Esther: The obvious opening question is: How did you get started writing professionally? What prepared you for that first publishing break?
Jo: I wonder if anything really preapres us! Shirley Kennett, a published member of my local Sisters-in-Crime chapter, read a manuscript of mine that had been repeatedly rejected by publishers. I wanted to know why and Shirley read the ms. and critiqued it. She gave me three pieces of advice: change one of my two male protagonists to a woman, tell the story first person from her POV, and give her a female friend to confide in. I reluctantly did it, and was amazed at how the book crackled with life. I sent it off and that publisher gave me a contract on the book. I think I was too dazed after that to know this was just the beginning and that a lot of harder work was to follow if I wanted to write more books.
Esther: What do most new writers need to keep in mind as they go looking for their break?
Jo: Writing, like any other art form, is subjective. A rejection is one person's opinion. Try another publisher if you get turned down, and keep trying. If you quit you won't be published. Just because I, or someone else, is published doesn't mean we are better than you - maybe we were just at the right place at the right time. We were lucky to submit what that publisher wanted right then. Never give up.
Esther: How important is it for a new writer to find an agent before pursuing a publisher?
Jo: These days, I don't think it is that important. So many small presses accept manuscripts directly from authors, and there is the self-publishing route, too. In the good old days of the big New York houses non-agented manuscripts were automatically rejected. At some of them, they probably still are. But you can get published these days by smaller houses without an agent. I think an agent is good if you have a track record - an agent can get you a better contract or work through movie rights, etc., but for your first book I don't think an agent is that important. And with the cutback on titles in the bigger publishing houses, many agents who normally sold manuscripts to them are now showing them to small presses. And you can do that yourself!
Esther: Let's say a writer catches the interest of a publisher and they're offered a contract. Should they just sign and be thrilled that someone wants their work, or is there more to it than that?
Jo: For my first book contract I had a published friend's agent look at it because I didn't know what was good, normal or bad. If you know someone like that, I'd ask them to look at it. You can take it to an intellectural properties lawyer, too. He can save you a lot of heartache. Book writing and publishing is a business, so you have to treat it as that. It's wonderful to have your manuscript accepted, but take off your blinders and have someone qualified look at the contract. You don't want the publisher to get all of the perks. And another week won't make any difference - take the time. Slow down and look at the contract carefully. "Later" is not the time to wish you'd read all the contract paragraphs.
Esther: How many books do you have on the market today?
Esther: I know you have an extensive educational background. How important is it to have a degree in order to become a published author?
Jo: If you can write, more power to you. I think school can teach anyone how to write, but it's the magic of combining scene and plot and character that can't be taught. I believe it's something you gain from years of reading and absorbing unconsciously into your being. It becomes You, and a million English or creative writing courses can't teach that - in my opinion. I think school is helpful for teaching you to think, to organize your ideas, to learn fundamentals such as plotting. But the actual creation of scenes and stringing together words to form a sentence in your "voice" I believe comes from the writer.
Esther: What do you think of the easy access to self-publishing and ebook contracts? What are the pros and what are the cons?
Jo: It's nice that family histories and cookbooks and such can be published to be passed down through the generations. It's great to have that saved. But I think some self-published material can be bad, i.e., no professional editing, no concern about correct grammer or punctuation or spelling, wrong facts, amateur-looking artwork for the covers...a lot of rubbish can easily be printed. When the self-published author says "I'm a published author" and presents his less than great book to the book buying public, he's making it harder on traditionally published authors who might court the same book buyer who has been burnt or is gun shy and hesitates to buy the traditionally published author's work.
Esther: How did you come to make the decision to base one of your series on English customs?
Jo: I am fascinated with history - what came before us, why we are as we are, why we do things. Same with customs and traditions - how did they start, what do they mean. I'd always loved several British customs and wanted to use them somehow in a novel. When I thought of my first book I used the Guy Fawkes celebration as the backbone of the plot. I wasn't halfway through wrting it when I realized it would be an unusual basis of a series - using the British customs as the catalyst of the muder. That way I could combine the mystery story, England, and those odd customs I love so much.
Esther: What about the second series? How was it born?
Jo: I wanted something different from my police procedural first series. I thought that a former police detective, who'd been burnt by a horrendous experience, would make a great character. He became a loner, and reluctantly agrees to investigate cold cases on his own. McLaren's a sort of private investigator without the legal badge, a private citizen with police training who pokes around to solve the mystery. He can break all of the rules that police in my original series must follow. He's fun to write because his actions are the opposite of my other protagonists and I can cross the line into mild law-breaking to get results.
Esther: Are you disciplined when it comes to keeping a writing schedule?
Jo: Usually. I try to be at the computer between 7 and 7:30 each morning and I write until mid-afternoon. Every day. Of course I have to deviate accassionally to run errands, etc., but I usually get my time in. I feel like I'm wasting my life if I'm not writing.
Esther: What are you dying to tell all of those writers wanting to be published?
Jo: It's incredibly difficult to get published. Keep trying. If you stop you'll never be published.
Esther: With the popularity of Kindle, and B&N's Nook, where do you think the publishing world is headed?
Jo: Hard to say because it's so new right now. But I think there is room for both kinds of books. Traditionalists love the feel of a real book in their hands. We like them on the book shelves. Not everyone can afford an ebook reader, either, so paper books will always be around.
Esther: New writers assume that traditional publishers are going to market their books once a writer lands a contract. What do you have to say on that subject?
Jo: Publisher marketing is nearly a thing of the past. Unless you are J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steele or any other Name Author, your publisher isn't going to do much for you. They'll get the book printed, but marketing and promotion are up to you. That's because most publishers don't have the money, staff or time to create marketing campaigns or to send you on a book tour. It's up to you to create your fan base, advertise yourself and your books, and get out and sell them. It is a lot of work and takes a lot of time to make yourself known. Just consider this: EVERY DAY in the U.S. there are 1,500 books published! Every day! How are you going to get your book noticed in that stack of competition? It's incredibly hard - harder than writing and getting published, I think.
Esther: What's the most effective marketing tool that comes to mind?
Jo: Everyone always says it's your website. Sure, that's great because you can list your books, your book signing schedule, and companion items for sale, create fan contests, etc. But how do you get people to come to your website? I think a lot of marketing comes down to word of mouth. If you can create that, your books will surely sell.
Esther: How long does it take you to complete a novel?
Jo: Usually about four to six months. It's written in about three months, then I send it to my police detective friend in England and he reads it for errors. I get it back usually within four to six weeks. I correct my mistakes and give it to another police friend. He ordinarily takes one to two months to get it back to me. Those fixes usually take me about a week, then it's ready to submit to the publisher. Once, though, I had a major rewrite when my English police friend sent it back. I had to rearrange large chunks of the story because my timeline was off. That took me several weeks!
Esther: Do you have one final thought you want to share with new, or aspiring, writers?
Jo: You are unique in the writing world. There has never been, and there never will be, another person who can string together words as you do. The way you look at things, and the world and characters you create, are from you. People want to read them and fall in love with them - so keep writing, and keep trying.