Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Interview with Title Trakk Founder & Debut Novelist, CJ Darlington

C.J. Darlington's first novel, Thicker Than Blood, was the winner of the 2008 Christian Writers Guild's Operation First Novel contest. She is the co-founder of the Christian entertainment Web site http://www.titletrakk.com/. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania. When she's not writing, she's reading. Her hobbies include book and art collecting, fly fishing, painting and drawing. Visit her Web site at http://www.cjdarlington.com/.

You were one of Novel Journey’s original readers and you and I have been on the path together from the start. How very cool that not only were we both contracted by the same publishing house (Tyndale) but in the same year! What went through your head when you learned that Thicker than Blood finaled in Jerry B. Jenkins’ Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest?

It’s kind of a funny story how I even found out. I submitted the novel to the contest in September 2008 with just two weeks to spare, and I guessed they’d notify finalists in November. The weeks passed, and I really thought I hadn’t placed. But just to be sure, I e-mailed Andy Scheer at the Christian Writers Guild asking if it was okay now to start submitting the novel elsewhere. He wrote me back saying the semi-finalists and finalists had NOT yet been notified, and he said, “Don’t put the ranch or the bookstore up for sale just yet.” Immediately I started asking myself, does that mean what I hope it means? I couldn’t let myself assume, but I sure did hope. A couple days later I got the official e-mail telling me Thicker than Blood was indeed a finalist. I was so amazed and excited! I had almost given up on this book. To find out someone saw merit in it was so encouraging.

Were you ever given score sheets from the judges or any indication as to why your novel was chosen over the others?

I never saw score sheets or anything like that, so I have no idea why it was chosen. No names were attached to any of the manuscripts. They were judged purely on story. I did ask my editor later what she liked about the book, and her answer surprised me. She said she enjoyed the spiritual aspects of the novel the most and also how I wrote about imperfect characters.

Tell us briefly about your site TitleTrakk.com and the direction you see it heading in the future?

TitleTrakk.com is a Christian entertainment website my sister Tracy and I started in 2006. We update weekly, and so far we’ve featured 200+ author, musician and filmmaker interviews, as well as hundreds of book, music and movie reviews. The future is bright for TitleTrakk, and we see ourselves continuing in the same direction we’ve been running for the past couple years, only hopefully more and more folks will discover us.

It’s been an incredible experience to interview so many talented people. I’m often blessed by the interviews myself because pretty much everyone we’ve interviewed has been so nice!

Has running such a well received e-zine helped get your foot in the door publicity-wise?

The biggest benefit I’ve noticed is the contacts I’ve made over the years with other authors. TitleTrakk.com has given me a reason to communicate with many industry professionals I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise. That being said, I wouldn’t want other writers to think they have to have a website like TitleTrakk.com to succeed. Many of the connections I’ve made have also been from haunting the blogsphere and just e-mailing authors and editors when I’ve enjoyed their books. But I do believe my work with TitleTrakk.com has helped me keep my fingers on the pulse of the Christian publishing industry. I’ve always been fascinated with the ins and outs, but now I have an excuse to dig deeper.

Has anything surprised you about the publishing journey?

A couple things have, actually. First, I’d heard for years pubbed authors council unpubbed authors that getting a contract won’t change your life. I really didn’t believe them at first, but I’m finding their words to be true. When writers began asking me for advice I wanted to say to them, “I’m still figuring it all out myself. I’m still me. I still have to walk my dogs, do the dishes, make dinner.”

Secondly, during my journey to publishing, there was a lot of waiting. One time I waited a year and a half before my manuscript went to editorial committee (and was then rejected). I thought once I got a contract the waiting would be over. But alas, it’s not. There’s just new stuff to wait for. I’m learning that’s simply the way things work, and the sooner I get it through my head the more relaxed I’ll be. The best thing I can do is get to work on my next project.

Do you have another novel we can look forward to after Thicker than Blood?

I am happy to say that I’ve already written the sequel to Thicker than Blood and am starting my third book. Hopefully I’ll have finished a rough draft by the time you read this interview. My second novel’s working title is Innocent Blood, and some of the main characters from Thicker than Blood become minor characters in Innocent Blood. I haven’t really worked out a summary of it yet, but I can say this: don’t get too attached to everyone in Thicker than Blood *insert evil laugh* . Rare books play an integral role once again, only this time instead of a first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (as in Thicker) an even rarer first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes center stage. The spiritual theme of Innocent Blood is that no one is a lost cause. There are hurting people all around us, especially teenagers, who desperately need to know they’re loved. The main character of the novel is actually a teenager. A mother/daughter theme crept into the story as well.

