The very talented and amazing Cheryl St. John joins us today for an interview and to share a little about her new release, Sequins and Spurs. (Isn’t it a gorgeous cover?)
Let’s give her a warm welcome!
Q: Please tell us about yourself and how you got started writing.
CSJ: I’ve always written in one form or another. As a child I wrote stories, drew the covers, and stapled them into mini-books. My first rejection came at age fourteen when I submitted a romantic short story to Redbook Magazine. I still have the form rejection. I was crushed.
I wrote longhand off and on after that, occasionally typing a story on my Grandma St.John’s manual typewriter. For years, I pretty much dedicated myself to my family, and raised my four kids. Believe it or not, I used to read only horror, mystery and mainstream novels, but I read a few Victoria Holts I’d received from the book club and found them appealing, yet somewhat unsatisfactory in some way I couldn’t define at the time.
On a whim one day, while browsing the store shelves, I bought Lisa Gregory’s The Rainbow Season and LaVyrle Spencer’s Hummingbird. Imagine that out of all the books available, I chose those two classic romances for my first taste of romance! Needless to say, I was hooked from that day forward. I devoured everything either of those two authors ever wrote, and went on to all the early greats: Janelle Taylor, Jude Deveruaux, Johanna Lindsey, Francine Rivers, and Kathleen Woodiwiss.
When my youngest daughter went to Kindergarten, I was lost without her. In retrospect,it was empty nest syndrome, but instead of having another baby, which many women do, I decided it was time to write the novel that would launch me to stardom.
Yeah, right. The rest of the process took a little longer. And I’m still not sure about the stardom part.
Q: Is there some individual, group or event that you can point to as the catalyst/impetus that set you on the road to becoming a writer? Explain.
CSJ: On Easter Sunday in 1989, my brother, a horror and men’s adventure writer, brought me an article from the newspaper. He laid it on my dining room table and said, “You’ve got to call these people; you’re working in a vacuum.”
I knew he was right. I’d been writing and submitting for a few years without any feedback or success. My mother had given me a clipping about the RWA group the year before, but I’d never called. Somehow reading about those published authors and their support group just didn’t sound like anything for which I was qualified.
Several times in the weeks that followed, I read through that article about a romance author who was a semi-finalist in a national contest sponsored by RWA—The Golden Heart. I’d never even heard of RWA before. The aspiring writer featured was president of an auspicious local chapter. She had a master’s degree in criminal justice and taught at a college! Each time I went to the phone to call the number printed in the article, I got cold feet and thought, “Who do I think I am? What do I think I’m doing? I don’t know anything about writing!”
I’d never taken a single writing class, never even met a real author besides my brother, and since he was my brother, he didn’t count. Who was I to even IMAGINE myself among a group of real writers?
Well, I finally fought back the collywobbles, dialed the number, and—wouldn’t you know—I got an answering machine! Now it’s funny to think back that many years ago and remember that not many people had answering machines. Not like today when everyone has one or a service and voice mail. I knew when I got that recording that the woman was a professional! lol! I hung up.
A week later, I garnered my courage and called again, hoping for a real voice. No such luck. I learned afterward that this was her business line and she NEVER answered that line. I could have tried till I was blue and never heard a live voice.
But this time I left a message. Low and behold she called me back. And she sounded just like a real person! She explained the chapter and the meeting date and place and actually sounded quite glad to hear from me. Before we hung up I asked, hesitantly, “Is everyone there a professional? I mean, I’m not a teacher or a college graduate or anything.” She assured me they were all people just like me.
And you know what? They were. And some of them are still my best friends today.
Q: Tell us about your journey.
