Janice Hamrick may not be a professor, but watching her presentation during her recent program for the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sister’s in Crime, it’s quite clear she has a talent for teaching. In less than ninety minutes, Janice had demonstrated how each writer in the group could take a simple exercise and turn it into something compelling and interesting.
It’s harder than it looks.
Writing is also like that. Countless people say that they will, someday, sit down to write the Great American Novel once they have more time, more money, more freedom. Janice cautions against such thinking because writers make the time–no, writers steal the time–to put their projects on the top of the priority list. Even now, with an award winning series under her belt, Janice wakes up at 5 am to focus on her fiction before working a full day as a technical writer. She understands that there is no ideal time. There is only time, and it is up to each one of us to claim it.
We recently met for dinner at Gruene River Grille, a jewel of a restaurant nestled in the heart of Texas Hill Country, and tested the waitress’ patience with our three hour dinner (the waitress was amazing, by the way). Our conversation traveled the gamut of topics ranging from work and family to writing and publishing, and at the end of the dinner, we still left ground uncovered.
Janice is a writer’s writer–she is supportive, honest, kind and willing to share her expertise with others, all the while remarkably humble when the topic turns her to her own professional accomplishments. Her debut novel, Death of Tour, won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition in 2010 and launched her popular Jocelyn Shore series. After three successful books under her belt, Janice continued to work and write, and also traveled to Scotland to earn an M.Sc. in History from the University of Edinburgh. She has since returned to Austin, where she juggles work, life and writing.
Below are a few highlights from our discussion:
LO: How did you come to writing? At what point did you realize you wanted to write a mystery?
JH: I’ve wanted to write my whole life. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. And I’ve loved mysteries almost that long, beginning with Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators. It seemed a natural thing to try to write one of the books I loved.
LO: How did the character of Jocelyn Shore come to you?
JH: I got the idea for a mystery set on a tour of Egypt when I went on a tour myself and noticed the potential for undetected deception is particularly great in a group of strangers who are traveling together. Once I got the basic plot idea, I needed a character with an intuitive understanding of human nature – and who better than a teacher for that? I love Jocelyn for having no illusions about what people are capable of and yet still genuinely liking them.
LO: Take us through your entry in the Minotaur competition and what happened when you realized that you had won.
JH: I stumbled on the contest when I was searching for agents to query, and I entered it in pretty much the same way I occasionally buy a lottery ticket – it seemed like such a long shot. In fact, it was not on my radar at all, and I had almost forgotten about it by the time I got the phone call. I was at lunch with friends, didn’t hear the phone ring, and checked my messages in my car – before starting to drive, thank goodness. When I heard an editor from Minotaur wanted me to call her back, my head almost exploded. I mean, I’m insecure, but even I didn’t think that editors routinely made personal phone calls just to tell writers their books suck.
LO: Many writers believe that their lives will be forever changed if they are fortunate enough to win a competition or, better yet, receive a traditional publishing contract. As someone who has achieved the very thing most writers covet, what advice or insight can you give to those still striving for those goals?
JH: I’m not going to lie – being published was my biggest dream come true. However, like most dreams, the reality isn’t exactly what I expected. It’s not what my friends expected, either. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked if I’m going to quit my day job. My response is always the same: “No, I like to eat.” The financial rewards aren’t what people expect, especially in the beginning of your career.
The biggest surprise to me was that publishers expect authors to become publicists, marketing managers, social media gurus, and polished public speakers, which, when you think about it, is almost the exact opposite of everything a solitary writer-type is likely enjoy or excel at doing. Those activities have a steep learning curve and really cut into my writing time. Even worse, all those things focused my attention on what other people want or what I “should” be writing. And actually – that leads to my advice, because I see it happening to all writers, whether they’ve been published or not. The tendency is to focus on what is selling, how to sell, what successful writers do, and what trends are popping up in publishing instead of focusing on the writing. It absolutely crushes creativity…and the fun.
My advice: Read what you love. Write what you love. Finish what you start. Then you can worry about trying to get published.
An important side note– I’d started querying agents at the same time I entered the Minotaur competition. Even after I won, the rejection slips kept rolling in. So, take that as further proof that being rejected does not indicate anything about the quality of your work.
And yes, the rejections still stung.
LO: Your sabbatical from your job to temporarily move to Scotland sounds like a fantastic adventure. Can you share more of that experience with us?
JH: I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, for an entire year and traveled extensively while earning an M.Sc. in History from the University of Edinburgh. The title of my thesis was “Supernatural Belief, the Scientific World, and the Victorian Experience of Grief in England: 1848–1890.” It was the best year of my life…so far, at least. Completely life- and attitude-changing. As a side note, although the title of my dissertation is awesome, academic writing completely and utterly sucks the life out of even the coolest topic.
LO: Are you writing now? If so, how do you balance this with your current career demands?
JH: I AM writing now. I’m working on a short story, which I’ve never done before, and I’m in the plotting stages of a new mystery. Details to be kept mysterious. I get up at about 5:00 a.m. every day to write fiction before my workday starts. I tried doing it in the evenings, but I found that at the end of a full day, I’m tired of being on the computer in addition to just being tired.
LO: What advice might you offer to writers who hope to one day publish a mystery?
JH: Although I have lots of small tips and tricks, everything important I’ve learned can be boiled down to three things
- Write at least five days a week. Even if you can only manage half a page, establishing a writing habit is vital. Don’t wait to be “inspired.” You are a writer, and writing is hard. Embrace that.
- Finish what you start. Do not start one thing after another without ever reaching “The End” of anything. Do not spend years and years on one book, endlessly polishing and rewriting. Get to the end and LET IT GO. Put it in a drawer if you aren’t happy enough to start querying and start something new. Start something new even if you ARE happy enough to start querying. You have an endless supply of stories inside you. Get them out there.
- Have FUN! Stop reading publishing news. Stop obsessing over the failures and successes of other writers who aren’t you. Stop willingly inviting negative, critical, and fear-mongering voices into your head. (As a writer, you have enough voices in there already.) Stop obsessing over how to get published and start obsessing over actually writing. Don’t get me wrong – writing is terribly hard work and some days it just sucks. But there are also days when it’s like flying. Obsess about getting more of those days.
You can learn more about Janice Hamrick, her Jocelyn Shore series, and her current projects at www.janicehamrick.com.