Interview with Author Margaret K Johnson

margaretkjohnsonphoto

Social networking technology has made it much less isolating to be a writer. I met Margaret through an online critique group and I immediately recognized a kindred spirit of sorts. When she explained she was self-publishing a book that was originally traditionally published, I was intrigued. I knew right then I wanted to do an interview.

I read your bio and was interested to see you went to Art College and painted before you started writing. Can you compare what these two forms of artistic expression mean to you?

I don’t paint nowadays, as I haven’t time to do everything at the moment. (I also teach creative writing, and I’m writing a new novel). When I do get the chance to do something artistic, I usually make collages these days. I’ve always loved cutting up pieces of paper, even as a small child! A few years ago, I made a collage called Urban Jungle, and went out in Norwich, my home city, taking photographs – of bins, graffiti, traffic, ambulances, play parks etc, etc, specifically to cut up. I get completely involved when I’m making a piece, but it’s different to writing. Writing takes over my life – mostly in a good way. I can hear my characters speaking inside my head, often when I’m doing something else. Painting or making collages absorbs me at the time, but doesn’t dominate my life. I suppose this makes it more relaxing than writing, but writing is my passion. I do want to make time for painting and collage in the future though.

parrotsWhen did you start calling yourself a writer and when did you decide you wanted to be published? How did you find a publisher for your first book?

I started writing after I left Art College many years ago with the misguided plan of writing a best-selling novel for Mills and Boon to support my art career. I quickly got hooked though, and even though I wasn’t published by Mills and Boon, I discovered I loved writing. My first book was published by Women’s Weekly. My brother’s girlfriend at the time shared a flat with an editor at Women’s Weekly, and she agreed to read my manuscript and liked it. It was such a thrill to see it in my local newsagents!

forhannahwithlovecoverYou have several other books traditionally published. Can you explain how you got the rights back for this title? Is this your first time self-publishing? How has it been different from your previous books?

I have had a lot of books published the traditional way – original fiction readers for people learning to speak English mostly, and a historical romance – A Nightingale in Winter – published by Omnific Publishing. I have also self-published two women’s fiction books – The Goddess Workshop and The Dare Club. I enjoy the freedom of self-publishing – you can make any changes you want, and you can add details of your other books, or special offers if you want to. You can do what publicity you want to, the way you want to as well. I got the rights back to this book (which was formerly called Taming Tom Jones) when my publisher relocated abroad. We were issued with new contracts to reflect this change, but – mainly because I wanted to change the title of the book to For Hannah, With Love – I decided not to sign the new contract. I didn’t feel the original title reflected either the story or the message of the book. However, I have nobody but myself to blame for that, since I chose it!

Find out more about this author on her website or follow her on twitter @margaretkaj. Here’s and excerpt from the opening of For Hannah, With Love

I’m in the ladies toilets at my local superstore. Inside the one functioning cubicle, sitting fully clothed on the toilet seat, surrounded by overflowing carrier bags, a peed-on plastic tester stick clenched in my hand. Waiting for my fate to unfold.

Two minutes. The time it takes for Michael to go to sleep after we’ve made love if I don’t do anything to stop him. The pee on the plastic stick is asking a question, and the chemicals inside it are working out their answer. And in two minutes I’ll know whether their answer agrees with my instinct.

“I’m crazy about you, Jen,” Michael said three months after we first got together. “I want us to be together. But I’ve got to be totally honest with you, if you want kids, you’d better find someone else, because I’ve already done all that. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a father to Kyle, but it’s enough for me.”

 

Michael. We met at a fancy dress party nearly four years ago – my mate Rick’s thirtieth birthday party. The theme was Pop Icons of the Twentieth Century, and the room was stuffed full of Elton Johns, Donny Osmonds and Mick Jaggers. I was Madonna, complete with pointy bra, and Marcia, my best mate, was Diana Ross.

“You look fantastic with all that long hair,” I told her as we propped up the bar, preening ourselves and pointing out funny sights to each other.

“Thanks. I could get used to this glamour.” She ran a hand over the sea-green sparkles of her dress. Perhaps we should start a band.”

