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Monday, February 08, 2010

Author Interview with Julie Compton

Attorney-turned-author Julie Compton is originally from St. Louis, Missouri, the setting for her internationally published debut, TELL NO LIES, a legal thriller that earned a starred review from Kirkus. In 2003, she moved to Florida, and her new home became the setting for her second novel, RESCUING OLIVIA, which Kirkus called "a pleasing hybrid of fairy tale and contemporary thriller" and Publisher's Weekly said was an "intense, entertaining second novel" with a "super-satisfying resolution." Julie lives in Longwood, Florida with her husband and two daughters.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us

My second novel, Rescuing Olivia, was just released on February 2 by St. Martin's Minotaur. It's a psychological thriller about a Florida biker who sets out on a journey to find his girlfriend when she mysteriously disappears from the hospital after a suspicious motorcycle accident. Kirkus Reviews described it as a "modern-day fairy tale about a princely Florida lawn guy who must rescue his princess from a clutch of monsters" and "a pleasing hybrid of fairy tale and contemporary thriller," and I thought these descriptions were so perfect. It's a thriller, but it's also the story of a guy who will do anything to save the one he loves from demons both past and present. In the process, he must confront his own past and "save" himself as well. It definitely has a fairy tale quality about it.

If you have any UK readers, Rescuing Olivia will be out across the pond on May 7, 2010.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head. (be as specific as possible)

I've always loved writing, in one form or another. One of my oldest girlfriends told me that she remembers me writing stories when we played together as little girls. Even when I wasn't writing, I remember lying in bed at night and making up stories in my head. It was my way of entertaining myself until I fell asleep. (I confess, I still do this!)

But I didn't really take my writing seriously until I stayed home with my children and joined a writing workshop. It took me about three years to write the first draft of my first novel, Tell No Lies, and then another three or four editing (and that doesn’t include the time spent editing it even more with my editors at the publishing houses). But I didn’t think of myself as a “writer” back when I started my first book; I was just someone who liked to write and was “working on” a novel.

My journey to publication was a long one, as many are, but it's a bit unusual compared to most. After I finished my first novel, I approached many agents, but I did so before the manuscript was really ready – a common rookie's mistake. I knew I was heading in the right direction, though, when I started to get personalized rejections and constructive criticism. At some point I started approaching smaller publishers directly as I continued my search for an agent, and I was eventually offered a contract by a small publisher. I remember screaming, and my kids wondered what was wrong with me! But it gets better. The novel had been released (with a different title) for only a short time when an acquaintance staying at a rental property we owned found a copy left in a drawer, read it, liked it and gave it to someone she knew at Macmillan in the UK. They expressed interest, and fortunately, I was able to get my rights back from the first publisher. Macmillan offered me a two-book contract. (And yes, I screamed again the second time around, probably much louder!) Macmillan went on to publish Tell No Lies in the UK and Australia, and St. Martin's Minotaur published here in the US. It's also been translated to Dutch and Spanish and published in the Netherlands and Spain.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

Absolutely. I suspect the self-doubt will never go away. I think I've become better at recognizing when I've wrote something strong, but this is a strange business. So many things can discourage you if you let them. I try to stay focused on the writing. It's really the only thing over which the writer has control.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

I had an unusual journey to publication, as mentioned above, therefore I didn't have an agent at the time I was offered a contract. I should have stopped right then and there and taken the time to find and hire one. I put pressure on myself to sign right away, for fear if I didn't, they'd withdraw the offer. Of course, looking back, that was silly, but when you're an aspiring writer and you're offered a two-book deal, it feels like a dream and you're afraid you might wake up from it at any time. I did put out a few quick feelers for an agent, but I wanted someone to represent me because they loved my writing, not because they saw a quick buck, and unfortunately, it's hard to discern the difference once you have the contract in hand. I eventually hired a UK lawyer who specialized in UK publishing contracts, but it would have been nice to have had an agent shepherd me through my first experience with publishing. An agent does so much more than getting and negotiating the deal.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Don't give up. That's not to say that you should be stubborn about recognizing when you need to work harder to improve your writing, but whatever you do, if you love writing enough, don't give up.

It's a tough industry; you have to grow a thick skin and believe in yourself when no one else does. Find a mentor who believes in you, also, for those times when you don’t believe in yourself. And don't send anything out until you are absolutely sure it's ready. Just because you finished the first draft doesn't mean it's ready. Moreover, don't trust your friends and family members to tell you when something is ready. Find someone who will give you brutally honest feedback and don't get mad at them when they give it to you. Be willing to learn.

But no matter how many rejections you receive (and you will get rejections), just don't give up. Keep writing, keep revising, keep reading, keep learning.

How do you craft a plot?

It beats me! If someone has the magic answer, I wish they'd share it. Seriously, I'm not much of a plotter. I am what some call an "organic" writer. Usually, when I begin a story, I have no idea what the story will be. I might have a character in my head, or a scene, but that's about it. The story grows as I write, and I have no qualms about taking detours along the way.

Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?

No, no synopsis for me. As I mentioned above, I very rarely know my plot, even loosely, when I begin a novel. Half the time, I don't even realize I'm beginning a novel. Usually I'm just writing a scene that came to me for one reason or another. For Rescuing Olivia, the seed for the story came from a prompt given by the leader in my writing workshop. She asked us to write something about a character being in possession of a box that he or she wasn't supposed to have. I wrote a scene that later became a small but important part of the larger story, though at the time, I didn't know it. I didn't even know the character's name, but he eventually became Anders, my protagonist.

