A Conversation with author, Joyce T. Strand
So give us the backstory. Who are you, where are you from, what made you start writing?
Joyce: Backstory: Born and raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, I grew up with little organized entertainment. My parents didn't even get a TV until I was in college. I had no choice but to go on long bicycle hikes in the summer, ice skating in the winter -- and read lots of books. I especially became a mystery aficionado, and given my appreciation of Perry Mason, considered becoming a lawyer (until I looked at a law book). A small liberal arts college (Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA) taught me about the social sciences -- and the need for excellent writing -- and then I decided I needed a PhD. Technically, my first book was my doctoral dissertation. While finishing my degree at George Washington U. (Washington, D.C.), I met and married my husband within the same year. I do believe in "love at first sight." We are still married and have two children: one a music teacher (still employed) and the other a marketing analyst.
I sort of fell into my career of corporate communications -- in the beginning, marketing writing was the only job I could get given that a PhD in International Politics didn't help me enter the growing high-tech job market in California. I extended my writing skills to include press releases, tutorials, white papers, fact sheets, biographies, corporate presentations, SEC filing documents, by-lined articles for publication etc. After more than 25 years of serving as head of corporate communications at several high-tech and biotech companies in Silicon Valley, I found myself without employment. I was not happy. We needed to make house payments. My husband suggested I write a book. Seemed like a good idea. "What kind of book?" I asked. "Well, I'd suggest a mystery, since you like them so much." And that's how I became a writer of mysteries.
Is your fiction tied into your work experience?
Joyce: My fiction is definitely tied into my work experience. ON MESSAGE is set in a small biotech company in the San Francisco Bay Area -- where I served as the head of corporate communications at several small biotechs. I drew on my experiences and knowledge of the industry to create the background and the characters -- especially Jillian Hillcrest. However, my characters, the company Harmonia Therapeutics, and the lupus product are all fictional. I hasten to add that I never encountered murder in my 25-year career. For that I turned to current events. Each of the Jillian Hillcrest books was inspired by a current case or cases in the news. ON MESSAGE grew out of a case in San Diego that involved the murder of an angel investor who was a former biotech executive. To assure credible police procedure descriptions, I consulted with several retired police detectives.
Well, it sounds like I'm going to have to pick that up! Murder, intrigue, and conspiracy in the biotech world scares the crap out of me! I’m actually reading a book with a similar theme right now that is making me very uneasy... Anyway, to your writing process. What's your method? Do you outline? Do you know how the novel is going to end before you start? What do you already have in your bag of tricks when you go to type the first sentence?
Joyce: Describing my approach to writing as a "method" is a bit of a stretch. I tend to "just do it" with the attitude that I can always rewrite it.
However, admittedly when I do sit down to write, at least for the Jillian Hillcrest series, I have decided on: (1) a chosen case in the news on which to draw and how it relates to my protagonist; (2) an opening scene; (3) a list of characters and their traits -- this often expands as the book progresses; (4) a puzzle, its solution, and one or two red herrings. When I write the opening scene, I let the characters lead me to the next scene and frequently I don't know where that will be, but it must lead us to the puzzle and its solution. It helps that I spent my career performing the same functions as Jillian.
I like to write in large blocks of time, but I also like to write over a period of a few months because the characters like to grow and feel their way. As I'm writing each draft, I make a list of facts I need to check, such as, police procedures, nomenclature, and titles; psychological profiles; biotech products, and drive- time between locations. These are all important for a credible book, although I don't let the need for them slow down the writing process.
I do not let anyone see the book-in-progress. I wait until I have completed a first draft. I don't want anyone to influence the characters until they've had their say. When I complete the first draft of a book, I first ask my husband and a very helpful sister-in-law to read it and let me know what they like and don't like. Then I re-write to develop a second draft. I send the second draft to other members of my family and friends who won't be too cruel but who will give me constructive input. That leads to the third draft. This is the draft I send to the professional editor for the final rewrite.
How do you feel about the re-writing process and editing? Is it a process you enjoy? How long does it typically take you and how much ends up being changed? I hate rewriting and editing!
