Sunday, 12 April 2009

Interview with a Début Author: JANICE HARDY

Hi Janice, please tell us a bit about yourself.

Although my characters lead exciting lives, I’ve only toyed with danger. I grew up in South Florida where boating and water sports are practically required by law, so I got my SCUBA rescue diver certification and spent a lot of time underwater. I tried skydiving, which is every bit the rush people claim. My calmer hobbies include reading, watching movies and TV, and tasting my husband’s cooking (His West Indies Patties are to die for). I’m also a gamer geek, and we own almost every gaming platform out there. I try to garden every spring, but I’m really bad at it. Right now, I’m living in Georgia with my husband, four cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

(US Title)

Nya is an orphan, struggling for survival in a city ravaged by war. She’s also a Taker – someone who can heal injuries by drawing that pain into her own body. But unlike her sister Tali and other Takers, Nya can’t push the pain into pynvium, an enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it from person to person -- a dangerous skill she must conceal or risk being used as a human weapon.

One fateful morning, Nya’s secret is exposed to a pain merchant eager to use her ability for his sinister purposes. At first, she refuses, but when Tali mysteriously disappears, Nya must decide how far she’s willing to go to save her sister.

THE PAIN MERCHANTS is your debut novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

If I don’t count the dozens of novels I wrote from middle school up through college (and they were all bad, trust me) THE PAIN MERCHANTS is my fourth novel. The other three are locked deep in a trunk and aren’t allowed to see the light of day.

What inspired you to write THE PAIN MERCHANTS and how long has it taken you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

I went to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference ( in 2006. This is a wonderful conference just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and there were some presenters there that really opened my eyes. They stressed originality and I was sitting there trying to pitch Generic Prophecy Quest Story #123. So I went home and started digging through my idea files, searching for something fresh. I found an old outline and notes for a story I’d played with years ago. The story itself was ghastly, but the core idea of pain shifting and a culture that bought and sold pain was there.

I ran with it, worked out a plot for a few months, and started writing in January 2007. I was done around August and started querying in September. I got a lot of great responses, and went back to Surrey in October (feeling pretty good about the book, truth be told), where I pitched one more agent, the fabulous Kristin Nelson. Ten days later I signed with her.
We spent a few months tweaking the book, and she sent it out on submission in May 2008. The trilogy sold in June, and hits the stores in October 2009 (both in the U.S. and the U.K.). It all went remarkably fast. If I hadn’t had my early querying woes, I’d have thought that this whole writing thing was easy. Everything just clicked for this book.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I wrote my first novels when I was eight years old, a four-book series about dog archaeologists. I was hooked then, and kept writing all my life. I got serious about it — meaning I started thinking about actually publishing — about six years ago. I tried the short story route for a few years before that, but I’m definitely a novelist at heart. I’m always looking to improve, and I’ve taken courses, gone to workshops and conferences, been in critique groups, and read How-To books for years. I also teach online writing courses, and I find helping other writers learn the basics is a great way to keep my skills sharp.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I’ve always read YA and enjoyed it. My voice lends itself to YA, as does my natural style of pacing and storytelling, so it seemed a good fit.

Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?

I’ve been a sci fi fantasy gal from the start. I actually have a YA urban fantasy in the works right now, and I’m finding it a challenge to write “in the real world.” It’s so much easier for me to make everything up than to work in the confines of a known world, but it’s letting me flex some weak writing muscles, which is always good.

Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?

My first two books were for adults, and they were both—I’ll be honest—bad. I have no plans to write for adults, but I can see an idea hitting me that would be better for adults than teens. If so, I’d write it. For me, it’s all about the story.

Would you recommend entering competitions and working with a literary consultancy? Do you think these can be an important deciding factor in finding success other than simply writing a good novel?

I never entered any competitions, but you hear about writers finding agents or getting book deals after winning contests, so it can be a factor. I don’t think it’s a necessity though. If you enjoy it, do it, if not, don’t.
As for literary consultancy, I think it depends on what the writer wants to accomplish. If they want evaluations for their work and use it as a learning experience, I imagine it can be helpful. But if they want someone to make their work publishable, then I think it could be a disservice to the writer in the long run. Good writing skills are important to a writer.

Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?

Totally. Publishing is a tough business and there’s a lot you need to know. Having someone to navigate that for you is crucial. Agents open doors you can’t otherwise get into. They also have a much better understanding of what a book might be worth, and are willing to fight for the best deal they can get for you. Unpublished authors want to get published so badly, it’s natural to jump at the first offer you get. An agent will make sure you don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. Plus, my agent had great ideas on how to make the book better, which I never would have thought about without her feedback. I wouldn’t have gotten the deal I did if not for her.

If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?

I had three agents in the end who were interested. I met two of them face to face at the conference in Surrey, and the other I spoke to on the phone. They are all fantastic agents, so I couldn’t have gone wrong no matter whom I picked, but it was still a hard choice. (Probably harder because of that). A lot of it comes down to gut feeling. You have to work with this person, so you want someone you get along with and who you feel comfortable with. And you have to feel that they can sell your work. I was already a fan of many of the authors on my agent’s client list, and I knew she liked--and had sold--a lot of books similar to mine in style and tone. The other agents I was talking to all had equally great authors and books, but they didn’t match my work as well. That put my agent over the top for me. I knew we had the same taste in books and that she’d probably be successful with mine.

You achieved a fantastic three book deal. Has it changed the way you approach your writing?

It’s given me more confidence, so I don’t second guess myself like I used to. And I have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, so it’s easier to see when a story is going off track or just won’t work. I write pretty much the same way, though I don’t slack off as much . I have deadlines to worry about now, so if I don’t feel like writing I still try to get something done, even if it’s just editing what I wrote the day before.

I am definitely more productive. Writing isn’t just a hobby anymore; I’m getting paid for it. That makes it easier to carve time out of my day and not feel like I should be doing something else. I write in the mornings for three or four hours during the week, and usually a little longer on the weekends. I can’t write every day or I burn out, so I write a few days in a row, then take a day off. I do like to set monthly word count goals so I can be flexible with my writing schedule.

Although it sounds (and feels) great to say “six-figure deal,” you have to remember that this is for three books, spread out over three years, so there’s no quitting the day job just yet. There’s been a lot of positive buzz so far, but there’s always the chance the book will fail. I want to play it smart and not get too many stars in my eyes and think everything I write will sell the same. I wrote THE PAIN MERCHANTS while working, so I’ll keep doing both for a while. I’ve heard that it takes an average of five books or five years before an author can write full time. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I plot out all the big moments and give myself a solid road map to go by, but I also let the story evolve organically. I like to say I always know where I’m going, but rarely how I’ll get there. It works best for me when the characters are themselves and drive the story. When my story takes an unexpected turn, I let it go and see where it takes me. Then I’ll adjust my rough outline to fit new directions.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of THE PAIN MERCHANTS?

From day one, THE PAIN MERCHANTS was astonishingly easy to write, but I did do a lot of revisions all the way through. My formal training is in art and design, and when you draw, you usually block out a rough sketch, then sharpen the lines, moving on to colouring, then finally to shading and details. I write using the same layers. I’ll do a rough draft of a chapter to see how the story plays out. If I’m not sure about details, I might do a quick line like, “Bob leads the guards on a merry chase through the city until he loses them.” When that’s done, I go back and add stage direction and exposition, and the one-line chase becomes three pages. Next, I add setting, internalization, etc. Finally, I do the details; polishing awkward phrases, tweaking scene goals and narrative drive, laying in foreshadowing or any groundwork needed.

Because of this, my first drafts are usually pretty solid. When I finished the first draft of The Pain Merchants, I had a much better understanding of what the themes were and where the characters ended up. For example, everyone in the story is trapped in some way, be it a literal trap, economical, cultural, or metaphorical. That was something I didn’t notice the first time, but after editing, details that didn’t do much before suddenly meant a lot more and made the world that much more real.

