When we last left Jan Melnik…she was an Amazon quarter-finalist

 
We’re catching up with Jan Melnik, who let us in on the backstage thoughts and fears of an author entering Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest. When we last saw her, she had made it (along with 99 others) into the quarter-finals, meaning that she had triumphed over 9,900 other would-be winners, and was awaiting (sadly, with the flu) the final results.
Click here for part one of her story.
Would she win?
Here she is, to wrap up the story:

The five weeks stretching from Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest quarter-finalists’ announcement to the much-anticipated release of those advancing to the semi-finals seemed far longer than just 35 days. As most quarter-finalists in the running admitted on the increasingly active discussion boards, the closer it got to the announcement date of April 16, the more difficult it was to concentrate on any meaningful work. Being a first-time participant in the process, I naively figured nothing would be known until Tuesday at noon. The two previous notifications from Amazon had occurred between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Eastern. While I thought I might have a little difficulty sleeping Monday night, I wasn’t prepared to also lose sleep on Sunday night. 

But early into Sunday evening, the discussion board started popping with posts from writers: “PWs are in!” Most everyone remaining in the contest at this point (me and some 99 other happy campers who’d advanced this far) had pre-consoled ourselves with the idea that “no matter what the outcome of the contest is, we’re thrilled to be getting reviews from Publishers Weekly.” That was the prize offered by Amazon to all quarter-finalists.

So the refresh buttons on probably 100 laptops around the globe (many participants were from countries other than the United States) were nearly worn out as we eagerly watched for our individual Publishers Weekly reviews to be uploaded. And that exercise continued into Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… Thursday! Whether a glitch or just somewhat sloppy administration, Publishers Weekly reviews appeared without any logical pattern to populate writers’ accounts intermittently and incredibly slowly over the next four days. Meanwhile, Amazon promptly announced the five semi-finalists, as promised, on April 16. Disappointingly (for me), “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island” did not make this cut.

I wasn’t to receive my review, though, until Thursday, which–at that point–was certainly anticlimactic. The majority of the 95 authors not advancing in the semi-finals shared their misery on the discussion boards, many of us slightly jaundiced in our belief that the attention given to the writing of our individual reviews might, in some way, be lacking–given the absence of any incentive to make it glowing (we authors learned that PW had paid its ad hoc reviewers a total of $400 to read ten book-length manuscripts in less than 30 days… some of the skeptical among us questioned the impetus a reviewer might have to write a great review knowing that the manuscript being judged had already ‘lost’ the contest). 

That skepticism was rewarded for many of us. When my own review finally posted on Thursday, I’d prepared myself (I thought) not to hope for too much–“just a pull quote or two” I could use in agent-shopping and publisher-marketing. That was not to be (as one of my kids would write here: sad face). Unless I decide to take the novel in a really different direction, the only possibly language I could extract from the review that read remotely positively was: “The sex scenes are thoroughly and competently written and Nicole’s character comes to life.” As a fellow writer penned about her own negative review, “Ouch.”

Alas, this was an incredible journey for this fledgling novelist and all is certainly not lost. I did receive many positive reviews on Amazon’s site those five weeks my novel excerpt was posted for the world to see. Amazon’s own Vine critics gave my book outstanding reviews. And interspersed among some of the more painful PW feedback were actionable clauses that I’ll heed seriously as I bring out my red pen (and X-ACTO knife) in a pursuit to polish “Telling Tales” for its next journey.
There’s editing work to be done, networking activities to begin in a quest for an agent, and a new novel ready to spill forth on my laptop. And if next January finds me with “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island” still without a publishing berth, I’ll happily resubmit the by-then new-and-improved manuscript to the 2014 ABNAs, a wiser, more savvy contestant. Stay tuned…

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest is happening now; will Jan Melnik make it to the Final Four?

jan melnik
Want to experience the real-life suspense of a closet novelist, who’s waiting for news of her novel?
In the ‘real’ world, Jan LaFountain Melnik of Durham is a career strategist, resume writer, and author of seven career/business books (you can find her at www.janmelnik.com or www.C-SuiteCareerCatalysts.com). She’s been in private practice for more than 20 years and is also a professor in the business school of a private college. But in addition to loving her work, she’s a closet novelist who has finally gotten around to writing one of the many stories that’s been milling around in her head. “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island” is her first work of fiction, and she has submitted it to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest, along with (we’re not exaggerating here) 10,000 other would-be novelists.
And so began a tale of real suspense.
Here is Jan, to tell her story, Part One:
Like the UConn Women, I’m Hoping to be in the Paint
 
It’s the NCAA basketball playoffs… for writers. And I’ve made it to the dance. When a good friend who has watched me painstakingly find time to write my first novel over the past few years told me about Amazon’s contest, I panicked. Suddenly it felt real to think of sharing my story with the world. Other than my creative writing partner from grad school, no one had read the novel and I had only finished final edits several weeks earlier.
 
