'How to Fail at Flirting'? Nah, This Debut Romance Is a Steamy Success

Posted by Sharon on December 1, 2020
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As an administrator in Student Affairs at Iowa State University, Denise Williams’ life on campus has not only distracted her from the "abnormal normality" of 2020, it’s also provided ample inspiration for her debut novel, How to Fail at Flirting (most notably, the academic setting and her own personal love of to-do lists).

The story follows professor and protagonist Naya Turner as she attempts to shed her usual buttoned-up way of life and take some risks. When her one-night stand evolves into something more, we’re taken on a journey that’s heartbreaking and tense with hints of humor and heat. And, we think it goes without saying, includes lots of romance in between.

Williams spoke to Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about the misconceptions of the romance genre, some of her favorite authors, and what’s next on her docket.

Goodreads: Did you always know you wanted to write romance novels?

Denise Williams: I always loved to write, but it definitely wasn't a lifelong dream to be a romance novelist. I did some writing as a kid and teenager, and into college, I would write really bad poetry and short stories and did NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] a couple of times, but it was never a serious pursuit for me. It was fun, it was an escape.

When I started my master’s degree and then my Ph.D., my writing was pretty much focused on academia. My research areas are in education, and I studied, specifically, student veterans, military students, students of color, and their transitions to college. It wasn't until about 2015—when I was finishing up my Ph.D.—that I started commuting to get to work and listening to a lot of romance audiobooks, and that's when I really rediscovered or re-acknowledged my love of love stories.

Those have always been the stories I like to read and the movies I like to watch, and then after my son was born, I sort of felt buried in my day-job work, in what I call mom’ing, and these other responsibilities, and I felt like I was losing myself. One day, I was listening to a Mariana Zapata novel and I thought, "I think I could write something like this," so I sat down to write what is now How to Fail at Flirting.

GR: How did the book come about?

DW: How to Fail at Flirting started out as this fun, silly rom-com about the impact exes have on our lives. I thought that that was a fun story to tell. I still do, and that's definitely in the book, but it’s also about the way that exes can twist us up and twist up what we think of ourselves and love and all of those things. I started reflecting on some of my own exes and what I learned from them or learned to avoid based on them, and then it really grew from there.
This was the first novel I'd really written, and I learned a lot about craft along the way. I rewrote most of the book in the course of its development, but I'm really happy with where it ended and how it still really talks about how exes shape how we think of ourselves, but also how we move past that and then figure out who we are in these new relationships.

GR: Academic writing and writing for fun are pretty different from writing for mainstream publication. What was that pivot like, and what were some of the most fun parts of the book to write for you? 

DW: Definitely the most fun parts to write for me were the love scenes. I think it's a lot of fun to see how physical intimacy can move a relationship forward. In the many [academic] journal articles or book chapters where I write about higher education, there's very little to no kissing! And so I really enjoy writing those scenes.
The biggest shift from writing academically to writing romance is, in academia you have to really tell everything. So, I can say the sky is blue, but then I need to cite three sources and I need to specify the type of blue and I need to tell you how I know that it's blue and then give you a summary and go back to the original point that the sky is blue! 

In writing fiction, it's a different style of writing and so a different style of nuance. This idea of "show the story" and "show the emotion" versus "telling it" was really hard for me at first because in my academic writing it's kind of the opposite. We have to be very explicit in what we're telling and showing. I think I would cringe at my early drafts, where I would tell you that the heroine was sad versus just showing that!

That was a challenge, and it was a fun skill to build as well because I think it flexes different parts of my brain. I still research, I still do my academic work, and now I'm more easily able to transition between those. I do think being a fiction writer has made me a better academic writer in how I'm able to weave words together and how I think about the flow of sentences, to bring some of that prose that I write in fiction.

GR: You joke in the acknowledgments about the sex scenes and not wanting your family to read them. I imagine sex scenes can be a bit awkward to write! I’m wondering how you approached writing those particular moments in the book.

DW: Yes, I did accidentally send my parents a bunch of the sex scenes, so they've had a preview! [Laughs.]

The book is told from a first-person point of view from the heroine, who is on the other side of an abusive relationship—for folks who haven't read the book—and it was really important for me that the physical intimacy for her was safe and felt very tender and loving and there's active consent, because that's what she would need and that's what she had been missing from previous encounters. Not that there isn't heat or energy or passion, but it was really important for me that every love scene between the couple really show her being able to trust this other person in different ways in addition to trusting him emotionally. And, ideally, that those two would be wrapped up in each other.