“Yeah, right.” I hadn’t forgotten our last spectacularly bad attempt at karaoke on holiday in Spain, even if she had.

Marcia never has liked to be reminded of her failings, even at school. “Your bazoomers aren’t level,” she told me stonily, jabbing an accusing finger in the direction of my breasts. “You need to go up a bit on the right.”

I yanked dutifully at my right cone, wondering if Madonna had experienced the same trouble.

“Anyway,” Marcia said, “who are you going to get off with tonight?”

“I’m not going to get off with anybody. It’s only been three months since I split up with Luke.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” she said. “Three months of freedom and so far you’ve done zilch to celebrate.”

“I don’t feel like celebrating.” I was hurt by now, but Marcia never has been a girl to let my hurt feelings stand in her way when she’s telling me something for my own good.

“Well, you should. Luke was a prize tosser. You are far, far better off without him, Jen.”

“I loved him.”

“You thought you loved him. That’s about as different as Ibiza and the Isle of Man.”

Marcia stood on diamanté sandal tip-toes, peering into the crowd, the dark river of fake hair flowing all the way down her bare back. “Him,” she said, pointing. “That’s who you’ll get off with if you get off with anybody.”

“Who?”

Marcia pointed again. “Him,” she said. “Tom Jones.”

 

“Mummy, I need to do a poo-poo!” In the supermarket toilets, a child’s urgent voice interrupts my reminiscences.

“Excuse me, will you be long?” her mother asks.

There are two blues lines showing in the clear plastic window of the tester stick.

“Only the other cubicle’s out of order, and I think this is an emergency,” the mother continues.

I’m pregnant.

“Sorry. I…I’ll be right out.” I get up in a daze, flush the toilet, and begin to fumble with carrier bags, testing stick and door.

I’m pregnant. Pregnant.

“Too late, Mummy. Too late…”

One of the carrier bag handles snaps, and as I scrabble for control, a box of tea bags and the testing stick skitter onto the floor.

“Mummy, I pooed my pants.”

The woman with the small child looks first at the stick, and then at me. “Good luck!” she says as her child begins to cry.

“Thank you.” I pick up the stick, and make my way from the toilets and out to my car. Load the bags into the boot of my car. Unlock the driver’s door. Get in. Just as if it’s any ordinary day.

But then I just sit there, gripping the wheel, staring straight ahead at nothing. My mouth’s numb and I’ve got pins and needles starting in my fingers. I want to cry because I’ve never felt so afraid and alone. And I want to laugh because I’ve never felt so excited and happy. It isn’t possible to feel all of those things at once, and yet I do.

I do.

 

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Preparing a Novel for Publication – Preparation, Pre-orders, and Promotions, oh my!

Professional publication isn’t easy. Whether you’re traditionally published or self-publishing, you need to present yourself professionally. How your book looks, on the inside and out matters. How you promote your book also matters. Today, I’m going to walk you through how I, a self-publishing author, navigate the murky waters of publication while attempting to be as professional as I possibly can be.

I’m going to draw your attention to one important thing: If you act like a professional, treat yourself and others in a professional fashion, and treat your work like it is a professionally produced product, at the end of the day, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if you spend $1,500 to produce a novel (like I do) or if you spend $0.00. Professionalism isn’t about budget. It’s about behavior, planning, and executing your publishing plans.

Having a budget helps, though.

I’m going to walk you through how I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf, from start to finish, including tidbits and tips for a smooth release.

My Process:

  1. Outlining
  2. Drafting
  3. Editing
  4. Cover Art and back-of-cover copy
  5. Pre-Orders
  6. Promotions
  7. Formatting
  8. Publication

1: Outlining, 2: Drafting, 3: Editing

This is pretty self explanatory, so I’m not going to waste a lot of words on it and will instead jump straight to my unasked-for advice: Write your book, and make it as professional as you can. I hired two editors to help me whip Winter Wolf into shape. I’m working like some professional publishing houses do: the publication date is set when the book isn’t completed yet. Unless you are an experienced professional, do not do this. Deadlines like this are serious, and cannot be missed.

