Friday, February 11, 2011

Author Interview with Christina Jones

What a treat I have for you this week. If you love wit and humour with your romances then Christina Jones is the writer for you.

Christina, you sound as if you come from a loving, and most interesting background. Your father was a circus clown and your mother a qualified teacher. I particularly like the story of how they met while your dad was playing Santa Claus and your mum was the fairy in his grotto. I can quite see where you get your passion for love and laughter from. But tell us more. How did you get started?

 I've written all my life. I was writing stories long before I started school. I was an only child, and my parents were great story-tellers and readers, and I just grew up listening to them and working my way through their bookshelves. I thought everyone wrote stories. I wrote stories for myself and for my friends about everything - real and imaginary - and had my first submitted short story published in a teenage magazine when I was 14. I just carried on from there without thinking it was in the least bit odd - let alone lucky! I wrote romantic short stories for teenage magazines for years, then moved on to the women's mags - again without realising how lucky I was.

I was very happy writing short stories, and never thought about writing a novel because I thought novelists were very rich, very grand people who lived exotic lives in exotic places. As I lived in a council prefab in a very working class Berkshire village it just never occurred to me that I could be a novelist. This all changed when I joined the RNA (because of the NWS) in 1994. My first NWS submission was an attempt at a M&B romance. I loved them and read loads and loads of them. But I was sadly soundly and roundly (and rightly!) trounced by my reader. I'd made every error known to man, or woman. In fact the only positive thing my reader could find to say was that it was nicely presented. I cried and roared - and, when I'd calmed down (it took weeks!), read and re-read my critique and learnt a lot.

The next year I wrote Dancing in The Moonlight, a 35,000 word novella targeted at My Weekly Story Library - and (I know now that Hilary Johnson was my second reader - how lucky was I????) won. At the awards ceremony, I was amazingly approached by agents, all of whom told me I could write a novel despite me still saying (stupidly!) I couldn't and that Dancing in The Moonlight was just like a long short story not a proper novel. But I went home and gave it a go. I wrote Going the Distance (a romantic comedy about a horse racing village because we lived close to one and my granddad had been a jockey) in a month, (again treating it like a long short story so that I didn't get scared by the prospect of all those words). I sent it to the agent who had scared me least and she took me on, and sold it to Orion within weeks. It was picked for WHS Fresh Talent, and went into the charts. It was a truly amazingly magical fabulous time for me, and, thanks to the wonderful RNA, I was a novelist at last.

To plot or not to plot? How much of a planner are you?
I'm definitely not a plotter or a planner. The thought of planning the story out in advance and knowing exactly what is going to happen in each chapter fills me with horror. I couldn't work like that to save my life. I know because I've tried. So, I'm afraid I just make it all up as I go along. I do have to have a title before I start though. I can't write anything - book or short story - without knowing what it's called. It only seems real to me if it has a title. But with the present series of novels (rural romantic comedies with a bit of practical magic thrown in), even before I have a title I have to have a magical element theme: crystals, dreams, or some other hocus-pocus. Then I find a title that fits the theme and away I go. The characters and settings are sort of already there, fully formed, living inside my head, so once I have a vague idea what the book's going to be about, and I know what it's called, I just start writing. I can't write any other way - I just wing it, telling myself the story as I go along, like reading a book or watching a film unfold.

What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
Page-turning, definitely. Whatever the genre, it has to be a gripping fast-paced story, with real, three-dimensional characters that step out of the pages, a cracking plot, relevant sub-plots and supporting characters (not just there for padding!), and no long chunks of narrative to slow the story down. "Show don't tell" will be engraved on my headstone!

Where is your favourite place to work?
The spare bedroom is now my study. It's big and light and airy and filled with pretty, sparkly, twinkly, flowery things and pictures that make me happy. I can't work anywhere else. I've tried working on a laptop away from my desk and I can't. I'm far too easily distracted by everything else that's going on around me. If I'm in the study, sitting at the desk, with the computer in front of me then I know I have to work.

