Denise discusses her debut novel How to Fail at Flirting, tackling a tough subject matter in her novel, how comparing oneself to others is a “thief of joy”, the struggle to find the perfect title for her book, serving as a mentor in Pitch Wars, and more.

Denise discusses her debut novel How to Fail at Flirting, tackling a tough subject matter in her novel, how comparing oneself to others is a “thief of joy”, the struggle to find the perfect title for her book, serving as a mentor in Pitch Wars, and much more.

How to Fail at Flirting can be purchased at Murder by the Book. 

Denise’s 4 recommended reads are:

  1. In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren
  2. Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan
  3. Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras
  4. The Roommate by Rosie Danan


book, writing, flirting, read, authors, cover, cinnamon roll, title, people, talking, thought, characters, fun, love, friends, denise, naya, reader, literary agent, person


Cindy Burnett, Denise Williams


Cindy Burnett  00:07

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. Listen to what inspired the storyline, how their covers and titles were chosen, their personal connection to the story in other fascinating tidbits about the authors themselves. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. If you have any comments, questions that you would like me to ask the authors I'm interviewing, or feedback for me, feel free to contact me through my website Also check out the new holiday gift list that I just recently posted on the blog section of my site if you are in need of a book present for a loved one, close friend, coworker or even a gift exchange. Today I am interviewing Denise Williams. A diversity trainer and co creator of a women's empowerment group, she is dedicated to developing flawed, multi dimensional characters who struggle with those issues impacting real women. After growing up a military brat around the world and across the country, Denise now lives in Iowa with her husband, son, and two ordinary Shih-tzus who think they own the house. Denise was a 2019 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist, and How to Fail at Flirting is her debut novel. Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show. Welcome, Denise, how are you today?


Denise Williams  01:24

I am great. How are you?


Cindy Burnett  01:26

I'm doing well, too. I'm looking forward to talking with you about How to Fail at Flirting.


Denise Williams  01:31

I'm excited.


Cindy Burnett  01:32

Why don't we get started with you telling me a little bit about the book.


Denise Williams  01:36

Sure. So How to Fail at Flirting is my debut novel, and it's about Dr. Naya Turner, who is a professor. She's on the other side of an abusive relationship and has really closed herself off in work which, if there are any pre-tenure faculty members listening know that that's a pretty easy thing to do. But at that point, three years later, she realizes she's in a rut that she's not happy about. So some meddling friends help her to make a to-do list, which includes everything from take some risks, to try something new, to flirt with a stranger, to a one night stand. And so she heads out on the town to try to crush this to-do list. As a type-A person that's a pretty effective motivator for her. When she's out that first night she meets a handsome stranger who seems like a great person to flirt with. And that goes well, and to have a one night stand with and that does not go well. And then he ends up being somebody who is really important to her. Along the way she's really flirting with the hero, but she's also flirting with what her life could be. She's flirting with professional ruin, and ultimately flirting with falling in love.


Cindy Burnett  02:40

I liked the way the flirting was with more than just him but also her own life and her job and just generally what she kind of wanted to be.


Denise Williams  02:50

Yeah, I think so that was a really fun thing to write. And as I was writing, it even made me think about, oh, gosh, what's on my to-do list. And a post it note I've had on my bulletin board at work for maybe 10 years is something somebody said in a keynote. I don't remember who it was. But they said put life on your to-do list. And I just thought that was so profound. And I've had that with me for the 10 years. And so when I was writing the book that kind of resonated too with me.


Cindy Burnett  03:16

I like that. That's one I'm going to have to add to my to-do list also. How did you come up with the subject matter? I mean, how did you come up with the idea for the list and all of that?


Denise Williams  03:25

It's a bit of a long and winding story. I mentioned this is my debut novel. This is also the first novel I've ever written, aside from one sort of half finished one that will never see the light of day that I started 10 years ago. And so when I started writing, it was really just because I was a new mom; I had freshly finished my PhD. I was sort of overwhelmed with work and momming. And I just wanted to escape, and I sat down to write which had always been something that was fun for me. And so this started as a quirky tale about how exes shaped our experiences. And through editing and workshopping it with friends, and probably honestly rewriting 99.98% of the book in that first year, the list grew out. And I thought that that was a really great way for this very type-A person to try to take on this big life experience. And I always knew that she was coming out of trauma. And so that was kind of always woven in. But really doing a lot of research and talking with people about realistic ways in which that trauma and that healing might manifest. So then that all kind of came together. But yeah, a lot of rewriting. I know a little bit better now to do some pre-planning. But the list, I think is my favorite thing that grew out of that initial rewrite, because that gives such a great framework to this character that fits her so well.


