WG: Welcome and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month. To start off, please tell us about yourself.
CSJ: I've always written in one form or another. As a child I wrote stories, drew the covers, and stapled them into mini-books. My first rejection came at age fourteen when I submitted a romantic short story to Redbook Magazine. I still have the form rejection. I was crushed.
I wrote long hand off and on after that, occasionally typing a story on my Grandma St.John's manual typewriter. For years I pretty much dedicated myself to my family, and raised my four kids. Believe it or not, I used to read only horror, mystery and mainstream novels, but I read a few Victoria Holts I'd received from the book club and found them appealing, yet somewhat unsatisfactory in some way I couldn't define at the time.
On a whim one day, while browsing the store shelves, I bought Lisa Gregory's The Rainbow Season and LaVyrle Spencer's Hummingbird. Imagine that out of all the books available, I chose those two classic romances for my first taste of romance! Needless to say, I was hooked from that day forward. I devoured everything either of those two authors ever wrote, and went on to all the early greats: Janelle Taylor, Jude Deveruaux, Johanna Lindsey, Francine Rivers, and Kathleen Woodiwiss.
When my youngest daughter went to Kindergarten, I was lost without her. In retrospect, it was empty nest syndrome, but instead of having another baby, which many women do, I decided it was time to write the novel that would launch me to stardom.
Yeah, right. The rest of the process took a little longer. And I'm still not sure about the stardom part.
WG: Let's talk about your own personal road to publication:
Is there some individual, group or event that you can point to as the catalyst/impetus that set you on the road to becoming a writer? Explain.
CSJ: On Easter Sunday in 1989, my brother, a horror and men's adventure writer, brought me an article from the newspaper. He laid it on my dining room table and said, "You've got to call these people; you're working in a vacuum."
I knew he was right. I'd been writing and submitting for a few years without any feedback or success. My mother had given me a clipping about the RWA group the year before, but I'd never called. Somehow reading about those published authors and their support group just didn't sound like anything for which I was qualified.
Several times in the weeks that followed, I read through that article about a romance author who was a semi-finalist in a national contest sponsored by RWA-The Golden Heart. I'd never even heard of RWA before. The aspiring writer featured was president of an auspicious local chapter. She had a master's degree in criminal justice and taught at a college! Each time I went to the phone to call the number printed in the article, I got cold feet and thought, "Who do I think I am? What do I think I'm doing? I don't know anything about writing!"
I'd never taken a single writing class, never even met a real author besides my brother, and since he was my brother, he didn't count. Who was I to even IMAGINE myself among a group of real writers?
Well, I finally fought back the collywobbles, dialed the number, and-wouldn't you know-I got an answering machine! Now it's funny to think back that many years ago and remember that not many people had answering machines. Not like today when everyone has one or a service and voice mail. I knew when I got that recording that the woman was a professional!
I hung up.
A week later, I garnered my courage and called again, hoping for a real voice. No such luck. I learned afterward that this was her business line and she NEVER answered that line. I could have tried till I was blue and never heard a live voice.
But this time I left a message. Low and behold she called me back. And she sounded just like a real person! She explained the chapter and the meeting date and place and actually sounded quite glad to hear from me. Before we hung up I asked, hesitantly, "Is everyone there a professional? I mean, I'm not a teacher or a college graduate or anything." She assured me they were all people just like me.
And you know what? They were. And some of them are still my best friends today.
WG: Tell us about your journey.
CSJ: The defining year for me was the year my youngest daughter went to first grade. I had been at home raising four children spread out over several years and felt the void of sending the youngest to school all day. Until then I'd been playing at writing, keeping handwritten notebooks and dallying with the stories like a hobby. Then and there I decided that I was going to actually do what I'd always dreamed of doing and write an entire book. I started it in October and finished it during that school year. I had the time of my life. I had no idea what I was doing, so it had no plot or conflict and the villain was wishy washy, but the characters were fun and I enjoyed creating a romance. I even submitted the manuscript to every publisher and agent I could find. Only years later did I understand how embarrassing that was. I did everything you're not supposed to do. Who knew the time period was unmarketable? Who knew you weren't supposed to bind your submission in a pretty folder? The story is as yet unpublished, though some day I'd like to rework it.
WG: How many books did you complete before you sold your first? Have all/any of them sold since?
