Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Interview with Sandy James

Welcome back, fellow aspiring writers. Today I have the honor of chatting with award-winning romance author Sandy James.

Sandy is a psychology and US history teacher in Indianapolis. She's married with two grown children and owns a small racing stable of Standardbred Harness horses.

Nice to have you here, Sandy. You've written quite a lot of books. Tell us about how it all started.

I consider myself as having two “starts.” The first was my start at writing; the second my start in publishing.


I wrote my first book the year my son was a senior in high school. Empty nest was on the horizon, and I was very involved in the lives and activities of both of my children. That left me a little terrified that all I would do once they were gone was stare like a zombie at the television or read myself into a coma.


Since romance has always been my first choice of genre to read, I often wondered if I could write one. But I never really had the motivation to try. Then I read a book that aggravated me so much, I figured I might be able to do a better job, so I gave it a try. One book, and I was addicted. The characters started to talk to me so often, I had no choice but to write their stories.


I only wanted to write for fun until I had a couple of friends at my school who asked to read the first book. Then they wanted to read the next. Their encouragement led me to look into whether I had the potential to be published. My first step was to talk to my father-in-law, M.R. James. He’s a multi-published author, and I begged him to look at my first book. He took a red pen to it and taught me so much about the craft. I’ll be forever grateful for his help and his honesty.


I decided to educate myself more, so I attended a local writers’ meeting and realized I’d found a “home” at Indiana RWA. Not only were the women of the group the most supportive people, but I also was lucky enough to meet my mentor, Judie Aitken. She took me under her wing and encouraged me to not only keep learning but to test the water by entering some writing contests. I finaled in the second one I entered. I enjoyed that so much, I became a “contest diva,” and I’ve met the nicest people through contesting. I’ve made several friendships I know will last a lifetime.


My success led me to decide to actively pursue publication. I queried agents while also looking for a home for my stories. Sad to say, I landed a newer agent who ended up being the wrong one for me. She didn’t make many submissions and was very hard to contact. The good thing was that I had a year of not only growing in my craft, but I learned many valuable lessons about the business. When I finally decided to part ways with her, I submitted to BookStrand on a friend’s advice. She was published by Siren, which normally puts out erotica, but their new imprint BookStrand was accepting mainstream romance. I sent Turning Thirty-Twelve, a book I loved but was afraid no one else would enjoy because it was about a middle-aged heroine. Amazingly, they bought it.


What I like about BookStrand is that they demand quality. Many epublishers churn out books so quickly they’re often riddled with flaws and are poorly edited. Not so with BookStrand. The editor helped me improve the book, easily evidenced by the fact that Turning Thirty-Twelve won the Aspen Gold Readers’ Choice Award for the Best Contemporary Romance, beating two Harlequin books. It also finaled in the Colorado RWA Award of Excellence Contest and is a current finalist in the Wisconsin RWA Write Touch Readers’ Choice Contest.

I understand the success of that book lead to a contract with BookStrand for your Damaged Heroes series. Can you tell us a bit about that?

After I sold Turning Thirty-Twelve, I started querying agents again. I also decided to see if BookStrand would be interested in my horse-racing story, Murphy’s Law. It had been successful in contests, but I wasn’t sure it was what BookStrand was looking for. It’s my longest book at 116K words, more epic than the normal mainstream titles they published. I was thrilled when they offered me a contact!


About two weeks later, I received two offers for agent representation. Both agents are good, but I chose Maureen Walters of Curtis Brown, Ltd., because of her success in romance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t let her work on my Damaged Heroes series because by signing Murphy’s Law to BookStrand, my contract gave them first right of refusal on any books using the same characters. They bought all three sequels sight unseen. Maureen might have been able to find them a bigger house, but I never regret selling those books to BookStrand. The people there have been phenomenal to work with, and I have learned so much about the publishing industry from editing, releasing, and marketing those books. I also have a small fan base and tons of excellent reviews. My work with BookStrand has given me a foundation upon which I can grow my career.

How did your books get marketed? Did BookStrand provide a service to get your name out there?

BookStrand maintains a quality website that attracts lots of readers, but they’ve also been generous enough to feature all my titles in a Romantic Times ad. They even had the cover of Turning Thirty-Twelve on the home page of the Romantic Times website.