Every January, Amazon, the behemoth of online bookstores, holds a Breakthrough Novel Award contest (who knew?). For a two-week window or until 10,000 entries have been received, the minions who toil at putting their stories to paper scurry to polish their manuscripts, tease out a provocative pitch, write a compelling description, and ensure that the first 3,000 or so words of their work make for a decent excerpt. I decided to be brave and enter the fray.
 
After the worries that accompany online submissions (did I remember to remove my name from the footer? am I sure that the pitch did not go over the 300-word limit? did I settle on the right tone for the description, also limited to 300 words?), I hit ‘enter’ two days before the deadline. Good thing: Amazon closed the contest early, as threatened, when the full complement of 10,000 entries was reached before midnight of the final day.
 
That was back on January 27th. A numeric acknowledgment did little to still the anxieties of competition, but within a few days, I was back to my busy life as a career strategist and resume writer penning stories that really matter for clients. The calendar ticked along slowly toward the first round of cuts, which would be announced February 11th. From Amazon’s discussion threads, I’d picked up that it would probably be noon Eastern when the names of those writers advancing in the contest would be published online. Amazon is based on the West Coast, so 9 a.m. their time made sense. I had a lengthy client consultation that morning, which helped to distract me. When we wrapped up, it was just after noon and I eagerly signed on to the site. Would my novel, “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island,” be deemed worthy by Amazon’s editors to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, solely on the basis of the pitch? Oh joy, it was! In a happy dance that rivaled the publication of my first nonfiction book some 20 years earlier, I rejoiced to see “Jan LaFountain Melnik” on the list with 399 other writers who’d made it into this round.
 
Amazon accepts only one entry per author and it is the writer who determines into which category their work will be placed: General Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Romance, Mystery-Thriller, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror. I struggled initially about Telling Tales best belonging in General Fiction or Romance. I ultimately succumbed to the latter on the basis of two key relationship threads that run through the storyline (alternating between present day and World War II) and the fact that there was a good sprinkling of erotica in some of the scenes.
 
To make it into the Sweet Sixteen, so to speak, Amazon selects the top 400 entries in each of the five categories, thus narrowing the field of 10,000 entries to 2,000. Big sigh of relief. My feeling that cold, snowy February day was literally, “Wow! My inaugural run at writing fiction—at least in putting together a 300-word pitch—was determined by an Amazon editor to be worthy of consideration in a group with 399 others. If I go no further in this contest, at least I can take some satisfaction in the fact that my story idea has some merit.”
 
The days advanced toward the next cut off, one month later, when, on March 12, those titles going on to the Elite Eight would be announced. Same drill: noon on the East Coast was the expected official posting. By lurking on Amazon’s discussion boards, though, I’d read postings from previous years’ candidates that the 100 novels moving ahead would see their excerpts published on the site and available for free download by everyone’s family members, neighbors, high school buddies, other authors, and readers-at-large early in the day. In order to upload the 100 excerpts per category (500 novel excerpts in all at this point), Amazon obviously couldn’t wait till 9 a.m. Pacific to flip a switch. So a savvy thread-writer said, “Start plugging your name into Amazon’s search field early in the day… if it comes up, you know you’ll be on the list that will be released at noon.”
 
Well, I had an initial false-positive alarm: all of my nonfiction titles are on Amazon, so my name was there many times. But my heart really did jump when, at 10 a.m., I reentered my name after refreshing the browser for the zillionth time and, lo and behold, there was the ubiquitous Amazon maize background for a book cover with the cursive lettering “Romance.” The familiar words of “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island” by Jan LaFountain Melnik was there on the site for all to see. Woo-hoo, I was officially a quarter-finalist! This felt like giving birth (and with three kids, I’ve had a little experience with that). For this phase of the contest, teams of two Amazon readers/editors each had read the 400 excerpts and selected the best 100. In addition to that, they’d written reviews that Amazon also posted on the site. From the discussion threads, I’d learned that authors could expect one or both reviews to be mediocre, critical, or possibly even confusing. Several quarter-finalists reported that the negative reviews posted “clearly demonstrated” that the two reviewers had not read their excerpts very carefully. Hmmm.
 
Prior to the reviews popping up, experienced contest participants advised newbies like me “not to expect much” from the reviewers, to just be grateful to make it to this round and know that you were strong enough to go to the next level, a step closer to the holy grail. I was relieved to have both of my reviews read positively. At this stage in the contest, readers—friends and those unknown to me—have the opportunity to read my first 3,500 words and enter their own reviews. Exciting, yes. Was I apprehensive? You bet. What if someone hated my premise? What if someone saw through to what I have felt all along was the weakest part of my whole novel (the first two chapters, obviously, not a good thing)?
 
So far, as of this blog writing, so good: I’ve earned 12 five-star reviews and 2 four-star reviews and some pretty darn gratifying feedback in commentary that includes at least six readers that are totally unknown to me but were somehow compelled to download, read, and offer praise for my fledgling work.
[Editor: Curious? Want to read an excerpt of the book on your Kindle? Click here.]
 
