Meet 2019 Golden Heart Finalists Janet Raye Stevens and Christine Gunderson!!

Today we’re welcoming not one but TWO Omegas, Janet Raye Stevens and Christine Gunderson, both 2019 Golden Heart Finalists in the Young Adult Romance category, Janet with her sci-fi book THE NASCENT BLOOM, and Christine with THE WALLS BETWEEN.

Why two at once, you ask? Janet and Christine aren’t just finalists in the same Golden Heart category; they’re critique partners, and good friends! They met on the RWA contest circuit before they became GH sisters. They’re here today to tell us how they met and became CPs, how their friendship has helped their writing, and what it’s like to be finalists together.

A little individual background first:

Janet Raye Stevens is a committed genre hopper, writing mystery, paranormal, contemporary romance, and sometimes YA, but she draws the line at poetry. A three-time RWA Golden Heart® Award finalist, she won in 2018 for her short contemporary, Cole for Christmas. Janet lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she spends her days drinking copious amounts of tea (Earl Gray, hot) plotting revenge (best served cold), and creating fictional worlds populated with cool chicks and hot guys.

Here’s a blurb for Janet’s GH book THE NASCENT BLOOM:

In a strictly controlled society of rich and poor, Meili and Kai are worlds apart. She has everything; the only thing Kai has is a scholarship to Meili’s elite school, provided he works in exchange for lessons. Captured by space pirates while on a school field trip and sold into servitude on a far-off planet, they’re equals. Desperate to find a way to escape, they’ll do anything—even work together. 

Christine Gunderson grew up on a family farm in North Dakota reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books in her own little house on the prairie. She’s a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide. She currently writes YA fiction outside of Washington, D.C. with three children, two dogs and a very patient husband. She’s the 2018 overall winner of the unpublished Daphne du Maurier Award and a 2019 Golden Heart® Finalist. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher.

Here’s a blurb for Christine’s GH book THE WALLS BETWEEN:

Seventeen-year-old Soren King’s life changes forever the night her father is arrested, and she’s thrown into a labor camp for orphans and political prisoners. Now she must decide if she’s willing to betray her twin sister to help the handsome leader of the Resistance take down the evil dictator who controls her father, the Republic and everyone she loves.

Ooh! I’m already seeing lots of interesting thematic connections between your books—complex power dynamics, family loyalties, politics, hard choices to be made! No wonder you two work well together!

Time to gather ‘round, everyone! In keeping with the dystopian themes, we can meet in my secret underground bunker where we’ll be safe from all exterior dangers…plus I’ve got warm brownies fresh from the bunker’s gourmet oven (‘cause even in a dystopia, excellent baked goods are key!) Grab a seat!


Welcome, Janet and Christine!! It’s so fun to have both of you here together so we can get a glimpse inside a true working-writer friendship!

Janet: I’m so happy to be here for one of my favorite parts of being a Golden Heart finalist – a visit with the Rubies! I’m double thrilled to be here with my amazing critique partner Christine. 

Christine: I’m so thrilled to be here today Elisa! It’s further confirmation that my dream really did come true and I’m actually a Golden Heart finalist!

Hurray! I’m glad we can play a part in the Cinderella experience! So OF COURSE my first question is about how your friendship began. Can you tell the story of your meet cute moment?

Christine: A few years ago, I entered my young adult manuscript, Soren’s Resistance in a ton of RWA chapter contests. It won a few times, unless this manuscript called The Nascent Bloom also entered. Then it got second.

I started to wonder, who is this Janet Raye Stevens person who keeps beating me? I looked her up online and sent her an email. It said something like: Can you please tell me which contests you plan to enter in the future so I can save my time and money and not enter since you always win?

We started emailing back and forth and then we met in person for the first time at the RWA conference in Orlando and I adored her. To quote from Casablanca, a movie we both love, “It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Janet: Aww, Christine, you’re making me blush. Just so you know, the adoration is firmly mutual. Christine is smart, thoughtful, funny, a hell of a writer, and most important, she laughs at my jokes. She steers me out of the doldrums and tempers my cynicism. We’ve cheered each other on, celebrated the ups, and commiserated on the downs since we met three years ago. And now, I’m over the moon that we get to be Golden Heart sisters together.

