M.J. Rose is the international bestselling author of 11 novels, including Lip Service- where she pioneered electronic self-publishing and later landed a traditional publisher, The Halo Effect, and The Reincarnationist series. She is a founding member of International Thriller Writers and serves on the board as well as being the founder of the first marketing company for authors: AuthorBuzz.com. Her two popular blogs are Buzz, Balls & Hype and Backstory. She has been profiled in Time magazine, Forbes, The New York Times, Business 2.0, Working Woman, Newsweek and New York Magazine.
1) From the Beginning~
Through the blog you devote to book promotion, Buzz, Balls and Hype, you feature an interesting column by Susan O’Doherty, PhD, a clinical psychologist and fiction writer specializing in working with creative artists and their process. A recent series was focused on beginnings- how writers prepare themselves professionally, emotionally and psychologically for the emergence into the world of their next novel. In the January Magazine interview by Linda Richards, you responded to a question asking about what particular characters you related to in a novel by saying, “I don’t do that in my novels. I write to entertain myself and I don’t want me to be in there.”
Referencing the two quotes below about this process of entering the writing, my question would be how do you prepare yourself to begin a book? If your process involves a measure of personal distance, how do you clean the slate of your mind so to speak and write upon a blank canvas, choose your language and keep your own passions/convictions separate from the writing?
In Reporting the Universe, E.L. Doctorow writes of the origins of a book and the process of writing as follows:
“The truth of the matter is that the creative act doesn’t fulfill the ego but changes its nature. As you write you are less the person you ordinarily are- the situation confers strength. You learn to trust what comes to you unbidden. An idea, an image, a voice, comes to you as a discovery, and you don’t possess what you write any more than the mountain climber possesses the mountain.”
“A book begins as an image, a sound in the ear, the haunting of something you don’t want to remember, or perhaps a great endowing anger. But it is not until you find a voice for whatever is going on inside you that you can begin to make a coherent composition. The language you find precedes your intention or, if not, is sure to transform it.”
I’m afraid my answer is not as interesting as your question – or Doctorow’s quote. I start a journal for each new book and create the main character’s world – his or her likes, dislikes, fears, dreams, and wishes.
I collect the ticket stubs for a performance of the Metropolitan Opera that she went to, a postcard from her mother's first trip to Europe, a piece of the red and white string on the pastry box from her grandmother's apartment: it's all in the scrapbook.
While I’m searching, I’m also looking for the question I want the book to answer - because for me every novel answers a question that I have – even if no reader ever knows the question – or the answer – that process is what keeps me interested, motivated, and curious.
2) On Mediums~
Having lived across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for various periods in your life (both as a young child and an adult) as well as being an art major at Syracuse University, art plays a major role in your life and in your creative work from its incorporation into your novels to your former role as a creative director at a New York City ad agency. You’ve spoken of your love of the artist’s life- the preference of museums to bookstores, art supply stores to computer stores and how art as opposed to the written word, can move you without logic. Although these artistic mediums have great differences, they both serve as significant forms of your individual expression. Talk to us about how and whether these disciplines feed one another in your work- not just in combining them, for instance to write about art as in the Reincarnationist series, but how the detail used in art might aid your descriptive prowess in prose or how the formulation of a story might inspire the way a piece of art or a series of paintings come together.
Art feeds me. I don’t feel whole or happy if I don’t visit a museum or art gallery or sit down with a book of paintings every few days. I imagine that the act of looking is for me both an escape and a discipline. It kick-starts my imagination on some subliminal level and pushes me into a state of being where my creativity is engaged.
At the same time, I am aware that when I write I am seeing - literally – the story in my mind and writing down what I see as opposed to focusing on the words I am writing.
I think I am still a painter. My imagination paints scenes in my mind and I use words to draw them into coherent stories, frame by frame.
