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ON THE COVER
The paper earned a gold star. And JoAnn kept writing.
She's now written ninety-nine novels and has been published in twenty-six countries, with three more under contract and in the works. Two of her titles have been excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine and her books have also been published by the Doubleday Book Club, Rhapsody Book Club and the Literary Guild. A member of the Romance Writers of America's Honour Roll of best-selling authors, she's won several awards, including Romantic Times' Career Achievement Awards in both category and contemporary single title. In addition, she received RWA's national service award and was named RWA Pro-Mentor of the Year.
Graciously, JoAnn took some time with IN to give us the details on just how she became such an accomplished author.
IN: How did you get started as a writer? What moved you to become a published author?
JR: I've always loved books. My mother told me that before I could talk, I'd babble in my crib as I turned the pages of my little cloth books, apparently telling stories to go along with the pictures. Growing up in a remote ranching community in Oregon, where the Cascade Mountains blocked television signals, the bi-monthly visit from the county bookmobile was both a lifeline and a magic carpet to the outside world. Enthralled by the stories I was reading, my youthful fantasies invariably involved me dashing off the great American novel in some Greenwich Village garret, hand carrying it to a New York publisher who would proclaim it brilliant and launch my career to both critical acclaim and commercial success, after which I'd move to Cape Cod and live among all the other rich and famous novelists.
Well, it didn't quite work out that way. I've written advertising copy extolling the wonders of everything from household appliances to diamonds to tires. For a few years, I wrote for a large metropolitan newspaper, only to feel more and more constrained by the rigid parameters of fact. It was then I reminded myself what I really wanted to do – what I'd always wanted to do: make up stories I could share with others.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career and why?
JR: I've been blessed with fabulously supportive and influential people over the years. Probably the most important has been my husband, who's believed in my writing since I was in my teens. (And yes, I did, indeed, marry my high-school sweetheart. Twice.)
Also, hugely influential was my grandfather McLaughlin, who was a seanachie – an Irish teller of tales. My earliest memories are listening to the music of his lyrical brogue spinning grand stories of kings and castles, battles and banishments, magic and miracles. Not only did I inherit his love of storytelling, Grandda also taught me to dream big, which gave me the courage to actually believe I could some day become a published author.
The next important person to enter my life was Marilyn Schiedat, English teacher extraordinaire at Glendale Community College, who taught me that even the most engaging stories need proper form and punctuation.
Bud DeWald and Jim Cook, my editors at the Arizona Republic newspaper, passed on a common sense view of the marketplace that's helped me stay reasonably sane during these twenty-five years riding the fictional rollercoaster.
Over these many years, Birgit Davis-Todd, Harlequin Executive Editor, and Kate Duffy, Editorial Director at Kensington, have allowed me the incredible creative freedom most authors can only dream of.
And last, but definitely not least, has to be Claire Zion (Editorial Director at NAL), who rescued my first published novel from the slush pile in November, 1982, and changed my life.
JR: I wrote my first "official" story – a novella about two star-crossed mallard ducks – for a second grade writing assignment when I was seven. The story earned a gold star from my teacher, so I just kept writing. While still in grammar school, I wrote melodramas, casting my sisters and neighbourhood kids in the roles. Since I was a prolific writer, even then, box office receipts paid for my first bike. When I was in high school, I won an Arpege advertising slogan contest in Seventeen magazine.
Still, despite writing for Arizona's largest daily newspaper and several suburban papers, breaking into novel-length fiction was a struggle, because back in the early 1980s, publishers weren't buying the type of stories I was writing. While working on my first (unpublished) novel in an Allstate booth in a Phoenix Sears store, I gave myself one year to get published. During that time I received twelve rejections on nine completed novels; one memorable and ego-deflating day I received three rejections. Editors kept saying things such as, "We love your writing, but your story just isn't right for us." Then, suddenly, eleven months and ten days after I submitted my first manuscript, there was a publishing sea change; contemporary romance got hot and my world shifted when I sold three books to two different publishers over a six week period.
IN: How do you approach the creation of a new story? Are you strategic and methodical, random and adventurous, or a little of both?
JR: I always begin with my characters. In my early writing days, I'd make up charts, worksheets, diagrams, etc, because that's what people said a "real" writer did. Those may work for other people, but they didn't do a thing for me except waste time. I tend to think about my characters for a long time, sometimes years, so by the time I write their stories, I know them well enough to trust them to carry my story for me. After I find a couple I feel will be a good match for one another, different enough that there'll be conflict, but who complement each other enough that readers will believe they'll someday be celebrating their 50th anniversary, I come up with a story that will challenge them.
Because I've often thought it would be helpful to have a roadmap, I've tried, but simply cannot do outlines because I write my books to find out what happens. (If I already know, what's the point of writing?) So, once I have a beginning, a pivotal scene, and the ending – which can and often does change – figured out, I begin to write, but I continue to plot about 10-12 scenes ahead of where I am. I don't necessarily recommend this method; as with everything else about writing, process is a very unique thing. My process has changed a lot since I began writing, and can often change during the course of a book.
