More than Love Interests 

Not all stories open with “once upon a time” – some start off with a bang. These two authors are no exception. Though neither have a degree in creative writing, they’ve published 18 books between them and each have another on the way within the next year. 

But nearly 20 years ago, these authors would never have thought writing would be their full-time job.

Contemporary fiction writer and Des Moines native Tracey Garvis Graves published her first debut novel in 2011. But before that, she got a degree in business and was working as a recruiter for Wells Fargo. Graves had always considered writing a book, but never thought she would be able to do it. 

“I just wanted to get an idea out of my head and onto paper,” Graves said. 

Meanwhile in Kansas City, Sarah Henning was working as a features journalist for the Kansas City Star. Henning bounced around from newspaper to newspaper, working her way up from a copy editor to a writer. But like Graves, she could never escape the fact that she wanted to write a book.

Eventually, they both reached a tipping point.

4 a.m. Alarms

It’s hard to image that an alarm clock is one of the most important writing tools. For Graves and Henning, it was essential. Before becoming full time authors, the two women had to balance writing with the rest of their lives, squeezing it in whenever possible.

“I would get up at 4:15 a.m., run seven miles, get home, turn on the coffee pot and write until I had to take the kids and go to my job,” Henning said. 

Graves was doing the same thing while balancing her job at Wells Fargo and being a mom of two teenagers. She wrote at 4 a.m. for 18 months. Maybe that sounds like hell, but to Graves, “it was one of the most joyous experiences I had ever had.”

The next part, though, wasn’t anything but joyous. After finishing her first draft, Graves found it difficult to get an agent to pick up her book. She was rejected by everyone she reached out to, which was devastating. Her characters and story were real to her. She wanted the rest of the world to see what she saw. But with no previous experience as a published writer, Graves had to do it all on her own. She ended up hiring both a copy editor and a graphic designer on her own and then published her first book, On This Island, in 2011 through Amazon’s self-publishing program. 

“Self-published novels were kicking traditional authors off the list at the time,” Graves said. And not just any list – The New York Times Bestsellers list. 

Self-publishing is still as popular as it was in 2011. According to the Alliance for Independent Authors, nearly 35% of all e-books are self-published by the authors. On Kindle Unlimited alone, nearly 85% of e-books are self-published. And through the help of Kindle Direct Publishig, 1.5 million books are self-published each year. 

For Graves, it was Amazon that spawned her success. One day after self-publishing her debut, she received an email from an Amazon rep asking if the book could be featured on the weekly book sales list. After that, her world started to go crazy. The novel was selling 100 copies a day. Within no time, Graves was getting countless emails and phone calls, all giving her praise for her story. Soon after that, the agent offers began rolling in. 

“I got picked up by an agency that rejected me. Not one of the agents, but the presidents of their company,” Graves said. 

Nearly 20 years later, Graves has published nine books, two of which are The New York Times bestsellers. She has a tenth book coming out next year, which she wouldn’t let on too much about. But she plans to continue providing her readers with contemporary fiction with a “happily ever after.”

“I like women’s fiction, but I also like romance. I don’t like it when there is too much of either, though,” Graves said. Her biggest focus is heavier story lines for heroines. She loves a hero, but her real focus is always on the heroine.

Not Just Romantic

Romance novels have definitely been making a comeback. Last year, romance novels generated over $1.44 billion in revenue, making romance the high-earning genre of fiction.  

According to Romance Writers of America (RWA), to be considered a romance novel there must be two central ideas within the story: two people falling in love and then a struggle to make that relationship work.

But in Graves and Hennings romance novels, the falling-in-love part is a subplot. Instead, the two let their heroines’ stories be the center of attention. And while this isn’t a typical romance story, this is the “new romance” readers are wanting to see. 

Like Graves’ 2019 novel, The Girl He Used to Know. The story follows Anaka, a girl who likes being alone, and prefers residing in solitude with a book or a chess board over being around others. That is, as it always is, until she meets Johnathon. Split between the couple’s chance meeting in college to their chance meeting in Chicago ten years later, this novel deals with a connection between two people. Graves describes it as a second chance for characters who went through a lot together.

Henning on the other hand, is cranking out young adult fantasy novels that are sure to catch any ages’ ears. 

At first the author admits that she was a little nervous when writing. When she began writing her book she was always questioning herself if it was good enough. She also faced some internal guilt. 

“When you’re a parent and you work full time, taking time to do something for yourself is very guilt-inducing,” Henning said. 

But in the end, after many 4:00 a.m. mornings and sending her book to plenty of publishers, Henning was offered a publishing deal for her debut novel, Sea Witch. The Little Mermaid-inspired book, focusing on Ursula’s story, gained Henning enough of a following to allow her to keep writing.

I’m extremely lucky, but there are so many people in my debut year who haven’t put out another book, so it’s about persistence, but it’s also about being lucky,” Henning said. 

Ten years later, the author is still creating trope-defying books. Her recently released third and final book of her most popular series, The Princess Will Save You, is a young adult fantasy that pays homage to The Princess Bride. This time, though, the princess must save her beloved stable boy. The story is broken up into three parts and follows our brave heroine on her quest for love and the throne. 

Henning calls herself a true ‘80s kid. “I grew up with The Princess Bride. I wanted to see what would happen if the roles were reversed,” Henning said. 

Henning and Graves don’t take their female leads lightly. They both write stories that give characters more than just a one-sided love story. These heroines allowed for both Graves and Henning to live out that dream, to get the idea on the page and into a book. 

“Sometimes every book feels like the last one,” Hennning said. “I’m never gonna take anything for granted. I’m going to keep writing as long as they let me.” 

And both of these authors are doing just that. 

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