I think it's important that love scenes, kissing scenes, physical-intimacy scenes, sex scenes, don't always have to be the crux of the plot, but I really love it as a reader when they move the story forward and they move the characters forward, and that's what I tried to do with each of those scenes. Something in them really moved us to the next point in that character's development or that couple's relationship.

GR: The protagonist in the book, Naya, is multiracial, and there’s been somewhat of a shift in terms of representation and diversity in romance novels, but like a lot of industries, there’s still work that needs to be done. You’re a writer, clearly, but also an avid romance reader yourself. Have you noticed a substantial change over the years, and what would you like to see more of in contemporary romance?

DW: I would say the shift in more characters of color and more authors of color is really in more traditional publishing. I think in indie publishing, women of color, particularly Black women, have been putting those books out and writing wonderful, moving, incredibly diverse books for a long time. And I do think that's a part of the conversation that sometimes gets left out of that narrative, so I just want to put that out there.
But I think, in traditional publishing in terms of romance, I have seen a shift in that slowly more authors of color are able to tell stories in their own voices and are coming to the forefront. Not only from authors of color but LGBTQ+ authors, authors writing from different religions or abilities. I think that's slow, and I think there's still some...not tokenism but "only-ism" that can happen for folks.

I'm excited, though, to see the changes because the readers are here and there's been so much good work from people who are publishing independently, indie publishing, self-publishing, that has really laid the groundwork for a lot of readers. It’s exciting to see that energy move into different spaces.

GR: Romance novels are somewhat in the spotlight now, with the "reveal" that politician Stacey Abrams has penned a number over the years [under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery], but there’s still somewhat of a stigma surrounding the genre. What do you think are some misconceptions people have, and why do you love romances so much?

DW: Oh gosh, there are so many misconceptions. From my own experience, when I started reading a lot of romance, I had this perception and knew the stereotype was out there that romance wasn't what "smart" people read, which is just completely ridiculous. I was in academia, and I'm in this circle of friends, and the expectation wasn't that I was reading romance. I remember I downloaded a copy of The Goldfinchnever read the book to this day, I'm sorry—and I kept it on my Kindle, and whenever somebody was looking at my phone or if it was in the car with me, I'd shift over!

I think that shows what is internalized and those external stereotypes that we know about romance: That it's "trashy," that it's not good literature, that it's predictable, that it's just "mommy porn"—which is a term I hate. But all of those stereotypes are out there, and part of that is patriarchy, it's misogyny, it's internalized misogyny, it's all of these things that affect how we think society sees us.
When I started writing, people would ask me what I was up to and I would say, in a very hushed voice, "Oh, I'm writing a book" and if they'd ask about it I'd say, "Oh, it's romance," and then I'd sort of just whisper, "It's kind of steamy." At a certain point, I stopped whispering and I stopped saying it in a hushed voice, and if my students or my colleagues or my friends asked me about it, I would tell them. And if they would ask a question that pulled in one of those myths or false perceptions, I would try my best to challenge that. It's a genre that's predictable in that there's a happily ever after, but that's the same predictability as a thriller or a mystery. Just like any other book is going to have some kind of resolution in the end, but there are a million routes to get to the last page of the book.
I don't hide that I write romance, I don't hide that I read romance, and the most exciting thing about that has been finding so many other women who I work with—in education or in law or in medicine—who have said, "I read romance, too, but I never talk about it." To be able to bring that out into the open and talk about it proudly as something that we love, I think, is really important because the genre goes so much further than some other genres in centering stories of people who have been traditionally marginalized and whose stories have traditionally not been told.

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GR: If you have skeptical people in your life who aren't convinced of romance novels, are there books that you recommend to them as an entry point into the genre?

DW: Well, I tell them to buy mine [laughs], but I guess that's being self-serving. I think it depends on their interests. I’ve had some friends who I've suggested start with one of Helen Hoang's books, The Bride Test or The Kiss Quotient, just because I know they’re interested in representation. For others, I send them to Kennedy Ryan or Christina Lauren.

I've recommended to many people, especially my friends who are with me on the tearing-down-the-patriarchy thing and on sex positivity, that they read The Roommate by Rosie Danan. About six months ago, a friend wanted to start reading male-male romance, so I put a call out on Twitter and I found about 50 different books that they should start with.
I'm always offering recommendations to friends—probably more than they would want—just to show people the breadth of the genre. If you don't want to read about dukes and earls, you don't have to. You can read contemporary. If you want to escape into a world, there's paranormal, and you can get the love story and the happily ever after and get all the other things you want in a book, too. Romance is very wide as a genre.

