The Penmen Profile: Bestselling Romance Writer Toni Blake

By Kaycee Gnatowski

Toni Blake Headshot for Penmen ProfileAt the age of 10, Toni Blake knew she wanted to become a writer and was determined to make her dreams come true, despite all of the negativity surrounding her chosen career path. These days, Blake is a USA Today bestselling author of more than 20 books, and has received numerous awards for her novels including the National Readers Choice. She continues to write novels that she feels her readers will love.

Have you always written?
Pretty much, yes. I grew up in the country, didn’t always fit in, and often experienced a sense of loneliness.  I think this is what led to telling myself stories in my head.  At the age of 10, I told my mother over the breakfast table one day that I was going to be a novelist when I grew up. I then proceeded to write my first “book” – which turned out to be 19 notebook pages long. It was a meager beginning, but after that, I was always writing something. In the eighth grade, I wrote a novella, and in high school, I was the editor of the school newspaper, on the editing team of the yearbook and turned out lots of short stories. After that, I truly tried to stop writing, because I’d been advised it was such an awful career path, but I kept coming back to it because I was so driven to tell stories.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
For me, usually, the setting comes first. These days, I’m writing series books, all set in the same place, so I often start out with the setting built in, though previous to that it always seemed to be my starting point, too. I’ve always been fascinated with different places, and I’m pretty well-traveled, and I think of setting as almost another character in the book. From there, I suppose I ask questions in my head:  What kinds of people might live or be in this place?  How did they get here?  What kinds of challenges might they face? But to be honest, I’ve been doing this for so long now that it’s almost second nature, so it’s a little difficult for me to pin down the exact process. Sometimes it’s a matter of asking myself the same question over and over:  What happens now? And after that?  And after that? And sometimes I don’t have to ask at all – it just comes to me.  The important thing is to always keep it compelling and make sure it’s well-structured. I sometimes think of a book like a lump of clay that’s already there – in my mind – and that my job is to sculpt it into the most perfect shape that I can.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
It’s really same challenge over and over again – turn out the best book you can, every time. In commercial fiction, we write at a pretty rapid pace. I put out a book every six to eight months, and I actually used to write much faster than I do now, but I choose to take a little time off between books now to “refill the well.” When you make a career of this, you can face the danger of reaching a place where you’re just “phoning it in.”  So I’d say my biggest challenge at this point in my career is to make sure I fall in love with every book I write and give it as much care and attention as I have every previous book.  I also find that the challenges change as your career progresses. If you’d asked me this question five years ago, I’d have given an entirely different answer.  Ask me again in five years, and I’m sure I’ll have something new to say.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I won’t lie – it’s been rocky. I wrote upwards of twenty novels before selling one. Even then, success was elusive and I was dumped by a number of publishers along the way. Then in 2005, I signed with HarperCollins and I’ve written very happily for them ever since. Do I think I suddenly started writing better books? Nope. Do I think I work in a very fickle, unpredictable industry?  Yep. In commercial fiction, success is not necessarily commensurate with talent or even with drive and dedication. That said, I’m a big believer that if you never give up, eventually you get there. If you do give up, you *ensure* that you don’t.

How do you market your work?
I’m happy to say that mostly the marketing falls to my publisher these days.  It can take a while, and a certain level of sales, before a publisher really starts putting heavy support behind you, and I appreciate mine taking the marketing burden off of me. I do the social media thing and really enjoy it, I order bookmarks for each book and make sure they get into the hands of booksellers and librarians, and I do a few book signings and appearances each year, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t really enjoy marketing, and I feel my publisher is far better equipped to do it than I am. That said, I know many people who are doing a great job marketing their books their own way.

What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
I wish I had not expended so much anxiety on my career. Easier said than done, but what it comes down to is:  you write the best books you can, you learn about the industry and make the best connections you’re able to, and you hope people buy your work and love it. Whether they do or don’t, it’s not a real reflection on how good a writer you are. I think I measured my own talent, and my sense of accomplishment by my level of success for too long. When I finally quit doing that, when I finally relaxed, my career took off. It’s important to believe in yourself and be firmly dedicated to your work and your goals, but it’s also important to stay relaxed about it and remember it’s not a life or death situation.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Oooh, big question. Judy Blume – first author I read as a child who made me really feel like:  oh, I want to write like she does because she makes me feel understood and connected. Sherman Alexie – beautiful prose, beautiful concepts, and again, reading his work always made me want to go write something just as lovely and moving. Larry McMurtry – just a plain good storyteller.

In my own genre, Jennifer Cruise completely inspired me.  I was flailing about in literary fiction when a friend handed me Jenny’s first three books and said, “This is what you should be writing.”  I had never considered romance as a viable path – I just hadn’t read it and I had the same outdated ideas about it as so many people still do. But when I read the books and I saw how smart, funny, and sexy they were, I knew I’d found what I was supposed to be doing. Once I went in that direction, I never looked back.  And there are many other authors in my genre who have inspired me, as well, not only with their writing but also with words of advice. The romance genre is a giving and welcoming one and I am fortunate enough to have met most of my heroes – including Sherman, too, even though he is pretty far outside the romance world. I’m very thankful for each author who has encouraged or inspired me along the way.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Three?  Really?  I don’t know if I can do just three.  “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Flowers from the Storm,”  “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,”  “The Eight,” “Reason to Believe,” and “Jane Eyre.” Seven. That’s not bad, really. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop until I’d listed about twenty.