Posted on 06/16/2014 at 12:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Prolific is a great word to describe author JoAnn Ross, who has written more than 100 romance novels and novellas during the past 30 years. In our Q&A she talks about writing for Harlequin, how she decided to quit her day job and write full time, and how she remains productive as a writer.
JEFFREY: Let’s start, as they say, “in the beginning.” You had a lot of different careers before you become a full-time author …
JOANN: Ever since I wrote my first story in the second grade, I'd dreamed of being a writer, but since I'd never met a "real" writer in the small, remote ranching community I grew up in, the idea always seemed more ethereal dream than an actual goal. So, I worked as a construction coordinator, went to college (Lit and Urban Geography majors), then was an advertising account rep and wrote for Arizona's daily newspaper.
Then one day I discovered Harlequin romance novels while shopping for cold medication at Walgreens and realized that this could be a way to return to my first love: fiction. I bought every paperback on the rack, then two weeks later, I bought out another month's rack, and over the next weeks, I must have read a hundred to get a handle on how they were crafted. Because advertising took up too much of my creativity, I switched to insurance, and after writing my first romance in an Allstate booth in a Phoenix Sears store, my husband and I did the math and decided that we could afford for me to take a year off work to get published. Fortunately, I sold to NAL right before the year was out.
JEFFREY: I think how you approached “how to write a novel” is very instructive. You read, read and read more. You took notes on structure, setups and payoffs, and so forth. There’s obviously a very creative aspect to writing fiction, but to some degree there’s a formula, too.
JOANN: I wouldn't use the word "formula," but consider it more genre expectations. For instance, unless there's going to be a sequel, or a continuing character, (such as the Deaf Man in Ed McBain's wonderful 87th Precinct books), mystery readers expect the bad guy to be caught at the end. We used to want a vampire to get a stake driven through his heart at the end of a book, but those expectations were turned every which way, which breathed new life into the genre. I studied classical music for twelve years and taught for several (oops, I forgot to add that to the jobs I've had), and although there are only 8 notes in a scale, Beethoven, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, John Williams (hmm … John seems to be a good name for a songwriter), Bruce Springsteen, and Joni Mitchell have all used those same notes to create some wonderful, yet entirely different music.
The one constant I did discover while reading all those books was that romance is very character driven. When I first started writing, I wavered between writing horror and romance, both of which are character dependent because if readers don't care about your characters they won't care if they fall in love or get run over by a Plymouth Fury named Christine. I chose romance because of the second expectation: If there's not a continuing arc over several books, those characters readers have come to care about will get their well deserved happy ending at the end. What I love about romance is that readers are so eclectic in their tastes and there are so many sub genres, writers have a LOT of freedom to create between the first line and the last line of a story.
JEFFREY: How did you do the research for your marketing? For those wanting to get an agent or submit to publishers, are there some "old school" resources that you think get overlooked these days?
JOANN: Submitting to an agent and publisher may have changed in the way you approach them (email queries, rather than sending manuscripts with return postage attached, for example), but the basics stay the same. You need to do your homework to find a publisher who publishes your type of story, or an agent who agents them.
Assuming you've honed your craft and have a publishable manuscript ready, going to conferences can be helpful. (Never pitch a story you haven't completed, or you're in trouble if the editor or agent asks you to send it to them right away, because you've squandered a golden opportunity.) I personally recommend smaller, regional conferences because they cost less and you'll have more of an opportunity to talk with editors and agents when they're not busying wining and dining their current writers. You're also more likely to have conversations at meals or in the bar with published writers who are always willing to offer advice.
If conferences aren't a possibility, you can still join local or online writer groups made up of people who are writing in your genre and get a lot of good advice that way. Also, you should be reading what you're writing. If so, the authors' acknowledgments in the front or back of the book often mention editors and agents, which helps narrow the field. Also, so many editors and agents appear on blogs these days, Google searches can kick up information much faster than when I used to take my bag of quarters to the library to search through microfiche files.
JEFFREY: Do you think it’s important to have completed a few novels before quitting a day job and trying to make it as a writer? I think it develops the discipline that you need to have to thrive once you’re out there all on your own.
JOANN: Unless you have a second source of income, if you've grown used to having a roof over your head and eating on a regular basis, I would NOT recommend quitting your day job. I'd sold nine books before I began to think I might actually be able to make writing a career. But perhaps thanks to being the eldest in the family, and growing up with nuns, along with writing to newspaper deadlines, I was extremely disciplined, and every day while trying to get published, I would write how many pages I'd written on a wall calendar. I did not go to bed until that day's square was filled in. No excuses.
JEFFREY: Maybe I should back up for a second here. Do you think there's still value in getting an agent and submitting to traditional publishers?
