An Interview With
Author C.B. Jonnes shares with us his experience and advice on writing novels. He is the author of Wake Up Dead (April 2000) and the newly released Big Ice (May 2003).Here's the interview:
What inspires you to write?
It's an itch that must be scratched. Like Richard Dreyfus staring at his mashed potatoes in "Close Encounters," I look at a half-full page of my nonsensical writing, which may have taken a torturous week to complete, and an enigmatic voice inside my head says, "This is important." I finish a book after years of labor and swear I'll never do it again, yet find myself at the computer in the middle of the night again a week later. It's boring, lonely, frustrating, and unhealthy. I must sacrifice hobbies, friendships, and sex to achieve my goals. In the end only critics and tiny royalty checks await. Why do it? I think it's a disease.
What are your genres?
Suspense. As you can see, I love excitement. Actually, since I've written two novels slotted by the publishers into the nebulous "suspense" genre, it makes sense for me to continue in that vein. However, I am not a fan of the constraints that categorization places on a writer, and I'm surprised how readers are drawn to formula fiction. Take mysteries for example. Pick up any contemporary book; it's going to be about a strange murder early in the story that must be solved at book's end by a cop, a private eye, a reporter, etc. Throw in the obligatory love interest. Make sure the vanquished killer rises like a phoenix once or twice well after he should be dead. Then kill him in some satisfying way. We know 80% of the plot before we even crack the book. That bugs me. The challenge for me is to write a unique story, one that, while not experimental, doesn't quite go in expected directions. Publishers hate that. Bookstores hate that. Some readers hate that. To heck with them. Based on the success of Wake Up Dead and early returns on Big Ice, there are readers out there ravenous for something fresh.
What are some strengths you have developed as a writer? How did this happen?
Writing has helped me hone my natural creativity, discipline, and wit. As a child I worked long and hard to say funny things and get in trouble in creative ways. Now writing is an outlet for these innate traits, a way to domesticate them, to harness their power for good. There are millions of writers with larger vocabularies and better grammar. But many of them couldn't come up with a creative story if you gave them a million-dollar advance. Only a select few gifted writers are both creative and excellent wordsmiths. I may not be both, but one out of two ain't bad. I credit my parents for that which comes naturally, but also for instilling the book mystique, the notion that books are something special, that writers are extraordinary people to be revered.
What are your weaknesses as a writer and how do you work past them?
I am not a technical master of the English language. I do not have the coveted "command" so often attributed to the great writers. If someone said I had a dangling participle, I'd be more likely to check my fly than my writing. I do not understand all the structural intricacies of a sentence. But I do love the way words sound together, and I enjoy working with them. I view a novel as a huge word puzzle. I overcome my weakness three ways. One, I constantly try to educate myself. Someday I hope to learn what a participle is. Two, I rewrite like I have OCD. I laugh when I hear writers claim they had to rewrite a book three or four times. I rewrite mine fifty or more, no exaggeration. Three, I seek professional help. The editor I used for my latest book, Big Ice, is Arlene Robinson with Betty Boop Writes. She is wonderful. Professional editing before submission is critical, since flawed books stand zero chance of publication and small press "editing" is nonexistent.
How do you research your topic?
Unlike John Grisham with his background in the legal profession to support his lawyer-based fiction, or Patricia Cornwall's experience in forensics, which aids her medical examiner mysteries, and Clancy who has an army of government moles and staff researchers to fact-check every detail, I have to do it all alone. I approach my topics with no familiarity. This requires a vast self-education phase before I'm ready to write, but ignorance also makes me more objective. First I start a manila file and collect every tidbit on my subject matter. Then I select three or four non-fiction books relative to my topic and read them cover to cover. Then I start a computer file and start writing facts or spin on facts that I could envision having pertinence to the story, though I may not yet know where. Ultimately the Internet is the greatest resource. I don't need to "know" everything; I can simply find it. I've become quite proficient at tracking down elusive details with a search engine. I can't imagine trying to write a book without the Internet.
How easy was it to come up with a plot for your last book?
Hard. The plot in my first book, Wake Up Dead, literally came to me in a dream. All I had to do was flesh it out and learn how to write. I actually waited around for another dream to happen before I started my next book. When that didn't work, I realized I'd need to do it the old-fashioned way: think something up. The plot for Big Ice germinated from two tiny but interesting factoids I read in the news. One was a little-known global threat that, over the course of a few short years, half of the ice on Antarctica could break off and wind up floating in the sea, flooding every coastal city in the world and ending civilization as we know it. I thought: we've done earthquakes, nuclear Armageddon, alien invasion, and meteor impacts. Why not big ice? The second was the startling fact that as much as 10% of the population suffers from some form of social phobia. Since the heart of storytelling is character in conflict, it occurred to me that a protagonist with Social Avoidance Disorder trying to do heroic things is unique, interesting, timely, and is something with which many readers will identify. Fiction has enough James Bond types.