CSJ: The defining year for me was the year my youngest daughter went to first grade. I had been at home raising four children spread out over several years and felt the void of sending the youngest to school all day. Until then I’d been playing at writing, keeping handwritten notebooks and dallying with the stories like a hobby. Then and there I decided that I was going to actually do what I’d always dreamed of doing and write an entire book. I started it in October and finished it during that school year. I had the time of my life. I had no idea what I was doing, so it had no plot or conflict and the villain was wishy washy, but the characters were fun and I enjoyed creating a romance. I even submitted the manuscript to every publisher and agent I could find. Only years later did I understand how embarrassing that was. I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Who knew the time period was unmarketable? Who knew you weren’t supposed to bind your submission in a pretty folder? The story is as yet unpublished, though some day I’d like to rework it.
Q: How many books did you complete before you sold your first? Have all/any of them sold since?
CSJ: I started submitting before I was ready, before I’d discovered a writing group or Dwight Swain. I was writing for about four years before I found a local writers group. I was fortunate. A generous lady and talented Avon author named Diane Wicker Davis started my local chapter. She read my stuff and showed me how to make the stories better and the writing stronger. I lucked into a critique group with another published author, Barbara Andrews (who now writes with her daughter as Pam Rock) and she and the group encouraged me. Once I learned the techniques to write to sell, it took about another three years. I probably have five or six manuscripts that deserve to be in a box in my storage room. I still get rejections, but I’m a firm believer that acceptance is a percentage of submission. I don’t know that percentage, so I just keep submitting.
Q: Can you tell us something about your experience in getting ‘the call’?
CSJ: I was working as a sign maker and part-time customer service help at a local grocery store. I was paged to the money room to take a call, which turned out to be from my agent. She had told me she believed she could sell Rain Shadow, and sure enough that was the call to tell me Harlequin Historical had made an offer. I was elated. Everyone in the front of the store heard me squealing.
Q: What aspect of life as a ‘published author’ surprised you the most – either in a good or bad way?
CSJ: Having my name recognized. When the subject of occupations comes up and mine is mentioned, someone invariably asks what I write. When I tell them and a person hears my pseudonym and says, “I’ve read your books!” I’m still blown away. I once took a book to someone in the hospital, and the visiting pet therapy lady had read my books. Harlequin distribution was amazing. It’s stunning to think my books are read by people worldwide.
Q: Do you set writing goals for yourself?
CSJ: Each and every year my critique partners and I buy planners, set goals, record them in the front and use them to stay accountable to each other throughout the year. I select writing goals for submissions and books and also a writing improvement goal—one area or technique I work on that year. I believe it’s important to grow in my craft and strengthen my writing muscles.
Q: Do you have a ‘mood setter’, something (music, ritual, environment, etc) you use to get you going when you sit down to write?
CSJ: I love music and listen to it all the time—except when I’m writing. I find music a distraction, so it doesn’t work for me, though I can write with someone on the other computer behind me. Go figure. I do 99% of my writing at my desk and occasional pages on my Alphasmart. About halfway or a third through the book, I print it all out and edit while sipping tea on the sofa, and then barge toward the end.
Q: Do you do a lot of up front plotting before you start or do you just dive in?
CSJ: My first few books were done without a lot of forethought or plotting, but I soon figured out that was more work in the long run. I quickly learned that to sell on proposal I needed a good synopsis first, and that in order to save myself misery down the line, planning is crucial. So while I have no idea what the scenes will be like, I establish goal, motivation, conflict and am assured that I have enough story and conflict—internal and external—to sustain the story.
For each character, I fill out character grids, which simply record inciting incident, long range and short range goals, motivation, character flaw, conflict, black moment and growth/come to realize. I also cone up with a theme.
On another sheet I answer a few questions about the character: Who is he? What’s his job or position? Personality? I list at least ten adjectives that describe him, record his strongest and weakest traits, and his greatest fear.
I do enough research pertinent to the year and subject matter to get started. Anything else I need I look into as I’m writing.
Q: Do you normally start with storyline or with character or with some combination of the two?
CSJ: I usually start with a situation and a character. Sequins and Spurs came to me as a story with a person who ran away from home and returned years later to right the wrongs, only to find that impossible. The beginning came to me from one line in a song: She tied you to her kitchen chair. Can you guess the song?
