Today I interview author Joylene Nowell Butler about her publication of the crime thriller Dead Witness, as well as on her writing philosophy and experience.
Welcome to Blogcritics for this interview, Joylene. We have been e-mail writer friends for a number of years, either in the same critique groups or out of them, so our discussion isn’t an introduction. Perhaps we might find something more from contrasting our experiences.
Hi Chris. I'm happy to be here. And I think I've got the contrast you're looking for. It's the "Don't do as I do, but as I say" premise. If your readers learn one thing from my experience, then my mistakes were well worth it.
I admit to being surprised this year when you decided to self publish Dead Witness after several years and several agents failed to place it. Can you tell us how that came about?
It started as an attempt to lift my spirits. After collecting enough rejection letters to wallpaper our ensuite, I needed to know that what I do (writing novels) is real. My objective was to print one hard copy. When it arrived in the post, my family's excitement and enthusiasm caused a chain reaction. Before I considered the consequences, I ordered 20 additional copies. They sold within days. After a few sleepless nights, I took a chance and ordered 100 more, then placed them in retail stores in the area. No one was more surprised than I when they sold in less than 2 weeks. I might have stopped there had the stores not called to say they had back orders and when could I fill them. Then the Library of Friends asked if I'd participate in the exhibition by doing readings and book signings. It escalated from there.
Until I entered the post office in Vanderhoof and was mobbed by a friendly group of fans, I had no idea whether I'd made the biggest mistake of my career. Though my online sales at Lulu were small, I received emails and phone calls from strangers praising my book. It's a wonderful feeling knowing your years of efforts aren't in vain.
What kinds of promotions are you doing?
Experience is a wonderful thing. I should have marketed Dead Witness first, then released it to the public. Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20. I did a google search, discovered what others had done to succeed, then promptly contacted every retail store in the area that I thought might sell Dead Witness, and negotiated their commission. Currently I'm in discussions with a large food chainstore in BC.
I wrote what I think is a good press release and sell sheet. I then joined the 10 top networking online sites and made my name known by participating in forums and discussions. I started a blog, and guest blog at various traffic-high blog sites. I'm guest blogging at Beauty and the Baby every week, and I'm scheduled to guest blog at MurderBy4 Aug. 1, 2008.
After all this, I was still very aware that I was out of my element. I dropped by the local newspaper one day to place an ad and was directed to the editorial department. That seemed strange, but I'm no expert on how newspapers. When someone asked if I could come back at three o'clock, I was stuck wondering what I could do for four hours.
I managed, showed up at 3, and was escorted to their conference room. I just wanted to place an ad, so all the fuss seemed overdone. When the staff reporter sat down and started asking book related questions, it finally dawned on me that I was being interviewed.
When they led me to a room with heavy canvassed walls, then proceeded to flash two 250 watt lights in my face, I had two thoughts: 'I hope my hair looks okay' and 'Pay attention, Joylene, because you may want to use this in one of your novels someday.'
Two weeks after my book came out, I ran out. Very quickly I realized I had to find a cheaper printer. Plus a distributor. As I wait for more copies from Lulu, I'm now making a greater effort to promote myself. I've sent my book to 12 distinguished reviewers, and have scheduled more readings. I'm looking into producing a virtual tour, but I've been advised to wait until after summer to begin.
Has self-publishing come up to your expectation?
If I had known how to properly self-publish, I could have prepared myself for the effort and time required. There's a method to everything. If done correctly, self-publishing can and should be a pleasant, gratifying experience. Because I jumped in with both feet, unprepared for what was required of me, I made the experience more arduous than need be. I thought the hard part was over. I'd written the book. Dead Witness was well written; it could and would stand on its own.
That is such a naive attitude that I'm amazed I thought that way as little as three weeks ago. You can never be prepared enough. And while I do have the luxury of dictating how my book looks, where it's sold, and how, I'm still on my own, learning the ropes as I go. It's akin to not realizing you're pregnant until after your baby pops out. Literally. Kurplunk! There she is. Now what?
Did the story of Dead Witness come out of something in your own experience?
The summer of `91, my big brother visited us; he's a security consultant and P.I. in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. One day he was on the telephone with his employees when this simple question popped into my mind: 'If I disappeared mysterious, would he accept it, or investigate until he learned the truth?'
The story grew from there. I completed Dead Witness in three months, took some time off, then spent the next seven years revising.
Tell us a bit about your character Valerie McCormick. Does she share similarities with the author? What are the differences between them?
Valerie is kinder and gentler than I am. Perhaps I was like her back in 1991 before age and experience and menopause changed me; it's too long ago to remember. As I contemplate her today it occurs to me that she is someone you're drawn to because she's authentic, true to her nature. Valerie seldom judges anyone but herself. She's much harder on herself than necessary. But it keeps her honest because she's always striving to be a better example to her daughters. She's a cross between Cheryl Ladd, Meryl Steep and my daughter-in-law Anna. The thing that binds Valerie and I is our love for our children.
How do you develop the characters in the book? Are there any you are particularly proud of?