Cindy Burnett  04:45

It really does. And then I was curious, you touched on it a little bit, but I was curious about your research regarding abusive relationships because I thought you handled all that very well.


Denise Williams  04:55

Thank you. I certainly tried. That is not my personal experience. And so I did do a lot of research and talk to different people. Somebody who was an invaluable resource in her writing and her work is Adriana Herrera, who writes wonderful romance novels. If you haven't read her, just there's a whole bevy to consume. I think she put one out just yesterday. And she also does social work and survivor advocacy and victim advocacy. And so I went to a session that she did specifically on writing healing and trauma in romance. And she's written some articles and had a ton of book recommendations that were really helpful. In my own training academically, I work in education, and as part of my training, I've gotten to learn about, about healing, about trauma, about responding to folks, about that process in my work with students. And so that really all coalesced. And then just trying to do a lot of reading to hopefully do service to that experience of healing.


Cindy Burnett  05:54

Well, I felt like that you covered it all very well. And you always hope that will reach somebody that can really use it.


Denise Williams  06:00

I certainly hope so. And obviously, everybody's stories are different. So I think it's that idea of trying to not do harm.


Cindy Burnett  06:07

Well, that's true, too. Which character did you enjoy writing the most?


Denise Williams  06:11

It's a toss up really. I loved writing Naya because I think her voice is very similar to my voice. But Jake is nerdy in all my favorite ways. And so it was very fun to write this, I think, kind of cinnamon roll hero who is such a wonderful fit. I don't know. I can't even answer this question. I love writing all of the characters.


Cindy Burnett  06:34

You know, that's so funny that you use the cinnamon roll term, because I had never heard that until like a month ago. And then you're like the second or third person to use it recently. It's just funny how those terms  - you don't know anything about something. And then you hear it, and then all of a sudden you hear it everywhere. But will you explain that for people that don't know the cinnamon roll, what that means?


Denise Williams  06:51

Sure. It has definitely become embraced by romance authors and readers. And so a cinnamon roll is really the opposite of kind of an alpha hero. So a cinnamon roll is kind of gooey, and warm and soft, and maybe has a crusty exterior, maybe not. But this idea, especially for not exclusively, but especially for men characters that we can write them as containing multitudes. So they can be soft, they can have emotions, they can be unaggressive or not like an alpha hero. And so that's really what a cinnamon roll has kind of come to mean.


Cindy Burnett  07:27

I love that term. And I think it's perfect for that. I just want to make sure everybody else would know what it meant. But I think it really absolutely sounds like what it means. Well, what was the highlight of writing How to Fail at Flirting?


Denise Williams  07:39

Oh gosh, probably the highlight shouldn't be a highlight. But I'd finished writing the book. I never thought I would finish it. And I thought you know what, this is really good. I think this is a solid book. And I sent it out to a friend and then kind of a newly-found critique partner. And I got it back. And it was just red from top to bottom. And I thought, oh, okay, so it's not perfect yet. But it really was that moment of seeing possibilities of what the book could be. And it was that first time I'd gotten all this feedback, and I had to go back and rewrite and edit and make it better. And I'm somebody who loves revision, maybe don't tell my editor that because I don't know if I want to have to do more than she's planning on, for this next book. But like getting to mold something and take it to that next level is really exciting. And so I do think about that first moment, and that shock and horror and all the red comes up. But then that next moment of possibilities, and I have some stickers I've printed up to go with the book, like for our pre-order campaign, and some of those things that the tagline is flirting with possibilities, which I think is really connected to the book. But it's also connected a lot for me to writing and taking a chance on publishing and so many other things that I've done and others are doing in their life. That is this idea of looking at the possibilities and having that moment of flirting with, okay, I can do this. I can, I can take that next step, whatever it is.


Cindy Burnett  09:07

Well, that's hard for people to do sometimes. So I think encouragement for that is fabulous. Did you come up with the title for this one yourself or how did that come about?


Denise Williams  09:17

No, this title came about with a collaboration with my editor and my agent. I think I can say here, we went through 41 different titles.