JOANN: Absolutely. Over 32 years and six major publishers, I've worked with a lot of editors, some of whom were stellar and taught me so much about crafting a story. That's very valuable for any writer. Traditional publishing also got my books in the front of bookstores, in the big discount stores, grocery and drug stores, and airports, which helped build my readership, which gave me a base for my self-publishing.
Just as all our stories are different, the publishing experience will be very different for every writer. Some will enjoy the benefits of traditional publishing, others will prefer the freedom and control (including the ability to get books out into the marketplace sooner) of self-publishing, and others will opt to work in both worlds. Some writers will start out self-publishing, then add traditional to their platform while others might start out in traditional and go the other way. The wonderful thing for authors and readers who are always hungry for new stories, is that there are so many choices and opportunities these days.
JEFFREY: Agents can also help get you sold into foreign territories if your publisher isn’t handling that task.
JOANN: Agents can definitely be helpful with that. I have, in recent years, negotiated foreign contracts myself, but in each case the foreign agent came to me with a client. I was able to check them out with other writers, and one of my former agents vouched for a Japanese agency. I also have earlier foreign contracts negotiated by agents to use as a guide. That's not to say I'm not open to working with an agent for foreign sales.
JEFFREY: You had two publishers wanting to represent you within six weeks. That fast success reminds me of the first play I wrote, about Hurricane Katrina called "State of Emergency," that was picked up by a Chicago theater about 10 days after I submitted it. I was like, "Wow, this isn't that hard at all." Then it took three years before I got another play produced. Were you fortunate enough to have steady success after that or did you have dry spells?
JOANN: I had the lucky timing of having sold just when category romances were undergoing a major sea change. (In those days, if you wanted to write contemporary romance, you wrote category, because single titles were taken up by historicals.) So I was able to sell three books to two publishers in six weeks, then more books to each, and my first year I could've supported myself if I'd needed to. Since writing is my day job, I've been fortunate to have been able to sell continuously and earn a living since 1983. (Which has involved writing almost every day and even proofing a galley in the stands at halftime during the Rose Bowl.)
And while I've had to reinvent myself from time to time to keep up with a shifting marketplace, and occasionally wrote more books than I might have chosen to (such as the year I wrote seven category romances, two single titles, and a novella to pay off our son's college bills), to paraphrase an old SNL line, “Romance has been very, very good to me.” :)
JEFFREY: How do rights work for your novels that were published by Harlequin? And how has that changed in recent years?
JOANN: As much as I loved working with my Harlequin editors, who were wonderful, in my case, rights reversion hasn't really changed or worked very well. When the contract terms for most of my earlier books begin to approach reversion, a small number of copies get put out in some foreign country, which resets the calendar back to the beginning. I'm hoping that things might get better with Harper buying them, but I'm not holding my breath.
JEFFREY: One last question and it’s the one people would be mad if I didn’t ask: If you were starting from scratch today, would you self-publish everything, go with traditional publishing again, or do a mixture of the two?
JOANN: Oh, wow. That's a tough one. You have to remember, in those days, you didn't need an agent and you'd receive a response within two to six weeks. These days the submission process has become much more complicated and lengthy, so, if I were starting out, I'd still probably submit to traditional publishers, because a good editor can be like getting paid to take craft classes, and it's always fun to see a book on actual bookstore and library shelves.
However, I also wouldn't wait a year (or more!) to hear back on a proposal. If I had a story that I'd paid to have edited and copy edited and believed was ready to go to market, I'd publish it myself. Then, just as I did in traditional publishing, I'd do it again. And again. And if by then some traditional publisher did come calling, at least I'd have a sense of my readership, which never hurts in negotiations.
Your question did get me thinking of something, though … The year I took off to write, I received twelve rejections on nine completed novels. Every rejection said something along the lines of "We love your voice and your writing style, but your story isn't quite right for us." Which was hugely frustrating, because I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.
Then I learned about Romance Writers of America and went to their second national conference in Long Beach and discovered that, as I said earlier, contemporary category romance was about to undergo a huge sea change. The books editors had been buying and were about to launch had a different feel and were far sexier than the Harlequin Mills & Boon romances I'd been studying. So I immediately shifted gears and sold right away.
Unfortunately, those nine rejected books never saw publication. Which, these days, wouldn't be the case. They were still good books. They just weren't what the editors were looking for at that time.
All those readers who had made Mills & Boon a worldwide success hadn’t suddenly disappeared. I'll bet they were still out there and would've enjoyed my discarded stories. That’s what makes this time in publishing so exciting. Writers can still write for niche readers rather than getting boxed into the larger market trends traditional publishing needs to keep their office lights on. I also think there's something to be said for writing for both, if you're one of those writers who can successfully juggle a traditional and indie career, which I suspect is not an easy thing to pull off.
Categories: Author Interview