Joyce: The rewriting and editing process takes me as long as writing an initial draft. I produce at least four drafts of a 90,000 word book -- and frequently I rewrite sections within each draft multiple times. Typically I don't change the core of the book, but often I add scenes and characters, and I definitely delete passages. In my first book I added 10,000 words; in my next book I deleted 5000 and then added a different 3000. I struggle mostly with endings and rewrite them the most.
There are parts of rewriting that I actually enjoy, especially because in most instances the rewrite makes the book better. That's probably more a reflection of my reviewers' skills than my editing ability. Expanding characterization to explain motivation, adding scenes to build suspense, or even cutting pages to assure momentum -- these are all creative rewrites, and can be as interesting as writing the initial prose.
However, I admit that there are tedious parts of editing and rewriting that are more mechanical than creative. To discover typos and grammatical errors, I read the final draft from beginning to end at least three times myself -- both on paper and on the screen. This reviewing is tedious and I frequently need to remind myself that I owe it to my readers to give them an error-free book (at least that's the goal). I also remind myself that if I wasn't editing my book, I'd be pulling weeds, cleaning toilets, or scrubbing the floors. That helps.
Yeah, I've found that it saves me a lot of time to print out the manuscript and read it out loud, marking it with a pen. Otherwise, I tend to just glance over the mistakes, reading them a dozen times without picking up on them. And, though I hate rewriting, you are correct in that the end product is usually far superior as a result. My second novel was 193,000 words when I was submitting it to literary agents. The one I ended up working with wanted me to whittle it down to 120,000. I managed to get it to 173,000 and hated every deletion. However, I later decided to repackage the novel for a broader audience, and, not having been in the novel for a couple of years, I was detached enough to take it to task. I was able to get it to 123,000.
Anyway, when you write, I mean, when you settle down for one of those LONG writing binges. What is your ideal setting? What do you need to be drinking, chewing, wearing... What do your surroundings look like?
Joyce: For long writing binges I prefer sitting dressed in comfortable, baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants at my grandmother's antique desk in a spare bedroom I use as an office. Sitting at a desk says, "Time to work. Get to it!" I particularly like this setting because the desk is in front of a large window to the front yard of our house. A small gurgling fountain right by the window attracts all kinds of birds and bees. It's fun to watch the birds try to get a drink from the running water. Also roadrunners trot by frequently, one recently with a struggling gecko in its mouth. Occasionally a hawk descends. This outside activity is truly entertaining for purposes of procrastination.
Despite the entertaining distractions, I have found that I am most productive in this setting. In the morning, I accompany my efforts with coffee, which, like my protagonist Jillian, I prepare from freshly ground beans daily. In the afternoon, I drink water -- just regular filtered water. I confess that I take frequent breaks, and do little chores around the house -- as little as possible. However, I have written up to 5000 words a day in multiple consecutive days in this setting. So when I walk into the room and sit down at that desk -- I'm ready to go.
5,000 words a day? Can I borrow your desk and drink your coffee? Sheesh. Okay, I think I have a strange question for you. So you're a woman author... Being a woman, not only as a writer but as a reader, do you notice any kind of difference between male and female writers as it pertains to their fictional work? I guess most female authors would use a female POV, although I guess I've read plenty of male authors using a female as their main character, so maybe I'm just assuming that. I know I wouldn't use a female POV, because I feel like girls would be able to see through it and cry out, "A stupid man wrote this!" My aunt told me the other day that she doesn't read male authors, that she picks women authors over men. And I started to think that I tend to do the same. Granted, I tend to associate (wrongly) women authors with the romance genre, and that probably has something to do with it... Actually, I read a book called Angelology that was written by a woman and I loved the lyrical quality it had. It was almost poetic. It had...shall I say a "softer" touch than most books I've read before. It made me want to read more female authors, because I wanted to try and capture some of that elegance to use in my own, more brutish writing. So set me straight, what are the ins and outs of writing fiction from a woman's perspective? Do you think it's different?
