THE ROAD TO THE RITA
Jennifer, congratulations on your latest win. And thank you for bringing the Rita to our chapter meeting and letting me take pictures with her. This is not your first win and it leads to my first question. You’re a multiple Rita winner and you’re in The Hall of Fame, an immense honor. We’re extremely proud to have you as a member of our Windy City RWA. By the way, thank you for letting me have my moment with your Rita. I’m hoping it’s catching. (Smile)
Dyanne: "Jennifer, would you please explain how a writer makes it to the Hall of Fame?"
Jennifer: Interested readers (and writers) can look at the Romance Writers of America website for the exact policy. But in general...the annual contest is divided into categories, so books are judged with similar type books....and all are judged by our peers. After the initial set of judges evaluate the books, a set of finalists are chosen in each category. The final winner gets 'the Rita'--which means that it's the best book in its category for that year.
The Hall of Fame award is given only to those writers who've won three books in the same category. Writers can win a number of Ritas throughout various genres and subgenres...but the purpose of awarding the Hall of Fame is defining authors who have uniquely excelled in a particular category.
The Hall of Fame Rita given to me was in the short contemporary category--which was and still is my favorite book type. For me, it's the most 'packed' length--no wasted words, just an intense love story between two characters. Like all categories and genres, it has its strengths (and weaknesses)...but I think most writers find they have a natural fit for a category.
For darn sure, the short contemporary always challenged me--when the books are right, they're wonderful! Of course, I have a wee bit of bias about that. :)
Dyanne: About coloring outside the lines. Do you consider your writing now to be like that?'"
Jennifer: What I meant by that phrase was to communicate that a writer has a 'sphere' where she feels safe. It's what she naturally writes, where she's naturally drawn, what appeals to her in structure and style and content.
Coloring outside the lines may not mean writing 'bigger' books, or so called 'better books.' It means having to write, and learn to write, in ways that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar to us.
To a point, I'm talking about discipline. And I know that's not a popular word! But when we have to write what we don't intrinsically care to do--we learn craft, and discipline, and have to stretch to get to new places. To a point, I'm also talking about the opposite--hanging out their naked, a concept that's tough to explain to a non-writer. The point, is that discovering new roads to sell, may require the writer to dig deeper, to dig to more uncomfortable personal places...to unpeel more layers on the onion in order to find material the writer might well have been afraid of before.
Sometimes this is fun, and wonderful and challenging.
Sometimes it means writing something we never wanted to or meant to. Coloring outside the lines isn't always a 'romantic' and positive concept. It's always about stepping off the deep end. But that may be either a positive or negative experience for the writer.
And yes...I definitely have had to do that, many times, in many ways.
I can't think of a long-term successful writer who's ever escaped this. (Or who doesn't whine and worry about it from time to time.)
Dyanne: Having published so many books, are there now more days that you sit in your chair waiting impatiently for your muse? When do you say, okay enough for today?"
Jennifer: Waiting for a muse is like waiting for God to… There is no muse. There's just you, glued to the seat, punching those keys through great sentences and terrible ones, learning probably more from the terrible ones...until something finally comes together. Some days it's hell. Some days it's bliss. That's true at the start of writing and it's true after doing this for 30 years.
The only difference between my novice days is that I'm not quite as afraid as I used to be. Days the words won't come, I used to think were from a lack of talent, that I'd lost it or never had it, that it's over...that the truth has finally come out, I have no idea how to write a book.
Now I KNOW all that nonsense is true...and I write anyway.
If I've been on the same sentence for two hours, though, I also know that it's time to shut down the computer and take a TJ Maxx shopping trip...or a walk. Discipline's a serious thing. But there ARE days that you just can't get blood from a turnip--and I certainly apologize for that cliché, but darn it, it's true. :)
Dyanne: Jennifer, as a multiple Rita winner does each win feels different and which is the most memorable?
Jennifer: That’s really a hard question. The “Hall of Fame” Rita lit up my heart….but the first Rita was for NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, one of my favorite books, and that recognition was unbeatable affirmation. The one I just received, though, was for a Mother’s Day story—BORN IN MY HEART—and because I recently lost my mom, I have to say, this one may mean the most, at least emotionally.
Dyanne: You’ve been an established writer for many years and by now I’m sure your readers think it was an easy road for you. Was it? Please tell us how you got started.