Tell us about your latest project:
Thicker than Blood, which is my first novel to write as well as publish, is just hitting shelves, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. It’s the story of two estranged sisters. Here’s the little blurb Tyndale and I wrote:

Christy Williams finally has her life on track. She’s putting her past behind her and working hard to build a career as an antiquarian book buyer. But things begin to unravel when a stolen Hemingway first edition is found in her possession, framing her for a crime she didn’t commit. With no one to turn to, she yearns for her estranged younger sister, May, whom she abandoned after their parents’ untimely deaths. Soon, Christy’s fleeing from her shattered dreams, her ex-boyfriend, and God. Could May’s Triple Cross Ranch be the safe haven she’s searching for? Will the sisters realize that each possesses what the other desperately needs before it’s too late?

We’d love to hear about your journey to publication.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always loved writing stories. They were usually about my pets or other animals. When I was fifteen I started the story that would become Thicker than Blood. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew I wanted to write something a little different than what I’d been writing up to that point. I knew the story was to be about two estranged sisters, but that was about it.

Then when I was sixteen I discovered I could actually study to learn how to write better. My early stuff was horrid, let me tell you. So I read every how-to book I could get my hands on, diligently studied Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines, and kept on reading novels.

When I was eighteen I realized I needed to start getting serious. Up to that time I felt like I only dabbled in writing, and I was still working on that story I started when I was fifteen. I clearly remember the moment I decided to give myself five years to get my novel finished and accepted for publication. I smile now at my ambitious thoughts. Well, those five years came and went and I was closer to my goal but certainly hadn’t reached it.

The ad I saw in Writer’s Digest for the very first Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest literally changed my life. The prize that year was $50,000, so that caught my attention. And I realized entering that contest would be the perfect deadline. I would have to finish the manuscript. I finally did, and I submitted an early version of Thicker than Blood in January of 2004. It was only 67,000 words long (their requirement that year was 50,000 words, but that’s since changed to 70,000, I think).

It was such a strange feeling mailing that book off into the world. I’d spent almost ten years of my life at that time working on “my story”. Sending it off felt extremely exciting and sad at the same time. I felt like I was saying goodbye to some of my closest friends (we writers sure are weird, aren’t we?). I waited several months, then got an e-mail telling me my book was chosen as one of 20 semi-finalists in the contest, but it didn’t make it as a finalist. I had a real peace about that. In fact before I heard anything I had a dream that Jerry Jenkins called me to tell me my book needed a lot of work!

From that point on I started submitting Thicker than Blood to various editors. And it kept being rejected. Later I added about 10,000 words to the story, re-wrote some scenes, tightened dialogue, etc. until I ended up with a stronger book. I submitted that version to editors and it also got rejected. Some of the editors gave me feedback, but most times I accumulated form rejection slips.

For the next four years or so I submitted the novel to publishers. I also began writing a second novel. I began to get really discouraged when all I amassed were rejections. Thicker than Blood was actually rejected by most of the top Christian publishers.

By this time I was starting to wonder if I should just shelve the book and start submitting my second novel. I was literally days away from doing exactly that. I’d already decided which publisher I was going to send my second book to, and I’d even written my cover letter. But as I lay in bed one night a thought came to me. I really believe it was God speaking to me. It wasn’t a voice from the clouds or anything like that. The thought sounded just like me, but it came so out of the blue I now realize it had to be from Him. I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. I have a completed novel that I think is better than what I first submitted to Operation First Novel. What if I submitted it to this year’s contest?”

I went and looked up the deadlines at the Christian Writers Guild website, and I had something like two weeks before it would’ve been too late to enter that year. I quickly became a member and sent in my submission.

That was in September 2008. In November I got the e-mail telling me I was one of four finalists. I attended the Writing for the Soul conference in February 2009 where I waited with bated breath as they announced the winner from the stage. I was shocked when Thicker than Blood won. I give all glory to God for not allowing me to give up.

What is one weakness you have as a writer and what do you do to overcome it?

This answer and the conclusion to CJ's interview will post next Tueday. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter of Thicker Than Blood HERE. Or watch the trailer HERE.

Back cover copy:
Christy Williams never imagined that a stolen Hemingway first edition would lead her back to the sister she left fifteen years ago. But when things begin to unravel, she finds herself on May’s doorstep, fearing for her life. Will the two discover that some hurts can't be healed or is there a tie that's thicker than blood?


Gina Holmes said...

CJ! It's unbelievably cool to see your interview on Novel Journey. We've known each other quite awhile now...who could have predicted the way things have turned out for us? I'm so proud of you my friend! Great interview btw.

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks so much for having me, Gina! I'm very honored. :)

Tina said...

Congratulations, CJ. I've heard so many wonderful things about Thicker Thank Blood. I'm looking forward to reading it.