THE PAIN MERCHANTS went really fast from query to signing, so I didn’t do any revisions until after I signed with my agent. She had great ideas for the ending, so I rewrote that twice (took me one try to fully get what she was saying). Then it went out on submission. We sold it and I did two more rounds of editing with my editor. She had me change the final chapter to set up book two. (The ending from book one resolved the story since we didn’t know if they’d be a book two at that point) We also did some overall tightening and clarifying. We also worked to deepen the story, but the plot and core conflicts stayed the same. In fact, the story never changed from the original outline I did. But both my agent and editor pushed me to dig deeper and really make that core story shine.

I find revision really easy and I enjoy editing, so this process has never bothered me. It’s all about the story, and the words are just window dressing to show off that story. Working with my agent and my editor was fantastic and I learned a lot from their experience. You hear horror stories about the process, but it’s been a dream from start to finish. I think having the right attitude helps a lot. I’ve never felt my words were written in stone, so it doesn’t upset me to change any of them. And I know my agent and editor have the book’s best interests at heart, so I never took what they said personally. They were all about making the book better so it would be successful.

You achieved a three-book deal for THE PAIN MERCHANTS. As part of a trilogy, did you have ideas already in mind or a work-in-progress, or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?

I had planned a stand alone when I started THE PAIN MERCHANTS, but as I developed the story, I could see a larger tale I could tell. I made some notes about where it could go, and mentioned in my query that the story was stand alone, but could continue in a trilogy. My agent had me write a synopsis for books two and three so she could show editors where the story would go. The book two synopsis was two pages, book three half a page. That’s all I had at the start. I just finished the first draft of book two, and it mostly follows that original synopsis.

Titles: How many titles did you work with until settling on THE PAIN MERCHANTS? Aspiring writers are often told how important a title is - do you have any advice on what a good title is?

I had the title before I had the story, and my agent says she was so intrigued by the title alone it made her want to read the book. But it hasn’t grabbed everyone the same way. Even when I was querying, I had agents tell me I might have to change it for the YA market. After it sold, we went back and forth on the title a lot, but there were enough comments from the booksellers that it was obvious it would be best for the book to call it something else (at least in the U.S.). The U.S. version is called THE SHIFTER, which has a nice mysterious feel to it. So far, it’s staying THE PAIN MERCHANTS in the U.K. With both titles, it's like having the best of both worlds!

Titles are weird. They’re very important, and they don’t matter that much, which I know doesn’t make a lot of sense. Having a bad title isn’t going to get you rejected since it’s the story that matters, but the title is one more way you can grab attention. Wasting that opportunity is something you can avoid. You hear all the time about agents who saw one line or phrase in a query and asked for pages. All you need is something to make them want to read your book, and titles can be that something. Just think about how often you pick up a book because the title catches your eye.

I think a good title is one that’s evocative, grabs your attention, and gives a sense of the book. I also think it’s not something to stress over. Pick the best title you can, and if it isn’t the right one, your editor will change it. It won’t hurt your query chances unless it’s something that’s offensive or clearly trying to copy another book.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

I don’t have children of my own, but I do talk to my nieces and my friend’s children. We talk more generally about books and what they like versus what I’m working on specifically though. I have other writers for that. Their eyes don’t glaze over when I start talking about narrative arcs and subtext.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

My favourite is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but I’m also a fan of Judy Blume, Paula Danzinger, Madeline L’Engle, and Lois Duncan. I’ve probably read everything they’d written. I also loved Nancy Drew and The Black Stallion series, and the Narnia books. I think great books have stayed great, and today’s readers enjoy them just as much as I did. Readers today have a wider variety of stories than I did, so you can now find the gritty, thought-provoking books that were taboo for me when I was younger. No matter what the age, I think readers want great stories that take them away and make them think. They might be deep thoughts, or fun fantasy thoughts, but they stay with you even after the book is over.

Regarding artwork for the book covers. As the author do you have any input into the choices made or is the decision left entirely to others?

