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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Writing as a Team and Solo: Author Interview with Janet Bly

Today's interview is with longtime writer Janet Chester Bly who has written numerous books both alone and with her husband. Their writing runs the gamut from Christian devotions to Western Romance and self-help books. They've long been in the spotlight as writers and speakers. Now writing on her own after the recent death of her husband, she's still inspiring and helping others in their craft and giving readers some delightful books to review. 
 I am in awe at the number of books you’ve written and how you easily move from non-fiction
to fiction styles. When did you publish your first book?
My late hubby Stephen’s first book was an inspirational Christian life theme entitled, Radical Discipleship, 1982. That came about because I so desired to have a book proposal to take to the next writer’s conference I attended. I wanted an excuse to make an appointment with an editor, to practice having that experience, but I didn’t have a book length project of my own yet. We worked together to prepare a package from some classes he taught to college students from the Book of Mark. What a surprise, more like a shock, when two different major publishing houses (Moody and Tyndale) expressed interest. That book has been out of print a while, but in the past few weeks I’ve started a re-release as the Following Jesus Series eBooklets. The Way-Paver Society, The Pallet Carriers Union, and Get Ready! Get Set! are the first three available.

Encouraged by his success and getting the idea from a comment made by an editor during a meal at that same conference, we began working together on devotionals for kids and teens. Soon after we co-authored Questions I’d Like To Ask and Devotions With a Difference (later reissued as Winners and Losers)

After that came our books on family life, which grew out of Stephen’s speaking ministry for Family Living Conferences sponsored by Moody Bible Institute.

At what time did you think you could make a career in writing?
Stephen was serving as a pastor in a good-sized church in southern California when we a number of writing contracts came our way. Truly, one spring we signed for twelve kids and adult novels (grouped in series). What a stress to fit all the duties and ministries into a workable schedule. We determined we needed to either cut back on the writing or move somewhere with less responsibility. After much prayer and searching over several years, we settled in a small town in north-central Idaho. Slower pace. Cheaper lifestyle. Less pressure church ministry. That was in 1988.

How do you keep the writing fresh and contemporary after so many books?
I do try to keep notebooks with me at all times. I’m constantly writing down snippets of scenes and thoughts that catch my attention. However, all of that process was so much easier when we worked as a team. Stephen exuded creativity and ideas. He was a prolific thinker with a very active imagination. I so miss his input. Though a bit of that rubbed off on me, the project output will be much slower from now on. My mind does buzz all the time, stays dialed to alert. But my rhythm and output’s on a different speed and wave length.

Since you wrote as a team, how did you divide up the duties?
We approached each project a bit different. First, we’d brainstorm the outline and topics, or characters, setting, and plot. That would take a couple weeks or so. Then, with the nonfiction, we divvied up the topics or chapters. Pretty simple to split apart and then meld together. On fiction, we’d both develop character sketches and name ideas. We’d come to an agreement eventually on what would work best. But Stephen was definitely the best at coming up with incredible names. And plot twists. He kept us going.

Sometimes Stephen would do what we called his “rush flush” of rough draft scenes, writing as fast as he could. I would edit, adapt, and add descriptors of various types. Other times, we’d each try a scene and either combine the parts or delete one and include the other.

You’ve done a number of series from contemporary times to the old west. How do you go about writing a series?
My new novel, my first adult solo attempt, was a first book that had too many plot lines to keep it to a stand-alone. I had so much more material left that it just begged to be a series. The first one, Wind in the Wires, a Trails of Reba Cahill adventure, was released several months ago. I plan to start working on Book 2 about May 1st with a planned late Fall release. I’ve got a box full of a jumble of ideas that need major crafting to come to life in an organized, captivating story world. My working title at the moment is From the Prairie to the Ocean. Not catchy enough yet, but it helps me focus on the movement of the main characters.