Occasionally, I wake up in the morning, my balky muses have decided to cooperate, and the words flow as if from some secret spring. We all have to find what works for us on any given book or day. Then be prepared to shift gears if the writing bogs down.
IN: Over the length of your career, have you noticed a change in the publishing industry, and if so, how has it changed?
On the flipside, there's so much more competition for readers' time and dollars these days, but I'm an optimist and believe people will always want someone to tell them stories. Which is where we come in. People might claim the marketplace is currently in the doldrums, but I've seen swings before, and more and more opportunities spring up every day. A definite disadvantage is that networking can take away from writing time and energy. It's difficult to stay in a right brain creative mindset if you stop writing every time the email alert dings.
IN: What do you see as today's greatest challenges new writers must face on the road to success?
JR: I personally believe that author branding is one of the worst concepts to come to the publishing world. Although there are so many marvellously different types of stories being written today, in an odd way the marketplace has also narrowed, with too many people trying to stick stories into tight, well-defined marketing niches. It can, admittedly, be a tricky balancing act, but I believe the key is to be able to step back and take a long hard look at what you do well, what makes your work different from other writers, what feels the most natural to you when you're writing. Having grown up with my grandfather's oral tradition, I write the same way I tell stories in the bar at conferences, which is why, I suspect, when readers meet me, they tend to say I sound just like my books. By finding that voice that's natural to you, first editors, then readers, will come to recognize your unique voice and count on it, whatever type of story you happen to be telling.
It's also hugely important not to pay attention to trends. Trends, by nature, are short-lived and due to the lag time between when a manuscript is turned in and when the book hits the shelves, any person who makes the mistake of chasing a trend is always going to be behind the curve. Or, as Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, "One day you're in, the next day you're out."
Of course it's important to keep one eye on what editors are buying. But when you come right down to it, if you boil any book down to a paragraph, or even back cover copy, it's not going to sound very different from a gazillion others out there. It's impossible to come up with a story that hasn't been told, so it's all in the execution: putting a new twist on an old tale, then telling it in a voice that'll capture an editor's attention from line one and pulls him or her deeper into a story populated by complex, conflicted characters readers will care about.
Also, I think it's hugely important to make a contract with yourself that you won't wimp out and toss away a book that isn't working. Choose an idea that appeals and stick with it to the end. It's too easy to be lured away from a balky book to that new, bright and shiny (and perfect) idea that's singing its siren song. Remind yourself that the book you're bogged down in was once bright and sparkling. So, scribble some notes on the new idea, promise those intrusive characters that you'll get to them eventually, but first do whatever it takes to finish your work in progress. Because unfinished books don't sell. And even if that balky book never gets published, you'll have learned a lot while writing it; I always look back on those earlier rejected novels as 650,000 words of practice.
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And most importantly, enjoy the process. Because, in the end, the work is what it's all about. Don't worry about what others are doing. Write the book you'd like to read. Send it out to a house that has shown an openness to publishing that type of story. Then sit down and do it again.
To paraphrase Tom Hanks, from A League Of Their Own, writing isn't easy. It's not supposed to be easy. That's what makes it great. But it takes more than talent and a knowledge of craft. It takes self-discipline. That hasn't changed since people began drawing stories onto cave walls. My favourite writing cartoon shows a castaway sitting on a tiny, one-palm tree island. He's making a list of things he must do before writing. Number one is "polish seashells."
IN: When dealing with agents and publicists what suggestions and warnings can you pass along to "about-to-be" authors?
JR: This is such a difficult question, because one person's perfect agent is another person's agent from hell. It's important to know what type of representation you want. Do you want an agent who insists on being in on every aspect of the editing process? One who doesn't care what you write, but is mostly interested in making killer deals? One that's somewhere in the middle? I used to have a list of questions to ask potential agents on my website; these are questions I've collected from writer friends over the years. Since the site's currently being redesigned, the tips for writers aren't back up yet, but anyone who'd like a copy can email me from my website, and I'll pass it along. I'd also recommend meeting agents in person – which you can often do at regional conferences – to make sure your personalities are a good match. That isn't absolutely necessary – I didn't meet my fabulous agent until after I'd signed with her – but it can be helpful.
Also, join writers' organizations and ask members about their experiences with various agents; Google up websites that warn against unprofessional behaviour. Do your homework; don't send a serial killer manuscript to an agent who prefers to market children's picture books or religious nonfiction. One helpful way to begin an agent safari is to check out the acknowledgments and dedication pages in books like yours for names of agents who obviously enjoy that type of story. And always remember, no agent is better than a bad agent.
As for publicists, over 25 years and 99 books, I've only ever used one, to send out ARCs and bookmarks for one book, so I'm not really qualified to speak on that aspect of the business. Again, I suspect the same advice about making sure you and the publicist are both in agreement about duties, costs, and getting recommendations from other writers would be helpful. But the main thing, I believe, to keep in mind is it's important to stay focused on The Work. Because without a completed book that's due to be published, there's no need for a publicist.
