Welcome to the four hundred and eleventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Merry Jones. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Merry. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Merry: I’ve always written, even as a child—As soon as I could lift a pencil, I was writing. When my second child was born, I decided I didn’t want to work outside the home anymore (I’d been doing corporate communications and video production), and I gave it a shot, writing my first book during naptimes.
I’m based outside Philadelphia, in the suburbs, where I live with my husband and two daughters.
Morgen: I left my job mid-March and I just being at home, although I only have a dog as a distraction. What genres do you write?
Merry: I write mysteries and thrillers now. My current series focuses on a female Iraq war vet, named Harper Jennings. ‘Summer Session’, the first in the series, came out fall, 2011. The second book ‘Behind the Walls’ just came out in March, 2012. The next one should come out next fall, published by Severn House.
Prior to this series, I wrote the Zoe Hayes mysteries (‘The Nanny Murders’, ‘The River Killings’, ‘The Deadly Neighbors’, ‘The Borrowed and Blue Murders’, St. Martins Press).
I’ve also written humor (including ‘I Love Him, But’…) and non-fiction, including (‘Birthmothers’: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.)
And I’ve written lots of video scripts for clients. I think it’s important to test lots of genres to see which are most comfortable.
Morgen: Some great titles, there. I write a bit of everything and whilst sticking to one genre suits many people, I like the variety, although mine tend to be dark or light, if they’re genres. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Merry: I’ve published fourteen books, including the series above, five humor books and two non-fiction.
I do have a book on the market now, looking for a publisher under a pseudonym.
Morgen: Sometimes it’s useful to have another name as a distinction between books. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Merry: Sadly, yes. My first book, ‘Stepmothers: Keeping it together with your husband and his kids’ was written when I had no agent. So I submitted to 42 (count them!) publishers and got forty (count them!) rejections. Two offers, though, and that’s what counts.
Even now, my agent is peddling a mystery for me (the pseudonym book), and several houses have passed on it. I try to deal with rejection by focusing on what I’m working on now, looking ahead. Focusing on the writing, not on the sales…It’s not easy.
Morgen: You submitted to 42 agents and heard back from them all, wow. So you have an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Merry: Yes. At least now. Self-publishing might change that. But the agent handles not only submissions, but also negotiations. Both of those would interfere with the job of writing. Also, the agent knows editors and publishers, which ones to submit to, and so she targets the ms, instead of simply getting it stuck in some slush pile with unsolicited manuscripts that might get read by some assistant to an assistant editor after languishing for a year. She also knows what to ask for in the contract, like secondary rights or electronic rights and so on.
Morgen: On the whole they are worth their fee, although I’ve had some authors tell me some (mild) horror stories about some they’ve had, it sounds as if you have a good one. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Merry: Last summer, I put several of my out of print books up as ebooks—The Zoe Hayes mysteries. The current Harper Jennings series is/will be available on Kindle—the publisher offers them for sale that way about six months after the paper book is out.
I found the process of publishing the out of print books fascinating and time consuming and challenging. I’m sure there are still typos—But I met some wonderful and highly skilled people to help with ms conversion and formatting and cover design, etc.
Morgen: I think everyone has probably found typos in books they’ve read. However careful we check our work, and have it checked for us, there’s bound to be something. To err is human, as the saying goes (although there is a joke which continues ‘but to really mess it up takes a computer’). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Merry: Oh man. I don’t do as much as I should, but it seems like I spend about half my time trying to create a brand and promoting. I do social media, panels, conferences, coffeehouses, websites, writers’ sites and so on. I should blog more, but have been swamped with deadlines and I keep dropping the ball on that.
Morgen: It does seem to be that most writers have to do a whole heap of marketing these days, meaning we don’t get to do the actual writing. We’re writers, we should be writing. The upside is that we get to speak to our readers (and have emails from them) which is wonderful. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Merry: A favourite book? That’s like asking if I have a favourite child. No, I don’t have a favourite; I become attached to each character, involved in each book. I might cast Sandra Bullock as Zoe Hayes. Harper Jennings would be a young Meg Ryan. Matt Damon could be her husband, Hank. But then, Matt Damon could be any of my male characters (I’m a fan.)