Cindy Burnett  09:25



Denise Williams  09:26

And it seemed like it might never happen. And I was in New York for a conference. And so the three of us went to lunch, and we were brainstorming titles. And I kind of laughed at what somebody must have thought of us, because we would be talking animatedly somebody would throw out an idea. And then all three of us would sort of stare off into space for about 10 seconds in silence, and then come back and talk about it together. That lunch is where this title was born. And it really started out thinking about how sort of linear Naya is in some ways and that she would really look for a guide on how to do something. And so this idea of flirting, of falling in love, of all of these things. And so then we thought about, well, what if there was a guide, but not a guide on how to flirt, but on, she could probably write the one on how to fail at flirting.


Cindy Burnett  10:12

So what did you start out with as your initial title?


Denise Williams  10:16

When I started writing it, I think I called it The Professor's Affair, which was rightfully dismissed as not a very good title. And then for a while, it was The Opposite of Ordinary, which I did really like. But it was very close to another book that came out.


Cindy Burnett  10:31

Titles are very hard. And so I'm always curious to see if it was an easy process or a hard process. And then I have the same question about the cover. Because I am a complete cover person, I judge books by covers. I love great covers that reflect the book. And so I really like your cover. How did it come about?


Denise Williams  10:49

 Yes, I love this cover. And the first scene with a couple meets, the meet cute, is in a bar. And so I always thought, I always pictured the cover to be there. And initially we were like, I don't know if we want, want the cover to be in a bar. And I guess it's not explicitly a bar on on the cover now, but to me it is. And so my editor asked me all kinds of questions about the things I liked, and don't like, which I wasn't sure what to expect as a new author, how much do I get to control the cover, because I'm the same way that is such a big part of the book and how its branded and how we see it. And I was really pleased that even being with the publisher with them, you know, technically holding the rights to the cover, they really wanted to know what I was interested in. And so I shared a lot about kind of how I see the characters. Personally, I love to not see faces on illustrated covers, just because I'm somebody who's a reader who loves to imagine what the characters look like. And so you'll notice on the How to Fail at Flirting that their faces are kind of obscured so that the reader can hopefully kind of put that image in there for them. I love that it's kind of dark, because there are definitely some darker themes in the book, even though there's a lot of kind of light and fun banter as well. And then it shows the connection between two people. So I was just really excited. I gave them all kinds of colors I like and images I like, and then the graphic designers who are just brilliant put it together in this cover that has so much texture and life to it that I just smile every time I see it.


Cindy Burnett  12:15

Berkley does an amazing job with covers. I really think theirs are some of the strongest. And I agree, I always think it would be so hard to you know, you have this book, and you've gotten this far and it's being published. And then if you're looking at the cover and thinking, wow, I'm not happy with this at all, that would just be so heartbreaking I think. So it's great that you're happy with it. And then it turned out like you wanted it to.


Denise Williams  12:36

Yeah, and I love that they took my feedback. And there were a couple small tweaks I suggested at the very beginning that they took and used no problem. And so it was it did feel very collaborative. I mean, I was probably the weak end of the collaboration because the designers did all the work really in bringing that to life. But I just love when like that different lens of creativity comes into it. Like writing it, I had all these ideas and all these thoughts, and it's on the page. But seeing it depicted graphically is such a such a cool experience.


Cindy Burnett  13:05

I bet. So I had so much fun looking around on your website, and the part that appealed to me the most was the Pitch Wars mentor page. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Denise Williams  13:15

Oh, sure. So Pitch Wars is a writing contest, I guess, held across genre and age group. And so this is an opportunity for unpublished authors to submit their manuscripts. And then current authors and maybe some publishing professionals, maybe some editors as a large group of people apply to be mentors. And then they select one manuscript and work with that person to do a full revision, and then it goes up for literary agents. And so I wasn't able to participate in Pitch Wars as an author, the timing just didn't work for me. But I did apply and was selected to be a mentor. I'm co-mentoring with Cherish Reed, who has wonderful romance novels out that I just love to get lost in. We'll now be announcing our mentee here pretty soon. But it was so amazing to go through all of these submissions. We had about 35. Some people had hundreds of submissions from all these talented writers. And then we really get to see what's a good fit for our style, what do we know how to offer good feedback on and then we really work with them in this, I hope, very close personal way to do the revision over the next couple of months. Now volunteering to do that overtop of my book coming out was maybe not the smartest idea, but that's fine. It's fine. It's fine. I'm really excited just about the work that's out there and getting to help somebody else be collaborative and get in front of agents and hopefully find that right literary agent for them so that they can continue on their publishing journey. And Pitch Wars has adult, middle grade, and young adult sectors. It's been going on for several years. Brenda Drake heads it up along with a crew of really excellent coordinators on their team. So that's been a really fun thing to do in 2020.