An author can only count on so much marketing from her publisher. I have been actively marketing my own stories. I established a website, a MUST for any author seeking publication. I also joined GoodReads and have connected with many readers on that site. I have a FaceBook fan page that I’m happy to say now has over 800 fans. I have an Amazon.com author’s page and post my books, reviews, and blog entries there.


I believe the Internet offers so many opportunities for writers to get their names out there, but writers can’t expect opportunities to fall into their laps. I’ve devoted countless hours to promo, from posting on Yahoo loops to interacting with fans in chats, to holding book giveaways and contests. Depending on what you want to spend, there are a number of review sites you can use for advertisement. I suggest you target high profile sites, and I’m not entirely convinced those ads really deliver for what they cost. But I’ve been willing to try any route that seems to have potential.

And you've won a whole bunch of awards with your books. Did this winning streak help you in landing your agent?

I’ve been so lucky with contests. I’m proud to say I’ve finaled eight books/manuscripts in twenty-eight writing contests. Not only has Turning Thirty-Twelve done well, but Murphy’s Law and Free Falling were both EPIC finalists. Such an honor to have two of my books considered among the best ebooks published for the year! All the Right Reasons was a Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence finalist and is a Colorado RWA Award of Excellence Finalist. And Faith of the Heart is a Wisconsin RWA Write Touch Readers’ Choice Award Finalist. How wonderful to be able to say every one of my published books has been a finalist in a national contest!


To find my agent, I journeyed through Query Hell, just like most writers have to travel. The key to landing a good agent is not only having a wonderful book but giving the agent an author she can market. While my contest finals might have caught Maureen’s eye, I think it was my willingness to work hard, to listen to constructive criticism, and the fact that I’m prolific that brought about her offer to represent my work. No agent wants to represent a “one hit wonder” or someone with an ego so large she refuses to listen to suggestions for improvement.


I strongly suggest authors research agents and never settle. There are so many good firms out there, but there are bad ones as well. Having a bad agent is worse than being unagented. I’m truly blessed to be working with an agent of Maureen’s caliber, and her faith in me gives me the confidence to keep trying in a business that can be so discouraging.

Besides your agent, do you have a critique partner or beta readers?

My mentor was the first person to critique my stories. I also worked with her in a critique group (my beloved “Critters”) who helped me improve. Since I write so quickly, and because the group’s dynamics kept shifting which made it hard to meet often, I decided to find a critique partner who worked as fast as I do.


My critique partner and I actually met through my first agent since we were both represented by her. Leanna Weissmann’s like my other half, and I give her SOOO much credit for helping me make my stories popular. She has insight and isn’t afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work. I also love reading her YA stories because they’re a change of pace from romance. We exchange a couple of chapters a week online.


My mother is also a beta reader who does a fantastic job helping me proofread. She’s one of my biggest fans, which means the world to me.

What point are you at now?

Maureen is trying to sell my Amazon urban fantasy series. Three of the four books are complete, and the fourth is one of my WIPs. All three completed stories have been contest winners or finalists. I also recently finished her suggested edits on a time travel that was actually my first book. I took a long look at it several months ago, deleted the file, and rewrote it from scratch using all I’ve learned since I started writing. Hopefully, we’ll have it on submission soon as well.


In the meantime, the best thing for me to do is to not angst over submissions but to keep writing. I’m currently working on a women’s fiction about a class reunion that is reminiscent of Turning Thirty-Twelve. I also started another romantic suspense. Just a few weeks ago, I completed a historical based in the Old West. My critique partner is ripping it to shreds right now before I send it to Maureen. I’m definitely not limiting myself to one sub-genre. I write what talks to me and stories I would enjoy reading, no matter what path they lead me down.

Looking at your track record, one wouldn't think you had any difficulty when it comes to writing. Is there anything you find hard about being a writer?

Every writer has some kind of difficulty when it comes to writing. Despite my high words counts, the hardest part of the writing process for me is producing new words. Sometimes it feels like agony, but I make it happen. On the other hand, I absolutely love editing and layering the stories. A bit funny that new words come with so much difficulty considering I’ll be in the first in my writing group to reach the million word mark. Our chapter started a “Million Word Quest” a few years ago based on the premise that a writer should never give up on her writing career until she’s written at least a million words. Monthly, we report in with our progress. As of last month, I was only 14K words from finishing the Quest. I find that positively amazing!

Wow, that is outstanding! Any tips you've learned about writing you can share?