Morgen: He is a great actor. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Merry: I think they are VERY important. I had little to no say about the covers. I could make some minor adjustments; that was all. As to titles, I suggested working titles. For the Zoe Hayes series, the publisher wanted each to contain “killings” or “murders.” This was a limitation which, I thought, was designed for marketing purposes.
For the second series, I came up with a list of possible titles; the agent and publisher all worked together to choose—More of a team effort.
Morgen: I guess you have to think that they know what they’re doing, although James Patterson’s book The Quickie has got to be one of the worst (although I still bought it!). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Merry: I have two more Harper Jennings thrillers under contract. I’ve just submitted one, am beginning the next.
Morgen: How exciting. I love bringing back my characters, although I mainly write short stories so I don’t get to know them as intimately as you will do. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Merry: I try to write daily, but that’s not always possible. I write about five or six days a week, usually for about three hours.
Writer’s block? Not exactly. I have periods where my writing is kind of forced, less of a flow. And, in between books, when I’m trying to come up with a new plot or character, I have lots of mental wrestling and panic. That’s more a matter of sculpting and digging than it is of working through a block.
Morgen: 15-18 hours a week is good going. I write a short story a day (for 5PM Fiction) so I guess it’s about half that if I’m lucky. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Merry: Definitely plot. Partly because my publishers have always wanted to see a plot summary before I begin. But having a summary / outline helps keep me focused so that every significant event heads toward a direction or conscious misdirection. Often, my characters surprise me and make me deviate from the original plan, but I always have a general idea of where I’m going and how we’re getting there.
Morgen: I love that they do that. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Merry: Names are hard for me. I go through baby name books. Or I name them after people I’ve known.
What makes them believable are their foibles, their daily concerns, their contradictions. They deal with relationships and households. They have hobbies and pet peeves. Their loved ones at times get on their nerves and they have spats. They have worries. It’s the small stuff that makes them real. Small examples: Harper Jennings, having witnessed a kidnapping, is peeved that her mother (who is visiting) has served liver for dinner, when she knows Harper hates it. Or, Harper and her husband, having survived major violence at the hands of murderers, squabble about what they might want to name their baby.
Morgen: We seem to deal better with the big stuff don’t we? Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Merry: Not poetry. My latest short story was for the anthology ‘Liar Liar’. It’s called ‘Bliss’, a supernatural mystery.
Morgen: I write almost no poetry either. I don’t read it so that doesn’t really help. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Merry: Each day, I edit what I wrote the day before. When I finish a manuscript, I begin at the beginning and edit my way through.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Merry: Yes yes yes. Each book requires knowledge of new areas. Harper’s husband, eg, has a brain injury. I had to research frontal lobe injuries and aphasia. And Harper, being a war vet, led to research about the war, the experiences of soldiers. Even what it’s like to carry all their gear. What that gear is. And the climate of Iraq. And so on. But each book requires its specific research.
Morgen: And we’re so lucky having the internet, aren’t we. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Merry: I haven’t done second professionally. I’m comfortable with both first and third. But first has limitations—obviously, while it’s more personal, you can only write what the character knows, does and thinks. Third person gives more freedom.
Morgen: It certainly does and it’s the most popular. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Merry: Yup. A book about internet stalking about which my agent (who is no longer my agent) said: No one will buy internet books anymore.
Morgen: Oh. I’d say there’s a market (small perhaps in some cases) for everything, especially eBooks. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Merry: The surprise was how little of this life is about writing, and how much is about promoting and marketing. These are my least favourite parts of the life, too, as I am a writer at heart, not a salesperson—The skill set is different.
But I love writing. I don’t know what time it is while I’m working. I love losing myself in the process and living in the book. I like getting to know my characters, having them come to life so that they actually argue with me when I try to “force” them in order to further my plot.
Morgen: Snap. I love nothing more than the creation and whilst marketing is a necessary (semi-)evil, it is great chatting to others… it’s the losing the hours on social networking that frustrates me. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Merry: Write. Keep writing. And then write.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Merry: This may sound pathetic, but it would be my brother and my parents, all gone and sorely missed.