GR: What romance novels or authors have been influential for you either while writing your novel or otherwise? 

DW: The first romance novel I ever read was Jewels by Danielle Steel. I was 12, and we happened to see the miniseries on Lifetime, and I thought it was the most salacious thing we'd ever seen—and I guess I was an innocent 12-year-old. That was my foundation; I devoured a bunch of Danielle Steels when I was in middle school and high school.

Once I started writing, a little bit later when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, Kennedy Ryan became an author who I just loved. Her prose is beautiful, and her stories make me feel like I want to hug somebody. I want to kiss my husband, and then I want to go tear down the patriarchy, maybe in that order or not.

Mariana Zapata's books were some that really moved me to write but also were comfort reads. She writes slow burns, which are usually not what I write, but the way that she weaves in characters and these beautiful small moments is something I can get lost in. And then, with Christina Lauren’s books, I always love how the romance and the connection and the chemistry are so deeply rooted in how the characters move forward.

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GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

DW: I do a lot of audiobooks, so I'm currently listening to Boyfriend Material [by Alexis Hall], which is wonderful, and I just finished In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren.

I am about halfway through How to Catch a Queen by Alyssa Cole, which comes out the same day as How to Fail at Flirting. Alyssa Cole is one of those authors, too, who I could sit down and read forever and wonder if I could ever be that talented.

My favorite read of the year was probably Kennedy Ryan's Queen Move. I read that back in early quarantine, and I stayed up until three in the morning and woke up at seven and didn't get out of bed until I finished it! It was just so empowering and wonderful and lovely. 

GR: You mentioned on your website that "It’s Your Life" by Francesca Battistelli was your revision celebration song. I'm curious if you had a soundtrack while actually writing your book? 

DW: I love music, and I have a soundtrack ready for every other book I've started, but I didn't have one for How to Fail at Flirting. I think the soundtrack was generally the baby monitor and me making sure my child was still asleep so I could keep writing! [Laughs.]

After the fact, the song "Rainbow Connection" by Garfunkel and Oates is a song that makes me think of the story when I hear it now. When I was editing, I had that song on a lot. It doesn't directly relate to the story, it’s just a fun love story in a song, and that for me more than any other song really connects to the story.

GR: Are you able to share what's next on the docket for you? 

DW: We haven't released a lot of the details for it yet, but my second book will be out next fall and it's called The Fast Way to Fall. It's about a heroine who gets excited about exercising and running, but really it's more about the strength that she finds while she's doing this exercise program. Then the hero owns a fitness app and ends up being the trainer that's connected with her. It's definitely not about losing weight or changing or anything like that, but really more about finding that power for one’s self.


Denise WilliamsHow to Fail at Flirting will be available in the U.S. on December 1. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Alyssa (new)

Alyssa Thomas I'm so excited for this book! What a great interview!

message 2: by Lori (new)

Lori Spielman Great interview! Congratulations, Denise! I'm so excited to read your book!

message 3: by Jessica (new)

Jessica "In the many [academic] journal articles or book chapters where I write about higher education, there's very little to no kissing! " --> LOL!

I'm also in academia and I've been a public demonstrator of how romance books can be great. A lot of colleagues are surprised to see anyone reading romance!

message 4: by Dee (new)

Dee i read this the week it came out - it hit all my happy spots - one of my top romance reads for the year

Mrs s c h choudhry Yasmin Choudhru Hi that's book is flirty right
Hi 😏😏

message 6: by goldwing (new)

goldwing writer Loved this!

Definitely gonna buy this

message 7: by Rosie (new)

Rosie Is this a young adults book? Or, more of an adult book?

message 8: by Thiefriver (new)

Thiefriver Alyssa wrote: "I'm so excited for this book! What a great interview!"

Hello Alyssa, did you read this book? Is this what you consider a YA book?

Also, any great fiction you've read this year?

message 9: by Denise (new)

Denise Rosie wrote: "Is this a young adults book? Or, more of an adult book?"

Rosie--there are explicit love scenes, some strong language, and adult themes around the heroine being a survivor. Definitely an adult book. I would not recommend it for teen readers unless they were prepared for those components and had a trusted adult to debrief with.

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