  • For most people, the pre-order and promotions phases will not begin until after the editing phase is completed. Your mileage may vary.
  • In this phase, professionalism is really important. Listen to your editors. Let them be picky. They’re improving your novel. Leave your ego at the front door, and always be polite.
  • If you aren’t using editors (not recommended!) then you should take extreme care and caution with your work. Use your word processor’s grammar checker, and confirm each and every rule. If you’re breaking a rule, you need to know the rule and why it’s acceptable to break it.
  • Use a synonym checker and master list of commonly misused words. Their and there are two different words! So are where, were, and ware.

Fun Fact: My outline for Winter Wolf was so detailed it was pretty much a first draft, which in turn makes the drafting and editing process much smoother. It took well over a week to completely detail the novel, make corrections, and do my developmental editing chores. As a result, the drafting and editing phase is well ahead of schedule.

4: Cover Art and Back-of-Cover Copy

Winter Wolf by RJ Blain This is the finished cover for my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf. Due to the importance of the cover art, I actually ordered the cover art from my artist, Chris Howard, in the very early stages of production. Once Chris started working on the cover, it took approximately a month to finish. The texting, commonly referred to as typography, was done independently with a different graphic designer.

A professional cover artist can help you create an attractive, compelling cover. But also remember that not all cover artists are graphic designers, and you want a graphic designer handling your typography.

Since the cover should tie to the novel, I did the back-of-cover blurb shortly after the cover art was completed. It took me about five hours to come up with my blurb, and I didn’t finalize it until I gauged the interest from some fans and readers.

Here’s the blurb I’m using:

The Hunted Wizard

When Nicole dabbled in the occult, she lost it all: Her voice, her family, and her name. Now on the run from the Inquisition, she must prove to herself—and the world—that not all wizards are too dangerous to let live.

The savage murder of a bookstore employee throws Nicole into the middle of Inquisition business, like it or not. Driven by her inability to save the young man’s life, she decides to hunt the killer on her own. Using forbidden magic to investigate the past, she learns that the murderer is in fact a disease that could kill the entire werewolf race.

Forced to choose between saving lives and preserving her own, Nicole embraces the magic that sent her into exile. Without werewolves, the power of the Inquisition would dwindle, and she could live without being hunted.

Nicole’s only hope for success lies in the hands of the werewolves she hates and the Inquisition she fears, but finding someone to trust is only the beginning of her problems. There are those who want to ensure that the werewolves go extinct and that the Inquisition falls.

But, if she fails to find a cure, her family—including her twin sister—will perish…

Why did I choose this blurb? I feel it has the important elements of a good blurb: It has a character who has a problem to solve. It tells a bit of what the story is about–but not too much. Finally, it hints at the consequences of the character’s failure, and what she gains should she succeed.

These are the types of blurbs that appeal to me, which is why I asked friends and fans for their opinions. I settled on this blurb because it resonates with me, and it’s also appealing to others who like the type of stories I write. That’s important–you want to write a blurb which attracts readers who enjoy the types of stories you write.

These were all marketing decisions, as the blurb is one of many weapons in my publication arsenal.

Tip: Professionals don’t insult the tastes of readers in their blurbs. The blurb is about the book, not you, your opinions, and whether or not you think books of whatever sub genre are boring. Exceptions may apply, especially in parody works.

5: Pre-order

Amazon recently opened pre-order functionality to self-publishing authors. Winter Wolf is my initial experience into the pre-ordering system. Here’s a very brief walkthrough of how it works from a writer’s perspective, and how to set it up:

1: Fill in the book data as normal.

However, this time, you have the option of marking a ‘finalized file’ or a ‘draft manuscript.’ For Winter Wolf, I am using a dummy manuscript of the approximate length of the actual book. The manuscript isn’t ready to be finalized, nor will it be ready until mid October. Most authors should not do this. I’m good at meeting my deadlines, and I’m experienced with doing so. If you are not the same way, absolutely do not start a pre-order unless you are 100% certain you can have the finalized manuscript ready on time. Amazon will ban those who fail to have their manuscripts ready from the pre-order system for one full year.

You do not want this.

Tip: Professionals meet their deadlines.

2: Select a date

Amazon and other pre-order services require the finalized manuscript two complete weeks prior to the novel’s official release date. Most services will ban you from pre-ordering if you fail to have the manuscript prepared on time. Yes, I’m repeating myself, but it’s really that important.