Now the real angst: counting the days to the next cut. Will I make it to the Final Four, to be announced April 16? Will I survive the cut from 100 top titles to just five semi-finalists? It feels more daunting, yet folks have assured me that getting from the pool of 10,000 to 400 to 100 was remarkable. I’ve comforted myself—trying not to get too anxious—with the knowledge that this round is being judged by Publishers Weekly—and it’s not just the excerpt. PW will read my entire manuscript and provide a detailed review. For better or worse. And that review will be posted on line as well. Yikes! I take additional solace in knowing that if Telling Tales doesn’t make it to the top five, I can use any encouraging words Publishers Weekly might offer plus the two positive Amazon reviews and the dozen additional online reviews to move ahead and either find an agent (the keys to the kingdom: securing a publisher) or self-publish or both.
 
If I do survive the April cut, my novel and four others in its category will be judged by “top Amazon editors” who will select just one to move to the championship game in May. At that point, one novel in each of the five categories will appear on Amazon and the public-at-large has a week in which to vote for the top contender, the year’s best breakthrough novel that will be announced in June based on highest number of votes received. Indeed, this four-month odyssey will end in a popularity contest.
 
What’s at stake? Well, besides the fingernail-biting excitement and momentum to see where this goes, the grand-prize winner receives a $50K advance and a publishing contract; the four first-prize winners each receive a $15K advance and they get publishing contracts, too. Winners all, in my opinion.
 
But honestly, if I don’t get any further along than where I am right now, I’ll be happy to have at least had this chance to know there’s something in what I’ve written that’s garnering some real interest. I’ll double-down in my efforts to rework the first few chapters, then seriously pursue publishing options. And if publication of Telling Tales isn’t in the works by next January? I’ll re-enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, this time as a sage who can offer encouragement to newbies testing their competitive writing mettle while, once again, pitching the merits of my protagonist Nicole and her Maine island girl’s story.
 
So back to the brackets, are we ready for the Final Four? Stay tuned. New Orleans would feel good right about now.

— Jan LaFountain Melnik

 




 

Matt Debenham writes short stories for people who think they hate short stories–and then fall in love with them

Matt DebenhamMatt Debenham of Westport is the author of the story collection The Book of Right and Wrong, published in 2010 by the Ohio State University Press, having won the 2009 OSU Press Prize for Fiction. In 2007 (nothing happened in 2008) he was awarded a fiction fellowship by the Connecticut Council on Culture and Tourism, and was Peter Taylor Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His stories have been published in The Battered Suitcase, Roanoke Review, The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, Dogwood, and North Atlantic Review, and have been reprinted in Weston Magazine. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a BA from Fitchburg State College. (Author photo by Lisa Jane Persky.)

The Book of Right and Wrong

His stories are said to be for people who think they don’t like short stories. At once heartbreaking and hilarious, the eleven stories in The Book of Right and Wrong capture their characters at the defining moments of their lives. A mother finds herself defending her son’s biggest bully from a tormentor of his own; a young man watches as his cape-wearing former high-school classmate proves himself more adept at making friends; a social worker gambles everything on expediting an adoption—and causes unforeseen consequences for every person in her life; a boy standing in for Jimmy Carter in his elementary school’s mock-election inadvertently starts a bloody playground war; an ex-con single father finds himself on the inside of his town’s social circle, with no clue as to how the game is played.

Matt will be reading from his book at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, at Best Video, 1842 Whitney Ave. in Hamden. He joins JoeAnn Hart, of Massachusetts, author of the novel Float.

Welcome, Matt. Tell us about your new collection.

My collection is called The Book of Right and Wrong. It won the 2009 Ohio State University Press Prize for Fiction*, and was published in 2010. It’s a nice, short book featuring eleven stories. The publishing tagline is “stories for people who think they hate short stories.” Five of them are related, so there’s also a little thread running through the book.

(*I usually have to tell people this was a national prize, because otherwise they think it’s some sort of alumni book award.)

Are there stories in there that called to you more strenuously than others?

“Called to you strenuously.” I like that phrase! Yes. The last piece, “Kate the Destroyer,” started out with me trying to write about an incident that I had when I was a kid. I was really stuck, and then I had the idea to write from the mother’s perspective. That just shook the whole thing loose, and I ended up writing a completely different story than what I’d intended, yet it also better encapsulated what I’d wanted to get across about the mother in the first place. That one, as soon as I made that little jump in perspective, really kind of flew out of me in one night. (The first draft did, anyway. There are always many other drafts!)

Oh the other hand, “Failure to Thrive” had started years earlier as a story about a woman with two sons, one a meth addict and one a cop, vying for control of their mother’s house. I could never get it right, so I left it alone. Then, when I was getting ready to send the book to OSU Press for consideration, I realized what I wanted to do with the story. So I rewrote it for what must’ve been the 12th time and added it to the collection the day before the deadline. And it’s the story that most seems to grab people. If someone emails me or tweets me about my book, that almost-lost story is the one they most reference.

As a novelist, I feel that years pass while I’m working on just one plot. It’s unimaginable to me to have so many plots to untangle and figure out. Do they come to you one at a time, or are you often working on different ones at once?

