Please join me in giving my dear friend and critique partner Karen Johnston a warm welcome as I celebrate her two middle-grade book releases. We've been exchanging pages and manuscripts for five years now. Her critique is invaluable to me and I credit her with helping me hook agents with my query letters. I had the unique pleasure of critiquing her debut release THE WITNESS TREE AND THE SHADOW OF THE NOOSE. I loved this civil war mystery and ghost book. BIG BOYS DON’T SPY was fun to read as well. Karen has a witty, fun voice that is perfect for all young readers. And as a writer-friend she is an unstoppable and fearless supporter. Her positive, optimistic outlook is always a ray of sunshine in my life. Whenever I feel down about my own future, she perks me right up. I hope you enjoy getting to know one of my favorite people.
How did you end up becoming a writer?
I guess if you’re asking when did I become a writer of fiction, I would have to say right when I went into advertising after college back in Covent Garden, London. Writing copy to sell a product is the best form of fiction, right?
To be serious, it was after having my kids. After moving over from the UK to the green pastures of New Jersey (south Jersey—all peach orchards and corn) my husband and I (we are both British) with our three little American children, decided I would stay home to take care of the boys. And as much as I loved my offspring, I knew I would go insane if I didn’t do something else, so I signed up for an online course. I had a choice of art history or writing articles for magazine. I chose the latter and never looked back.
Oh Karen, I can totally relate to needing an intellectual outlet when one stays home with the children. I'm so glad you chose writing articles! You've moved on to novels, too. What is your favorite genre to write today?
I am currently writing young adult fiction and I love it. I love meeting the teenage family with whom I’m about to spend the next nine months. I love the drama, the raw excitement, the hope, the utter despair and the incredible depth of emotion. Give me a teenager any day.
Are you a plotter or do you follow the muse?
A little of both. I have a whole wall of how-to writing books (I have a particular fondness toward Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder) and dip into them on an almost daily basis. At the beginning of a new project, I have grand ideas and plans to write a full and complete outline before writing one word of the story, then a character witters away in my ear and I just have to throw plot holes to the wind and start.
I'm impressed that you read a bit of a how-to book every day. I have to get back into that habit. I will start with SAVE THE CAT. You're a busy writer, Karen. How do you relax after a writing day?
A glass of chilled Chardonnay in front of a rerun of Entourage. Who can resist Ari Gold?
*Smile* Who indeed?What do you read? What are your favorite genres? Who are your favorite authors?
My taste is eclectic. I read everything from every pink trimmed young adult novel out there to a dose of women’s fiction. I just read Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. Couldn’t put it down. I also devoured Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee and of course, Life of Pi. My favorite authors include Sarah Dessen and Melissa Kantor, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley, John Irving and Nick Hornby. Love love love Nick Hornby.
Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite YA authors. My darling teen and I read them all. Tell me more about your current project. What is it about?
A young adult novel about desires and choices (still in its infancy). Just met the boy next door—he is soooo not the typical boy-next-door and is driving me potty.
Any new releases?
I have two middle grade novels published. My debut novel THE WITNESS TREE AND THE SHADOW OF THE NOOSE came out in 2009 and just before Christmas, my latest novel BIG BOYS DON’T SPY about a twelve-year-old boy obsessed with spying, hit the shelves.
You know I loved reading both books as your CP, but I've often wondered where you get your ideas for your stories?
Great question and one I get asked all the time when I give my school presentations. Really they come from all sorts of places. Life. Kids. A germ of an idea that has a party in my brain and, if I’m lucky, gives me an invite.
I love the visual image of a "germ of an idea giving you an invite" the story. How long were you trying to get published before you got the “call?”
I had been writing for three years (fiction) before I got the call for THE WITNESS TREE AND THE SHADOW OF THE NOOSE. I had written a women’s fiction before that, and although it had secured me an agent, it did not sell. My agent (at that time) did not represent children’s, so I queried the novel myself.
You always amaze me with your fearless approach to querying! How did you celebrate the new book contract?
With a lot of chocolate—kind of the same thing I do when I commiserate over a rejection. Oh dear. Actually, that’s not quite true. I celebrated the sale with a rather large cheesecake, too, and lots of smiles and hugs from my boys and hubby.
Do you currently have an agent?
Yes. I do have an agent. I recently signed with Curtis Brown.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. Perhaps bend a few rules. And write every day.
Nothing new there, I know, but this is one of the few professions where everyone starts off in the same place. Every single writer is unpublished first.
What encouragement can you give writers who face rejection?
It’s so SUBJECTIVE. Like art and wine tasting. What works for one person may not work for another. Trust your instincts. Believe in yourself, and work hard.
Working hard is the most important part. And writing every day is key. You taught me that trick. Other writers reinforced it. What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
Making time for family and friends yet still finding time to write every day.
It is hard to juggle and balance the real world with our fiction worlds. Did anything change after the "call?" What surprised you most afterward?
That nothing actually changed. I was a writer before I was published and I’m still a writer.
I love your take on writing and the call, Karen. Thanks for stopping in today and visiting me on the veranda. Keep us posted about your current YA. I'm a lucky person because I get to read it before you sell it! But today another person will also get a chance to win one of your first two books by leaving a comment on this blog.