Cindy Burnett  14:58

Well, I enjoyed reading your layout with Cherish about what you all wanted to read or what didn't appeal to you. But the photos were the best part. I had so much fun going through all of those. I was like, okay, this is awesome. So that was just entertaining. And I wanted to hear a little bit about it.


Denise Williams  15:14

I will say my bad Photoshop is maybe one of my social media hallmarks. It's not even just in social media, I do it at work, too. I actually do know how to do good and effective Photoshop. But just putting people's heads on bodies is sometimes a lot more fun. So Cherish and I are co-mentoring, and we've never met in person. She lives in Sweden. I'm in Iowa. We talk probably every day, but we've never met. So we decided we would just put together some photos to replicate what it would probably be like. So there's one of us riding a tandem bike together and skydiving and surfing and riding horses. I put one out later, that's us boxing, or getting ready to box. All activities we would probably never do. Because if we met in person, we'd probably sit down and go eat and have cocktails. But yeah, that was, that was a lot of fun.


Cindy Burnett  16:01

Well, it looked like a lot of fun. And I really enjoyed it. So on the same note, do you have advice for aspiring authors?


Denise Williams  16:08

Yeah, yeah, I think a couple pieces of advice. I'd say shoot your shot. I don't think I ever imagined I would finish the book, let alone query the book to agents, let alone get a book deal, let alone see my book kind of where it is now. And so part of that was kind of like in the book, it's, it's flirting with possibilities. It's, it's taking a chance. And I think that that is probably the number one thing to anybody who wants to do anything is to shoot your shot. But especially in writing, the odds are not always great. They're not always in your favor, even. But putting yourself out there like believing in your book, taking feedback, and then moving forward is is so huge. I think the other thing is something I tell myself and others often, which is comparison is the thief of joy. And so it's so easy to see other people having successes and to compare your own successes to that. And sometimes to find yourself wanting or define your success is kind of pale in shadow. And that really is human nature, it's natural. If I'm in a petty mood, I'll just do that for myself anyway. But generally speaking, that that comparison is just a thief of joy. It doesn't change anything, it just diminishes the happiness that you feel. So I think those are two things that I would share with authors that I think are kind of universally applicable, no matter where you are in the in the process.


Cindy Burnett  17:27

I agree completely on the thief of joy. I think it's really hard as humans not to compare yourself to others, whatever field you're in, but you're always better off when you don't. Are you working on anything at the present that you would like to share with me?


Denise Williams  17:40

Well, yeah, I'm in the middle of revising my second book, which will be out next fall. We haven't done a big announcement for that one yet. But it's called The Fastest Way to Fall. So I have a lot of F's in my title, I guess. And that book for me is very much an Own Voices story about a fat heroine. And it's about sort of the power that she feels as she goes on this exercise journey. She starts running, which I never ran. But other than that, and then it's the love story that she has kind of with her personal trainer. So I'm really excited that, with that book. I kind of love all the messages in it. And for me, it's a book that made me feel very powerful as I wrote it. And so I hope that that will be the case for readers. So I'm revising that and then working on a few other stories that will hopefully be coming after that one.


Cindy Burnett  18:26

Oh, that's great. Well, that next one sounds really good. I'll have to keep my eye out for when the galley drops.


Denise Williams  18:31



Cindy Burnett  18:32

Well, what do you like to do when you're not writing or reading?


Denise Williams  18:35

Well, I have a four year old so momming takes up a lot of that time, which recently involves dancing in the backyard and watching Paw Patrol and playing lions. Usually I read a lot, usually read a few books a week. And that's been a little bit less so in the quarantine. But I read a lot. Writing for me is still an escape and still something I love to do, that feels like free time even though it's a job to. Beyond that I'm a photographer. So when I can I love to go out and take pictures, especially photos of people. I sort of love finding that right light to make somebody kind of look the best version of themselves. And when you show somebody a photo that you took from them that they love, it's just one of the best things. So those are probably a few of my free time activities. I'm not really great at bingeing TV shows, although people are talking about them on Twitter, and I need to get into something. I missed the whole tiger, The Tiger King,


Cindy Burnett  19:30

I think so, I didn't see it either. But I know what you're talking about.