CSJ: I started submitting before I was ready, before I'd discovered a writing group or Dwight Swain. I was writing for about four years before I found a local writers group. I was fortunate. I generous lady and talented Avon author named Diane Wicker Davis started my local chapter. She read my stuff and showed me how to make the stories better and the writing stronger. I lucked into a critique group with another published author, Barbara Andrews (who now writes with her daughter as Pam Rock) and she and the group encouraged me. Once I learned the techniques to write to sell, it took about another three years. I probably have five or six manuscripts that deserve to be in a box in my storage room.
WG: Can you tell us something about your experience in getting 'the call'?
CSJ: I was working as a sign maker and part-time customer service help at a local grocery store. I was paged to the money room to take a call, which turned out to be from my agent. She had told me she believed she could sell Rain Shadow, and sure enough that was the call to tell me Harlequin Historical had made an offer. I was elated. Everyone in the front of the store heard me squealing.
WG: What aspect of life as a published author surprised you the most - either in a good or bad way?
CSJ: Having my name recognized. When the subject of occupations comes up and mine is mentioned, someone invariably asks what I write. When I tell them and a person hears my pseudonym and says, "I've read your books!" I'm still blown away. I once took a book to someone in the hospital, and the visiting pet therapy lady had read my books. Harlequin distribution is amazing. It's stunning to think my books are read by people worldwide.
WG: What about your writing process:
Do you maintain a set schedule? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
CSJ: My routine has changed over the years and still evolves as my life changes. I went from dropping off kids at school to having an empty nest back to dropping off one child-my grandson-at school most mornings for a few years. I get up and feed him and get him ready and drop him off at school. This school year my daughter takes him, which is good because I tend to stop at the grocery store or if it's Thursday or Friday, I scope out every garage sale in the vicinity on the way back. The hunt inspires me. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.
Once I get started in the morning - always after 7 - I make a fresh pot of tea-chai is my preference-and I read through my email, take care of things which are pressing that day, and then open my Word file.
I read over what I wrote the day before, edit a little as I go, and then continue forward. Many nights after supper and my favorite evening shows, like Castle and Bones, I go back to my desk and work. If my brain is too tired to write much past 11 or 12, I do promo work and blog.
I teach and online class each month, so the night I need to prepare lessons, I'm sometime up until 2 or 3. You can find my workshop at cheryl-stjohn-workshop.blogspot.com
WG: Do you set writing goals for yourself?
CSJ: Each and every year my critique partners and I buy datebooks, set goals, record them in the front and use them to stay accountable to each other throughout the year. I select writing goals for submissions and books and also a writing improvement goal-one area or technique I work on that year. I believe it's important to grow in my craft and strengthen my writing muscles.
WG: Do you have a mood setter, something (music, ritual, environment, etc) you use to get you going when you sit down to write?
CSJ: I find music a distraction, so it doesn't work for me, though I can write with someone on the other computer behind me. Go figure. I do 99% of my writing at my desk and occasional pages on my Alphasmart. About halfway or a third through the book, I print it all out and edit while sipping tea on the sofa, and then barge toward the end.
WG: Do you do a lot of up front plotting before you start or do you just dive in?
CSJ: I always considered myself a seat-of-the-pants writer, and granted my first few books were done without a a lot of forethought. I quickly learned that to sell on proposal I needed a good synopsis first, and that in order to save myself misery down the line, planning is crucial. So while I have no idea what the scenes will be like, I establish goal, motivation, conflict and am assured that I have enough story and conflict-internal and external-to sustain the story.
For each character, I fill out character grids, which simply record inciting incident, long range and short range goals, motivation, character flaw, conflict, black moment and growth/come to realize. I also cone up with a theme.
On another sheet I answer a few questions about the character: Who is he? What's his job or position? Personality? I list at least ten adjectives that describe him, record is strongest and weakest traits, and his greatest fear.
WG: Do you normally start with storyline or with character or with some combination of the two?
CSJ: I usually start with a situation and a character. I had the idea for her Colorado Man for a couple of years before I could make it plausible. My idea was for a man to read letters from a child and then arrive pretending to be the boy's father. I would get out the folder, tweak the thoughts and put it away. Then finally the idea of how to make the story believable came to me.
WG: Do you find certain themes or character archetypes making recurring appearances in your stories
CSJ: It seems I love to have people pretending to be someone they aren't. That's a recurring theme for me. And I love secrets-really big ones that will tear lives apart if the truth is known. I also love families and communities. Not to forget sexy cowboys.