After the initial 'What if…?' Valerie was just there in my thoughts. I tried character sketching, mostly because I had been told that's what a good writer does. Back then I hadn't yet learned to trust my instincts. I was pretty sure anyone and everyone knew more than I. And generally they did. The real Valerie grew from a series of revisions. I spent seven years getting to know her. It took a bit of time to realize all I had to do was write down what she said and did. That was the big eye-opener, the day I stopped trying to mold her to fit the story.
Canaday is a combination of the men in my life. DeOlmos is their dark side. I'm proud of how Canaday steps away from his bitterness and isolation and gives himself a chance to love. Because by loving Valerie, he inadvertently grows as a human being.
As for DeOlmos, despite being calculating, brutal, and murderous, family is still the most important thing in his life, even to the end, when he thinks Valerie could save him from his loneliness.
What meaning does the plot and theme of Dead Witness hold for you?
It's all about family. Not about money or fame or possession … or any of the things we take for granted. Like our 'things': our homes, clothes, toys, vehicles, and image. If you grow old without family, for whatever reasons, maybe you learn to live comfortable with yourself. But if family surrounds you and all that matters to you is how successful you become, I think you're a sad human being.
I personally feel the big publishers wouldn’t be interested in my writing because I’m too far away to fit into their promotional methods. Has your domicile affected your writing – channeled the material you write about – governed your options in becoming published?
Certainly. I literally live in the 'bush'. The nearest city (pop 81,000) is 68 km away. It's a nice town though, a great place to raise kids. Still, it's no Toronto, Montreal, or even Vancouver. I can't jump in the car and attend book shows, or conventions. There aren't that many readings. And forget winter culture events. Traveling on the highways is too dangerous
It's been tough. But I never let that stop me from querying publishers or agents. I've been online since 1994 and have met enough authors to know even if published by a traditional house, I still have to do my own marketing. In the beginning I was already prepared to go that extra mile to promote my work. I just never assumed there would be no publisher. Even now I still believe there's a publisher in my future; I'm speeding things up a bit.
Is that naivety on my part? I don't know. But if you watch 'Inside the Actor's Studio' or any interview on TV with a celebrity, there's one common denominator: they all believed they'd succeed. While I certainly have had some low moments, I never stopped believing I would see my books in print.
After trying to land an agent for a couple of years I decided, based on your experience as well as that of others, that I didn’t want to work with one. Can you give us some idea of your experiences with the agents you had for Dead Witness?
One word: Flighty. One minute they're your new best friend, the next they don't know your name. When I asked to be let go from my 2nd agent, she suddenly noticed I was there. After ignoring me for twenty months, I received a 3-page letter denouncing my poor concept of the business. She said I had no idea how difficult her job was.
My 3rd agent renewed my faith, for a time. He set me off to work on my rewrites with promises of a bright future. I was rejuvenated. When I brought what I knew was an exciting book back for his approval, he more or less replied, "I've changed my mind, go away."
What about your experiences with independent publishers who accept unagented submissions?
While their advertising leads you to believe they're willing to save you from the thrones of publishing-house-misery, make no mistake, they are in it for the money. It is a business. Again, you need to do your homework. There are studies online that list reputable IPs. There are endless books, lists, and information on the subject. Nobody is without scrutiny. What you need to know, is out there. Take advantage of that. Do your homework.
How much effort and experience do you feel a writer must put into a manuscript before submitting it, or indeed, even self-publishing it?
You need to known your craft inside and out. First you write the book. Then you find the best online writer's critiquing groups available. You learn how to critique. Half the battle is knowing what "doesn't" work. The other secret is to be as honest to yourself and your reader as you can. I've seen too many writers forget for whom they write. That special reader has got to be in the forefront at all times. If you stay honest, and by that I mean, if you write from the heart and not what you think will "sell", your reader will not only stay with your story, but she'll grab your next book with zealous devotion.
Having read some other novels of yours in draft form, I’m wondering where you feel Dead Witness fits into your work.
Good question. I've actually thought about this a lot because I didn't want to make a mistake and publish the wrong book first. I've written five, four after I finished Dead Witness. The lessons have been well learned, and I believe I am a better writer today. But there's a freshness and innocence in Dead Witness that I've since lost as a person. Revising Dead Witness without losing that freshness was difficult. I wrote it when I was 37. I was a different person. And though it is a book I've very proud of, the stories that run through my mind now are darker, less naïve, not as cut and dry. But I'm not really a good judge at this stage. And so, I think maintaining the theme I started with made me more perceptive, maybe even a better writer. I was forced to pull back and let lightness and optimism rule.
Where is your writing career going to take you next?
I'll never stop. I want to write about the story of a Canadian soldier in Vietnam. I'm told that nobody wants to hear about Vietnam anymore. Maybe that's true for now, but it'll change. Just as our attitudes and appreciation for WWII changed. In a broader sense, at the end of it all, I want to look back and know that I did my very best. I never compromised, never got too comfortable, and never assumed I could second-guess my reader.
Where can readers find copies of Dead Witness? What are the links to your website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Dead Witness is available at Lulu.com. Readers are welcomed to stop in at my blog site, www.cluculzwriter.blogspot.com. There are more links there to my other networking sites. And please feel free to leave a comment. Without readers, there'd be no point writing. And knowing how my work affects my readers is essential to my work.
Thank you for visiting me on Blogcritics, Joylene. I look forward to interviewing you about a new release in the future.
It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me here, Chris.