Yes! By which I mean yes to both, at one time or another. Sometimes I’ll have a few stories going, sometimes it’s only one. There’s a magical thing that happens where I forget, every damn time, what makes a really good story for me – which is, there’s a question I HAVE to find the answer to. For example, I get an image of a guy telling his son to do a terrible thing on a playground. Now I HAVE to know how that came about. Those are the stories that eventually see the light of day. There are other stories that I’ll spend weeks on (or far worse), only to realize too late that, um, there was no fascination or question for me, just a premise I thought was cool. I may never learn that premises, by themselves, are not my friends.

Also, I spent way too long writing a novel. By the end, it was impressively big, and I hated everything about it, especially the characters. It was, go figure, a very premise-heavy book. You really need to love your characters and find them endlessly entertaining and fascinating. One day soon I’ll go back to that novel and rewrite it, but I’m going to need to go in there with a sledgehammer and maybe some dynamite.

Any recurring characters or character types in your stories? Or specific themes you feel drawn to?

I keep going back to a character named Miles LaPine, along with members of his family. They’re in those five connected stories in the book, and I’ve since released an independent story called “Challenger” that also features Miles. He’s kind of a combo platter of my own most awkward/earnest aspects, along with a couple of troubled nerds I knew as a kid. Themewise, I like exploring the gulf between a misguided and/or ill-equipped person’s best intentions and whatever reality they’re just not capable of seeing. That gulf is big enough to accommodate a lot of tragedy and comedy, so it’s a good place to play.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

Hoo boy. My process is one of fits and starts. I usually start really strong, writing out a first scene or two, just getting to know who and what I’m writing about. Then I back off for a bit, and I do some thinking. As in: Okay, you know who you’re writing about, now where’s it going? Which used to scare me – why am I just thinking?! — but now I understand this is writing, every bit as much as typing words on a screen. Then I usually start rewriting from scratch. Once I have a finished first draft, I put it aside for a while. When I go back to it, it no longer feels personal, so I have free license to go in and really mess with it. That’s where I’ll change genders, timelines, characters’ objectives, etc. This is usually a multi-draft process.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

I think something in-between? I usually have either an ending image or a climactic image, and I work toward that: How did we get here? Why are these people doing this? My stuff is pretty plot-oriented, so when I have my incident and my people figured out and I’ve done a bit of writing, then I do start sketching out a sequence of events and escalations. I like twists. The “gut-punch,” as my wife calls it.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

Coffee’s good for this. I follow the advice of Ron Carlson, who’s a writer everyone should read. In his book Ron Carlson Writes A Story, he tells you: Do not get up. Stay seated. Ignore the urge to get a drink or do some chore, and instead force yourself to sit there. A few minutes after that is usually when the words will start coming. It’s a little like breaking the will of a captive spy. Your brain finally goes, “Ugh, fine. HERE.” I feel that for a lot of writers, half the job is tricking yourself into doing things.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I came to it pretty late. I know a lot of writers say they knew when they were kids, but while I always liked to write and get reactions to my writing, I didn’t think seriously about fiction until I was in my twenties and well into a public relations career. So: 25? 26?

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I teach as well, in independent workshops as well as for the writing program at Western CT State. I love teaching and would gladly do only that for a living. (IF I could no longer write, that is.) Otherwise, I’d be a good man in a book or video store.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

I really do like all of it. I used to love first drafts, because I viewed that as the “creation” phase, and everything else was the dirty work. But it’s all creation, and it’s all editing. It’s not a linear process for me. Rather, it’s like a busy kitchen, where some people are prepping raw ingredients and others are grilling and plating. (I may have been hungry while answering these.)

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

I like a little messiness, a little weirdness in my stuff. So when I revise, I make sure my words are good – am I finding the one word to do the work of a paragraph? Do my sentences vary in length and intensity, creating a kind of musical flow, etc.? But what I most work on in revision is getting the moments right. Cutting out the extra crap, while leaving in some of those ragged edges. Oh, and I always read aloud. Every draft. This is crucial.

As far as outside readers go, I have two trusted readers. I show them my stuff either when I think I’m done and I know they’ll have smart suggestions, or when I’m stuck and I can’t see my way out of the hole. I’m actually interested in finding a good writers’ group near me. I think that’d be really helpful, both in terms of having careful eyes on my stuff and in terms of having a regular deadline.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

Great question! I’m torn, because I’m driven to read interviews with authors who interest me, yet I’m disappointed when I find out a work I liked was drawn almost entirely from the author’s own experiences. Which is completely unfair and hypocritical of me! I think it’s human nature to want to know these things about authors. And I think there’s always something of the author in the work, whether it’s near-memoir or whether the work reflects some nagging fascination of theirs. When I do get those questions, I’m nice about it, because I completely understand where they’re coming from, and because I certainly can’t claim that there’s no “me” in the book.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I do! I read the AV Club way too much, or I’ll often find myself on AllMusic.com, reading reviews of a band’s entire discography. Or I’ll think, “Beverly Hills Buntz!” and then I’ll be on Wikipedia, looking up the production history of the failed show about a minor Hill Street Blues character. Then there’s Twitter….