Christine: And here’s the weird part. Our GH manuscripts are same two manuscripts that brought us together on the contest circuit years ago. I gave mine a new title and made a few changes, but it’s basically the same book. Soren’s Resistance (now The Walls Between) and The Nascent Bloom are reunited on the Young Adult finalist list again. If prayers are answered and dreams come true, maybe one day they will be reunited again on a bookshelf.

Oh, I love it!!! It’s kismet!! And I’m betting you’ll find the same happy readers one day soon!! And it’s just so fabulous that you got the chance to final in the Golden Heart together! Can you tell us about when you got The Call?

Christine: I entered the GH four times with the same two or three manuscripts. This is the first time I finaled. I’d kind of given up hope and almost didn’t enter, so I was shocked and overjoyed when I got The Call, especially after those three heartbreaking years with a silent phone. When I found out Janet also finaled and in the same category, well, it was just such fantastic news.

Janet: I heard about my final pretty early on “call day,” and while I am of course beyond stoked to be a finalist again, all I could think was “please let me see Christine’s name on the list.” My wish came true! I was so excited I ran around the house shouting and doing a vigorous jig. I scared the cat and almost broke a hip with all that running and vigorous jig-doing, but seriously, Christine, you’re worth it.

Christine: Aww. Thank you. This also proves my theory that exercise is dangerous and should be avoided.

LOL! And here I was thinking about heading out on my morning walk after our interview…perhaps I’ll stay and eat another brownie instead. I just love that you were so happy for each other on call day, even though being in the same category means you’ll be up against each other for the big prize. Janet, you’ve already been there with your win last year in Short Contemporary with COLE FOR CHRISTMAS. What was it like to win the GH?

Janet: First let me say, being a Golden Heart finalist is incredible in and of itself. Winning that necklace is the icing on an already delicious cake. And totally surreal, in a very, very, very good way. I mean, to hear my name called, for something I wrote, in recognition of my writing, which is the passion of my life, well… Stunned is an understatement. I floated up to that stage. As the presenter, Pintip Dunn, handed me the necklace I asked, “Is this really happening?” Thank goodness I wrote a speech, because I would’ve been a babbling mess without it. So, yeah, pretty amazing.  

Christine: I can honestly say I was as happy to watch you win as I would be to win myself. I know how hard you’ve worked and I know how talented you are. No one deserved it more.

Janet: Blushing again. Careful Christine, I might start a fire with all this heat roasting my cheeks. 

Awww!!!! Clearly, you’re terrific friends, and wonderful emotional supporters of one another. But what about your writing process? Are you similar or different in your approaches? Plotters? Pantser? One of each?

 Janet: Oh, pantser all the way.

Christine: I’m a pantser who desperately wants to be a plotter. I have to wander around inside my manuscript for about ten thousand words before I know who my characters are and what my story is really about. And I always start in the wrong place. Always. Every damn time.

 Janet: Well, Christine, you may start in the wrong place, but you sure get to the right place PDQ! I’m right there with you in the wandering around in the story a while before everything clicks. I start with a loose plot and an idea of what my characters want, but it’s usually not until about page thirty that I have that “aha!” moment where my H/H’s backstory, the black moment, and HEA unfolds in my mind. Then I cobble together a first draft, mostly snarky dialogue and action scenes. I loooove to write action, and not just kissing action (though that’s pretty fun!). I’m sure my characters hate me, because I’m always tossing them into fights and bar brawls and narrow escapes from burning buildings.

Christine, you put your characters through the wringer too, in different ways. Your ability to up the stakes and make your characters miserable puts me in awe. What’s your secret?

Christine: I once heard someone say that every good author takes their hero, puts him in a tree, throws rocks at him and then figures out how to get him down again. I’m always looking for new rocks to hurl at my heroines.

So your minds work in rather similar ways in terms of figuring out the hearts of your stories. What about after the draft is done? How do you work with each other’s writing? What strengths do you each feel the other brings to the critiqueing table? How has your friendship helped your writing?