Joyce: As a writer, I tend to favor female characters because I do believe that I can describe them more realistically. As a woman, I comprehend the experiences encountered by women and can describe their reactions with more authority. Similarly, I favor writing about American over non-American; middle-class over wealthy or dirt-poor; Caucasian over non-Caucasian -- because that is my point of view. At some point in the future, I plan to depart from this approach and write from a different point-of-view, but I anticipate the need for additional research to make such endeavors credible.
However, when I choose books to read, I do not consider if the author is male or female. In the mystery genre, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both wrote intricate plots with interesting heroes and villains. Certainly Mary Higgins Clark does not back off from dark villains -- I still feel an adrenaline rush when I recall one of her heroines being locked in a coffin buried alive. Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell and Nora Roberts/JD Robb are examples of successful current female mystery writers who pen compelling, interesting well-written stories. I am equally enthusiastic about reading books by the male gender -- John Grisham, Mike Connelly, Rex Stout, and James Patterson -- because they are well-written with intriguing plots.
On the other hand, as a woman, I do not take offense at "male chauvinist" authors such as Raymond Chandler, if the writing is good and the mystery is solid -- and there is a semi-respectful undertone. Philip Marlowe basically respects his secretary, even though he might call her "doll".
Outside of the mystery genre, with which I'm most familiar, I tend to favor historical novels or biographies. My favorite all-time author is James Clavell and SHOGUN is my favorite novel. Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is still at the top of my list -- and if she chose Truman Capote as her editor--good job. My favorite historical biographies include Doris Goodwin's TEAM OF RIVALS and David McCullough's JOHN ADAMS -- again both well-written. I certainly could not detect that one is written by a man and the other by a woman.
Throughout my career I operated within the male-dominated corporate environment. I do believe that there is a Glass Ceiling that makes it difficult, although not impossible, for women to advance. Therefore, I do admit to a bias today towards new female authors -- sort of to help balance the playing field. However, bottom line, the gender of the author is not what determines a good book -- rather, it's the writing!
I agree! Sometimes people can be ignorant about certain cultures or people groups, and their ignorance breeds intolerance and arrogance. I'd like someday to be able to write through diverse POVs, but like you, right now I don't think I could do an adequate job of properly representing the people I'd be writing on behalf of.
What about future works? Have any epics up your sleeve? Do you think that you've found your niche and will be settling in there for a while, or would you cross genres if an idea hit you?
Joyce: I have plans for several future works. My goal is to write three Jillian Hillcrest mysteries. I have published the first; the second is almost ready to go for copyrighting; and I have decided on the plot for the third. Once I finish the trio, I want to research and write a 1940s mystery with a judge as the central character -- a male judge. I'm also working with a colleague on a Management book. At some point, I may return to the Jillian Hillcrest series -- just have to see how plausible more murders are in the life of a pubic relations executive's life. I have many ideas, and am open to others. I want to make up for all those years of not writing my own novels! I really enjoy the art and practice of writing.
That's sounds like a good read! Ok, author to author, how do you handle negative reviews? I just got my first, and it's bugging me. Of course I'm only assuming you've had one, not that you deserve one, but whether you're Stephen King or John Grisham, someone is going to put you down at some point. So, do they bother you like they bother me, or am I just a big baby?
Joyce: I am a recently published author so have not yet experienced the dreaded negative review. However, I will not handle it well. I have practiced somewhat with the informal criticism I've received from family and friends. I'm not talking about the input I solicited prior to publication -- I want that input. I'm talking about off-the-cuff remarks like, "I found the first 50 pages boring." When I get over my vetting, and try to engage my mind, I consider the criticism to try to improve my writing. First, however, I wait a few days before doing anything to try to objectify the point. Then I ask "Is the criticism legitimate?" Assuming that I can be objective, I do my best to evaluate it.
The second consideration is: Does the criticism fall within the criteria of my target reader? If a review says there is too much character development, or they really don't want to learn anything -- well, I have to somewhat ignore that because my target readers for the Jillian Hillcrest series do. They like puzzles, want to learn something, like character development, etc. As I try to find that group, I will need to forego those readers who don't like the type of book my target readers enjoy. I think this will be the most difficult objective to observe, but I believe it will pay off with a more devoted readership.