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

A lot of writing for me is problem-solving. How do I get from point A to point D without it feeling contrived? Why WOULD she do that? How can I structure this so that when the big moment comes it feels like a gut-punch? I worked in marketing and communications for a long time, and that was always my favorite part of that job. So this act of realizing the implausible makes me happy. Feeling like I got at a feeling or moment that I haven’t seen done that way before makes me really happy. Externally, I love when someone tells me they were so shaken by a story they had to put the book down. I’ve been lucky enough to hear that a few times, and I think it’s a positive! And I hope I never stop getting a charge out of saying “my book.”

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them why not? I’m teaching a morning workshop in Westport right now for people who’ve never written before. And these six people have gotten to the point where they’re all producing genuinely good work. I’ve yet to meet the person who can’t write, even a little bit, with some direction and encouragement. And I don’t view this as some exclusive club. Can everyone be a Jennifer Egan or a Toni Morrison? Probably not, but I’m always shocked, pleasantly so, when I see what people are capable of doing.

Kathy Czepiel’s beautiful new novel talks about sacrifice, women’s lives…and violets

A Violet Season

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season, a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the twentieth century.

She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, and The Pinch. Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.

Photo by Chris Volpe

Come and hear her talk about the history of the violet industry and listen to excerpts from her novel at New Haven’s Mitchell Library in Westville on Monday, October 29th at 6:30 p.m.

Tell us about your new book.

A Violet Season is set on a Hudson Valley violet farm operated by three brothers at the turn of the twentieth century. Ida Fletcher, who is married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing to help pay the bills, and her teenage daughter, Alice, has been forced to leave school for work. The novel tells the story of the increasingly great sacrifices that Ida and Alice make for their family’s survival, and the way those sacrifices unintentionally set them against one another and affect the rest of their lives. I wrote the novel in part because I grew up in the mid-Hudson Valley, which was once known as “The Violet Capital of the World,” though there is little remaining evidence of that industry today. I wanted to bring that piece of my hometown’s history back to life. But the story is also about women’s lives at the turn of the century, their relationships with men, their work, and the start of their journey toward more independence.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’m also a teacher, and I love teaching. For the past nine years I’ve taught in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University. I don’t have aspirations of becoming a full-time writer because I think I would get really bored and lonely working independently at home all of the time. But if I weren’t a writer and a teacher, and if I were talented enough, and if such a thing still existed, I would play cello or French horn in the pit orchestra of a Broadway show. Or I might be a landscape designer and work outdoors all of the time, except in the dead of winter, when I would go cross-country skiing and read lots of books.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

My favorite part is the inbetween, which is where I am right now with my second novel. No one has imposed a deadline on me yet, but I have a full draft, so I have something to work with. I’m rocking back and forth between research and writing, so there’s some variety, and the work isn’t linear. I can dip into any part of the manuscript and work on it, now that I can see the big picture. I find first drafts terrifying because it’s just me and a blank page, and what comes out on that page is mostly garbage, and I know I just have to keep going to make something. Final revisions are kind of a drag, the point at which I’m studying every single conjunction and semicolon.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Making a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. My husband often mixes a big batch of cookie dough and leaves it in the fridge—very dangerous.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

I’m so lucky to be living my childhood dreams. So many of us leave those behind, and for a long time I did, too. When I think of my ten-year-old self writing stories after school and submitting them to Cricket magazine and telling people she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, I’m really happy because I’ve made that kid’s dreams come true!

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I treat writing like a job, because it is. There are days when it feels a lot like work. When you have a “real” job, with a boss and colleagues and a location not inside your house, you might wake up in the morning and say, “I just don’t feel inspired to work today,” but you get up and go to work anyway. Writing is no different.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

That depends on what kind of writer they want to be. Lots of people are happy writing for themselves, or for their close friends and family. To them, I say: do it! Maybe take a class which will teach you to do it a little better. And don’t let anyone else tell you what you should be writing; write what you feel strongly about.

To the people who have aspirations of wider publication, my advice would be a bit different. Those writers have to take classes—lots of them, whether in a school setting or in professional conferences and workshops. They can’t compete in the marketplace without treating their craft seriously, as something that must be learned and practiced. And then, they must be extremely persistent. They must keep showing up, keep studying and reading and writing and sending their work out there despite all the rejection and discouragement. There’s no denying that luck also plays a role in becoming a published writer, but the persistent writers will be there when luck turns up.

PJ Sharon offers a glimpse of dystopian teenage life in trilogy

PJ Sharon is the author of several independently published, contemporary young adult novels, including Molly finalist, HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, FAB Five finalist ON THIN ICE, and SAVAGE CINDERELLA, Golden Palm and Sheila finalist.

On the road to publication, PJ decided that indie-publishing was the best fit for her books. They fall outside the norm for YA fiction in that they are geared toward 16-22 year old readers, a market considered risky with traditional publishers. Hers, however, aren’t your average high school stories. Instead, they are portraits of the real life issues of older teens and their struggles with family, friends, and the guys they fall for. Although the themes are mature, evoking plenty of drama and teen angst, PJ writes with a positive outlook and promises a hopefully ever after end to all of her books.