Christine: Janet is the perfect critique partner for a couple reasons. She writes the kind of books I like to read, so reading for her is a pleasure. Her heroines are snarky, strong and funny. Her world building is incredible. She has an amazing eye for the detail, and I get completely sucked in. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m reading for a reason, and not just for fun.

With my own books, Janet is able to flag those things that I know deep in my heart need to be changed. I tell myself, “no, that isn’t really a plot hole,” or “surely no one else will notice that.” And then Janet notices it and I am forced to accept that this is problem and I need to fix it. She confirms my instincts about what works and what doesn’t work.

Janet: One of Christine’s strengths as a writer is her ability to create sympathy and an immediate connection between the main character(s) and the reader. I struggle with that. I’ve heard that dreaded “unsympathetic heroine” from a few contest judges. Reading Christine’s work is a master class in how it’s done. She’s a great critiquer too. Her insight has challenged me to rethink and rework a lot of my scenes. She sees both the big picture and the tiny problems that can put cracks in that big picture.

For example, I’m working on a sci-fi romance right now, a sort of Romancing the Stone set in a galaxy far, far away, where the characters journey to a mountain to find a valuable jewel. Christine’s been able to help me focus the larger story and the romance arc, while also helping me connect the dots from scene to scene. And she does it all with humor and positivity, which is what makes a critique relationship work.

That all sounds really fun!! And it sounds like you really do bring different strengths to the table, and complement one another well. Do you think it’s weird that you started out as competitors and ended up as friends? Do you think this happens in, for example, Olympic curling?

Janet: Ha! Now I’m thinking of a competitors-to-friends-to-lovers Olympic Curling romance. Their brooms swept the ice to win the gold – and swept them off their feet! I know, that tagline needs work. As to the first part of the question, I think Christine and I becoming friends was pre-ordained by the Muses. And we’re still competing, in the sense that we push each other to do better, to improve our skills, to look at our work from a different perspective. I feel as if we’re those runners you see helping each other along during the last leg of a marathon, wheezing, covered with sweat, holding each other up. It doesn’t matter who gets over the finish line first, as long as we both keep going. As long as we just keep swimming, as a wise blue fish likes to say.

Christine: This is what makes RWA and the GH special. We all have the same dream. We’ve all been rejected more times than we can count. We’re sisters in arms, so to speak, fighting in the same trench to create beautiful books that make people laugh and cry. Anyone who has tried this knows how hard it is to write a bad book, much less a good one. The GH is public recognition that we have actually written a good book.

My Golden Heart sisters are the irreverent, Jane Austen reading, book inhaling, geeky soul mates I always wanted, but never found until I started writing. This is my tribe. And this is why I wanted to be a GH heart finalist. Not to win the contest or even to be published. I wanted to final so I could have Golden Heart sisters. And they’re everything I always hoped they would be.

Sweet! And of course bittersweet, with this being the final year in which this special sisterhood is possible. But that makes it no less powerful, no less inspiring. There’s nothing quite like that bond.

Janet:   Absolutely! Christine and all my Golden Heart sisters inspire me every day. To bring the wise blue fish into this again, we’re all swimming toward the same goal and with our GH family’s help and support, we’ll get to where we want to be, whether that’s traditional publishing, or taking the indie route. Even with this wonderful contest going away, I know we’ll “stay golden,” rooting for each other every step along the journey. I think it’s fitting our class chose the name “Omegas,” the last letter, for the last Golden Heart class. As one of our class, the inimitable Tracy Brody, noted: “We may be the last, but certainly not the end. Once you have all the letters, you can make all the words and sentences and stories.”

And we shall make it so. Together.

I have no doubt!!! So much of the adventure is still ahead!!

Well, much as I love listening to the two of you bounce your answers off each other, it’s time to let our readers chime in. Do you have a question to get the conversation going today?

Do you work with a critique partner? How did you connect and what’s the best thing about your relationship?



36 responses to “Meet 2019 Golden Heart Finalists Janet Raye Stevens and Christine Gunderson!!”

  1. Becke Turner says:

    Loved reading this. Your friendship is what we strive for in our romance novels–bringing people together in a common goal.