Buyers will be able to see your pre-order approximately 24 hours after submission, where they can click “pre-order” to buy the book. They’ll be charged for the book on the day of the novel’s release.

6: Promotions

Armed with your pre-order links, you can arrange any promotions you want without having the stress of doing a soft launch or needing to get links to your bloggers at the last minute. This is a huge relief, as someone who had to do this. My previous novel’s release was beyond hectic, as I didn’t have buy links until the last minute.

  • Research your promotion companies–there are great ones, and there are scams. Research, and don’t accept the first site you find as the final say. The hours you spend researching may save you a lot of grief and heartache later.
  • Many promotion firms require at least six to eight weeks to prepare for a tour or single-day blast promotion.
  • I’m using six different groups for promotion of Winter Wolf. I’m really proud of this novel, and I feel it is worth the investment.

Tips on Professionalism: When working with promotion groups, stay polite, if you’re asked for something, deal with it as soon as possible, and have patience. A single advertising campaign may take you hours to properly prepare.

7: Formatting

Sometime between the editing phase and the publication date, formatting the novel is necessary. You’ll need to format twice; once for the ARC, and once for the production copy. You may need to format three times, if you’re doing a print manuscript. From past experience, it takes me several hours to format a novel for publication, and I’m experienced enough to have streamlined the process.

  • The interior of your novel matters. Do it right. If you can’t, hire someone to do it right for you. If you don’t know how to do it right, learn–do not publish until you’ve mastered your formatting. Always check for errors if you’re converting files.
  • As with many things, plans included, ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ applies–the simpler your formatting is, the less likely there will be problems over different devices.
  • My first formatting run is done a month prior to the novel’s release so I can send the book to reviewers. The second formatting run is for the finalized version, which will be done several days before my deadline for submission.

8: Publication

Two weeks prior to the official publication date, the finalized manuscript goes into all systems. At this stage, I’ll be completely done. On publication day, all I’ll have to do is sit back and watch.

That’s how my novel is being dealt with this time–a very drastic difference compared to how my other books were produced. This method won’t work for everyone. However, the basic principles of professionalism still apply, no matter how you approach completing your novel.

In short, these are the things I’d suggest to you if you want to carry yourself as a professional:

  1. Swallow your ego and correct your mistakes.
  2. Don’t argue with people helping you. Either use their advice or don’t, but listen and keep quiet unless you have a question.
  3. Always be polite–even if it means gaining a reputation of being old fashioned from saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much.
  4. If you can’t be kind to a reviewer of your book, don’t say a word.
  5. If you say you’ll do something, do it.
  6. Don’t miss your deadlines. (Excuses won’t get Amazon to overturn the 1 year ban from pre-ordering.)
  7. Edit your novel.
  8. Proofread your novel.
  9. Proofread your novel again. People are paying you for your book. You don’t want basic mistakes! (All books have them, just fix them when someone finds one.)
  10. Yet again, proofread your novel.

Good luck.

The Fear Chronicles: Gather Ye Rejections, While Ye May

I remember reading once that as a young writer, Stephen King had a nail above his desk that he attached all his rejection slips to (I may have read this in his excellent writing memoir, On Writing). In those early days, he had a lot of rejections, and the hanging stack was thick.

I read about that many years after I had first begun writing, but before I had ventured into submitting anything for possible publication. I remembered thinking: I want that thick stack of rejections. Maybe that was a strange thought, but what I meant was that I wanted to be in the game, and I wanted proof of my involvement. On some level, I suppose those rejection letters meant a strange kind of validation as a writer. They were war wounds.

Rejection is at the heart of any creative endeavor; or rather, if you want to bring your creative endeavor out of the privacy of your writing/drawing/dancing room into the bright eye of the public, then rejection will be there. This is true for writers who “never made it” and for writers who we view as “famous.”