I was very lucky and my editor included me in the entire process. Since my background is in graphic design, the artwork was very important to me. Every house is different of course, and some authors never see they’re covers until they’re done. If you want to be involved, just ask. Worst case they say no. But they might say yes. I think they did an awesome job and I danced around the house all day when I saw it.
I’m waiting on the U.K. cover art now, but so far I’m being included in that as well. I even got to do some design work for an emblem, which was a lot of fun. It’ll be fun to see what the illustrators do with it.

What sort of publicity and marketing will you be asked to undertake and what will it entail? Will it be arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?

I have a list of things they’re doing, though how much of that will require me I’m not completely sure about yet. It looks like a nice mix though. Some online campaigns, library marketing, some appearances for me. I’m also doing some promotion on my own to support their efforts. I have the option to do as much or as little as I’d like, but in today’s marketplace, the more the author can do to help promote the book the better the book tends to do.
There’s also my blog, The Other Side of the Story where I talk about writing, querying and publishing in general, focusing on the elements that go into a book that the reader never sees. Like the agenting and publishing side that aspiring writers are curious about, but sometimes have a hard time finding information. I try to be pretty candid about things without giving away anything too personal.
My website is still under construction (I’m so bad about this) but it’s close to being ready. You’ll be able to find that at

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Learn your craft, and don’t be in a hurry to throw yourself into the game. Writing is a skill like any other, and the better developed those skills are, the better off you’ll be.
It’s also important to find your own voice and tell the stories that get you excited. There are lots of great writers out there, but the number of great storytellers is much smaller. Be a great storyteller, because that’s why people read in the first place. Trust your instincts. If your gut says something is wrong, listen to it. If one story isn’t working, don’t be afraid to toss it out and start something fresh. One book doesn’t make you a writer, writing makes you a writer. It’s easy to feel that you have to finish and sell this book or you’re a failure, but that’s not true.
Read a lot, both in your genre and out. And don’t give up if you love it. You’ll hear a lot of naysayers claim you have to know someone to get anywhere, but I didn’t know anyone, had no credits and came in through the slush pile, so if I can do it, anyone can.

Agents comments: KRISTIN NELSON of the Nelson Literary Agency
Why I chose JANICE:

Janice is one of those rare clients that I met during a pitch session at a writers' conference. I knew immediately that I was intrigued by the project because of her title. Originally it was called The Pain Merchants. I emailed my assistant Sara that night and asked her to be on the lookout for those sample pages that Janice would be sending.

Then I read them, loved them, and asked for full. I read the full and loved lots about it but thought the ending didn't work at all. So I rang Janice up and said, "hey, love the voice, love the story, don't think the ending works. Are you open to rewriting?" She was. I signed her and we did several revision drafts before we nailed that ending. So worth it though because the trilogy sold in a pre-empt and everyone raved about how much they liked the ending...

Kristin Nelson blogs at PUB RANTS
You can find three very interesting posts on Kristin's blog about Janice Hardy and THE PAIN MERCHANTS -
(query pitch blurb),
(Pain Merchants title saga)
(Janice's editor comments)

In The BOOKSELLER news, Stella Paskins, editorial director of HarperCollins Children's Books, said: “I loved The Pain Merchants from the first sentence. It's refreshing to have a heroine with this much backbone and dry wit, who remains likeable and credible.
"The writing is vivid and it's easy to conjure up Nya's world while being engrossed in the adventure. I think Janice Hardy will be a strong new voice in YA fantasy.”

Published by:
UK: HarperCollins Children’s Book, due out October 6, 2009
US: Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, due out October 6, 2009


Clare said...

Another great interview - thanks Tracy and Janice. (And another must-buy to add to my list!)

Love the cover and the title for the US edition but find "The Pain Merchants" a more intriguing title overall.

It really is fascinating hearing about authors' journeys and their agents' feedbacks - a great blog Tracy.

the epic rat said...

Great interview - I am looking forward to October :) I also like how you included Kristen and Stella's remarks on Janice and her book!

Jon M said...

Hey! I just tried using the sketch/painting analogy and got 2000 words that I wanted to write instaead of the bits inbetween that I felt I NEEDED to write to get there! THANKYOU!

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