    Can’t wait to meet my Omega sisters!

    I met my CP at a chapter meeting in 1990’s and we’ve developed writing skills, families, and friendship over the years.

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Thanks, Becke! I love that you and your CP have been together for so long; she must be quite special. Looking forward to seeing you in NYC, and thanks for stopping by!

  2. christine gunderson says:

    Hi Becke!
    One of the things I love about writing romance is the way writers in our genre cheer each other onward. Maybe it’s because we’re mostly women, but I love that fact that the GH is a contest where we all support each other. I can’t wait to meet you in NY!!!

  3. Denise Williams says:

    Great post?

    • Denise Williams says:

      Eep! Great post!!!

      • Janet Raye Stevens says:

        Haha, Denise! Question mark or exclamation point, your meaning was clear! Thanks for stopping by & looking forward to meeting you in NYC!

      • Elisa Beatty says:

        LOL! I read that in a teenage girl voice the first time. Glad to see it was supposed to be an exclamation point!

        Thanks for stopping by, Denise!

  4. christine gunderson says:

    Thank you Denise! Janet is a great person AND a great writer. I feel so lucky to have her in the corner, not just to cheer me on but to make every MS better than it was before. I felt like I won the lottery when I found out we finaled together 🙂

  5. christine gunderson says:

    Sorry…to have her in MY corner…ugh…typos…

  6. Welcome and congratulations, Janet & Christine! I’m so happy for both of you and so glad you’re here today! Loved the interview – which had me getting all choked up that the GH is going away. I don’t work with a critique partner consistently – I’ve traded work with authors I adore and respect, but often scheduling becomes an obstacle over time. We’re all so busy! You’re so fortunate to have found that connection and the person who can help you grow. And I can’t wait to read both of your books. Good luck in NYC! I’ll be cheering for you!

  7. christine says:

    Thank you for your kind words 🙂 I think there’s an element of luck in finding the right person with the right timing… kind of like finding the right spouse 🙂

  8. Jilly Wood says:

    Thank you, Janet and Christine, for this lovely post! Your stories sound fascinating (space pirates! evil overlords!)
    and reading about your friendship has put a big smile on my face.

    Like Christine, I have a CP (Jeanne Estridge) who is a past GH finalist and winner. Also like Christine, I was thrilled for my friend and then astonished as I saw the smart, friendly, supportive community she found among her fellow finalists. I desperately wanted that for myself and threw everything I had at this precious last year of GH. I’m thrilled to be an Omega and honored to share a class with so many talented and generous women.

    Jeanne and I were fellow students in the class of 2012-13 online postgraduate certificate in romance writing, offered by McDaniel College and taught by Jenny Crusie. The class spent a year discussing our WIPs and learning to critique, and after that a group of us set up our blog, Eight Ladies Writing. We’re still talking, writing, critiquing, hanging out and generally having the best time. I’m so glad I took that class!

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Wow, Jilly, that class sounds fantastic! Also sounds like you got fantastic results. I met Jeanne last year (we’re sister Persisters), and she is amazing (and so are her books!).

      I’m so glad “throwing everything” you had at the GH worked and that you’re my Omega sister! Thanks for coming by and see you in NY.

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      That class does sound amazing!!

      And, yes, this is another reason to mourn the end of the Golden Heart. It helped so many terrific writers find each other and work together to cross the threshold into publication. There’s just nothing like it, and I don’t see how RWA is going to find a replacement that provides even half the value for the most promising new romance writers.

  9. Tracy Brody says:

    Love your competitors to critique partners love story. 😉 So sweet that you’re in the same GH class. I was sooo hoping my CP would make the finals this year so she could have the GH experience and together would have been extra sweet. Alas, she did not final,:( but she’s met and been a part of several GH group writing retreats I’ve done so she gets the honorary title.

    When I first joined my local RWA chapter, I begged to join a critique group that had just started up. They were hesistant because I would be the sixth, but they agreed. Paula and I are the only two still together and I’m thankful for her friendship and insights. However, we write different genres so I’m also looking to add a CP that writes RS and contemporary.

