2019 Golden Heart Finalist Denise Williams on Life Lessons Writing Has Taught Her!

Today we’re welcoming Denise Williams, another of the fabulous Omegas, a 2019 Golden Heart Finalist in the Best Contemporary Romance category with her book THE OPPOSITE OF ORDINARY.

Denise Williams wrote her first book in the 2nd grade. I Hate You and its sequel, I Still Hate You, featured a tough, funny heroine, a quirky hero, witty banter, and a dragon. Minus the dragons, these are still the books she likes to write. After penning those early works, she finished second grade and eventually earned a PhD in education, briefly setting fiction writing aside to write about her research on Military-Connected College Students. She never let go of happily-ever-afters, though.

​In her day job, she helps college students of color find success, is a diversity trainer, and the co-creator of a women’s empowerment group. She is dedicated to developing flawed, multidimensional characters who struggle with those issues impacting real women in complex and nuanced ways. The Opposite of Ordinary is her first novel. After growing up a military brat around the world and across the country, Denise now lives in Iowa with her supportive husband, wildly manipulative but loving toddler, and two ornery shih-tzus. Like her characters, she enjoys bad puns, frosting-laden corner pieces, and the company of good friends.

Here’s a blurb for THE OPPOSITE OF ORDINARY (Formerly, The To-Do List), which will be available from Berkley/PRH in Winter 2020 (yay!!):

With her flailing department on the university’s chopping block and her last relationship a disaster in the rearview mirror, Professor Naya Turner lets her friends convince her to work on something other than her tenure application. Her new to-do list has a few additions to her ordinary life, like flirt with a stranger, let a man buy her a drink, and have a one-night stand. Jake, a friendly, charming guy in town for work, offers the perfect opportunity to check items off her list. Except nothing can be that easy—Jake makes her laugh, rebuilds her confidence, and soon Naya doesn’t want him to be a one-night-stand at all. Turns out there’s just one problem. That chopping block? Jake’s the one wielding the axe.

 To make matters worse, Naya’s abusive ex—and former coworker—returns to campus threatening to ruin her professional reputation by revealing some of her darkest secrets. With everything she’s ever worked for at stake, Naya must figure out if there’s a way to save her career while staying open to the guy who makes her feel like she’s finally living again. Sexy, poignant, and funny, this rom-com will have you laughing, swooning, and then reaching for a tissue, all while cheering for the heroine who needs to cross “Figure It Out” off her to-do list.

Oh, I adore every word of this!!! I’m so thrilled that I know it’s coming out next winter!!! You have a terrific, warm, witty voice, and I will definitely be watching for this book!

Folks, Denise is here today to share some Life Lessons that being a writer has taught her, and she’s got some great things to say.

Take it away, Denise!!


The Four Life Lessons Learned from Writing (Plus One Bonus Lesson)

Like Naya, my main character, I’m a list-maker. When it came time to craft a blog post, it seemed only natural to make a list. Below are the five most important life lessons I’ve learned from writing. 

Life Lesson #1: Growth mindset is key—I don’t do better because I am great, I do better because I can do better.

Here’s a tightly held secret about academics.

Are you ready? Clutch your pearls, because it’s shocking.

We get told we’re wrong…a lot and not always in the nicest way, sometimes by people we admire. So, when a professional peer questions my methods, conclusions, or writing ability, it still hurts (a lot), but I feel prepared to persist through the criticism. When I started writing fiction, I assumed I knew how to do it. I was a born storyteller, right? Wrong.

When the critiques came, it felt personal and like someone attacking my sweet precious baby. I questioned if I should write at all if my first was so bad. I found new ways to compartmentalize and use critical feedback. Now, when a peer questions my pacing, my conflict, my character arcs, or my writing ability it still hurts (a lot), but I know it strengthens my novel.


Life Lesson #2: In life as in art, you can’t please everyone all the time.

I fretted over reader reactions to my love scenes. What would it say about me as a writer (or a person!) if what I thought was sexy and romantic fell flat for other people? I knew some would be offended by my explicit word choices and others disappointed that the sex was too vanilla. Eventually I learned to write what worked for me and use feedback to enhance it.


Life Lesson #2a (Bonus Lesson):

If you send your parents a copy of your manuscript with sex scenes redacted, make sure you send them the right file. Not that I sent my very sweet parents a book full of explicit and unredacted steamy scenes or anything.


Life Lesson #3: Implicit bias is real.

