow through the nasty, ugly first draft as fast as I can, writing down dialogue and the plot. I just get down the bare bones, leaving myself tons of notes, like “description here” or “Sex scene here”, “First Kiss” or “Character’s reaction here”. This often takes me between 4-6 months. I HATE writing that first draft, but LOVE revising.

In subsequent drafts I layer in the descriptions, emotions, motivations, red herrings, foreshadowing, etc. I’ll do more research on whatever I need to. Then I’ll send it off to one or two writing pals with a slew of questions and collect their feedback on the story in general. Then I’ll make adjustments, refine some more and send it out to different writer pals. And several revisions later, I’ll pretty it up, working on perfecting word choices and scene tone, character’s reactions etc.

Then I’ll send it out to my tried and true beta readers for their thoughts. Make more revisions, refining and working the story until I’m finally satisfied with it. Then it’ll go to my professional editors for 2-5 more rounds of revisions between the two of them, before it goes to proof-readers. 
The whole process usually takes 12-14 months.

My tips

I do have a couple of tips/idiosyncrasies I’ve developed:
My newest writing tool I’m loving is my diffuser. I find that sending essential oils such as lavender and peppermint, or rosemary and mint, into the air makes me feel happy, calm and alert, and puts me in a good frame of mind to write. It may be all in my head, but like Dumbo with his feather, I’m more than happy to submit to a placebo that works for me ☺.
Since I tend to write complicated books. To keep things straight and to balanced the story, I came up with a color-coded system that gives me a visual picture of the various plot threads so I can see at a glance when I’ve dropped a plot thread for too long, and then rectify it. 

Each day before I write, I detail in the chart information on the scenes I’m going to write. It contains all kinds of helpful information, including which character’s POV (Point of View) the scene is written in, the scene goal, any turning points, and the scene hook. That way I know what I had hoped to accomplish with each scene and it helps me see when I’ve dropped a plot thread for too long.

Here's an example chart I created for the opening of Silent Sentry. The more colorful the page…usually, the better because it shows me the story is pretty balanced. This type of plotting won’t work for everybody, but it helps me.

resizedimage769499 Threads Chart2

My Book

April 3 I’m releasing my first romantic suspense. Though Silent Sentry is the fifth book I’m publishing, it was the second book I’d written. The first book was a huge learning experience not even worth revising. Basically that sweet romance had no conflict and little reason to turn the pages. Romantic suspense is all about plotting and giving the reader reason to turn pages, so I wanted to write in that genre. 

Only I wanted a story that wasn’t cliché—that didn’t feature a navy seal, a damaged war vet, or a cynical, burned out cop/detective. I wanted an unlikely hero like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. So my hero was going to be a surgeon.

While it’s main audience will be women, it’ll appeal to men too. In Silent Sentry, an entrepreneur must team up with the man she’s secretly loved to outwit a psychotic hacker before he destroys all she holds dear.

The Scarfilis and Donnatellis love deeply and protect fiercely. “Family takes care of family” is the code they live by.
So when a hacker threatens Gianna Donnatelli’s life, Dr. Joe Scarfili is determined to keep her safe, only he has no police or tech experience, and Gianna’s penchant for aiding Detroit’s underprivileged is the same kind of altruism that got his wife killed. Gianna protects Joe with the same unyielding resolve. Gianna pushes all his insecurity buttons. Joe tries her patience like no other. But together they’ll fight to save each other and their love… Or die trying.

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I’m very proud to note that my new release Silent Sentry, is being very well received by bloggers and fans. It’s enjoying a 4.27 /5 star Goodreads rating with 26 reviews—10 days before release. 

Print ISBN: 978-0-9890450-7-0
e-Book ISBN: 978-0-9890450-9-4
Pages: 393pgs


NGP Says

Wow! You really did cover everything! A fantastic insight into the realities of self-publishing. The struggles, the ideas, the wins and something for budding authors to take away too - a fantastic example of how to plan your threads and maintain suspense, intrigue and continuity throughout. This alone is worthy of a gold star! Thanks Theresa, we really enjoyed your article & wish you all the success with Silent Sentry.

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