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Thanks, Tracy! I’m so glad you and Paula connected. She’s the best, and so talented! I mentored her for this round of the GH and her story is terrific, her writing so rich. I’m disappointed she didn’t final, but glad she has you to keep her going!

      Thanks for dropping by and see you soon!

  10. Kellie VanHorn says:

    Great post, ladies!! I can’t wait to meet you both in NYC!

    I met my CP through the Twitter hashtag #CPMatch. I’d seen her on Twitter for a while, and when we both posted looking for a CP to read inspy romance, I asked her if she wanted to try swapping work. Those first manuscripts we swapped are both set to be published this year, and without her feedback, my GH entry never would have finaled!!

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Kellie, you and your CP origin story is beyond awesome! Sort of how Christine and I connected, taking a chance on a stranger that turns into the best risk ever! Congrats to both of you — about-to-be-published are such sweet words.

      Thrilled to be an Omega with you; see you in NYC.

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      That’s so cool!!! How great that you’re both going to be published the same year!!

  11. Elisa Beatty says:

    Sorry for my radio silence until now! My computer hard drive was replaced, but I had to spend today restoring all my old files and programs, and just now have it all working (oh, please, Lord, let it all really be working!!!! Being without a computer is like being without lungs.)

    It’s been great having you two here, sharing your awesome CP and GH Sisters story!!

    My CP Eileen Emerson is my real-life sister and one-time GH co-finalist (she’s surpassed me at this point, with FOUR GH finals.)

    I’d never have published my Lara Archer books without her.

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Hi Elisa! I knew you’d weigh in sooner or later! Hope you’ve got your computer up to speed now. Thanks again for hosting us on the Rubies.

      And aww on you and Eileen being such supportive sisters AND CPs. Terrific that you have such a special relationship.

  12. Jo Anne says:

    Love your CP story, ladies. Janet, you know I’ve loved your work since I judged BERYL BLUE, MALL COP, and we became 2017 Rebelle GH sisters! Christine, looking forward to meeting you somewhere down the road. Best of luck to both of you on your GH ride. May it be the year for a sale!!

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Aww, JoAnn! Thanks so much for your kind words and for coming by to read our blog post. I love being a Rebelle with you (and a “Persister-Adjacent” through Kay!). We’ll miss you in NY, hope to catch you next time!

  13. I loved your story of friendship and perseverance! So inspiring. Can’t wait to meet you both in New York!

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Can’t wait to meet you too, Angie! Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.

  14. Lisa Heartman says:

    Ladies I LOVED this interview. You are so awesome, and I can see how you work well together. I love the enemies to friends trope of your writing life.

    I have 2 critique partners that I love to the ends of the earth. We all write in different genres, which I thought was going to be a problem, but we bring our own unique experience to the table. We challenge one another to meet goals. Our differences make each other stronger. And we celebrate wins (or curse losses) together.

  15. Fenley Grant says:

    Janet and Christine,

    Hi! I met both of you (online) through the contest circuit, too, when I chaired the NTRWA’s Great Expectations Contest. I love seeing the success of contest finalists–and now I get to join you as an Omega! I’ve met Janet in person at previous RWA conferences, but not you, Christine. Can’t wait!

    I met my first CP, Robin Lynn, through the FF&P chapter. We’ve now expanded into a large critique group, but Robin and I still share a special bond. We know how to get the best out of each other and keep each other encouraged when the dreaded rejections occur. My CPs are the best.

    I can’t wait to see you both in NYC and cheer you on (they can have a tie in a category, right? Right?)

    • Janet Raye Stevens says:

      Fenley, my friend! Let me tell you again how THRILLED I am you’re an Omega!!! I wish there could be an all-finalists tie in every category, but will be cheering extra hard for you!

      That’s terrific that you and your CP found each other through FF&P and have stayed close even as your group has expanded. I hope to have the chance to meet Robin in NY!

      See you soon!

  16. Alice says:

    You ladies are a hoot! Can’t wait to hang out in real life too. Am so happy to be on this Omega journey with you both!

    I met my most cherished CPs through the Rebelles, and one of my dearest and oldest friends reads and crits all my work. I would be lost without my crit crew!


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