What are some tips you'd give to a writer regarding plots?
To me the key is the One Special Thing. You've got your main character. He (she) has a problem. Bad things happen. He must act to overcome them. He fails. He tries again. We see him change and grow. The problem is solved. If the writing is good and the action is interesting, you have a decent book. But I look for one more thing in each story, a kicker, a surprise, something out of left field, something that jolts the reader into saying, "Wow." Without giving anything away, in Wake Up Dead it was an ominous and seemingly insignificant bracelet. In Big Ice it's an obscure prophecy. What is the One Special Thing in another writer's story? They have to figure that out. I can't define it, but it's not as simple as the monster jumping out and saying, "Boo," or rising one more time with vengeance in mind even though he's already been shot eighteen times. It's about intertwining sub-plots into a cohesive unit that finishes in unison like a well-sung version of "Michael Row Your Boat." It's about making the plot three-dimensional.
Are you working on a sequel?
I've actually started a sequel to both Wake Up Dead and Big Ice. Plus I've started a comedy piece that I'm having some fun with. I don't know which one will be finished next. Eventually one of these will start itching in the middle of the night and move to the forefront.
Who are some great thinkers who inspire you in your work?
Albert Einstein, Alfred E. Newman, and my father who is a scientist with nearly twenty patents to his credit. I grew up admiring people of great intellect, but I am most inspired by people in any field of endeavor who strive for excellence. I love people who spend their life trying to be the best at something, whether it's a mother, a comedian, an engineer, a writer, or whatever. I have little patience for those who cling to the false security of victimhood. For centuries, protagonists in millions of books have been scoffing at and overcoming the obstacles thrown in their way. I worship the people who do this in real life.
Did you have any role models from the writing community?
Isaac Asimov awes me. Patricia Cornwall intimidates me (she actually solved the Jack the Ripper case!). I am envious of J.K. Rowling. I think Michael Connelly and Nelson DeMille are seriously competent. David McCullough brings history alive. There are many dead writers I admire: Twain, Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hermann Hesse, Tolkien, etc. One of the big problems with writing is that it interferes with my reading.
Would you care to introduce to us your last book and what it is you are trying to say in it?
Big Ice is a suspense novel dealing with the apocalyptic eventuality of the total collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet--not from slow melting over thousands of years, but from sliding off the continent--which will cause catastrophic flooding. The suspense in suspense novels is very fragile, and I must be careful not to give it away, but this is not a typical post-apocalypse tale like Earthquake, Deep Impact, The Day After, or The Core. Aside from the standard character-growth aspect of the book, I'm trying to say two things. One, buy and enjoy this book so I can make a few bucks and rub my "fame" in the face of friends and family. Two, Earth's climate is not necessarily a static and dependable thing that Man is changing through his irresponsible squandering of natural resources. Rapid and devastating cycles of global warming and cooling--the kind that result in mass extinction--are our planet's norm, with more on the way. If our species is to survive, we must learn to adapt to changing environment. Banning hairspray is like bringing Band-Aids to a plane crash. We need to have a plan for when New York, Miami, Tokyo, and London are all under water. As I began my research I worried that Antarctica would be a boring topic for readers. Big surprise: it's a fascinating place. I hope readers find Big Ice entertaining and thought provoking.
Who are the protagonists?
Seth Peterson is a meteorologist from Minnesota who has developed some rather quirky and disastrously ineffective methods of coping with his life-long social phobia, which he perceives simply as cowardice. He has landed a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stationed at the National Ice Center in Washington D.C., where he studies polar ice movement in the Southern Hemisphere. Life has been difficult for Seth. He has struggled, with mixed results, to operate below society's radar. Things quickly worsen after he plays good Samaritan in a traffic accident and is then ordered to perform the impossible: make a public presentation of his critically important research on the effects of global warming on Antarctic ice sheets. Events spin out of control for Seth, taking him--and the reader--in unexpected directions.
What age group is this intended for?
Big Ice is targeted at adults, but any competent reader from fourteen on up will enjoy it. I have nothing against profanity and gratuitous sex and violence, but I avoid them in my books. They're too easy. It's Hollywood gimmickry, unless it's an integral part of the story. Whenever a swearword comes to mind as I write dialogue, that's a signal to me to find other, more colorful and character-revealing wording. Big Ice and Wake Up Dead combined are 160,000 words without a single effenheimer. I don't recommend Wake Up Dead for readers under sixteen because of its "adult situations."
Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?
Always use your best words. And always follow the age-old recommendation to let your writing sit for a time before you submit it. Which leads to the questions: Why? And for how long? Like most writers, I have never written anything in my life that I wouldnít now like to change for the better. Therefore, finishing a piece of writing and setting it aside to steep buys you that critical separation. The interval should be long enough for you to forget what you wrote verbatim, often months. You can then reread and edit the writing from a fresh, objective, and critical perspective. Itís amazing to me how forgetting something I wrote and then reading it later reveals to me the stilted, pretentious, what-was-I-thinking passages that I would have otherwise had to live down for eternity if published as-is.
Would you recommend your agent to writers at Quietpoly.com? If so, what is his/her contact address?
Agents are like bank loans; youíll never get one until you can prove you donít need one. I queried twenty-nine agents for Wake Up Dead before getting one willing to even read the manuscript. That agent sent a contract, and I was locked in for two years of virtual inaction. They wanted to renew for two more years. I said adios and went in search of a small press on my own, eventually winning publication in a national fiction contest without an agent. Big Ice had a similar history: rejection by nearly two dozen agents who never read it. I gave up and approached publishers directly, and met with success fairly easily.
What are some things to be careful about when signing contracts with agents and publishers?
Be careful not to poke yourself in the eye with the pen, and donít drool on the ink. Letís face it; after thirty rejections the average first-time writer isnít in a position to be haggling over fine print or calling in Perry Mason. If itís a legitimate, standard book-publishing contract, youíre going to sign it. Take the bird in hand. If you have an agent, you arenít reading this interview and you donít need my advice. If youíre signing a for-fee contract with a subsidy publisher, well thatís a different matter. The services and prices range wildly. If you can research a book, you can find a better deal. Go on line and get to work. Better yet, preserve your dignity. Rewrite the book instead and keep submitting to traditional publishers until you find one willing to pay you for the book.
Is it easy to get a radio show or to get on TV to talk about your book?
Aside from the simplicity of paying a million dollars for a sixty-second spot during the Super Bowl, I think itís hard, though sort of hit-and-miss. This is not something Iíve chased much, so Iím no expert. I did get a local radio mention for Wake Up Dead, and the publisher was approached about a half-hour TV show interview in Milwaukee that never blossomed. My opinion is that non-fiction is easier than fiction to promote on the airwaves, but that a book about a specific topic or geographic setting may stimulate interest on a special-interest show. Also, the home-town-boy-does-good angle can win you a spot on the local morning shows. I saw Vince Flynn making the rounds here in the Twin Cities recently. Of course, heís now on wildly successful book number five and his appearances are surely set up by the publisher or a hired publicist.
Have you found book-signings to be successful?
Theyíre an important part of the marketing process. Without them, many stores are unwilling to stock the book. They can also be time-consuming and frustrating. I sold fifty books at my most successful signing, but have also traveled two hours one way for signings where I sold none. I even had one signing where the event coordinator was fired after scheduling me (not because of me, I hope). When I showed up, the store knew nothing about my scheduled appearance and had no books in stock. The manager was so flustered he bought me dinner and a free hardcover book of my choice, which was more lucrative to me than selling dozens of books.
What other marketing ideas/services did you use and would you share them with us?
There are numerous websites and publications loaded with marketing tips for authors. My general suggestion is to think outside the box. Sometimes youíll be pleasantly surprised. Here are two specific examples that worked for me. I ride a Harley-Davidson. With the goal of getting a mention in the local dealership's newsletter about the success of their customer/author, I sent a PR release claiming that, "Iím not Peter Fonda or Jay Leno, but you can add another celebrity to the swelling ranks of Harleywood." At the time, Wake Up Dead was an Amazon regional #1 bestseller, out-selling Governor Venturaís "I Ainít Got Time To Bleed," which prompted me to add that, "Iím kicking Jesse Venturaís ass, and there ainít nothiní he can do about it." I signed off as "Easy Writer." They loved it so much that I was featured in the newsletter, invited to two booksignings--and the store bought twelve copies that they sold over the counter. I also sought out reading groups. I have met with several, but one group was especially memorable. They invited me to meet them in the lobby of a fancy hotel. I had no idea what to expect. They were fifteen women who had all read Wake Up Dead and loved it. They treated me to an expensive lunch in a private banquet room, had me sign and personalize all their books, and basically spent two hours telling me how great I was. My poor wife has had to live with me ever since.