Q: Do you find certain themes or character archetypes making recurring appearances in your stories?
CSJ: It seems I love to have people pretending to be someone they aren’t. That’s a recurring theme for me. Forgiveness and second chances usually play a big part in my story development and plotting. And I love secrets—really big ones that will tear lives apart if the truth is known. I also love families and communities. Not to forget sexy cowboys.
Q: What do you see as your own personal strengths as a writer?
CSJ: Years back, when everyone started talking about branding, I stalled and then jumped on the bandwagon to figure out my branding. I didn’t know how to see or market myself, so I looked to what other people said about my writing and stories. My very first and still much beloved editor, Margaret Marbury, once told me I had a direct Hemingway style. She said I hit things straight on, not soft. I don’t do a lot of description or use effusive prose. If there’s a simple way to state something so that it’s clear, that’s my approach. I couldn’t find a brand in there.
Next I looked at what readers and reviewers had said over the years. Nearly all remarked about beloved characters and warmth of emotion, small-town life—and redemption. I believe in second chances, and I’m sure that comes through in my stories. So my brand became:
From the Heart…real people, real emotions
Q: Are there any obstacles/conflicts, specific to your particular lifestyle, that get in the way of your writing? If so, how do you try and overcome them?
CSJ: It took several years for people to recognize and respect my career as full time work. I have been protective of my writing time, and though I still volunteer and am available to family and friends, my family and friends acknowledge my writing time as my job.
Q: Is there a specific ‘ah-ha’ moment you’ve had as a writer that you would like to share with us?
CSJ: It was early in my career when I recognized that not every word I wrote was fit for the page. After my first book sold, I pulled out a previous one and asked my new editor to read it. She said she’d buy it if I cut 100 words. It took a critique partner to help me look at it objectively, but I cut those words. And the story was better for it.
When I turned in my first contemporary, my editor hated the ending. The whole last chapter. I asked what she’d like to see happen, rewrote it and faxed it to her the same day. Realizing that words are only words, that they’re not pure genius carved in stone, and learning that my head is full of billions more, was a lesson that has served me well.
Q: Rejections, less than stellar reviews and notes from unhappy readers are all part of this business. What is your own method for dealing with these and moving on?
CSJ: Writing is not who I am. It’s what I do. Rejection isn’t personal. Ideas are free, and there are zillions of words where the last ones came from. Not everyone will like my books. That’s why it’s a beautiful thing that there are so many genres and subjects from which to choose. It’s not a personal affront of someone doesn’t like my story. They just don’t get me. Plenty of others do. THANK YOU!
Q: Is there some piece of advice you received or bit of ‘conventional wisdom’ that you wish you had ignored?
CSJ: “Write every day.” Hooey. Don’t try to write like anyone else.
Q: What is your favorite summer show?
CSJ: So You Think You Can Dance is the end all-be all dance competition–real dancers and incredible choreography. This year is street dancers vs. stage dancers. I’m glued to the performances.
Q: Do you have a personal favorite quote you’d like to share.
CSJ: “Strive for perfection in everything. Take the best that exists and make it better. If it doesn’t exist, create it. Accept nothing nearly right or good enough.” Henry Royce, co-founder of Rolls-Royce.
Q: Do you have any advice to offer writers still striving toward publication?
CSJ: Believe in yourself and your ability. All the techniques of writing are learnable, so stay open to those, but the gift of storytelling and the desire to write are talents you were born with. Your talent doesn’t up and desert you when life is difficult or you‘re struggling. Some of my best work was done during times of emotional upheaval. Let those times be a catharsis for your work. Stories are about feelings.
Q: And before we close, tell us how your readers can get in touch with you.
CSJ: I’d be delighted for you to drop by my website or blog and visit.
Visit me on the web: http://www.cherylstjohn.net/