Interview with Janice Hardy

                ImageAuthors of blockbuster novels can make crafting a story look so easy. To the public, a writer’s work day is made up of creating prose in a trendy coffee shop followed by a reading of that day’s work to adoring fans and closing with an impromptu autograph session. Writer’s block, critics and finger cramps are nonexistent. Then mere mortals (myself included) sit down to the computer and we discover the huge hurdle that exists between getting the book in your head onto the page in your hands. That’s why I was so ecstatic to chat with the talented and fabulous Janice Hardy. Ms. Hardy is not only is a gifted and bestselling author, but an amazing writing teacher as well. We talked about everything from her workday schedule to her advice for aspiring writers and everything else in between.

Please describe your route to writing and eventual publication.

I’ve written all my life, and I’d submitted several books to agents that all got rejected. Then one amazing weekend back in 2006, I attended the Surrey International Writers Conference and everything changed.  I was pitching my latest fantasy novel to agents there (which was rejected yet again), but during that conference I attended workshops that made me realize what I needed to do to push my writing to a professional level. I’d been in tears after a few particularly difficult workshops and meetings, but I came home inspired and determined and wrote what would become my debut novel, The Shifter.

I knew right away this novel was different. It just felt better than anything I’d ever written before, and even the querying process was easier. My goal at that time was to get one manuscript request. Getting an agent or getting published was still just a dream, and all I wanted was another step forward to prove I was making progress. Instead of the expected form rejections, I got requests for chapters, and then requests for full manuscripts. I’d never gotten that far before, so it was a personal victory for me. Out of eight queries sent, I ended up with four full manuscript requests.

That was right about the time of the next Surrey conference, so I went back to pitch The Shifter to agents. I had my terrifying ten minutes with literary agent Kristin Nelson, and she asked for the full manuscript. I was ecstatic. Ten days later she offered to represent me and I signed with her.

We went through several rounds of edits and polishing before she started submitting the novel to editors. Several were excited about the book, and in June 2008, I sold The Healing Wars trilogy to Donna Bray at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. Much screaming with joy ensued.

They myth is you need to know someone to get an agent and get published, but that’s not true. I was a slush pile query, and a blind pitch appointment. I didn’t know anyone in the business or have any real credits to my name. Like so many other writers, I have a thick file of form rejections (even a few from my own agent on previous books). With hard work, determination, and a little luck you can succeed.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

I’m a morning person, so I’m up about 6am every day. I write from 7 to 11am on weekdays. When I’m on deadline I’ll write or edit in the afternoons, but those morning hours are when I’m the most productive. I also do marketing/social media tasks in the afternoons, and carve out about 30-45 minutes a day for that. Saturday mornings I save for my blog, and I write and schedule all the posts for the upcoming week. Sundays I take off.

In addition to being a successful author, you are also an awesome writing teacher. Do you have a specific philosophy or curriculum that you follow as a teacher? If so, please describe.

Thanks! When I was learning to write I read a lot of how-to books that told me what I needed to do, but never sufficiently explained  how I was supposed to do it. Sure, they told me to show, not tell, and to use strong nouns and verbs, but that wasn’t very helpful. I wasn’t clear on what showing vs telling looked like, so even though I knew what I had to do on one level, I didn’t get it enough to put it into practice. I also never knew if I was doing it right. It was frustrating to feel so close to understanding, but still missing something that would help improve my writing.

Eventually I figured it out, so now I strive to take those same things I struggled with and make it easier for other writers to understand. I hope to save them some of the frustration I went through and teach the how and why, not just the what. I use a lot of examples because I feel it’s easier to understand something when you can see it in practice.  I also do real life diagnostics on my blog, where writers send in a samples of their own work with questions about something they’re stuck on or unsure about, and I answer those questions as I critique the work. It’s part critique, part teaching tool. I used to just do them on Saturdays, but I get so many submissions I’ve been doing them on Sundays as well just to keep up.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

Harlan Ellison is my all-time favorite because I love his writing. There’s an immediacy and excitement to it that draws you in and holds you there. His voice is amazing and his word choice is unexpected and surprising. I’m also a big fan of Kathleen Duey, because her stories grab you and you have to know what happens next. She creates characters you really care about.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Read a lot, write a lot. Writing is a skill like any other, and to improve it helps to practice and study how other writers craft their stories. There’s a lot to learn, so take it one piece at a time and don’t pressure yourself to master everything at once. Oh, and first drafts always stink no matter who you are, so don’t worry when yours does. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It just means you’re a writer.

What are you working on now?

A young adult fantasy about a deep-cover spy who gets caught between love and loyalty when she uncovers a plot to assassinate the boy she’s spying own.

Do you have any upcoming appearances?