I study and teach race, I was a psychology major, and I’m a black woman in America. Writing didn’t teach me about bias; however, getting feedback on my writing reminded me how deeply embedded implicit biases are. I’ve had people tell me it was unrealistic for a woman to be so influenced by workplace harassment, that an educated black woman would be off-putting for readers, and that racism and sexism don’t happen in real life. The thing about implicit bias is that it’s in the background of our minds, so it shapes behavior without us ever stopping to think about it. Like many other writers from traditionally marginalized spaces, I wonder what biases will be at play when someone picks up my book (or doesn’t pick it up), reviews it, or talks about it. Will writing stories about people like me put me at a disadvantage? I am very lucky to have found a champion in my agent and to sign with a publisher proactive in lifting voices of color, but not everyone is so lucky.


Life Lesson #4: Don’t hide what you love. Own it.

I read romance novels in secret for years, making sure I had a recent NYT bestselling literary fiction or nonfiction book on my Kindle to talk about with friends. I didn’t share how a Mariana Zapata novel had moved me to tears, or how a Christina Lauren sex scene left me fanning myself, or how Alyssa Cole is just…amazing. It seemed smart women weren’t supposed to like romance novels, that my degrees meant literature needed to be esoteric or bust. When I started writing and friends would ask what the book was about, I said “It’s a romance novel” in hushed tones. What I discovered was that most of the time, I found my other educated, professional friends were reading romance too. They weren’t judging me, they were hiding the same thing. So, now I own it. I like stories with depth and love and, yes, sex! I write books about women finding love while living life and I do it with my degrees and professional experiences firmly rooted. I’m owning it—I love romance.


So, my question to you—what have you learned from writing?



Find Denise Williams on Social Media:





39 responses to “2019 Golden Heart Finalist Denise Williams on Life Lessons Writing Has Taught Her!”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Welcome, Denise!! What a fabulous post. Yes, yes, YES to all of these life lessons!!!

    And I have to tell you, when my first verrrry explicit and steamy book came out, it didn’t even occur to me to redact anything. I sent a copy to my dad and his wife (my mom passed a long time ago), and not only did they read it, THEY PASSED IT AROUND THEIR RETIREMENT VILLAGE. ELDERLY PEOPLE WERE READING IT ALOUD TO THEIR FRIENDS. IT BECAME *A THING.*

    I still don’t think I could face anyone who lives there.

    So looking forward to THE OPPOSITE OF ORDINARY, and to getting to meet you in New York!!

  2. Darynda Jones says:

    Welcome, Denise! I seriously want to read your books I Hate You and I Still Hate You! How fantastic do those sound? LOL

    What an incredible career you’ve had. Yes to everything here. Never stop learning. That’s what I’ve learned. It only seems to get more complicated as I go. The writing. The publishing. The marketing. It’s all a fluid experience, so, yes. Never stop learning.

    Thank you for being here and good luck in NY!

  3. Addison Fox says:

    Welcome Denise! I am SO looking forward to this book. I remember seeing the announcement in PW and was like – I am SO in for this!

    Wishing you the best in New York!!!

  4. Welcome, Denise! So excited to have you here – and I can’t wait to grab your book when it comes out. Congrats – both on the final and your publication! I think the main thing I’ve learned from writing is that I’m always learning – so the next book will be the best one. As long as I keep believing that I’ll keep reaching for more.

    Good luck in New York! I’ll be cheering for you!

    • Denise Williams says:

      The always learning piece is so critical, right? I’m a newbie and craft books are like candy. Thank you!

  5. Becke Turner says:

    I loved reading this blog and can’t wait to meet you. Love the sense of humor shining in the words.

    Acceptance: nothing bad happens if I don’t accomplish my traditional publication goal. Therefore, I must learn to savor each step of the journey and gather the courage to make alternate choices as appropriate for me.

    Geez, and yada, yada, yada. I have no idea where these long sentences are coming from!

    • Denise Williams says:

      I think I read long sentences come from a place of heart and genius. ( I might have made that up, but it’s probably true!)

  6. Your personality comes through abundantly in this post–smart, witty, sensitive and motivated. Can’t wait to read The Opposite of Ordinary. I’m so proud of you and happy for you!

    • Denise Williams says:

      Thank you,Donna!! No good writing happens in a vaccuum…so glad to have TeamCarly on my side!

  7. Fenley Grant says:


    I can’t wait to read The Opposite of Ordinary (and your earlier works, I Hate You and I Still Hate You.) Congrats on your upcoming publication!

    I get what you mean about criticism of your work. My critique partner and I refer to it as “They called my baby ugly.” My skin is thicker now, but it’s still hard to take the negative comments at times, isn’t it?

    The thing I’ve learned from writing and I’ve come to accept is that not everyone will like your work. That’s okay. My genre isn’t for everyone (paranormal) and my take on my genre isn’t either. I’ve learned YOU need to love your work. If you do, your readers, the people who like your brand of cuckoo, will find you.