Do you write every day? What is your work schedule?
No, I don't write every day. The only time I do that, in a panic, and force myself to sit at the keyboard until my eyes droop, is when I'm nearing a deadline and there are no excuses. Like now. Otherwise I'll probably write 4 or 5 days a week, and then only in the mornings. I love early mornings and find my best time for writing is from 5 or 6 a.m until mid-day. Then I work lunchtime shifts in two pubs (not at the same time!) finishing at about 3 o'clock. I've always hated afternoons, my brain just dies, so when I've finished in the pub I use the rest of the afternoons for walking and socialising and sleeping.

The evenings are usually taken up with family stuff. And I rarely write at weekends - unless there's the dreaded deadline, of course. So, I probably spend 6 or 7 hours a day writing - on the days when I feel the words are going to flow. On days when I know that my brain is fogged I just leave it alone. I'd rather write nothing than become irritated by not being able to find the words I need. When I'm on a roll I can write 5000+ words at a time. When I'm not I can't even manage 50. I've tried to be more disciplined and write 1,000 words a day every day but it just doesn't work for me. I think I'm an all or nothing person.

Which authors have most influenced your work?
Charles Dickens (loads of characters, odd names, social issues, humour mixed in with the bleak stuff); Dick Francis (page-turning plots and brilliantly spare writing - not a word used when not necessary); Jilly Cooper (her early books - not so much the later ones - because of the flawed characters, the reality of her romances, her humour and her wonderful rural descriptions) and (old-fashioned now) John Betjeman because I discovered him when I was very young and despite him being a rather snobby upper class man and me being a very working class child, his wonderful descriptions seemed to be about places and people I knew.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Starting! I loathe that blank first page! I've got my title, I've got my theme, I know what I want to write, the story is bubbling in my head, I'm itching to get started - and yet I find that first page of 300 or so really daunting. I think it's because although I know exactly who the characters are and what they're doing I still have to introduce them to the reader in an interesting and believable way. Until I get my characters suitably bedded-in, I mess about with my first chapter so many times it drives me mad!

How do you promote your books?
Despite being a Luddite I've become quite adept at using the internet as a promotional tool now. I use my blog (and other people's) and FaceBook too. I organise a launch party in my local book shop. I also send flyers round to all the local indie bookshops, the libraries, the local papers, radio and television every time I have a new book out. And I write my own press release for papers and any relevant magazines too. I think my publishers do it sometimes, but I'm aware of my place in the pecking order when it comes to promo so always feel every little bit helps. I'll talk or appear anywhere I'm asked! I never turn down anything that might end in a book sale!

Do you have interests other than writing?
I do cat rescue - we have a much-adored houseful of unwanted and previously unloved cats. I'm active in a lot of animal welfare organisations, and also raise awareness (and funds) for Motor Neurone Disease (my mum had it). I'm an avid football supporter (Chelsea - have supported them since childhood, long before they became posh) and go to as many games as possible. Also love planes so am a bit of an anorak at air shows. And I go to the theatre a lot because I love live performances - plays, comedy shows, concerts - anything. Ooh, and then there's steam - traction engines, steam fairgrounds, steam railways...

What advice would you give a new writer?
Probably because I started writing long before there was all this wealth of information which is now so readily available to writers, I'd say not to take too much notice of advice. There are so many people offering conflicting advice on how to write, when to write, what to write these days that it must be horribly confusing. So, as long as your work is presented well - typewritten, double-spaced, one side of the page - I think you should write what's in your heart. There's very little point in trying to follow a genre trend as by the time your book reaches the bookshelves that trend will be old hat. Write in your own voice (it's so easy to try to copy someone else), and tell the story you want to tell. Be brave about it, and most of all, enjoy it. If you love what you're writing and it pours out in your work, then your agent/editor/readers will love it too.

Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
The Way To A Woman's Heart (I called it Midnight Feast but the publishers didn't like it) is a romantic comedy about cookery and friendship and second chances and fairies. I wanted to use fairies as this particular magical theme because they've always fascinated me, and I believed in them when I was a child, I also knew that all the (very different) characters loved cooking, had to be strangers to one another and, for various reasons, be homeless but end up living in the same house.