WG: What do you see as your own personal strengths as a writer?
CSJ: A few years back when everyone started talking about branding, I stalled and ten jumped on the bandwagon to figure out my branding. I didn't know how to see or market myself so I looked to what other people said about my writing and stories. My very first and still much beloved editor, Margaret Marbury, once told me I had a direct Hemingway style. She said I hit things straight on, not soft. I don't do a lot of description or use effusive prose. If there's a simple way to state something so that it's clear, that's my approach. I couldn't find a brand in there.
Next I looked at what readers and reviewers had said over the years. Nearly all remarked about beloved characters and warmth of emotion, small-town life-and redemption. I believe in second chances, and I'm sure that comes through in my stories. So my brand became From the Heart�real people, real emotions
WG: Are there any obstacles/conflicts, specific to your particular lifestyle, that get in the way of your writing? If so, how do you try and overcome them?
CSJ: It took several years for people to recognize and respect my career as full time work. I have been protective of my writing time, and though I still volunteer and am available to family and friends, they acknowledge my writing time as my job.
WG: Do you have any advice to offer writers still striving toward publication?
CSJ: Believe in yourself and your ability. All the techniques of writing are learnable, so stay open to those, but the gift of storytelling and the desire to write are talents you were born with. Your talent doesn't up and desert you when life is difficult or you're struggling. Some of my best work was done during times of emotional upheaval. Let those times be a catharsis for your work. Stories are about feelings.
WG: Is there a specific �ah-ha' moment you've had as a writer that you would like to share with us?
CSJ: It was early in my career when I recognized that not every word I wrote was fit for the page. After my first book sold, I pulled out a previous one and asked my new editor to read it. She said she'd buy it if I cut 100 words. It took a critique partner to help me look at it objectively, but I cut those words. And the story was better for it.
When I turned in my first contemporary, my editor hated the ending. The whole last chapter. I asked what she'd like to see happen, rewrote it and faxed it to her the same day. Realizing that words are only words, that they're not pure genius carved in stone, and learning that my head is full of billions more, was a lesson that has served me well.
WG: Rejections, notes from unhappy readers and less than stellar reviews are all part of this business. What is your own method for dealing with these and moving on?
CSJ: Writing is not who I am. It's what I do. Rejection isn't personal. Ideas are free, and there are zillions of words where the last ones came from.
WG: Is there some piece of advice you received or bit of conventional wisdom that you wish you had ignored?
CSJ: "Write every day." Hooey.
WG: What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What aspect do you struggle with the most?
CSJ: I love meeting people. I hate deadlines.
WG: When you're not writing, what do you do for fun? What is your favorite self-indulgence?
CSJ: Flea markets, antique stores and garage sales. Also decorating and painting and remodeling projects. Fortunately, my husband is as crazy as I am. Late at night I love to watch a movie. Sometimes my daughter and I have Boom Blox competitions on the Wii, even when we have to work the next day.
WG: What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
CSJ: That I actually do a have a life beyond books and blogs.. I'm very involved in my church and lead the Sunday praise and worship service.
WG: What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?
CSJ: Television: Bones, Castle, Grey's Anatomy, Lie To Me and The Mentalist are my must watch shows. If I miss them, I catch them on demand or the Web. Trauma is a fantastic new medical show that hasn't replaced ER for me, but it gives me that fix I miss.
Movies - I watch my favorites over and over
WG: I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share.
CSJ: "Strive for perfection in everything. Take the best that exists and make it better. If it doesn't exist, create it. Accept nothing nearly right or good enough." Henry Royce, co-founder of Rolls-Royce.
WG: Please tell us about your current project.
CSJ: I'm working on a Harlequin Historical I call Wyoming Wildflower.
WG: What inspired you to write this particular story?
CSJ: Just crazy, I guess. I always set myself up for difficult plots and twists that I have to hammer my way out of.
WG: Tell us about your upcoming plans.
CSJ: I have a December Harlequin Historical, Her Colorado Man and an April '09 LIH Mother's Day anthology with Ruth Axtel Morren, To Be a Mother. I'm contracted for a sequel to The Preacher's Wife.
WG: And before we close, tell us how your readers can get in touch with you.
WG: Thanks so much for spending time with me and my readers this month. I enjoyed getting to know you better.