Literary Spotlight: Jane Johnson
Jane Johnson is an English author and Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins Publisher, UK, where she is responsible for the Voyager science fiction and fantasy list as well as publishing thrillers and historical fiction. She was also with Tolkien Publisher for several years, and worked on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Her novel, Crossed Bones (UK) The Tenth Gift (USA title) is her first foray into writing adult mainstream fiction. Ms. Johnson also writes for children.
Q: From the perspective of a publishing director, what catches the eye in novice manuscripts?
A: I look for a distinctive and authentic voice, one that hooks me within a couple of pages; clear, sharp writing, a sense of rhythm in the sentence structures, a good use of language without being flowery or overwritten; a strong sense of plotting and characterization; realistic dialogue -- and, of course, that indefinable 'something special.' The most important thing of all is to have the ability to make the reader want to turn the pages. That requires strong characterization, a real sense of a person that you are interested in, or can empathise with; and a great story.
Q: How does a novice writer come by these skills?
A: By reading, reading, reading; and writing, writing, writing -- and doing both with awareness rather than passively absorbing or channelling the words. And looking and listening to the world around them, getting out into it with eyes and ears open, trying to describe what they see and hear; jotting down dialogue and impressions, dreams and ideas. It is worth realizing that certain sectors of the fiction market sell better than others, and if you want to be published by a commercial publisher you need to be writing commercial material.
Q: In today’s marketplace, genre vs. mainstream – which is the tougher to write/sell and why?
A: I've always disliked such categorizations: historically, they were terms used by marketing personnel, rather than by readers and editors. As a reader, I read far and wide without making distinctions between books except as to whether I liked them or not. But gradually the market has ruled the publishing houses, and the corporate publishers have allowed these divisions to be imposed, so we're now faced with a fait accompli. I've always railed against the way that science fiction and fantasy are a) jammed together under the same dismissive heading and b) shoved in some dark corner of the bookshop (and never in supermarkets). This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy: and so the 'genre' has been supported less and less well and sold fewer and fewer copies. At present, it's probably the hardest area of the market in which a newcomer can break through.
Thrilllers, when they sell well, sell very well indeed: but because the rewards are visibly greater in this area, there's heavy competition. Writing well in any area is hard and requires great dedication and a thorough understanding of the sort of novel you're writing. You need the capacity to hold an entire storyline in your head; you need to hear and understand the characters; you need to be able to cut and edit your own work ruthlessly; and you need to be open to criticism and flexible enough to rework material if it's not working. That's the same across the writing of all areas of fiction.
Q: Crossed Bones/The Tenth Gift is inspired by the abduction of a family member in 1625 from a Cornish church by Barbary pirates. What are the challenges of writing about a historical event from a fiction point of view?
A: It was necessary to do incredible amounts of research into the 17th century and Morocco. It was necessary to read, absorb and hold in my head dozens of books and hundreds of articles, as well as landscapes and cultures before I could even begin to write. You can't just make things up as you go along if you want the story and characters to be authentic.
I read a lot of historical fiction, and there's nothing I hate more than anachronisms: they jolt you out of the reading experience and make you lose trust in the author. You need to be relaxed when you're reading, not constantly on the alert for errors. On the other hand, you don't want the writing to be fact-packed and stilted. And all this is then complicated by two passionate love stories that need to catch the reader up and fire their imaginations: characters and motivations must be convincing to pull that off. So making it all look effortless, while putting in the hard work is what you're aiming for -- the classic analogy of the swan gliding across a lake comes to mind: All grace and serenity above the surface of the water, and frantic effort beneath!
Carlotta Holton is the author of Salem Pact and Touching The Dead, and is a member of the National Federation of Press Women and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association.
Carlotta Holton has just received her second award for Touching the Dead from the National Federation of Press Women Communications Contest. Click here to purchase the book.