The paperback for Darkfall, the third book of the trilogy, is out November 1. I’m also speaking at Olde City, New Blood on February 8 – 10, 2013 in St. Augustine, FL. It’s an intimate, new con for paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

Be sure to visit Ms. Hardy online at http://www.janicehardy.com/ . The Healing Wars trilogy is available at your favorite brick and mortar or online bookstore.

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Interview with J. Anderson Coats

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I admit wholeheartedly that I am a lazy historian. As much as I enjoy learning about different eras, it’s so much more palatable when presented within the context of a great story. That is why I was so excited to read J. Anderson Coats book The Wicked and the Just, the story of two young women growing up in medieval Wales. Recently I got a chance to chat with J. Anderson Coats about her book and how to bring history to life for young readers.

What inspired you to write a story about medieval Wales?

Medieval Wales doesn’t get a lot of attention despite the fact that it was a complicated, dynamic place.  The native rulers managed to resist outright conquest by their English neighbors until 1283, but then the victorious English fast-tracked a series of castles and walled towns to maintain control of the area and the people.

What interested me was this question: Even when granted a lot of special privileges – including significant tax breaks – how did English settlers live in a place where they were outnumbered twenty to one by a hostile, recently-subjugated population, and how did the Welsh live so close to people who’d done the subjugating, especially given the burdens placed on them by their new masters?

Both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar are unsympathetic characters at times during the novel. Did you ever worry that you pushed them to be too unattractive? How did you manage the balance of their personalities?

Cecily and Gwenhwyfar are products of their time, like we all are, and reflecting that was at the heart of the story for me.  For all their faults, Cecily and Gwenhwyfar are both true to their context.  But they’re also people; they have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we do.  Denying them the roundness of humanity because they lived in a more brutal age does a disservice to the past by rendering it one-dimensional and therefore easier to dismiss.

It’s important to me to capture the past as it probably was (to the best of my admittedly limited abilities) rather than how we in the modern era sometimes think the past should have been.  These were real people, and it seems disrespectful if I purposefully alter their real lived experiences to suit modern sensibilities.

How does research for a fiction project differ from research for a scholarly work?

The process isn’t different as much as the way the evidence is used once you have it.

When you’re producing something scholarly, you’re interested in using evidence to make and support an argument.  Everything needs to be spelled out in clear language and cited to the hilt.  In fiction, you don’t want any of the evidence to be visible.  Instead you want it to be felt.

There’s also the question of volume.  You use more of the evidence you collect when you produce a scholarly paper.  In fact, that’s why you’re gathering the evidence at all—to support your argument.  In fiction, about one percent of all the research I do actually appears on the page.  The rest informs the way I worldbuild and the way the characters develop.

What was the most difficult thing about bringing Cecily and Gwenhwyfar’s story to life?

Medieval people did and believed some weird stuff.  When you set a story in this era, you have to normalize beliefs like women are property, animal cruelty is funny, and you can determine how sick people are by tasting their pee.

It’s one thing to understand a belief.  It’s another to accept that it happened.  But it’s quite another to write it in such a way that other people – and young people in particular – understand and accept it in the context you present.  In other words, readers have to understand that a behavior is not okay where they are, but in this world it’s perfectly normal, and that’s okay.  It’s not fair to judge the past based on our modern standards, but it’s perilously easy to do.

What is your best advice for other historical fiction writers?

Beyond the standard advice I’d give to any aspiring writer – don’t be afraid to write crap, develop a writing routine, read – there are a few things specific to historical fiction that come to mind.

Be patient.  This applies to all stages of the process.  You will be tempted to dash through a novel without researching thoroughly.  This will show.  It may be you get a detail or two wrong, but this is less significant than failing to properly recreate the tone of your historical time period.  You will probably be told by agents and editors that historical fiction is a tough sell.  Query until you find someone who loves your work as much as you do.  Don’t be in a hurry.  Create the right story and get it into the world via the right people.

Avoid anachronism.  Unless you’re writing historical fantasy (which is a completely valid and awesome genre, but it’s not historical fiction), do your best to keep the characters and events in your story appropriate to their context.  We’re dealing with real people and real lived experiences; changing them to be more palatable to a modern audience is disrespectful to them.

Research diversely.  It’s easy and tempting to end your research with general histories of your subject matter, to learn what people ate and what they wore and what might have been in their pockets (or whether they had pockets at all), but in limiting yourself in this way, you won’t really get into the heads of people who lived in your historical period.  You’ll miss out on what they thought, how they thought, how they viewed the world and solved problems.  All of these are integral to how your character will behave.  Otherwise they run the risk of being twenty-first century people in costumes.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the historical box.  History is huge and complex and diverse.  If you’re drawn to a time and place outside the typical canon of historical fiction subject matter, go for it.  These are often the stories that most need telling.

You can find J. Anderson Coats book The Wicked and the Just at your local book store or online. You can learn more about J. Anderson Coats and her work at http://www.jandersoncoats.com.

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