Denise Williams  19:33

I missed that because I let my husband sort of pick whatever he wants to put on TV and it's usually something I can't stand so it's really easy to turn to my writing and not get distracted.


Cindy Burnett  19:42

Well it is fun to binge shows but I'm really picky about what I watch. So sometimes it's like you said it's hard to find something that is worth actually bingeing. My husband and I are watching The Travelers, which I guess came out on Netflix maybe four or five years ago, but we just picked it up and there three seasons and it's really good. So we've enjoyed that one.


Denise Williams  20:01

I did get really into Lovecraft Country from HBO that just ended. It was a limited series.


Cindy Burnett  20:07

 I liked it too.


Denise Williams  20:08

But otherwise it's been rewatching The Office and Community and sitcoms I've seen a thousand times. And The Great British Baking Show.


Cindy Burnett  20:16

We actually just somehow just discovered Community in the last like three months. I don't know how we missed it originally. And we're about halfway through it, too. It's so funny.


Denise Williams  20:24

Oh, my gosh, my husband always loved it. And he showed it to me when I first started dating. I was like, This show is so dumb. Yeah, now we watch it just all the time. And it's just yeah, ridiculous and funny and campy and smart in so many weird ways.


Cindy Burnett  20:39

No, I agree completely. I don't know how we missed it the first go round, but we're enjoying it now. Well, before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you have read recently that you would recommend.


Denise Williams  20:48

Yeah, so I have a few that have just been top reads from you this year. In A Holidaze by Christina Lauren just came out recently. And it's kind of a contemporary romance Groundhog's Day that takes place at Christmas. It was just delightful and wonderful. And for me just captured all the best things about first loves, while also being steamy, which I like as well. Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan came out a little bit earlier this year. And something I've said often about this book is I stayed up until three in the morning, read almost all of it and then woke up at 6am and didn't get out of bed until I finished it. It was just so beautiful in the writing. The characters are wonderful. And I felt like I could do anything when I finished that book. And more than that, I felt like I should do anything that I wanted. So it was so empowering while still being a beautiful love story that again also kind of captured some of those first love, growing love, mature love pieces that for me are so important in a novel. Island Affair has been an escape recently. It takes place in Key West. It's by Priscilla Oliveras. And it is a fake dating, sexy fireman book that's just sort of warm and fuzzy. And he's kind of as I would say, kind of a cinnamon roll as well. But just a good guy and you get into family dynamics. The writing is just wonderful. And the escape to Key West is pretty great in 2020 in general and in Iowa here where it's like 30 degrees outside most of the time. And so those have all been great. I'd say maybe just one other is The Roommate by Rosie Dannon which just came out recently. And Rosie is another debut. This looked at two roommates, so it's aptly titled, and gets into sex positivity and women's empowerment and is just a wonderfully fun read.


Cindy Burnett  22:33

One of my favorite fellow book instagramers loves that one. Her name is Sarah, @reallyintothis is her account, and she has been talking about that book for months and how great it is. She just thinks it's such a fun read.


Denise Williams  22:44

It's definitely a lot of fun. And I got a chance to read an early copy of her next book, which is one of the characters from this one. And so Rosie is wonderful.


Cindy Burnett  22:53

Well, good. Well, thank you. I'll have to, several of those I've seen, and I'll have to check out the ones I haven't. I always like Christina Lauren's books. I think they're really fun.


Denise Williams  23:01

This is a really good one. I think I own, I don't think I actually own all of their books. And this is one of my favorites.


Cindy Burnett  23:07

My favorite so far of theirs is The Unhoneymooners.


Denise Williams  23:10

Yes, I did like that one.


Cindy Burnett  23:12

Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Well, thank you so much, Denise, for joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I really enjoyed speaking with you.


Denise Williams  23:19

Thanks so much for having me. It was wonderful to chat.


Cindy Burnett  23:22

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you like this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram and Pinterest at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. Denise's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to K. P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope to see you next time.