P. J. Sharon

Tell us about your new book.

WANING MOON is Book One in THE CHRONICLES OF LILY CARMICHAEL. The trilogy is about sixteen-year-old lily Carmichael, living in the year 2057. She is the first generation of genetically engineered children bred to survive the plagues that wipe out three quarters of the Earth’s population. Her genetic modification not only makes her resistant to the plague, but gives her the ability to heal quickly and an intuitive ability to heal others—everyone except her uncle and her brother. Their blood ties make them immune to each other’s abilities. Her thirteen-year-old brother, Zephron, has the opposite capability which is to take life with just a touch. Their mother died during Zeph’s birth and their father was killed by a government agency called the Industry, an organization trying to capture these EVO kids. Sam raises Lily and Zeph as his own, determined to keep them hidden in the Northeast hills, but when a young drifter named Will falls into a trap on their property and Lily decides to heal him, their secret is bound to get out.

Waning Moon

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

There is so much concern today about where our world is heading. People live in fear of what will happen if our economy collapses or we have a climactic event that changes the landscape of our planet. Kids and teens especially, are both terrified and fascinated by dystopian stories of post-apocalyptic survival, making books like The Hunger Games or television shows like Revolution part of the new pop culture. I live in a small remote town with neighbors who love living in the woods as much as my husband and I do. We often get together and talk about current events and contemplate our survival strategies. We aren’t quite as bad as the Doomsday Preppers, but we do try to prepare for whatever the future holds. Humans are the most adaptable creatures on the planet, and in keeping with my “hopefully ever after” philosophy, I wanted to show how we might survive if life as we know it took a turn for the worse. As for how I knew I was going to write this story, it’s always about the characters not leaving me alone until I put their story on the page. If I don’t listen, it gets very crowded in my head.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

I struggled with this book more than my others. Partly because it is so different from my contemporary stories, but also because it is the first book in a trilogy and I’m not a true plotter, so I had to be very careful about where the story line went, making sure I planned properly for the next two books. It was also challenging because I was in the midst of promoting my other books and had very little time to write—a frustrating place to be for a writer. The story came in fits and starts and finding my creativity to imagine a future world was a big challenge.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

Hahaha, I’m not nearly as interesting as that. I write the story my characters tell me to write and I don’t stop until their story is on the page. I let the first draft flow as organically as possible and then go back at the end and revise the heck out of it. I do have critique partners who help a lot with plot holes and character details that always seem to keep me on track. I typically write a chapter at a time and then go back over it before proceeding to the next chapter. Kind of a two steps forward and one step back approach.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between? 

I’m a pantser by nature, but I’ve learned the value of planning judiciously. If I plotted the whole story out, there wouldn’t be much point in writing it, but I do like to understand my characters before I get going. I want to know what their goal, motivation, and conflict are, what they are most afraid of, what their fatal flaw is, and what they will have to sacrifice or learn to get what they want in the end. Also, if I know the major turning points in the story, it gives me a direction to write toward. Whatever happens in between is up to the characters and boy do they take me to some interesting places.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

My most favorite part is the beginning. I can sit down and write the first fifty to a hundred pages of a story and be so excited about the journey, I forget to eat, drink and sleep. But then I get toward the sagging middle. That place where there are lots of words getting onto the page and the story seems to be going nowhere. I hate that part! I’ve learned to step back and reassess my character’s goals at that point and check in with my pacing of the story. It’s usually the time where I need to blow something up or get the characters kissing. Although I don’t have everything slipping into the book, I’ve been known to hear another author’s voice and fear I’m writing a lot like someone else. As far as first drafts or revision, I consider myself a reformed first draft addict. I wrote four full length manuscripts and kept moving on after the first draft because I didn’t know how to revise. Once I learned the art of revision through some very good workshops, I found that I loved the process of refining my work to make it shine. It always feels like a monumental task to revise after that first draft, but the work is always worth it.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

I say that all of my characters are me and none of them are me. How’s that for ambiguity? I have written stories where my characters have gone through things that I myself have experienced, but it’s not my story. And I can honestly say that no, I’ve never been a kidnap victim, nor have I lived in a dystopian world of the future. Although I’m writing fiction, I can’t help but draw from my own experience. It’s kind of an alternate universe that I create where I get to imagine, what if that event had happened this way, or what if I’d known someone like this in my life? How would things have been different? Especially in writing for the YA market—it’s like I get a virtual do-over in a completely new world.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Housecleaning. If I’m avoiding writing for some reason, I feel justified cleaning the house since it’s a necessity and it still feels like I’m working. My house is usually very clean during that “sagging middle” stage of the process.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

Exploring my creativity in a way that gives me joy and brings joy to others is the ultimate reason I write. There are moments when a line or a paragraph comes together in poetic perfection that just makes me giddy. And I love those aha moments when a character learns something really valuable that I ask myself, where did that come from? I learn something new about myself every day when I’m writing.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them that it isn’t as easy or as glamorous as they imagine, but if they have stories to tell, they shouldn’t let anything stand in their way.