Jennifer: I started writing stories when I was 7—and the addiction got worse when my mom gave me my first typewriter at age l0. When I look back now, all the jobs or courses I took indirectly led me to writing—or I found a way to include writing in them. Still, I had 6 books in the closet before the first one sold…and as many as I’ve written now, I can promise, I’ve had enough rejections to wallpaper a complete room.
I always had support from my husband and kids…and an agent from the start, Meg Ruley at the Jane Rotrosen Agency. Even with a super support system, though, circumstances make writing a difficult long term road. Changes in the market affect income. Losing an editor (which all long term writers do, and probably several times) hugely affects confidence and creativity—and so does changing publishing houses.
One of the odd problems with writing as a career is that you can’t stay in a ‘safe place’. That is, you might find a writing niche where you feel comfortable—but you’ll get stale and bored if you don’t push yourself to new limits and new boundaries. To sustain a long term career, I’m afraid you always have to be willing to color outside the lines.
Dyanne: Did you have another career before you began writing?
Jennifer: I didn’t have another career, per se, but I worked as a teacher and human resources manager for several years before I settled into seriously writing. Actually, I had part time jobs from the time I was 11—and every work experience added to fuel for writing. The more people you’re exposed to, the more places you see, the more experiences you have—the more you’re enabled to step into a character’s shoes in a real way.
Dyanne: Most aspiring authors have this picture in their minds that they’re going to sell their first mss, it’s going to be made into a block buster movie and they’re going to live off of the royalty. LOL. How would you address this?
Jennifer: Hmmm. Off hand, I’d suggest Thorazine for that level of delusions.
More seriously, I’d say that those career ‘goals’ or dreams are diametrically opposed to what fuels a writer. If you want to make it as an author, you actually have to want to write—as crazy as that sounds. But I mean it. You have to be happy, parking your behind in the chair, spending long hours alone, motivating yourself on days the characters won’t do a single thing you need them to do.
Glory and big money is fine. Great, in fact. J But that won’t keep you in the chair, creating, producing—unless you actually love the work of writing.
Dyanne: Has the structure for advances and royalty payment changed in the last decade to your knowledge and if so why do you think that is?
Jennifer: Advances certainly have changed—and, no surprise—not in a way that’s more lucrative for the writer. We have more markets, more books out there—but they’re being published and sold in a way that makes less for the writer. I think it’s always been rare for a writer to earn a living ‘just writing’, but today it’s far, far more difficult.
I blame the loss of our independent bookstores—and downfall of the malls, because those enabled the mall bookstores to thrive for a long time. The conglomeration of many of our major publishers under one ownership is another major reason for this change (in my opinion.)
Still—through good times and bad—I think good books will always sell. The problem for a writer is surviving these financially struggling times.
Dyanne: It seems that I’m hearing more and more established authors complain of getting rejections. Have you been hearing the same things?
Jennifer: Actually, no, I haven’t heard that. What I do here from established authors is that they can’t afford to continue to write at the price of advances these days.
Dyanne: How big of a role do you think the weak economy is having on the buying of books?
Jennifer: I suspect the weak economy is both a plus and a minus. People might tend to read more, rather than spend money on a movie or more expensive entertainment. But they’re surely more likely to get their books from a library or used bookstore over paying full price in tight financial times.
Dyanne: Do you think ebooks are hurting or helping the industry?
Jennifer: I think ebooks provide options we didn’t have before. Speaking only for myself, I don’t read fiction via ebooks because I already have trouble with eye strain, can’t read this way. But for research books, think they’re terrific. So much of our reading population is in the Baby Boom generation that I don’t think ebooks particularly affect them…but the whole younger generations coming up are already appreciating the variations in reading and book technology that we never had before.
Dyanne: Do you still have old mss gathering dust under your bed?
Jennifer: Yes, but only because they’re buried so deep I haven’t gotten around to burning them. !
Dyanne: The first book you had published, was it your first?
Jennifer: Definitely not. I wrote two books that were unpublishable – they weren’t remotely ready, even if I thought they were at the time. Then I had a couple ‘practice’ books that received attention but covered topics that ‘weren’t acceptable’….our romance genre can date very quickly. Virgins were ‘in’ when I was first trying to sell—then they were totally out. Now they seem to be ‘in’ again, at least in certain genres. But I wrote a couple that were rejected solely because of the subject matter. After that, I started getting hits.