3) On Psychology~
In the Butterfield Institute novels, your latest e-book In Session and the Jungian philosophies of the Reincarnationist series, there is a clear passion for the study of psychology, a hunger to understand the darker corridors of the human mind, seldom explored in such explicit detail. In the opening scene of The Hypnotist, when protagonist Lucian Glass discovers the young woman slain against the picture frame “as if she were its masterpiece”, an interesting concept is introduced- as though an individual is a piece of artwork within the confines of a frame. Throughout the series, “memory tools” are used to access aspects of the self beyond limitations of time and space. You’ve compared the act of writing to a “memory tool” that you use to step into a different consciousness, free of worry about any one person or thing. Had the professional callings of art, marketing and writing not stuck for whatever reason, could you see yourself as having gone into psychology and having been comfortable with the required professional distance free from emotional attachment to cases? Also, what “memory tool” or method do you use to step out of your professional modes and access revitalizing serenity in your down time? In other words, how do you turn ‘off’ from work in your spare time and do those ‘just for you’ activities that replenish the spirit?
I did try for a while to become a therapist and while I was very satisfied and stimulated by learning and listening what frustrated me and ultimately led me to realize I couldn’t follow that path was I wanted also to suggest solutions.
I wanted to write the ends to the patient’s stories.
Luckily I had a great supervisor who pointed that out to me and steered me back to the world of fiction where I could analyze as well as write the ending.
Between the lines and under my stories, you might see that every book I’ve written is really a psychological exploration of the main character. I write about how who we were influences and dictates who we are and how we have to come to terms with our past before we can hope to find our way to a satisfying future.
As for turning off work – I don’t try to turn it off. I’m a very nervous person and my mind is overactive so if I don’t have a characters to fuss over and worry about I’d be worrying too much about the real people in my life and torturing them with my anxiety.
4) On Self-Publishing~
The hot topic you read about almost every day in the industry right now is the advent of self-publishing through e-books. No stranger to the process, you began with your novel Lip Service in 1998. Having a supportive agent yet finding no place for the book as editors cited marketing difficulties, you knew that with your advertising background you could sell copies online. Setting the price at $9.95 and putting it up on a website, you began to aggressively market the novel. It was chosen by the Doubleday Book Club and went on to be picked up by a traditional publisher. You caution writers, however, that though it is an example of self-publishing success that it was a means to an end and not a career move; the intention was not to stay self-published but to segue into traditional publishing.
Authors such as H.P. Mallory and Amanda Hocking have enjoyed the boom in e-books and then are able to make the choice whether traditional publishing is a fit or whether they’d like to continue on their own. Letting the markets decide has leveled the playing field. Mallory, like many of the new breed of authors enjoys a bit of both; she is now with Random House and yet doesn’t shy away from plans of a nonfiction e-book on her Cinderella publishing story.
With the excitement around e-books, it isn’t a wonder that the well-established companies/authors are coming up with their own e-book models. Fastcompany.com’s recent profile of Angela James who is the new head of Harlequin’s blossoming e-book imprint is food for thought. In a strained economy, purchase percentages are rising, not falling. In less than two years, fiction sales as e-books have gone up nearly ten percent. And what is selling even faster are romance e-books. Harlequin has caught the wave and its authors are enjoying the company brand while earning more revenue.
Although having been published by Pocketbooks (Lip Service, In Fidelity) and having found a regular home with Mira (a division of Harlequin) for a large portion of the body of your work including The Halo Effect, The Memorist, The Reincarnationist and The Hypnotist, you also recently published the e-book, In Session where the protagonist from the Butterfield Institute Series, Dr. Morgan Snow, meets with author Steve Berry's Cotton Malone, Lee Child's Jack Reacher & Barry Eisler's John Rain as a creative, erotic suspense novel.
I’ve heard and read of authors feeling limited by contracts on particular series in traditional publishing, having to conform to expectations of a certain expected voice and theme. Dabbling in different areas of exploration, writers have the key to all worlds and it seems that many are using a combination of traditional and self-publishing or e-publishing divisions to be able to have the freedom to indulge all of their different projects. Considering the modern market, have you found it creatively fulfilling to be able to transition between the different publishing mediums and do you recommend writers become versed in electronic publishing?