JR: As for conferences, it's important to remember it's just a conference. Not a life-altering event. Enjoy it, soak in the atmosphere, meet as many people as you can (I always sit at tables with people I don't know, which has resulted in meeting hundreds of people and making bunches of friends over the years), and buy the tapes. If you have an agent or editor appointment, know that your career will not be made or broken due to an interview. Practice getting your story down to a few short lines. Remember to smile. The person on the other side of the table was once starting out, too. It's always nice if you can mention some books the editor has published or the agent has handled to show that you've done your homework. They appreciate that.
Regarding workshops, seminars, and classes, while they may prove helpful, I firmly believe it's vital to understand there's no one right way to tell a story and anyone who tells you something is a hard and fast rule is flat out wrong. As W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three essential rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
IN: How do you categorize your writing? Would you consider your writing as suspense, romance, intrigue/espionage, or some other category of writing?
JR: Having written all over the spectrum – sexy short contemporary category books, glitz, family-centered women's fiction, paranormal, and romantic suspense – I'm difficult to categorize. Romantic suspense, especially, has come a long way from the days editors refused to buy it because booksellers claimed they didn't know where to shelve it. Once, in a moment of frustration, I suggested my agent tell an overly – in my view – cautious editor that they simply shelve romantic suspense with the "good books."
The books I'm currently writing for NAL Signet could probably be described as romantic thrillers, but since all three heroes are from the world of Special Ops, the subject matter brings an edgier, faster-paced military flavour to the books, all which include flashbacks to a battle in Afghanistan that changes all three men's lives. Each book of the trilogy shows a bit more of that life-altering, twenty-four hour period, from each hero's point of view. New York Times bestselling author Iris Johansen, who was kind enough to give me a cover quote, described Freefall as, "A page-turning mix of danger, suspense, and passion!"
A song I've gained a lot of inspiration from is Rick Nelson's Garden Party, most specifically the lines, "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck." And, "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself." I play it often before I begin writing to remind myself that while telling many different types of stories over the years might have made me a bit difficult to brand, I wouldn't be happy writing any other way.
Whatever category I'm writing in, readers can expect a JoAnn Ross book to be character-driven, with strong, yet flawed women who've usually overcome adversity, to-die for men (either alpha guys or bad boys, occasionally both), a very strong sense of setting, and a satisfying ending. Oh, and lots of hot sex. After that, all bets are off.
IN: You have written under the name JoAnn Robbins and JoAnn Robb. Why have you published under three different names? What have been the benefits and disadvantages of doing this?
JR: When I sold to two different publishers (NAL and Silhouette) two weeks apart, it turned out that both – oops – wanted to be my exclusive publisher. I immediately hired an agent who negotiated a deal allowing me to continue to write for both houses, but I'd have to use different names for each. Also, in those days, most publishers required pseudonyms because they didn't want to spend time and money promoting an author's name, only to have that author jump to the competition. In early 1984 I sold to Harlequin Temptation; contract negotiations included letting me write under my own name, which I've continued to do ever since.
IN: What keeps you motivated and directed to write in this specific category?
JR: Because my own life – personally and professionally – is currently very rosy, wandering over to the "dark side" brings an edge to my writing day that keeps me from getting bored. Also, like my heroines, I've never done "easy." If something isn't challenging, I lose interest. And if I'm bored, I figure readers would be, too.
Remember the scene from Tootsie, where Dustin Hoffman's method actor character explains that he's not just any tomato, he's a Beefsteak tomato? That's pretty much the full-immersion way I write. In order to tell my stories, I have to live inside all my characters' skins, which means I'm constantly researching months, sometimes years before I begin writing a book, and usually keep researching up until the day before I turn a manuscript in. Writing my High Risk trilogy for NAL requires me to spend nearly two years in a military thriller mindset, which presented a challenge I couldn't resist. Also, in a time when the word "hero" seems to be tossed around so casually, exploring the lives and loves of those true heroes – men and women who stand in harm's way around the world – is proving immensely satisfying, albeit often emotionally difficult.
IN: I know that you have a new release coming out in February, 2008 – Freefall. What other writing and promotional projects are on your horizon?
JR: I just turned in Crossfire, the second in my High Risk series where FBI agent Cait Cavanaugh teams up with former navy SEAL sniper Quinn McKade to stop a serial sniper terrorizing Somersett, South Carolina. It's a very fast-paced romantic thriller, takes place over three days, and I had a lot of fun writing it! It'll be out in September, 2008 from NAL. After that will be Shattered, the third book of the trilogy scheduled for publication in February, 2009. It's a jungle rescue adventure featuring way sexy Shane Garret, a former elite Army SOAR Night Stalker helicopter pilot who lost a leg during that disastrous mission in Afghanistan.
On a lighter note, as sort of a sorbet between courses, I just agreed to write a Christmas novella in an anthology with Fern Michaels that'll be out from Kensington in time for the 2008 holidays, and another erotic romantic novella for Brava Bad Boys (this one featuring a strapping Irish lad Bad Boy) scheduled for sometime in 2009.
Category Romances by Joann Ross
Joann Ross Writing as Joann Robb
Joann Ross Writing as Joann Robbins
Inkwell Newswatch (IN)
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