As a rule, Stephen began with a proposal for the editors of a series of books. If the first one did okay in the market within a month or two after its initial release, they allowed more to be published. Other times, he stayed with a one-book deal, especially if it was a bit different than his others, or very experimental like his contemporary mystery adventure, Paperback Writer. The whole story takes place by looking inside the convoluted, crazy levels of the mind of a fiction writer. The reader doesn’t always know what’s real and what was his fantasy being played out. Writers absolutely loved it and gave him rave reviews. Had mixed comments with regular fans that expected a good ole western or something similar.

Do you think there will always be print books? Or do you think it will all go digital?
Yes, I do believe there will always be print books. They’ll sure be on my bookshelves. Though I have a Kindle and appreciate the advantages, I still prefer reading (and marking) paper and hardbacks.

How do you feel the digital market has changed the publishing industry for the better or worse?
I’ve seen huge turnovers of earthquake movements in publishing in recent years since we started in the early ‘80s. From my viewpoint, It’s been a perfect storm of a number of elements. The crush of numbers of new writers that exploded on the scene. Limited bookshelf and publisher production space. The overall economy turndown. The phenomenon of large distributors such as Walmart and Costco purchasing big bundles of books and then returning them if they didn’t sell. Celebrities and folks with ready platforms whose books (often written by ghost writers) became bestsellers and left the lesser known in the dust.

In addition, the demand for writers to be represented by agents. Publishers being bought out by larger companies. Countless reputable publishing houses going bankrupt overnight. The slow turn around from total disdain of self-publishing to the proliferation of almost everybody doing it. For those who once were in mainstream publishing, and now producing their own books too, a new title emerged: Indie writers. Now, anyone can publish his or her own book. And almost everyone does. The problem is, the market’s inundated and not always with good quality. Hard to discern the junk from the quality productions at times.

Your works have been published in the both traditional and indie markets. Since you had a lot of experience with the traditional side, how did you adjust to putting out your own books?
There are pros and cons. It’s nice to have a quicker turnaround in release dates. And it’s great to know for sure I’m going to be published. However, the incredible amount of work (and expense) involved saps resources and becomes so overwhelming at times.

Every step of the process, from actual printing details to distribution and marketing outreach, is now up to me. Some of it’s enjoyable. Some of it’s excruciating to figure out and find the time and energy. Not in my comfort zone at all. There’s the constant need to push books when I’d rather just spend time writing. And I prefer getting to know potential readers as friends and not think of them as customers all the time.

What promotions have worked best for you in book sales?
The best book sales come from speaking engagements, especially longer interactions such as weekend events when you spend a lot of time with the participants. It's always been that way. Still is.

How do you make a book signing a success?
It’s always a challenge. Often hard to engage people who don’t know you or your works. I’ve had some good response when combined with a workshop. Provided interesting giveaways. Had signups for drawings along with perks for subscribing to newsletter. Discounted my book (if agreeable with bookstore). Assigned someone be your reach-out person, to greet people and and encourage folks to come to your table.

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
As a writer, nothing that happens to you, or that involves people around you, is ever wasted. It can all be used somehow, some way.

Trust God’s timing with your whole heart. Even when you have seasons of not writing, when you perceive no outlets, or everyone around you seems to have much more success. Rely on His purpose in you and through you to come to full fruition. He has a plan for your ministry and message. It will happen.

Are there any other points about writing that you would like to add?
Never presume you have it made, that you’ve got nothing more to learn. Don’t just grind out your material. Find fresh ways to present it. Figure out another slant. Be in constant renewal, no matter your age or stage.

What new works do you have planned?
Some I've mentioned above. Right now I’m re-issuing some of my late hubby’s early books in adapted formats. The Following Jesus Series, for instance. I’m also bringing back into print as many of our juvenile novels (ages 8-14) as possible. As of now, I’ve completed for eBooks and paperback editions the Nathan T. Riggins Western Adventure series, fiction for boys. Hope to have at least 15 of them ready before I start on Book 2 of the Trails of Reba Cahill Series in May.

This interview just touched on the many books Janet and Stephen have written. Hope you will take the time to review their website to get more details on each of the series and stand alone books.

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