As a blogger, a speaker, and an author of fiction and nonfiction, Janice Hardy is one of the busiest writing professionals in the industry. Her how-to Foundation of Fiction series focuses on novel writing with Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure as well as Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, while her Skill Builders series addresses specific problem areas for writers. She also founded Fiction University website where she encourages writers to craft their best stories (with over 1000 writing-related articles full of examples and practical applications). On the fiction front, her award-winning teen fantasy The Healing Wars trilogy was published by Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. Janice’s most recent release is Blood Ties (2018) written as J.T. Hardy with her husband Thomas on the team. This first in an urban fantasy series follows Grace Harper as she faces ancient secrets and legendary creatures to save her father and solve the puzzle of her mother’s unnatural death. In addition to the Fiction University site, you’ll find Janice on Facebook, Twitter, and her Amazon author page.
Tell us about Grace, your main character. Did she surprise you as you wrote her story? Who did you enjoy manipulating more, Grace and the good guys (like Daniel and Libby) or the antagonist and his evil minions?
Grace spent most of her life as an outsider wanting to fit in somewhere. I think most of us have felt that way at least once in our lives, so we can sympathize with wanting to belong and having a connection with someone. She also wants to help people, even though she feels she’s on the outside looking in. She’s funny, with a quirky outlook on life. Grace actually didn’t surprise me, since I spent more time than usual developing her, but Libby was a surprise. She turned out to be the breakout character, and I didn’t expect her tough exterior to be as fun as she turned out to be. All the best lines came from her, and I had such a blast writing her. Oh, I enjoyed manipulating the good guys, totally. I love doing bad things to my characters, and the more they suffer the better. My writing pals laugh at me when I cackle in glee over something horrible I just thought of to do to my characters. My personal motto: What doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting.
What was the most difficult aspect of world building for this book?
Since it’s a planned series, getting enough of the foundation right so it leads to future books correctly. We (I worked on this with my husband), wanted a world that felt rich and layered, but still the real world—just with this secret layer everyone “knew” about but attributed it to something entirely different. It’s hard to be more specific without giving things away, but each book will focus on a particular supernatural being or creature, but will take the mythology or origin in a new direction.
In a recent blog post you wrote “this novel took a weird, winding path to publication.” It involved a “what if” question from your husband, making the story wait on you for years, and participating in a 30-day writing marathon through NaNoWriMo. Was this a case of writer’s block? What did it finally take for you to grab that story idea and follow the path?
Not writer’s block, just an uncertainty of what I wanted for the idea. It started as a YA novel, but it just didn’t feel right and died after about a hundred pages. I tossed that draft and rewrote it for adults, but I couldn’t quite get into the urban fantasy groove. I always loved the idea, but it took a while to figure out the plot and how this idea could be a strong story. Once the last piece clicked, the book was pretty easy to write. In hindsight, I think I was trying too hard to write an urban fantasy and not tell a story with a supernatural aspect.
This urban fantasy is a departure from The Healing Wars trilogy (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) that brought you so much success. Why the change in target audience and genre?
It’s what the book wanted to be. I was also in need of trying something totally different at that time, so it worked out perfectly. I’m a fan of the genre, so it’s not outside my reading scope, but it was outside my writing scope. It took some time to retrain my writer’s brain to tell a story in the real world, and mix in the fantasy elements as well. It’s much easier to spin a pure fantasy tale than mix the two (at least for me).
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing Blood Ties?
I got to swear (grin). Actually, it was stretching myself as a writer. It was a new genre, market, and a much stronger mystery plot than I’d ever done before, so there was a lot to learn and work out. Every market and genre has its own set of rules and tropes, and while the writing skills are all the same, how we apply them changes. I had to adapt how I approached my characters’ problem solving, how they thought, what their world views were, etc. A woman in her 20s is a very different person from a 15-year-old girl, and how they deal with problems will be different as well. Grace sounded like an angsty teen in the first draft, which did not work at all. Another aspect was working with my husband on this. I do all the writing, but he’s a major part of the story development process and the world building. It was a lot of fun to share writing a book with him.
You use the Three Act Structure with major turning points to guide your stories, but you also point the protagonist where she needs to go and then turn her loose. How do you make this hybrid of plotting and pantsing work?
I put myself in the character’s head. I have a clear goal (the plot point), and then I decide what the character will do to get that goal. This allows me to be organic and spontaneous, but still have story direction, because there’s a point to the character’s actions—she’s not just doing what I told her to do. I’m saying, “Solve this problem,” not, “Do this thing.” It’s a subtle shift in how I think about a scene, but it makes a big difference while writing, because one creates action and the other just describes action. My background is in graphic design, so I always look at it as drawing a picture:
My outline is the bare bones that encompasses the general idea of what I’m about to develop—the coloring book page of the story, if you will. How that picture is colored will change depending on how I color it. If I use markers, it’ll be bright and bold and graphic. Colored pencils will be more realistic and shaded. Watercolor will create a softer image that suggests more without being overpowering. But it’s the same outline no matter what I put in it. So if my character is big and bold, her scenes will reflect that. If she’s soft and thoughtful, how she solves her problems changes and thus the scenes change as well. How the character solves the problem is how they “color” the outline. But if I decide a picture has to be colored with markers, and I have a character who’s more of a watercolor gal, the scene suffers because the character isn’t being herself, she’s doing what I say.
Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) are the first two books in your Skill Builders Series. Out of all the problem areas writers grapple with, how did you choose the subjects for these how-to guides?
I tried to pick topics that a) allowed me to bring something new to readers, and b) many readers struggle with. For example, I’ve had so many writers tell me they finally understood “show, don’t tell” after reading my blog or taking my workshop, that I knew I had an approach that was both helpful and different. So when deciding what to do next, I look for emails and comments from writers that say “your take on X really helped me” and turn those into larger books. I can’t decide if I want to do point of view next or pacing. I adore POV, so that one will probably win.
What do many beginning writers misunderstand about what a story is supposed to do?
That it’s about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. I’ve read (and written, let’s be honest) plenty of novels that essentially describe how a character does X. There’s never a sense of them figuring things out or solving a problem. It’s “Here’s how the hero kills the evil wizard” not “Here’s how the hero learns to overcome her fears and triumphs over the evil wizard by becoming better in some way.”
How do you know when you’ve taken your story as far as it should go, that it’s done (even at a sentence or scene level)?
I trust my gut. It just feels right. I don’t see anything that needs to be added or taken away, and it makes me want to read it from start to finish. I enjoy it, even if I’ve read it a hundred times already. It’s a hard skill to master and trust, because I think as writers we tend to second-guess our work. It’s hard sometimes to trust that what we’ve done is good and finished. We keep wanting to tinker.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m finishing the final few chapters of a YA fantasy. It’s a book with a long history for me, and I’m really loving how it’s finally coming together. It has a strong romance subplot, which is new for me, and that’s been a lot of fun to write. I’m also in development for the next Grace Harper book, doing my research and getting the plot worked out. I’d really love for book two to come out by the end of the year, so fingers crossed!