Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Interview with Author Janice Hardy

I'm very excited today. Janice Hardy, author of the YA fantasy book The Shifter, which is released today, was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about breaking into publishing. Janice is represented by Kristin Nelson and maintains two excellent blogs. One, The Other Side of the Story, is a terrific resource for writers, where she talks about the mechanics of writing, querying, and the publishing process. Her other blog is devoted to her books. Links to blogs and web site are below.

Janice has some wonderful insights into what it takes these days--right down to my new favorite phrase: having "that intangible spark." But enough waiting. Let's get to her interview!

What is your process for writing novels? Do you use outlines?

I’m an outliner for sure, but it’s more of a loose outline. I like to have all my big set pieces and turning points mapped out, so I always know where the story is going. But I like to let the character choose how they get there, so the story stays spontaneous and grows organically. I’ve found this helps keep me on track, but keeps things from feeling stale or forced. I’m also not afraid to ignore my outline if the story heads in a new direction. I just update it and keep going.

My writing process is pretty basic. I usually start with a “what if?” problem of some type. I need that person with a problem idea before I can go anywhere with a story. For The Shifter, it was “what if you could shift pain from person to person?” Once I have that, I start asking questions and do my world building so I can understand what kinds of problems and challenge my characters might face. Then I’ll do a rough outline of anything that strikes me. Sometimes a lot of the story is there, other times just a few basics. Next, I’ll ask more questions based on that outline, filling in the gaps. Then I toss in the character and see what mess they can make of their life. At this point, I can usually write a basic summary of the overall story. I write the book from there.

For me, it’s about getting the characters and world fleshed out so I can let them run the show, and giving them enough of a plot framework to explore the story. Details change all the time, but the core story rarely does once I start writing. For The Shifter, it was about a pain shifter who had to use her ability to save her sister, so everything in the story focused on that idea in some way. Made it a lot easier to avoid tangents and extra subplots.

How long did it take you from the start of writing The Shifter to signing your agent? How long did revisions take?

I was actually inspired at the 2006 Surrey International Writers Conference, wrote the book, then pitched it the following year and got my agent, so almost exactly a year between idea and signing with an agent. First, I did about two months of world building, then six months of writing for the first draft. Then another three months for polish and revisions. After I got my agent, we did another few months of revisions. I rewrote the ending twice for her, but most of the edits were basic stuff like tightening the pacing and clarification of ideas and themes. The story itself never changed at all.

What is your outlook on new writers breaking into publishing these days?

They do it every day, so I think anyone who puts in the work can get there. But it is a very competitive business. It’s not enough to just be good, you need to push yourself to be great to stand out. That usually comes down to that intangible spark in your work that’s different in some way, be it the idea, the voice, the theme, the angle, something.

I think it’s also important for new writer to remember it’s not really about the writer, it’s about the book. That’s the product publishers need to sell, so if one book isn’t working, try another. It takes most folks several books before they sell one, so don’t get discouraged if your first book doesn’t go anywhere. Just keep writing, because that’s what writers do.

You met your agent at a conference. Did you go through a lot of rejection before meeting her, or was it a fairly straightforward process?

For The Shifter, very few rejections overall (I think five of my eight queries, including partials and a full), but it was the fourth book I’d written and the third I tried to sell. I have stacks and stacks of rejections from the other two, and they rarely got past the query stage. The last book I knew wasn’t good enough to even try to sell so I didn’t bother. Getting my agent was freakishly straightforward. I sat down, pitched her, she asked for the book and I emailed it to her. Ten days later I signed with her. However, I did have three other agents interested (all slush pile queries), and things wouldn’t have moved so fast had I not had an offer from another agent in my email when I got home from the conference.

What advice would you give new writers looking for an agent?

Do your research. I spent the whole time I was writing The Shifter preparing. I made a list of all the possible agents for me, then started reading one or two of their books to see what they liked and who would be a good fit. I read their blogs (if they had one), looked up their sales, checked them out on Writers Beware and Preditors&Editors. By the time I was ready to submit, I knew exactly who I wanted to send to and why. I always sent queries in batches of 8-10 each, so I could adjust based on response rate, but The Shifter thankfully only took one batch.

On the flip side, make sure you’re ready to submit before you do. It’s easy to finish the book and get excited about it, then send it out too soon. Let it sit and gel for a bit while you polish your query to the best it can be. Then go back and triple check to make sure the book is as good as it can be. You’ve spent a lot of time working on it, so don’t rush the end and waste all that effort. If anything at all is nagging you about the book, keep tweaking until you’re happy. “Good enough” rarely is, and you’ll kick yourself if you think “had I only done XYZ it might have been different.”

You've said you're a fan of critique groups and you've gotten great use out of them. How do you separate out which critiques to take?

By knowing what you want to get out of them going in. If you’re looking for a rough-draft-bang-out-the-kinks-in-the-story group, a bunch of folks who do copyedit-type line edits isn’t going to help you much. (and vice versa). You also want to find folks who have the same goals as you do. If you want to be published one day, find folks working toward that goal. There are some great groups that focus on writing as expression, but publishing isn’t their goal, so the work is judged on different criteria. Also find people around your own skill level, a few a little lower, a few a little higher, so you’re always pushing yourself to improve, and reminding yourself about the basics so your core skills stay strong.

Describe your writing space.

I have two. One is my office, which is on the second floor over the garage. It’s huge, painted in two shades of purple, and has all kinds of colorful things decorating it. One wall has a line of funky patterned lizards running down it. Colorful butterflies and dragonflies hang from the ceiling. There’s a daybed in there (for naps and guests) with a pink, purple, and lime green polka-dot bedspread, and a matching throw rug. Oh, and a lamp and beanbag chair that also matches. Plus one wall is all bookshelves, and my Disney villain and monster figurines are there (I’m a bit of a collector of those). It’s a silly, fun atmosphere of good and evil.

The other place I write is on the living room couch downstairs. That’s just your typical living room, but on the days I really need to focus I grab my laptop and go there because I’m away from email and website temptations. When the weather is nice, I also sometimes write on the back patio. The backyard looks out over the woods, so it’s very peaceful out there.

Do you believe in fate?

Yes and no. I don’t believe that there’s one destiny for us out there, but I do think that opportunities present themselves all the time, and it’s up to us to take advantage of them or not. (For both good and bad things). A lot of what folks would call luck, is seeing an opportunity and going for it. If you never try for your dreams you’ll never get them, but if you do, you stand a much better chance of having them come true.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions, Janice, and congratulations on the publication of The Shifter!

About The Shifter:
Fifteen-year-old Nya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person and storing it inside her own body. But unlike her sister Tali and the other Takers who become Healer’s League apprentices, Nya’s skill is flawed: she can’t push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store person to person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she’d be used as a human weapon against her own people.

Rumors of another war make Nya’s life harder, forcing her to take desperate risks just to find work and food. She pushes her luck too far and exposes her secret to a pain merchant eager to use her shifting ability for his own sinister purpose. At first, Nya refuses, but faced with some difficult choices. As her father used to say, principles are a bargain at any price, but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive?


Tina Lynn said...

Sierra, thanks for that:D I will definitely check out her blog AND her book. I had seen it on Kristin's blog ages ago. I'm so excited that it is actually out now. Woot! Woot!

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Great interview. Sounds like an interesting book.

Donna Gambale said...

Wonderful interview. I love The Other Side of the Story!

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