One peripheral point: given my 25 years of experience as a corporate communications practitioner, I am accustomed to receiving "help" writing press releases, white papers, by-lined articles, fact sheets, etc. So to some extent I have practiced receiving negative input. However, I hastily add, that it is different when the story is my own rather than a corporate one.
Yeah, I had a couple reviews saying there was too much information in my book. Well, to me, a lot of information in a book makes the book worth having on your shelf. I include a bibliography because I want people to be stimulated by the information and start wondering about these things themselves. So the people that think there’s too much info obviously don't share the same fascination with the things I'm writing about -- which is fine, because as you said, they are not my target audience. However, it’s also a great feeling when someone who doesn’t initially care about the things in the story end up giving it a 5 star review! When you can convert someone to your genre, that’s a great accomplishment!
Because I haven't read your novel yet, this may be an insignificant question. Or maybe it could pertain to future works. Is there a line you draw when writing sex, language, and violence into your stories? To what degree are you comfortable including some more intense or steamy scenes?
Joyce: The line I draw for sex, language, violence or steamy scenes is determined again by the characteristics of my target reader group. For the Jillian Hillcrest series, my target readers want a hint of sex, but not graphic descriptions; they want language appropriate to the character -- so foul language is likely with some characters in certain situations, including my protagonist. They do not expect graphic violence -- even though these are murder mysteries. This series relies more on the puzzle, character development, suspense in solving the mystery, some romance, learning something, and a little humor. For other novels, that might change depending on the characteristics of those target readers.
I have pushed the line somewhat in the second Jillian Hillcrest mystery. So far my test readers like it and claim it is suspenseful. In addition, rather than decreasing the potentially offensive scene, my editor increased the intensity with the addition of some four-letter words to help reinforce my villain's reprehensibleness. My conclusion is that if I don't overuse violence or sex, and if it is part of the character's world, it will be an effective ploy to draw in the reader. I hasten to add that the scene I'm describing is minimal compared to many, but it's a stretch for the Jillian Hillcrest series.
Sorry for the delay between questions here, had to mourn my New Orleans Saints loss yesterday... So where can people connect with you and pick up your book?
Joyce: Oh -- sorry about the Saints. I hesitate to tell you that I was on the other side. I lived in the Bay Area for many years, and I've been a 49er Faithful for more years than I care to count. I enjoyed the Montana/Young years and had almost given up on them in recent years. Regardless, Saturday's game was GREAT. Admittedly I was torn, because I've been routing for the Saints since Katrina. But old habits die hard.
First, people can connect with Jillian Hillcrest at her web-site (http://jillianhillcrest.com), blog (http://jillianhillcrest.com/blog) and Facebook page (http://tinyurl.com/8x9wdqc). She blogs about corporate intrigue at her company Harmonia, interesting dates with her ex-husband, Chad, and relevant news items such as how Steve Jobs changed the practice of PR, contributions by the media to expose corrupt governments, and recognition of the courage of reporters to bring us insight into world events, such as Mexico, where several have been killed to cover the drug cartels. On her Facebook page, readers can learn about the latest progress with the marketing of ON MESSAGE and her next books. She also offers clues to potential readers to solve a mystery to win free copies of ON MESSAGE (see "Jillian's Holiday Story").
To learn about Joyce T. Strand the author, or to purchase a book, go to my Webpage (http://joycestrand.com), which serves as a hub. You can learn more about the author, today's cases which inspired the Jillian Hillcrest mysteries, and a link to my blog "Strand's Simply Writing Tips" (http://joycestrand.com/joyceblog)
ON MESSAGE is available as an e-book at all the likely places, including for the Kindle, the Nook, I-book, mybookorders.com. Reviews are posted on Amazon.com. You can order a paperback version now at http://joycestrand.com and eventually at other retail outlets.
The next book in the Jillian Hillcrest mystery series, OPEN MEETINGS, should be available mid-2012. Jillian works with a local reporter concerned about his hometown police department.
Well, thanks so much for spending the time here. It was very insightful to me, and I think people will enjoy what you had to share. Good luck!