Morgen: Not pathetic at all. I’d have my dad because 34 years with him wasn’t enough. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like.
Merry: A word: Breathe.
Morgen: Isaac Asimov: ‘I write for the same reason I breathe … because if I didn’t, I would die.’ I can relate to that. My mum said a while back that I shouldn’t let writing take over my life, I didn’t like to tell her she was a few months too late. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Merry: I have been a writing teacher for 12 years, am taking this semester off. Actually don’t know if I’ll go back to it.
And I belong to organizations, including The Philadelphia Liars Club. We host writers’ coffeehouses to support writers at all levels and build a community. These meet regularly and are free and open to all.
I also belong to Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and participate in their events, including panel discussions or tending their booths at various book conventions.
Morgen: Someone else who lives and breathes writing. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Merry: I’m an avid sculler. I row out of Vesper Boathouse on the Schuylkill River, and I compete with my husband in rowing regattas.
Morgen: Great exercise. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Merry: I’m in several via LinkedIn (that’s what led me to you, isn’t it?) And I participate in Goodreads, Authors’ Den and a few others. Liars club has a site. I find most of them time consuming, but every so often, a connection is made (like this one) that has value.
Morgen: I think it was, yes. LinkedIn really helped. I put a shout-out earlier this year as I was running low on interviewees and now I’m booked almost to next March. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Merry: It’s changing. Hard to figure out how to publish and reach your audience. But writers have no choice: If you’re a writer, you write. It’s in your soul.
Morgen: Certainly in mine. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Merry: merryjones.com is my website. Visit me! Leave comments and notes and I’ll answer.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Merry: Thanks for having me here. Thanks for providing this venue.
Morgen: You’re so welcome. Do come back for a guest blog or spotlight when your next projects are out. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Merry: Lots, always. I’m curious about everyone and what they hope for, what drives them. Etc.
Morgen: Strange as it may sound, I interviewed myself for no.100, but in a word I’d say passion drives me. If there’s something you love doing it isn’t work, earning money at it is a bonus. Thank you, Merry.
I then invited Merry to include an extract of her writing and this is from ‘Behind the Walls’:
The crate was smaller than most, simply marked ‘Utah.’ No dates, like all the others. No specific dig sites either. Odd; Professor Langston was obsessive about labeling his collection. Maybe the labels were inside, taped to the lid? Or maybe they’d been lost.
Carla Prentiss sighed, glanced at her watch. Almost four. Without a list, there probably wouldn’t be time to identify and catalogue the contents before sunset, and she didn’t want to be caught there after dark. The professor’s rambling old Victorian mansion was spooky enough in the daylight. The place had been buildt in the early twentieth century by some hermetic silent movie star whose name she couldn’t remember but who, in his paranoia, had designed the place with secret passages and hidden vaults, setting it deep in the woods outside Ithaca where, even now, it had no near neighbors. When he’d offered her the assistantship, Professor Langston had told her with some pride that his house was probably haunted.
‘Haunted?’ she’d parroted.
‘Its inhabitants have led, shall we say… uncommon lives.’ He’d smiled, wheezing heavily as air forced its way through his dense nose hairs. ‘In the twenties, a young woman–a starlet named Chloe Manning–simply disappeared during a visit. Some say she’s still in the house, wandering the passages in the walls.’
Carla had blinked at the walls of the study. Wondered if the bookshelves concealed secret doors. And bodies.
Under his white, unruly brows, Langston’s eyes had twinkled, amused. He’d lowered his voice to a gravelly whisper. ‘Some years later, a maid suddenly fell or jumped–or was pushed– over the balcony. Broke her neck. And then, in the fifties, well…’ His eyes had narrowed, drifted across the study.
‘What?’ she’d pressed him. ‘What happened in the fifties?’
Update November 2012: Merry has two new books: WINTER BREAK, in the Harper Jennings series is already out in the UK, will be out in the US in January 2013. And THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE is just coming out, too–It’s a whole new suspense series with a supernatural / psychological twist.
Morgen: Congratulations, Merry!
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