Denise Williams is a rising star in the literary community. Her relatable, contemporary romance novels, which feature characters of color navigating challenging social issues, are helping to fill wide gaps in the marketplace. In 2020, Denise published her debut novel with Berkley, How to Fail at Flirting, about a university professor who, faced with a possible job cut, decides to try dating again after an abusive relationship ends. In 2021, she published a follow-up, The Fastest Way to Fall, about a writer who falls for the CEO of a fitness app she is reviewing. And this year, Denise will publish—not one or two or even three, but four more books, including three novellas. She will also publish another novel in 2023. In case you thought publishing seven books during a global pandemic was not enough, know this: Denise is not only a prolific writer, but also a wife, a mother, and a university administrator and instructor with a PhD in education.
We spoke to Denise to learn more about her work, her writing process, and her advice for other writers.
How did your writing career start?
I’ve always been a writer; in fact, I wrote my first book, and then a sequel, in second grade. But I never thought about being a published author until my son was born. In 2016, I was exhausted from “mommying” and working full-time at the university. One night after my son went to sleep, I sat down to write because I needed a creative outlet. I enjoyed the writing so much, I came back to the page, night after night. I eventually joined a writers’ group to get feedback and learn more about the industry. The group talked about things like querying agents, which I knew nothing about, so I would feign understanding while secretly researching these new ideas. Being a part of this community really catapulted my career because the more I learned, the more I wanted to be published. I queried agents for three months before I connected to my agent through #DVPit, a Twitter pitch event that Diverse Voices hosts annually. We sent my first novel out for submission, and around six weeks later, Berkley bought it.
Since then, you’ve published two novels and have five more on the way. How do you find time to write while managing a family and a day job?
I typically write around 8 p.m. after my son goes to sleep. We’re fortunate because he’s always been a good sleeper. I also write during my lunch breaks. I have a great office with lots of natural light, so I’ll move from my desk to a table and write for an hour. And I really protect that hour. I’m also in a writing group that meets on Zoom for three or four hours on Sundays. We talk and laugh, of course, but that time is dedicated to writing, so I get a lot done. It helps that I write quickly, though my editing is a little slower. I’m also fortunate because I genuinely enjoy what I do at work in addition to my time writing, and my husband is so supportive.
As far as balancing it all, I think balance is a myth. The real question is, when juggling, which balls are plastic and which are glass. Sometimes, motherhood is a plastic ball in some sense because my son is resilient, so if I take an hour to write, the world isn’t going to end, and my son sees his parent pursuing her passion. But sometimes, the people we love have to take precedence over anything else. The other piece is knowing what balls are glass and need my immediate attention. Once you understand that difference, setting priorities is easier.
What inspires your stories?
I’ve always loved love stories; the promise of “happily ever after” is just delicious. When I’m out in the world grocery shopping or whatever, I often think, what if a love story happened here? I’m really inspired by the world around us and usually write stories based on ideas that stay on the top of my mind. As I form ideas, I think about the story opportunities that allow me to explore human connection, and those are the ones that drive my storytelling.
Can you tell us how you use craft to tell stories?
The decisions that I make about characters, plot, and scene come to me in different ways. For example, for my first two books, the characters came to me first, and then I thought about what kind of story would best show the characters’ growth; however, in my forthcoming novellas, I knew that I wanted to tell these stories set in an airport, and I spun story ideas based on all the things that could happen in that setting. Before I start writing, I usually have a loose outline of my goals, but the story always evolves and changes as I write. I try to pull in the tropes, the steaminess, and any stories that I think will interest readers. I write what I love, so the first draft usually comes easily. I will admit that editing is more difficult, but my academic work has taught me that writing is iterative. It really prepared me to listen to feedback, incorporate that, and resubmit—all to make the writing as strong as possible.
Some writers struggle to find the courage to write or to keep going when the writing is difficult. How do you manage to keep writing?
If you’ve written or read a doctoral dissertation, you know that it’s based on a lot of research, but then in chapter five, you can see how the writer interprets the research and data. When I was writing mine, chapter five became a symbol that helped me value what I had to say. Now, I think about how I can communicate with power by determining what I have to say and believing in my ability to say difficult things. I can’t take credit for this quote, but the only thing a first draft must do is exist. And sometimes it takes bravery to put something on the page when you know it’s not perfect yet. I try to harness my “chapter five” energy when I do that.
One of the many reasons we wanted to talk to you is because you have a strong platform of loyal readers. How did you build that platform, and how do you work with your marketing team to sell books?
Before I knew that I would publish my first novel, I joined Twitter. I looked at it as a place to have fun and build community. Now I enjoy Twitter and Instagram, and I even started experimenting on TikTok. I just have fun on these platforms and talk about my life and my writing, which is a good way to show my personality. I also use these and my newsletter to promote other writers, particularly writers of color. Community building is where social media has power. I realized I could be my authentic self and show that I’m a reader while promoting my books. I think my platforms are also successful because I’ve set expectations for my audience. If you don’t feed social media, it will die, so I commit to posting at least daily depending on the platform, and I stick to that. I also don’t choose to be on every platform all the time; it goes back to having fun and choosing the spaces that I value the most. I also partner with my marketing team. I love working with that wonderful group of women because they intently listen to who my audience is, and they are always open to my ideas about how to reach them.
What advice would you give writers who might be struggling to write their next book?
I’d say a few things. First, take your time and protect your creativity. Whether or not you’re on deadline, focus on making a product that you’re excited about, and throw the idea of perfect out the window. Also, don’t be afraid to communicate with your editor about what’s going on if you’re struggling or need an extension. I find that it’s challenging, especially for people of color with marginalized identities, to ask for help when it feels we fight hardest for a seat at the table to begin with, but you must have the agency to advocate for yourself. Last, find joy in the work even when it’s difficult, and find communities who will continue to affirm you.
To learn more about Denise, go to www.denisewilliamswrites.com.