Lucy Burdette (aka our own Roberta Isleib) reveals the secret of where books come from

Ohhh, Luuuucy!

(That’s our best Desi impression, and it’s appropriate here because Lucy Burdette, who is in real life our own successful mystery writer Roberta Isleib, has written a delectable, delicious brand new book, and it’s out now–and she’s coming to R. J. Julia Booksellers on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. to read from it.)
She’s here on Books New Haven to tell us the real mystery behind her mysteries: how does she think them up? That is, after all, what everybody always wants to know from authors: where do ideas come from? And Roberta/Lucy has a wonderful answer:

 

How a Book Might Get Written by Lucy Burdette

 

Though it’s hard for me to believe, my tenth book, a Key West food critic mystery called DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, has hit bookshelves this week. Lots of new writers, and people who don’t write, and even those who do but who imagine that someone must know an easier way, ask me about my writing process. Though it’s an ugly, tortured path, I did think of a couple of things that dependably move my stories forward.

The first is no revelation: Plant butt in chair and write. Remain there until I hit my predetermined word count. Lately I’ve been trying for around a thousand words a day. If it takes two hours to write those words, then YAY!, I have time to do other things that all sounded more appealing as I fended them off while writing. On the more painful days, especially when I don’t know where I’m headed with the story, it might take seven or eight hours because I’ve checked my gmail inbox every five minutes. And then remembered there must be some urgent laundry to do or the dog needs walking or I can’t go one more minute without organizing that messy kitchen drawer. But I try to stick with it and to ignore the voices in my head telling me this is the worst dreck I’ve ever written. Because I know I can always (almost) fix it later. As my good friend Hallie Ephron famously tells her students: “Hold your nose and write!”

The second important part of my process is visiting the scene of the crime, either before or while developing the story. (And I’d be the first to admit, this is no hardship when it comes to Key West.)

Could this be “Marvin” with Lucy Burdette?

A research outing might go like this: As I’m wandering through the crowds at the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square on the Key West harbor, I spot a tarot card reader set up at a card table, wearing a deep blue turban with an enormous teardrop rhinestone bisecting his forehead. My mind begins to spin. What if my protagonist, aspiring food critic Hayley Snow, is addicted to having her cards read because she’s insecure about making her own decisions? And what if her tarot reader sees a card scary enough that even he gets rattled? And what if Hayley uses what she thinks she sees in his reactions to dig herself into deeper trouble? And so Marvin the card reader is born as a character. Only then one of my pals says ‘who’d go to a psychic named Marvin?’ So I change his name to Lorenzo, but later he admits that he grew up as Marvin but who’d want their cards read by a guy with that name?

Then, as I’m walking and biking around Key West, I notice that homeless people are everywhere, including perched on the stone walls around Mallory Square watching the performers and the tourists. After all, if you had to spend your nights outdoors, you might choose the tropics too. And I think about how they blend into the scenery, but probably notice all kinds of things that visitors wouldn’t see. And so Turtle, the homeless guy, is born into the story. One cool night once the crowds have thinned down at the Old Town Harbor, he notices two men arguing. When there is a man found hung in a sailboat’s rigging later, he doesn’t connect the dots. Or maybe he does, but he would never voluntarily go to the police with this information. But Hayley might worm it out of him.

And then suppose, while I’m attending the Key West Literary Seminar on food writing, that I get the idea that the keynote speaker for my fictional writing conference threatens to tell everyone’s secrets. Because secrets are caustic. Hmmm, how many people would kill to protect their interests?

So with those ideas and story fragments, I go back to my desk and apply seat to chair again.

Isn’t it a miracle that books get written as often as they do?

 

Lucy Burdette is the author of the Key West food critic mysteries, most recently DEATH IN FOUR COURSES. She also wrote 8 mysteries as Roberta Isleib. You are invited to follow her on twitter (www.twitter.com/lucyburdette) or facebook (www.facebook.com/lucyburdette) or check out her website (www.lucyburdette.com)  where the artwork is gorgeous and the recipes to die for.

 

From skydiving to writing romances about pirates, Gerri Brousseau has done it all

A Pirate’s Ransom

Gerri Brousseau is a rare writer indeed. While most of us put our creative impulses into staring into space and writing about our friends while we waited for story inspiration, Gerri used to jump out of airplanes. These days, though, she finds her adrenaline rushes sitting at her laptop, creating dashing romantic characters and giving them exciting complications.

Her debut novel, A Pirate’s Ransom,  was just published this month–and she already has another one coming out in November.

Writing, she says, comes easily for her. It could be that it’s easy compared to finding the courage to jump out of an airplane–but whatever. Here is the Waterbury resident’s take on writing, pirates, love, romance and procrastination.

Enjoy!

Gerri Brousseau

Tell us about your new book.