So Hideaway Farm popped into my head, with the owner Poll (a woman with a real need to fill her empty home with lost souls) welcoming her strangely mixed brood with open arms. Then I threw in the fairies (who complicate everything), a couple of very unlikely romances, two OTT Michelin-starred chefs with a top-rated television cookery show looking for a venue to film their latest show, and away I went. I'm obsessed by television cookery shows (watch them all) but am the worst cook in the world (my family will vouch for the fact that I really try to cook, but can't) so writing about people who can cook beautifully, and letting them discover obscure and complicated recipes and managing to turn out perfect food was like therapy for me!

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
Never Can Say Goodbye (maybe, depending on my publishers) is the last in the present series of novels. And it's a sort of romantic comedy ghost story. I've wanted to write a ghost story for years! It's a cold winter book set in the village of Kingston Dapple, not a million miles away from my other villages and with a lot of the former characters involved. The heroine is Frankie who inherits a run-down shop in the market square and with a little help from her friends turns it into "Francesca's Fabulous Frocks" where she sells gorgeous second-hand dresses from the 1950s to the present day. So far so good but when the totally lovely Dexter Valentine arrives to take over the flower stall in the market place, Frankie (who had her heart broken three years earlier) is very smitten. However, Dexter comes with a bad reputation and an even worse attitude to relationships. They become friends, but nothing else, and with the frocks and flowers combination doing nicely, Frankie is happy. Until Maisie The Useless Medium arrives to tell Frankie that her shop is haunted. And it is. Frankie and Dexter, unbelievers both, are scathing. But after several inexplicable sightings and happenings, Maisie spreads the word, and Kingston Dapple in general, and "Francesca's Fabulous Frocks" in particular, become the focus for every kind of ghost-hunter. Will Frankie manage to keep her business going given that, thanks to Maisie's interference, there are now more dead customers than live ones? And will Dexter give-up his love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle and realise that Frankie is the only woman he needs?

Christina, your enthusiasm for writing comes over in every sentence. But it takes more than that to become a successful writer. You once famously took a national writing course, in what way do you think such courses help the budding writer?

Yes, I am an ex-Writers Bureau student, and proud to say so. I took the WB course at a time in my life when I was already published (romantic short stories only) but was wanting and needing to see if I could tackle other areas. As it was a home study course without time strictures, it was ideal for me then as I was my mum's carer and the assignments gave me, and her, something else to focus on rather than the all-encompassing horror of Motor Neurone Disease. I'd read the answers to my assignments out to her and she'd indicate in her school teacher-mode (she had full brain function but couldn't speak) whether she thought they were good, could be improved, or were just plain awful! She was my sternest critic.

I took both the fiction and non-fiction courses, although it was the latter that I was most interested in at the time. For me, the WB taught me how to seek out non-fiction markets and target/pitch pieces to them, how to use the facts I'd garnered to write several features on one theme, how to rein-in my over-use of adjectives and adverbs, how to write sparely and factually, and have my features and articles accepted almost as regularly as my fiction. They also pointed out that I had an ear for comic fiction writing (I had no idea!), and could and should try longer fiction (something I still managed to avoid!).

I have always maintained (as have the WB) that writing courses (any writing courses) can't teach you to write, but if you have a glimmer of writing talent then they are wonderful in nurturing that talent. They encourage it, point you in the right direction, teach you to be professional about targeting your markets and submitting your work, and keeping you abreast of what's wanted and what isn't in the publishing world. For a budding writer, in these days of so much available and confusing information, a writing course like the WB, with one-to-one tuition, is, still in my opinion, a wonderful way to explore your "wannabe a writer" gene in the comfort of your own home.

Thanks you so much for your time, and I wish you every success with your new book. You can find out more about Christina and her books on her website:



Jane Gordon-Cumming said...

Fascinating interview, - and reassuring, to one whose brain won't work in the afternoons either. The current book is fab (I preferred 'Midnight Feast' too), and I'm greatly looking forward to the next one.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Wonderful, honest and inspiring interview. Love the sound of your next book, Christina!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Great interview.

I loved The Way To A Woman's Heart and love the sound of Never Can Say Goodbye. I can't wait to read it.

Sheila Norton said...

Really enjoyed your interview, Christina!

Christina Jones said...

Thank you! I realise now that I was far, far too long-winded and gave poor Freda a heck of a job. Will one day learn to stop talking!!! C x

Karen said...

Lovely interview, and although you mention luck a lot at the beginning I think it might have had more to do with the fact that you're a brilliant writer!