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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Author Interview: Sandy James

The Long and the Short of It is pleased to welcome Sandy James. Sandy is no stranger to the regular readers of this site, as her latest book Faith of the Heart was voted Best Book of the Week by the readers. She has also had three other books garner the same recognition: Free Falling, Murphy's Law, and Turning Thirty-Twelve.

Sandy's a high school teacher and started writing when she realized she'd soon be face to face with the empty nest syndrome. She completed her first book the same year the younger of her two children graduated from high school. Writing a novel was on her "Must Do This Before I'm Too Old" list, and in her mind she'd cross it off and move on with her life.

"I had no idea I’d be so addicted to writing," she confessed. "It was as if I found my voice once I passed that forty-year milestone. I’ve always loved reading, and I flirted with writing in junior high and high school. I was part of a trio of close friends who passed a notebook to each other between classes. You had to write a new part of the story before you gave it to the next friend. In retrospect, and judging from our ages at the time, we were writing a romance, albeit a chaste one. But I never really considered writing a novel until I was inspired by a bad book."

Before Sandy started writing, she read every romance she could lay her hands on. She, of course, has her keeper authors that she read and re-read (Julie Garwood and Hannah Howell topping that list). She had been reading a story by another fairly well-known author, and the hero and heroine were already married.

"I was excited, because I hate that so many people consider the romance over when the couple marries," she said. "As I settled in to read it, I got angrier and angrier. The heroine was supposed to be close to forty-years old, but she was described as looking like she was still a teenager. Oh, please! Any woman over the age of thirty realizes that she doesn’t look like a teenager anymore. So I pitched the book at the wall in disgust, sat down with a blank pad of paper, and started to write a romance about a married couple where the heroine was close to forty and looked close to forty. But I couldn’t stop because there was a secondary character in that first book who I loved so much, I had to write him his own story. Once I started writing, I was hopelessly hooked. And when I shared those books with a few friends, they encouraged me to try to publish."

Since that first story, Sandy has completed ten books, two of which she said were so badly written they need a complete rewrite. She plans on giving it to them, because they are unique story ideas.

"There's always more a writer can learn about the craft," she said, "and I plan to be a lifelong learner."

Sandy started her learning through her father-in-law, M.R. James, author and founder of Bowhunter Magazine.

"Even though is is very busy with his own writing career," Sandy said, "he took the time to systematically destroy my first novel. How wonderful is a man to read his daughter-in-law’s first attempt at writing a romance and give her honest comments? He didn’t just buzz through it. Oh, no. He bled red pen all over that first manuscript, and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for his candor. I learned so much from that critique, although I’ll admit I could only look at a page or two at a time or I would burst into tears."

She learned though that experience that a writer has to let her guard down and accept the constructive criticism, not taking it as an insult or indictment about her skill as a writer.

"That’s where the learning comes in. You need to have the wisdom to know the difference between constructive criticism you can learn from and criticism that isn’t helpful. My lessons began with that first critique."

Because of her desire to get serious about making her books the best she could make them, she joined Romance Writers of America and met her mentor, multi-published author Judie Aitken, at the Indiana RWA chapter meeting.

"She took me under her wing and ripped and shredded my work," Sandy said. "I learned as much from her as I did from my father-in-law. I joined her critique group, and I kept practicing and writing and learning. She encouraged me to enter writing contests. Yes, I’ll admit, I was a contest diva. There was a lot to be gained from contests. I developed a thicker hide and started to sort through good criticism and bad criticism."

Her contest diva role was important, because it was through that she finally decided she was a writer.

"I figured I was just having fun writing until I finaled in my first contest. Once I realized that other people appreciated what I wrote, it dawned on me I should take it more seriously and devote as much time as I could to improving my skills so I could make my books better," she told me. "Since that first contest, I’ve been lucky enough to final six different manuscripts in fifteen national contests, and I learned something from almost every judge who included comments with her score sheet."

Sandy's works are all strongly character driven and believes that characters are the most important elements of good writing.

"If you don’t have characters who are richly developed, your story will never fly. Your plot can be brilliant. You can use the perfect word choices. You can have the most original concept ever. None of it matters without rich characters," she said. "Most writers are also voracious readers. They know the kinds of characters who leap off the page and become 'real' in their minds, and they need to translate that into the stories they write."

Sandy has a degree in psychology and has always developed a sort of psychological profiles for all her characters, including the secondaries.

"I crawl around inside their heads and just get to know them. Several author websites have worksheets you can fill out that address things like the characters’ favorite foods, the type of music they listen to, and little things that make characters 'real.' It boils down to this, if a reader doesn’t like or identify with your characters, the story doesn’t matter."

On a personal note, a saying Sandy uses a lot is "you have fun with that."

"I think it comes from hearing students tell me some of the dippy things they’re planning to do," she said. "It’s a way of letting them know I don’t think what they’re proposing is a good idea without being horribly insulting. I love my students, but, oh my. They do some really silly things."

Her father-in-law is a bowhunter, so Sandy said she can say she's eaten some types of meat most people will never have the opportunity to taste—antelope being her favorite.

"When I was expecting my daughter, my mother-in-law brought some soup for us to eat while we were busy painting our first house. I thought it was beef-vegetable," Sandy told me. "She didn’t tell me until after I’d eaten it that it was elk. I just shrugged. Tasted like beef to me. I’ve had deer, antelope, elk, bear – whatever my father-in-law had put in the freezer from his latest hunt."

"Have you ever cried during a movie?" I asked.

"A movie? No. Many, many movies? Yes", Sandy said. "I’m a very emotional person. If a book, play, or movie is sad, or even if it’s happy, I’ll cry. I only hope my stories inspire that type of emotion. The highest compliment I can receive is to hear one of my books moved a person to laugh or to cry."

Sandy told me she's a "Type A" personality through and through and is only truly happy when she has too much to do. And, that she can, and does, multi-task.

"Some days, I feel like a juggler because I have so many things going at the same time, especially during the school year," she told me. "Several of the psychology classes I teach at the high school are for the students to earn college credit, and that requires a tremendous amount of preparation. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done I’d like to get done. Being a Type A helps because I tend to be very organized, but there does come a point where I’m working on a story and the phone starts ringing, an email pops up, the dog is begging for something, and the hubby needs me that I have to yell, 'Enough!' After a few deep breaths, I tend to buckle down and take care of them all. Being a Type A sure isn’t easy."

You can keep up with Sandy on her website, http://www.sandy-james.com

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