Here is the description from the back of the book … Despair filled Lady Catherine as she boarded the ship for England, and toward marriage to man she’s never met—the Duke of Devonshire.  But the sea is no place for a lady.  She’s captured by the Pirate Captain, Edmund Drake and held for ransom; a ransom that has nothing to do with coin.  But when she’s stolen from him, he realizes she has captured his heart. She becomes the pawn in a dangerous rivalry between two pirates—the handsome pirate Captain Edmund Drake and his notorious and fearsome opponent, Blackbeard.  How far will Captain Drake go to reclaim his prize?  Which pirate will decide her fate?  And who will pay … A Pirate’s Ransom?

But let me assure you, the Duke has more of a commanding presence than you would think and who the heck is the Contessa Theodora de Lorenzo … hmm … guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

Most of my story ideas come from dreams. I have always sort of daydreamed about being captured by a handsome pirate who would sail away with my heart. So, I thought I would give it a go. This idea sort of started out as a glimmer of a story and grew into the pirate adventure I dreamed it would be.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

When I sit down to write, I sort of let my characters tell their story. It comes easily and then I go back and do some fine tuning. I never gave up on it. I always had faith in my story. It was just a matter of finding a publisher who agreed with me.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

I get an idea for a story. I think about it a bit so I have a solid beginning, turning point and end. Then I sit with the lap top and just start typing. I write fast fiction – finish it quick with my internal editor turned off. Then once it’s finished, I go back and do the fine tuning.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

Pantser all the way. I know the beginning, turning point and end, but I let the story flow out of me. I don’t like outlines because it makes me feel too confined.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I tend to take a bit of a break between works. It clears my mind. If I am truly uninspired, I will go for a walk, watch a movie, or listen to music. Many things inspire me. For example, I am working on something now that was inspired from listening to Spanish guitar music. The smallest thing will inspire me, for example fireflies, the smell of being in a wine cellar, the picture of a lighthouse. When I get an idea for a story, I make a quick one paragraph synopsis in the computer and just let it stay until the characters are screaming in my head to have me tell their story. That is when it will get written.

When did you first know you were a writer?

As far back as I can remember I was writing stories. I think in a past life I might have been a scribe or something. I only seriously decided to try my hand at writing a novel in 2009.

 If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I would like to have a job like Robin Leach … Remember Life Styles of the Rich and Famous … the guy traveled around the world and did stories on rich and famous people. I guess if you can’t be rich and famous, you can at least travel in their circles … right?

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process?

I love every aspect of writing. When I was waiting to get my first round edits back from the editor, I was nervous, but I found I even enjoyed doing those. I like the first draft but realize that with the editor’s help, I’ll love the last revision … and hopefully, so will my readers.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

When I finish my first draft and have read it over, I will send it over to my one and only critique partner. She reads it and sends it back to me with her suggestions. Once I feel I have done all I can do with it, I will send it off to my publisher for their consideration.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

I write historical romance, so not too much in those books could happen to me. Although I have fantasized about being swept away by a handsome pirate, that has not happened to me … no. Still, I understand what you’re saying. How could you describe something you have not experienced? I have a very, VERY active imagination and I do a ton of research for the historical aspects of my work. As for the love scenes … To some extent things are from personal experience … but no, not every love scene has occurred in my personal life. When people ask me if these things have happened to me I simply tell them I have a great imagination. I do get snickering comments from men telling me if I ever need help doing research for any love scenes to let them know. Those comments I simply ignore.

Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

No not intentionally. If there is any similarity between my fictional characters and anyone I know it is purely coincidental. However, I do have a friend named Theodora and I asked her if I could use her name in my novel. She agreed and was overjoyed to find out the character in A Pirate’s Ransom, The Contessa Theodora de Lorenzo was … shall I say, a woman of renowned talents. I am presently working on a novel and have asked another friend if I could use her last name for it. Honestly, I find that people are excited about it and honored when I ask. I would never do it without first asking.

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

Yes. I keep a pad and pen on my bedside table for just such occasions. Sometimes I find the scene is so exciting, I can’t get back to sleep and have to get to the laptop and actually write it.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Yes, I can be quite the procrastinator. I try not to berate myself for it because it usually turns into some productive thought. I will usually watch a movie. Sometimes I will go on Facebook and see what my friends are up to. One thing I will admit to NEVER doing by way of procrastination is housework. God, I hate doing housework.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

Hearing people who have read the book say they love it. Little comments from my readers make me smile. I got a few emails which I will share with you. One person said she burned dinner because she couldn’t put the book down. Another said she went to bed, tossed and turned for 30 minutes and had to get back up to keep reading. That makes me happy. I want my readers to love reading my books as much as I loved writing them.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them to write from their heart. Write every day. Believe in yourself and your work and above all else, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up.

A Pirate’s Ransom is her debut novel is available now at Available at: http://www.soulmatepublishing.com

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/kindle/dp/B0091PRUTO/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_eos_detail

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-pirtes-ransom-gerri-brousseau/1112651492?ean=2940015206692

According to Legend will be released in November, 2012.

Visit Gerri’s website at http://www.gerribrousseau.com.