A native of Louisiana, Toni currently lives in Baton Rouge where she and her husband Carl run their own civil construction company. Toni’s other works can also be found in the anthology, KILLER YEAR: STORIES TO DIE FOR, edited by Lee Child and in the non-fiction collection of essays, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS which was conceived after the devastation left by hurricane Katrina.
I had the pleasure of meeting Toni a few years ago and am honored to be among her list of friends. Toni will be doing two workshops at the Desert Rose conference April 16-18 and has agreed to be the first to be interrogated…I mean interviewed for our blog.
Desert Rose: Welcome Toni, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s start by telling our readers a little more about you. Where are you from, originally? When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Toni: I’m originally from Kinder, Louisiana (Cajun country). When I was a kid I went through dozens of ideas, playing “what if?” My parents seemed to believe I could do anything I set my mind to, which was a wonderful gift: ballerina, singer, teacher, CEO. My actual first declared major at LSU was architecture, I believe. I took one of the first levels engineering graphics class and was quickly disabused of that notion. [I tend to transpose numbers frequently as I’m doing math… not a good trait for the person figuring how much concrete it will take to hold up a building.]
Desert Rose: Your background is in screenwriting, how hard was the transition to novel writing?
Toni: Ironically, I started LSU in Creative Writing—Fiction, and had been writing novellas masquerading as short stories for a while, so transitioning into screenwriting was actually much more difficult. (We joked that I was lured by the Dark Side.) With a script, a writer doesn’t have the luxury of internal thoughts and the crux of the emotional story has to be conveyed by the actor’s interpretation and the director’s choices throughout the planning and making of the film, as well as how the editor puts it together. And somehow, without actually resorting to voice-over or signs, a screenwriter has to convey the emotional journey of the story through a judicious selection of dialog, action, location, tone, etc., without actually calling a bunch of shots (i.e., giving too-detailed frame-by-frame instructions on how to shoot the action). In addition, people have a tendency to skip the slug-lines (location) and action lines if they’re too dense (i.e., more than a couple of lines), and the dialog and brief action lines carry the weight of a story. It’s a difficult form to master. When I got to the point where I didn’t want to move [to LA] (and would have needed to, to continue), I decided to switch back to fiction. My first attempt was sad. Truly sad—I’d forgotten how to write and had to re-learn the art of internal thoughts, of showing the settings, allowing the settings to be as much of a character as the people, of being able to steer the imagery as if I were both the director and the cinematographer. It was a heady, exciting process though, and I learned so much because I detoured into screenwriting. Not an easy path, and not one I’d recommend, but it worked for me.
Desert Rose: I have to admit I’m a very big fan of your Bobbie Faye books and looking forward to another one. I love the story lines and how you draw the reader into Bobbie Faye’s world—as crazy as it is. Was there something in particular that inspired you to write the books?
Toni: No, Bobbie Faye showed up one day with her bags packed and informed me that I was telling her story. Cam and Trevor (the love interests) followed about five minutes later.
Desert Rose: Bobbie Faye is an everyday woman but such a strong female character. Is she based on someone you know?
Toni: No, not anyone I know. She just showed up. I had always wanted to write about a strong-but-compassionate women, one who makes mistakes (sometimes frequently), but not because she’s TSTL (too stupid to live), but because she’s doing the best she can with the information and resources at her disposal. And isn’t that what we all do? Lots of women face unbelievable odds against them and persevere anyway. We don’t give up, and I wanted Bobbie Faye to reflect that, and to reflect the sense of humor it takes to not only survive the odds, but thrive. I’m sure, down in the dark recesses of my consciousness there are memories of different women that got spliced together to help form her, but it wasn’t a planned decision. It’s very difficult, in fact, for me to think of her as a fictional character sometimes—she’s just that real. But then, so are the others, which makes being a writer real handy… at least I have an excuse for talking to my imaginary friends.
Desert Rose: In June your series was re-released under different titles, can you explain why?
Toni: St. Martin’s Press has been incredibly supportive of this series, and when it came time to talk about potentially re-releasing it into a mass-market size for a wider audience, they realized that the original titles were too long for the format. By the time you shrink down the title—which includes Bobbie Faye’s name—and then add my own three names onto a cover, it started looking like a phone book entry. Lots of text, all of which had to be smaller, which made it difficult to read at a distance. The crawfish, which I have always loved, also did not translate well when reduced down. When they realized this, they decided to create a whole new look to go along with the new titles, and they were going for something that would catch the eye as a person stood there scanning across a lot of titles. I loved the old covers, but I really do love the new ones even more.
Desert Rose: The trailer you made for the first Bobbie Faye book is quite remarkable. Do you plan to do more mini movies trailers for the other books?
Toni: I’m thrilled you enjoyed it, thanks! But no, I don’t think I’ll do another one—at least not for a while. Creating that trailer and producing it was a tremendous amount of fun and I’ve made friends for life with that group of people who helped me; they were simply amazing. However, I did the trailer for a unique reason—to help the sales reps who were pitching the new series to the bookstores explain just what on earth this series was. It’s not an easy series to pitch, really. “Caper” comes the closest to the right description, but you can’t exactly go to a “caper” section in the bookstores. Most bookstores don’t have a “humor” section (unless it’s for non-fiction/stand-up comedians). There’s action, adventure, mystery and a lot of humor in these books, as well as a romance. The trailer gave the marketing department something to show, which often makes it much easier on everyone—or, at least, I hope it did. I think it was a success for its intended purpose, and I’m very glad I did it. I’d have to have an innovative reason to do another one, though—that was a lot of work!
Desert Rose: Most people see writers as hermits, closed off in a room, clacking away at the keyboard until the final page is typed. Do you consider yourself this disciplined as a writer?