Dyanne: How many years have you been a member of RWA, and do you believe being a member played a part in your success?
Jennifer: I’m not positive when I joined—I think 1982. And I totally believe the organization made a difference in my success, my confidence and skills as a writer, and the opportunity to network with writers and professionals that I would NEVER have had otherwise.
Dyanne: How many books did you enter into the Rita contest before you won your first award?
Jennifer: I honestly don’t know. My belief has always been that the contest has the most validity if we all support it…so if and when I’ve had an eligible book, I’ve always entered. I’ve been a finalist quite a few times, also placed back in the days when there were Silver and Gold Medallions (the pre-Rita days.)
Dyanne: Can you tell us how you feel emotionally by being in the hall of fame?
Jennifer: Humbled and honored. I know that’s a corny answer, but it’s the truth.
Dyanne: Are there days despite what your characters want that you want to just say chuck it all and stop writing
Jennifer: Only from Monday through Friday. J Like Mark Twain said about smoking—it’s easy to quit smoking; I’ve done it a hundred times. Substitute ‘writing’. When something’s under your skin this deep, it’s hard to stop. It has nothing to do with whether the writing’s going well or badly. You still need to do it.
Dyanne: Does the writing process seem more like a job now than it did when you first started and was unpublished.
Jennifer: Writing is very different now than when I first started. Certain things are easier—it doesn’t take so much time to analyze point of view, tension, all the craft issues. It’s not that they always go well, but that years of writing enable me to ‘smell’ when those aren’t right in a scene. The other side to that fence is that other things take longer—I used up everything I knew years ago, so I have to do more research, stretch more to find fresh angles and ideas.
Dyanne: Can you take us through a typical day for you?
Jennifer: I’m up at 6, doing coffee and e-mail. Take a long walk with my husband and the dog (Magic) around daybreak. Then come back to work, usually, by 8:30 or 9. I write through the morning; that’s my most intense ‘brain’ time. After lunch, I tend to read for an hour, then head back to work.
I used to write at night as well, after everyone was asleep, but can’t still do that. But when I’m in the middle of the story, I generally write 7 days a week…unless my husband drags me kicking and screaming from the computer to do something intelligent. J
Dyanne: This is a question I get asked a lot so I’m going to ask it of you: How long does it take you to write a book and what is your general word count.
Jennifer: That answer has changed over the course of my career, and I’m sure it’s different for everyone. But at this time, I need about four months to do a short book….seven months to do a single title. When/if I change genres, I need extra writing time to accommodate for the learning curve.
A short book for me is around 210 pages. Single titles, just under 400 pages. I’m not actually sure what the word counts are for either.
Dyanne: Jennifer, what advice would you give to aspiring authors that they need to hear even if they don’t want to?
Jennifer: I hear impatience in a lot of new writers today…if they’ve finished a manuscript, they expect it to sell, for their careers to be ‘on go’. Writing is about WRITING…not selling. The business of publishing is frustrating and unfair—and we have very little control over it. To survive long term, you have to keep what matters on the front line…and that’s what you do, not what anyone else does. What YOU do is write. You have power over your craft, your characters, the development of your story, the truth you want to say. Value that. Don’t sweat the stuff that isn’t in your power to affect.
Dyanne: What are your future plans? What books are coming out next?
Jennifer: Right now I’m finishing up a contract with two Silhouette Romantic Suspenses—WHISPER OF DANGER, and the one I’m finishing now, TASTE OF DANGER. Haven’t done this type of book in years, and very much enjoying them.
After this…I’m not sure. Or I should say, I’m trying not to be sure. J I’ve got ideas in the mill, but learned a long time ago, that after a long contract, it’s a good idea to take a break, get out, travel, remember what fresh air smells like. Fresh ideas always come from that.
Dyanne: Jennifer, I want to thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. It’s been a pleasure picking your brains. Again, congratulations on your win and here’s to many more. Thanks again also for allowing me to hold it, take a picture with it and dream.
Where can readers reach you?
Jennifer: Readers are welcome to reach me through my web site---www.jennifergreene.com
I’ll answer, I promise! Always delighted to hear from readers. And thank you, Dyanne, for such an interesting interview!