Consider these lauded authors whose works were initially rejected: Golding’s Lord of the Flies (20 rejections, at that), Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (12 rejections), and various poems by Sylvia Plath. I am just barely scraping the surface here. You can find more such rejections here: Rejections

Not only is it remarkable to think about what has been rejected, but also what was given as reason for the rejection. In the case of Plath, one such rejection read: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” For Golding’s Lord of the Flies: “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” And how about this one for Tony Hillerman, a writer of Navajo-centered crime fiction: “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”

The point is clear: rejections are part of writing, as much as thinking up ideas, constructing characters, deciding on setting and tone, and bringing resolution to our plots. Rejections tell you you’re involved; they tell you you’re creating something, you’re practicing your art.

So, collect them up. If you’re gutsy, place them prominently above your writing desk as King did. Count them. Be proud of them. My rejection list has grown fat over the last several years. Staring at those files on my flash drive, and dragging one more over to the “Rejected” folder, makes it all the sweeter when I can drag an acceptance over into the leaner “Published” folder.

I’m no Stephen King, I’m no Sylvia Plath, but we are playing the same game.

Birth/Rebirth

I wrote a short essay more than two years ago about the birth of my first son and how he abruptly took up space in this world that was previously untaken, how he suddenly just was, there, in our lives, an extension of us: my wife, his mother, me, father. We all were new people then.  We waited intently without knowing how to wait. We couldn’t comprehend the coming augment, the duty, the trust in ourselves to be good at something we’ve never done—we were dashed with a below-surface fear that was a consistent murmur, soft but palatable, wondering if our self-assurance was deserved. There was a smog of feelings, tumbling over each other, each portion of seesaw confidence and skepticism lobbying for top position. We entered blind but with desire and conviction and concerned ourselves with “let’s do well today” in hopes that it would lead us properly into the next day and then the following.

Parenting is revealing itself to share much with the process of writing: feeling a little like you’re in water, floating away from land and trying to decide which direction to swim. (Fortunately with writing, you get a lot of do-overs.) Once something becomes part of your daily life, part of your being, you figure out how it fits, when, and where. For us writers, with all the other worldly tasks and responsibilities we have, figuring out the “when” becomes paramount.  William Carlos Williams, a doctor as well as a writer, would draft poems on a prescription pad in between seeing patients. You find the time. And then you have to be disciplined to use it, even if you’re given only five minutes. I’m not very good at this. Many may not be. Which is why we have to be forgiving of ourselves while we continue to be ambitious. There will be other short, favorable sections of time. Utilize those. Mostly, you have to be adaptable to the evolving change. To be a good writer you must be aware of the world you live in and learn consistently from it. A writer friend of mine, Michael Klein, once said to me, “I do not yet know how to live in the world. But I’m alive.” It’s all constantly morphing and will seemingly stay ever elusive, just out of grasp, though, at the same time, a great motivation for us, reaching, trying to figure it all out.

Parenting is causing me to be a better observer, a better witness. And as academics and intellectuals, as we writers are (or should be), the new, the fresh, the able-to-be-explored are gifts. A friend told me of a story she once heard about Eudora Welty, who called a friend that was, too, a writer–I can never remember who this friend was–and told him to come over. When he arrived, she said that she had a gift for him. They went behind her house where there were patients from the nearby mental institution crossing a shallow river with their belongings and mattresses, other contents of the building, to a new facility on the other shorefront. The gift was the event and it unnerved Welty that the other writer never used it. (Put this in your reservoir of writing prompts, by the way.) The story is anecdotal but shows how in order to write stories we always should be looking for stories. Our bestowal allows us to see these stories, to sweep away the dirt and see the contours to make them our stories. Being a parent has refreshed this for me. It’s made me pay attention more, always, to new things (and there are always new things.) The thing is, you don’t need to be a parent to glean the benefits of parental rewards that crossover to writerly elements.  It’s good to just know that our lives are continuously being supplemented, amplified, and this is widening the canvas, adding more blank lines to our notebook.

Dot to Dot

In autumn 1991 I was an observer but not yet a writer. I drove my eleven-year-old son and his friend up Interstate 5 where it traversed the Tejon Ranch approaching Bakersfield. The mountains rose like brown whales from an arid sea of olive chaparral. We weren’t there to view California in its austere native splendor. We’d gone to see the Umbrellas.

Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had installed almost 1800 twenty-six-foot-tall yellow umbrellas flanking the hillsides along the highway. They popped open, polypropylene mushrooms blooming overnight in fairy rings and staggered parades. Up close an umbrella’s oversized ribs and golden sails loomed large enough to shelter our entire family. At a distance they tumbled across the landscape like lemon gumdrops.

We drove from site to site along the main route spotting umbrella clusters on the highway shoulders. A loopy side road took us to a solitary umbrella wading in a pond, its reflection making two.  Hundreds more scattered on the ruffled hem of the foothills. Dozens trooped like scouts up a far ridgeline, growing a spiky mane for the mountain. One perched inaccessibly on a craggy rock between the divided highway. Everywhere they posed on the terrain, hundreds of people traipsed to peer and touch the umbrellas.

I became more and more irritated by the crowds. Who were these people in their cars and trucks, picnicking by the roadside, hauling cameras as big as jackhammers, mucking up my sightlines? The boys jumped from rock to rut, ran around the steel masts of nearby umbrellas, and popped up and down like groundhogs in February. If the significance of the exhibit was lost on them, they exploited the carnival-like opportunities of the moment and had fun. But I wanted the full sensory experience, to see the umbrellas singular against the modern world. I wanted to guzzle the essence of the event, filling myself with Art.

At our last stop the wind picked up in staggering gusts. Fat raindrops suggested I must soon begin the two hour trek home. Glancing up to spot folks wandering around a cluster of umbrellas, I finally got it. People—moving, bending, pointing—filled in the negative spaces between umbrellas, adding a kinetic element to still giants. Tourists, art critics, and serendipitous travelers were as essential as the square platforms that secured the flaring umbrellas. They were art. My son and his friend were art. I was art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude planned their project, publicized it, and convinced landowners to allow them to mount their work. They didn’t tell us, the viewers, the whole truth. We weren’t union members collecting our per diem and threatening to strike if the conditions got bad, but we were a crucial part of the art. Without us wandering among the golden forest, the umbrellas would have been just an outcropping of gigantic manufactured fungi, as misplaced as whales in the desert.

I grinned driving home through the rain, tired boys sleeping in the back seat. How brilliant were the two artists. If they’d proposed their project along traditional access lines, they would still be mired in legalities, trying to close contracts and avoid suits, sign here and you can officially be artwork. Instead, they’d simply opened umbrellas where people could not only view them but walk close enough to touch. I hadn’t just gotten to see Christo’s Umbrellas. I’d gotten to be the exhibit. Yellow dot to yellow dot, I connected and completed the spectacle.

It has been decades. The umbrellas are gone, the boys grown, I am a writer. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I begin my work in isolation, researching and outlining, revising and deleting, dreaming story. When ready for presentation I invite friends and critiquers to read. If I am half as smart as the artists, I’ve left space for readers to take shelter in my words. Like the viewers along Interstate 5, my readers connect the dots. As the artists trusted me, I trust those who become immersed in my writing to fill in the blanks. They inhabit my protagonist’s life, walk my story arc, and contribute their interpretation to my work. A volume of dried ink becomes a living entity we share.

Competent writers know to excise bathroom trips, grocery shopping, toenail clipping, and meaningless dialogue. Writing every possible activity a character might engage in squeezes the reader out of the book. Worse, a pedantic pace dumps the story into a well of boredom, leaving no place for a reader to lodge. My partner closes the book. How to create that living space for readers is as much a part of my writing process as vocabulary choice, character development, plot sequence, and crisis resolution.

I am an observer and I write about everything. I often struggle to recognize when the carefully crafted passage is dispensable. Weeks of creating the perfect scene, hours of evaluating content, only to realize it doesn’t contribute to my story. Unessential, contrived, a distraction without purpose, I discard the chaff. Better to leave the space open and trust my reader to fill in the blanks. Christo and Jeanne-Claude taught me through engagement with their art how to write enough for the reader leap from dot to dot but not to run all the bases. Leave vital space. Readers are more engaged when they sense their presence within my story. Readers become the story.

Once, I got to see the Umbrellas. Years later I apply the lesson of vital space to my writing. What life experience has influenced your writing?

Be well, friend.