    I can’t wait to meet you in NYC, my fellow Omega!

  8. Alice says:

    Something I often say about writing is that you can put your heart and soul into making the best most sinfully decadent chocolate cake you can possibly make…. and there will always be people who simply don’t like chocolate. It’s nothing personal, it’s simply a matter of tastebuds (and possibly personal trauma cause c’mon… who doesn’t like chocolate cake??). LOL

    But in all seriousness, it’s something I often remind myself. Reading is an incredibly personal experience, coloured by our emotional history and perspectives. In a way it’s a bit like how people make tea in England. There are many different approaches–all taken very seriously. I’ve learned to appreciate the spectrum and respect the differences, and it helps me to see criticism or rejection by agents etc for what they are: stepping stones that have the potentional to help me build a better story.

  9. Love your life lessons! Especially the last one … OWN IT!! Yes. I’ve learned from writing that I have a deep emotional reservoir (I cry at the dumbest stuff!) and I need to mine, mine, mine that sh*t. xxoo

  10. Tracy Brody says:

    Denise, Congrats on your GH final and contract!

    I’m a corner piece of cake with lots of icing girl too. 😉

    Great points and going into it knowing you can’t please everyone is crucial, even though it’s hard and you want everyone to love your characters and story as much as you do.

    See you in NYC!

  11. Kellie VanHorn says:

    Great post, Denise!! I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to give up. Like you said so well, we’re going to receive criticism (not all of it friendly), and we can’t please everyone. When the painful rejections, low contest scores, bad reviews, and self-doubt come, the key is to keep going anyway.

    Can’t wait to meet you and the other Omegas in NYC!

  12. Elizabeth Langston says:

    Thanks for joining us on the blog today. And you’re story sounds amazing!

    My biggest lesson is to stay focused on what is satisfying about this career–and to refuse to allow the toxic stuff to gain a hold on me. I love being part of the uplifting, supportive groups of writers–and steer clear of those who aren’t. I remind myself of the readers who send lovely fan letters–rather spend time on nasty reviews. (And really, reviewers, please don’t tag me on twitter when you’re being ugly. Not cool.) But most of all, instead of angsting over the bloodsport that is publishing, I try to remind myself as often as possible how much I love telling stories.

  13. HI Denise,

    Congratulations on the Golden Heart nomination and the new contract. Can’t wait to read your book.

    If there is one life lesson I will add to the others, it is to be patient. Being a professional writer is not an overnight process. It takes work and years of dedication.

    See you at Nationals!

  14. This book is my #1 Most Anticipated Read of 2020.

    My biggest take-away from writing? It’s a microcosm of real life.

    People will have preconceived ideas about you, about how you are and how you SHOULD be, and about your characters and how they SHOULD be.

    When your reality and their’s don’t match, some people will dig their heels in, others will stop and listen but not really take anything away from the conversation, and some will listen and go away with a better grasp of what it’s like not to live in the same world they inhabit.
    But, you already know all this.

  15. Denise Williams says:

    Janet, this in on-point! Definitely my experience! Thanks 😁

  16. Elisa Beatty says:

    Thanks so much for being with us today, Denise, and for sharing such awesome life lessons!!

    And I’m with Darynda: I totally want to read I HATE YOU and I STILL HATE YOU!!

    See you in the Big Apple!!

  17. Thanks, Denise. Those books you wrote in the 2nd grade sound wonderful. The titles made me grin. Congrats on the new book and your contract! and have a great time in NY.

  18. Hi Denise,

    I really enjoyed your writing lessons. I was always a bit embarrassed that I love love stories. Heck, I was embarrassed to tell anyone I was writing.

    I definitely think the perception other’s have of romance is slowly changing, becoming more legitimate in their eyes. I mean, we already knew that but….Some people take a while to catch on.

    Looking forward to both your debut and meeting you in NYC!

  19. Lisa Heartman says:

    I LOVE YOUR BOOK BLURB! Sounds like a really fun, sexy read that I would not hide, but share with friends.

    Wonderful blog. There are some great lessons here for all of us to learn from. What have I learned from my writing? Trust my instincts. It doesn’t mean they are right, it just means that what I am doing/writing is true to myself.

    • Denise Williams says:

      Trusting instincts is so pivotal and so hard to do (much like trusting yourself to spell pivotal correctly the first time, sometimes it goes wrong but there’s always a workaround) [confession, I spelled pivotal every incorrect way possible before looking it up]

  20. Janet Raye Stevens says:

    Stopping by a little late, Denise, many apologies! What a fantastic post. Your GH manuscript sounds amazing and extra frosting on the end piece for the win. So happy to be an Omega with you and excited to meet you in NY!


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