I don’t think it’s ever a mistake to learn about the business you’re in. It’s very early in e-publishing to know where it is going and who is going to wind up on top or how it will all shake out. But certainly knowing the landscape and keeping up to date on how it is changing is important if you intend to have a career as a writer.
For those of us who have been traditionally published, playing in both arenas is fun. But what does worry me is all the people I meet who talk about how great it is to write and publish a book in a couple of months. We need to respect readers and give them our best not our fastest if we want them to stick with us. And I am concerned that publishing is becoming more important than writing-that having written is more important than writing – that the craft is getting pushed aside for the accomplishment.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I read a review- a bad review – of a self published book on Amazon the other day.
The reviewer didn’t like the book and complained about bad grammar, static dialogue, flat characters, no story arc, and no conflict – all in all - that it was a very boring book.
Under the review, a commenter chastised the reviewer– saying he should back off – that the writer had self published her first book and she was still learning. That she couldn’t be expected to get it all right first book out of the gate. That she would grow with more books and that the reviewer should be supportive and more helpful. Didn’t the reviewer know how hard it was to write a book?
The exchange pointed up where self-publishing doesn’t serve the author because that isn’t the way to learn the craft.
5) On Storytelling True~
It has been theorized by Carl Jung and numerous authors that we as humans learn best by the use of stories. In the O Magazine article, “Ask Your Mother To Tell You A Story”, you reveal the importance of knowing the stories of the significant women in our life and how these have an effect on different aspects of our lives and our understanding of them. From your great-grandfather, you were introduced to the concept of past lives as reflected in the Reincarnationist series. When I decided at about twelve years old to go collecting stories from the eldest living generation in my family, a world opened up about who I was, where I came from and who I would become. Having spent the time with my great aunts and uncles and grandmother to learn about their amazing lives, even if the anecdote was about just one moment, was a precious experience for me that I appreciate even more now as many of them are no longer here to share those tales of the rich, influential lives they lived, affecting in a positive way politics locally and nationally. Talk to us about how stories you’ve gathered from family members and close friends have shaped your life both personally and as an author.
I remember my father telling me bedtime stories he made up on the spot – about a little girl named Abakazoo who lived in Kalamazoo whose life was surprisingly like mine but much more dramatic and colorful. Every night he told me a new installment. I was enthralled. There was so much magic in those stories. In how the ordinary me – turned into the fabulous, interesting adventurous little girl who lived on the other side of the world.
Recently, I asked him about those stories and he launched into a new one.
He was the storyteller in my family. My mother was the reader.
And between the two of them...
6) On Time Management~
Today, more than ever, authors aren’t just writers- they are publicists, managers, and in the case of self-publishing, publishers and agents as well. Social media and blogs are fantastic ways to spread the word but like so many of us know, they can chip away at our precious time, become black holes and result in neglect of the actual creative work. Networking is essential life-blood to the author (new or established). Dena Harris in “Making the Connection”featured in Novel and Short Stories Market, advises you spend 10 minutes of each writer-work day networking. With AuthorBuzz (your company that focuses on marketing ad campaigns for writers), your various blogs and new titles, you are well-versed in the balancing act. How would you go about advising authors, both in traditional and self-publishing, to make plans to better allocate their time during a given work day? How do you feel they should go about formulating/organizing these plans and tailoring them to suit their individual needs/goals?
I’m not good on giving advice because everyone is so different. But I do suggest every writer remember this – no book ever dies anymore now that there are ebooks. And so a book is new to ever reader who never heard of it. And as authors we are our own brand and we need to keep our brand alive and vital if we are to stay alive and vital as authors.
For some of us that means social networking a half hour a day – for others it means hiring people to work for us – for others it means never finding a balance but always ricocheting between working on marketing and working on our books.
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