Toni: Well, I am disciplined in the sense that I will create a writing goal and then work diligently to hit it. Once created, obstacles will always crop up (such is the nature of life) and I will work through them—be it hurricanes, being without electricity, work stress, death in the family, and so on. Writing is my vocation. As contractors, we don’t get to wake up in the morning and not show up to work because the muse isn’t helping us that day. We show up for work and work gets done. Writing is pretty much the same way. It’s a myth that you have to wait ‘til the muse strikes to be able to create. Go ahead and create. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time through (and rarely actually is perfect). Most writers edit / rewrite. As Nora Roberts said, “I can’t edit a blank page.”
What I am not is dogmatic about a schedule. Life happens. Things happen, and sometimes, I need to spend time with family or read or research or have down time to re-charge the batteries. There’s a point in writing where you could easily use up all your creative memories / associations and if you’re not in-putting more into the well, then the well can run dry. I do take the time to immerse myself in the world, in other things, others’ lives and concerns—and not just because it helps with the writing. It helps remind me of how important other people are, how important their lives and their choices are, and how fragile life is—how important our connections are to each other. These are easy things to forget if one sits planted in front of a computer and fictional world for too long.
Desert Rose: So, when you’re in the zone and writing, is there a “must have” to keep you focused? Such as music or background noise of the TV?
Toni: I absolutely cannot have the TV on when I’m working or I’ll get sucked into whatever’s on and forget the story I’m writing. And the programs don’t even have to be all that interesting either. I will stare, stupefied, at the shiny moving pictures. Even commercials.
Occasionally I’ll write to music, but that soundtrack is generally made up of carefully selected songs that have the same rhythm and mood as the section I’m writing. When I switch to a different character’s point of view I have to switch soundtracks to accommodate that character. Otherwise, they’d all start sounding alike.
What I cannot do is have the music on when I re-read and edit. I want the sentences to have a specific cadence and tone in order to create a specific effect and if I play the same song that I had on when I wrote it, it sounds fine. I’ll think it has accomplished its goal. It was disappointing to me to go back and read something later sans music and realize that the sentence / paragraph / chapter wasn’t coming across the way I thought. When you’re depending on rhythm for comedic effect this is a big deal, and I learned to forgo the music during editing.
The must-haves? Well, I hope I can always have my computer (but I can write long-hand when I must). I love having the music, the big whiteboards, the quiet office space (though I have written without these things). The only real must-haves are tenacity and a place, even if it’s a closet (which I have used when there was no room elsewhere). And diet coke. Must have the diet coke. (Goldfish crackers are a nice plus, too.)
Desert Rose: It’s said you can learn a lot about a person by their surroundings. What does your work area look like?
Toni: Right now, I have the smallest room in the house, a bedroom that we converted to an office. There are two big white-erase (magnetized) boards that stand across from me and fill those two walls. (They are 8’ x 4’ and are on easels—my husband made them for me.) My desk is a very old kitchen table that we cut down a couple of inches and my husband mounted a keyboard tray on—because the room is small, I didn’t want a big, heavy desk in here. There is one chair for a visitor (sometimes two if someone drags another one in here), and a tiny little table that holds just the printer. Mostly, the room feels open and empty, which I like when I’m writing. I try to keep the desk completely clear (right now, though, it is a mess of papers and files that I need to attend to before a trip). The walls, though, are a beautiful brick red (top half) and white raised paneling (bottom half) and there’s a big window (which sadly, does not look out onto anything more than my neighbor’s fence, but it brings in light!). I used to have an office in another part of the house which was actually bigger, with floor-to-ceiling shelves that wrapped around the room, filled with books and mementos, but it was too close to the kitchen and too easy for everyone to watch me write.
“Look, there’s mom.”
“I know. You go ask her.”
“No, she’s writing. You go.”
“I’m not interrupting her.”
“Let’s get dad to come ask her.”
I should note that these are grown men, not little kids. They have still not mastered the fact that I can hear them even if I’m not looking at them.
This office space is perfect—smaller, neater, quieter.
Desert Rose: What about hobbies? Do you have any other outlets besides writing?
Toni: I love photography and have been spending more and more time with my camera and my Photoshop.
Desert Rose: We’re thrilled to have you teaching two workshops at this year’s conference. Can you give us a little information on what we can expect?
Toni: The first class is on Voice. Everyone wonders how to define voice and whether or not it can be "taught." Well, technically, it can't. But you can come away with the tools to recognize exactly what it is, how you define it for yourself, and how to make your own voice wow agents and editors. This workshop will give examples of voice, break down those examples as to how they work, and will help the participants clear out what isn't voice, so that they know what is. There will be fun examples, pop quizzes and prizes.
The other class is titled Sex and the Single Title (this class was given at RWA in San Francisco a few years ago). If you're working on a romance you might be curious about how many sex scenes you need... whether to be explicit or not. And if you need to be explicit, how to do so without creating phrasings that cause readers to stumble and fall out of the story? This workshop will cover the types of sex scenes, language, motive, action, and pacing and will give (and break down) scenes from favorite works to show chemistry at work--whether the scene is implied or explicit or somewhere in between. There will be a fun exercise and prizes for class favorites--participants are encouraged to bring a sex scene of their own with them. We're going to have a lot of fun in this one.
Desert Rose: One more question. What is your most guilty pleasure?
Toni: Baskin Robbins Extra Rich Chocolate Ice Cream (um, 2 scoops, waffle cone, hot summer day)
Thank you so much, Toni. As always, you’re a joy to talk with.
To learn more about Toni visit her website at: http://Tonimcgeecausey.com
Come back Wednesday when our spotlight will be on Super Agent Janet Reid.