Louise Shaffer had spent years playing the basket cases and bitches that made soap opera fans tune in tomorrow, but she never really understood the power of a cliffhanger until she was faced with one of her own. Shortly after Random House purchased her glorious Southern gothic, The Three Miss Margarets (in bookstores now), the actress-turned-author found herself on pins and needles, desperate to find out what happens next. Would critics like it? Would readers buy it? And what would she do if they didn't?

"I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop," she admits to TV Guide Online. "But I'm trying not to. This whole process has been so blessed so far that I find myself feeling almost — I'm afraid to say it — confident. And that really scares the hell out of me. If I think things will work out, the universe is sure to strike me with permanent writer's block."

Of course, Shaffer is just being dramatic, worrying so. After all, if her career as a novelist doesn't pan out, she could certainly go back to daytime television, where she stole scenes as Susan Lucci's wicked stepmother on All My Children and bagged an Emmy for her portrayal of a homewrecking Hillary Clinton on Ryan's Hope. Besides, The Three Miss Margarets is a triumph — a time-tripping page-turner that traces the impact of a terrible secret on three generations of steel magnolias.

"I know there are writers who don't care what anyone says about their work as long as they are satisfied with what they wrote — I'm not one of them," confesses the veteran scribe, who won an Emmy nomination for her pithy As the World Turns dialogue. "I very much want my characters to be loved, because they are me and also because I'm a people pleaser and an entertainer. I want people to cry and, hopefully, laugh when they read my stuff.

"Mostly," she concludes, "I want them to have a good time while they're reading. If they don't, I don't think I've done my job."

Whether The Three Miss Margarets becomes the bestseller it deserves to be — at this very moment, tastemakers Kelly Ripa and Katie Couric ought to be getting paper cuts scrambling to get copies for their nightstands — Shaffer still won't be able to relax and curl up with a good book. At least she can't stop to read one. Already she's slaving away on a sequel, tentatively titled Myrtis and Laurel. After that, she'll begin researching yet another volume set in the land of mint juleps and Georgia peaches.

"I work well under stress," she says, grinning. "Maybe I even need a certain amount of it to keep the blood flowing. I keep making all these elaborate plans to get better organized, so I'll never be swamped again... then I get distracted by an old Goldie Hawn movie on TV. I guess I like things a little scary."