In terms of the larger plot of a guy "rescuing" someone, that began to grow in my head when I driving down the highway listening to a particular song on the radio. The lyrics of the song (and it's so cheesy, I won't even mention its name) sparked some ideas. The domestic violence thread arose, in part, from my volunteer work as a guardian ad litem. It's an issue I've wanted to write about for a while, and this novel only skims the surface. I think it will reappear in future work, though in much different ways.

Finally, the aspect of Anders being a biker arose from my living in
Florida for the past six and a half years. Until we moved here, I had always lived in more northern climates. You just don't see so many motorcycles up north the way you do down here. They're everywhere! It seemed right to have my main character – who hadn't completely "grown up" and who felt a bit trapped by life, even if he didn't admit it to himself – ride a motorcycle. (Of course, there's a bit of kid in anyone who rides, I think. Once I began to write him as a biker, I decided to learn how to ride. I took lessons with the idea that it would help the writing, but I became hooked. Needless to say, I now have a bike!)

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I didn't know much at all about the marketing and promotion side of the business. I didn't realize how vitally important those first few months – weeks, really – are after a novel's release. I started my promotional engines, if you will, long after the starting gun had been fired.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

I can't really think of one in particular. It's a tough business, no doubt, so you simply have to continue to forge ahead despite the set backs you might experience.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

Now that I write regularly, I find that I don't read books in quite the same way that I used to. If I think a book is particularly well-written, I'm constantly analyzing what the author did to determine why I think that, and what makes it different from others that didn't engage me so much. But I think I also learn even from books that I don't believe are well-written. I’m able to notice what I don't like, and take care to avoid similar mistakes in my own writing. Of course, this is easier said than done. J

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I'm proud not only that I have written two full-length novels, but that I've published both of them. If you had told me fifteen years ago that this would happen, I wouldn't have believed you. At the time, I was lucky if I finished a short story. But I think my favorite piece of writing is an essay I wrote just before Tell No Lies was released in the United States. My release date was shortly before Mother's Day, almost two years to the day after I took my mother to the hospital, where she died a few weeks later. My dad died six months after that. I wrote an essay about how bittersweet it was to finally have my book published but not have my parents alive to see it. That's probably the most heartfelt piece of writing I ever created.

What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?

No whining. Listen to your editor's advice. He or she is usually right, even if you don't want to believe it.

How many drafts do you edit before submitting to your editor?

It's sort of a rolling process. I'm an "edit as I go" writer, so I don't know that I could give a number. But I edit over and over and over, until I'm so sick of the manuscript I can't look at it without my eyes crossing. I do many, many read-throughs of the full manuscript.

We often hear how important it is to write a good query letter to whet the appetite of an editor. What tips can you offer to help other writers pen a good query?

Don't tell the editor or agent how much your Aunt Jane liked your novel. Don't say your novel is going to hit the bestseller list. Don't say you're better than [insert name of any well-known, bestselling author here]. No "Dear Agent" salutations – know the name of the person you're writing and tell him why you think he's the right agent for you (this requires research – do your research). No typos. After all, if you're sloppy in your letter, why should anyone believe you won't be sloppy with your writing? Above all, be professional.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

I've never considered quitting the act of writing – I will always write because I simply get so much joy from it – but there have been times when I wondered why I was putting myself through everything an author must go through nowadays to sell books. It feels like pushing a boulder up a steep hill. You heave and ho and sweat and grunt, and just when you think you're getting somewhere, the thing starts to roll back on you. Publishers don't market authors like they used to. Writers not must be not only writers, but marketing specialists, publicists, and salespeople. Some do it well, many don't, but I think if you asked confidentially, most would tell you that it's difficult for them. Writers tend to be introverts.

But having said all this, I truly believe all of the marketing hard work is worth it. There's nothing quite like opening my inbox to find a really fabulous email from a reader.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

As much as I reasonably can. It's hard to quantify. For Rescuing Olivia, I have a bit more knowledge about how things work, so I'm approaching the marketing differently than I did for Tell No Lies. With Tell No Lies, I did many of my promotional events spread out over a longer period of time, and that includes book signings, blogging, library talks, conferences, etc. I travelled a lot, and even when I didn't, I felt as if I was working on promo activities more than writing. That can be exhausting and make concentration difficult. For Rescuing Olivia, I did a lot of pre-planning so that most of my events, especially the ones for which I have to travel, are contained in a several month time frame.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

I have received so many wonderful emails from readers, and interestingly enough, some who wrote later developed into close friends. There are two responses that always stick out in my mind, though. The first was from a woman who read Tell No Lies and wrote to tell me that she'd had a lot of trouble forgiving her ex-husband for cheating on her, but after reading the novel, she was better able to understand what might have been happening in his head. The other was in response to the essay mentioned above. The writer read the essay (in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper) while eating her lunch at work, and she wrote to tell me that she was "literally wiping away tears and trying to collect myself enough to work for the rest of the day." It was pretty special to know I moved someone to tears.

Parting words?

If readers want to learn more about my books, they can visit my website at www.julie-compton.com.

Most of all, thank you for offering me this opportunity to tell your readers a little bit about myself and my writing! It's been a lot of fun!


2 comments:

Rebecca@Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

I am a classic insomniac and so I dread going to bed. However, once I started taking my writing to bed with me - turning over plot points, developing characters, trying out new stories - going to bed became one of my favorite things to do!

Nicole said...

Love the pic. And very cool interview.