Never, never stop trying to grow as a writer. Always learn about your craft, and always strive to improve!

Let's get to know you on a deeper level. What do you absolutely have to have nearby when writing?

Music. I can’t write in the quiet. Television is okay, but I tend to get pulled away from the writing, so I depend on my iTunes®. I have a very long mix of songs – almost 400 – that I play in random order and listen to when I write. Barry Manilow. Billy Joel. Michel Bublé. Broadway tunes. Glee. Quite an eclectic mix. I usually have my schnauzer, Dr. Carter, snuggled up to me as well.

How adorable! Your very own four-legged writing partner. So here's where you thank the supportive people in your life. Who would you like to give a shout out to?

My husband Jeff is a gem. He allows me the time to write and doesn’t complain when I ignore other things to spend time with my laptop. My kids, Laura and Kevin, gave me the courage to even try to write. My mother and father make me feel as if I can be Nora Roberts if I put my mind to it. My sister is my shoulder to cry on and tells everyone about my books. Judie and the ladies from the Critters helped me get my start in writing. And of course my agent and my critique partner. I’d be lost without them!

And finally, where can people find you online?

My website is http://www.sandy-james.com


You can find my ebooks at http://www.bookstrand.com or on http://www.fictionwise.com


My print books are available on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites.


If you’re a GoodReads fan, please friend me! I love to connect with writers and fans! My FaceBook Fan Page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sandy-James/280548586384

Sandy, thank you so much for talking with us today. It was a pleasure getting to know you, and I wish you much success with your books.

Thanks so much for having me as a guest!

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview! Informative, interesting and encouraging to us beginners. I learned so much! Makes me want to run out and buy her books.

Thanks Dororthy

melissamurphy2

geogiraffe said...

Great interview! I have read Turning Thirty-Twelve and loved it so I am glad to hear Sandy is working on a similar book.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Don't kid yourself, you are a very prolific author! And a good one! Great interview.

Jeanmarie Hamilton said...

Enjoyed this post so much! How do you have time for writing with everything else you're doing? And a stable of horses. I've always loved horses but have never had one of my own.

Huge congratulations on your successes!
:-)
Jeanmarie

Caroline Clemmons said...

Sandy, thank you so much for sharing! No wonder I had already decided you're a nice person--you really are! I'll friend you on Goodreads if you'll do the same for me. I haven't been active there, but am gearing up. I can hardly wait to read your next book.

Sandy James said...

Good afternoon! Spent the day at school and was pleased to see comments waiting on my blog post!

Melissa- Thanks for the kind words! I hope you give my stories a try!

Geo- I'm so very happy you enjoyed Turning Thirty-Twelve! It's always a thrill to know I pleased a reader!

Julia- Thanks! I try hard to churn out new words because I figure writing is like any other skill. Practice, practice, practice.

JeanMarie- I find time because I value writing. Yes, I'm busy. But it's a good busy, and being Type A, I thrive on having too much to do. Let's just say I don't have too many favorite TV shows anymore. ;)

Caroline- How very kind! I'd be glad to friend you and GoodReads and would consider it a privilege if you would do the same for me.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post and comment! :)

Kathy Holmes said...

Fascinating story about your publishing path. And "Turning Thirty Twelve" sounds like a book I must read. Thanks for sharing.

Sandy James said...

Thanks, Kathy! I sure hope you enjoy the book!

Kylie L said...

Thanks Dorothy and Sandy- thsi was a great read! Like Sandy I started out with a small publisher (who was great) and have since moved to a much bigger one- was also unagented for that first book but then got one, and I think it can be a good way to do things. Small presses have much more time to spend on you and are a great place to learn the ropes- I am still in contact with mine and very grateful that they gave me a start.

Sandy James said...

Kylie- I agree that small presses are more nurturing of new authors, and they make a great platform from which to launch a career. :)

Dorothy Dreyer said...

I'd like to thank Sandy once again for the interview. It was great to learn more about the various avenues of the publishing world. You're an inspiration, Sandy! :)

Sandy James said...

You're so sweet! Thanks for having me on We Do Write!! :)

Cathy Shouse said...

Sandy,

This was your best interview yet, which is saying a lot! I learned some interesting things I hadn't known. I didn't know your father-in-law is a writer, as one example.

Hugs,

Cathy

Sandy James said...

Hi, Cathy! Thanks so much for the compliment. Really glad you liked the post. :)