From Betty: Although this blog is mainly dedicated to mystery writers and mystery writing, I’ve decided to make an occasional exception when my readers might gain something from an author who works in another genre. Since many mystery fans and authors are thinking about writing in the Y/A (Young Adult) field, I thought my friend Janette Rallison, a very successful Y/A writer who publishes under various names, would be the perfect person to start with.
Janette wrote her first story when she was six years old, but became serious about getting published when, as a young mother, she rediscovered that writing was much more fun than cleaning the house. Over the years, and countless dirty fridges later, she has published Playing the Field; All’s Fair in Love, War, and High School; Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws; Fame Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List; It’s a Mall World After All, How To Take the Ex Out Of Ex-boyfriend; and Revenge of the Cheerleaders, which is now in the bookstores. Janette’s children who keep her well supplied with plot ideas, sometimes even making cameo appearances in her novels. In fact, she attributes her long and successful writing career to complete avoidance of housework
Betty: Janette, how many genres have you written in?
Janette: I've written in romance (What the Doctor Ordered by Sierra St. James ), science fiction, (Time Riders by Sierra St. James) young adult fiction, (How to Take the Ex Out of Ex-Boy Friend) and I'm working on one right now that will be a young adult fantasy. But that said, really all of my books are romantic comedies. I like romance and humor so much that I always tuck those elements into my stories.
Betty: How long did it take you to get published?
Janette: I first published in 1996, and I was lucky. My manuscript was accepted to the first publisher I sent it to. But I'd been writing--learning and practicing the craft--since I was old enough to hold a pencil.
Betty: Why write in the first place?
Janette: Writers are always asked why we write. I think people are creative by nature and we look for ways to express ourselves. For some people it's scrapbooking or sewing or gardening. For me, it's inventing characters and spending months obsessing over details of their imagined lives. Yeah, I know, it sounds sort of insane, but it's more fun than doing housework.
Betty: What made you choose young adult fiction? Is there something particularly rewarding about young adult fiction that you don't find in, say, books about serial killers?
Janette: I write about teenagers for a couple of reasons. One is that I really believe kids need fun books--books that they want to read on their own, as opposed to most of the books they're forced to read in school. Kids can learn to love reading if you give them entertaining books. Also, writing about teenagers is fun. They're at such an emotional and vulnerable stage in life. It makes them the perfect subjects for comedy. For example, if a teenage girl is at a department store bra shopping and a couple of guys from her school walk by she will be mortified to the point that she will either a) dive under the pantyhose display to hide or b) transfer schools altogether. If an adult woman were in the same situation she would wave at the guys and tell them that Sears was having a great sale on underwear.
Betty: Are there any particular challenges in young adult fiction that you don't think you'd have in another genre?
Janette: One of the big challenges in young adult fiction is the fact that you have to have the main character solve their own problem. This makes some action/suspense stories hard to realistically pull off. In real life if some suspicious, creepy guy is stalking Tina Teenager she is going to tell her parents about it and they'd do everything to protect her. Ditto for the mysterious package that shows up on her doorstep. The parents would take care of it. Young adult writers have to find ways to take the parents out of the equation so the main character has to face down that villain themselves. This is why YA is populated with so many orphans. You also see a lot of single alcoholic moms. YA fiction is sort of a wasteland where parents are concerned.
Betty: Do you have an agent?
Janette: I have an agent, and I recommend that just about all writers get them. A good agent will not only know be able to circumvent the slush pile for you, but an agent will know which editors are looking for your kind of story. Plus contracts and royalty statements are written in some apparently foreign and undecipherable language, so it's good to have them to look over those. I found my agent because several people at my SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) writing group recommended her. Conferences are good places to find agents, plus they'll help you learn the writing craft better.
Betty: What is the largest market for your books?
Janette: I would say anyone who has a sense of humor, but most of my readers are teenage girls. I hear from a lot of teachers that kids who hate to read, love my books. I suppose it sort of makes me the Captain Underpants for teenage girls.
Betty: You have a big family. How long married, how many children?
Janette: I've been married for 22 years to the same wonderful guy. I'll never divorce him because he's the only one who can fix the computer. We have five kids, ages 20- 5 years old. We also have enough cats to qualify me for eccentric-cat-lady status. They've all been strays that the children adopt.
Typical scenario at my house:
Kids: Hey Mom, we found this new cat in our yard!
Me: Put it back. We're not keeping it.
Kids: We named it Peppermint!
Me: No, you didn't. It has no name because it's not ours.
Kids: Look, Peppermint is purring. She likes you.
Me: Shoo! Shoo! And stop shedding at once.
Yeah, that's pretty much how we've gotten five cats. And my husband is still speaking to me. (Didn't I tell you he was a nice guy?)
Betty: How do you balance your writing career with your busy family life?
Janette: The nice thing about writing is that it can be done in chunks during your free time. I've written a lot during gymnastic meets, soccer games, and nap time. On some days I've only been able to write a page or two, but if you can write just one page a day, you can produce a novel by the end of the year. My kids think it's pretty cool that I'm a writer. My oldest daughter gave me a lot of plot ideas--generally things that were happening at her high school. ("Mom, you'll never guess what Rochelle did. You've got to put it in a book.) My younger kids like naming the bad guys after people they know.
Betty: Have you thought about exploring any new genres?
Janette: Oh yeah. Authors get ideas for all sorts of different genres. I'm itching to do more fantasy--and I'm a hopeless romantic--so I'm sure I'll do that genre again sometime, and I'd like to see if I could do action too. I don't think I'll ever write horror though. The thing that a lot of readers don't understand is that it takes a long time to write scenes and the author has to vicariously live through the emotions of the main character to make the scene realistic. It might take a person a few minutes to read a chapter--but the author lived that chapter for perhaps weeks. It's bad enough writing sad scenes. You're at the computer sobbing for no apparent reason, which is something that people don't understand when they call to remind you that your son has Boy Scouts at 7:00 that night.
Betty: Hmm. I notice you didn’t mention mystery.
Janette: Actually the fantasy I just turned in has a mystery in it. It's not a “high fantasy,” though. It's about a girl from our day who has an incompetent fairy godmother who misunderstands her wish and sends her back to the Middle Ages. There is a mysterious black knight who has beaten all of the country's knights and has been challenging the prince. No one knows who he is or what he really wants and the heroine has to figure it out before the king decides to use her as bait to find out the knight's identity. That sounds kind of weird, but it makes sense in the novel.
Betty: What's the next book we can expect to see from you?
Janette: I have two coming out in 2009 and I'm not sure which will come out first. There’s the fantasy novel I just told you about, working title A Fairy Godmother's Guide to Saving Troubled Teens. The second book is called Just One More Wish and it's about a girl whose brother has a brain tumor. He wants to meet the actor who plays Teen Robin Hood before he goes in for surgery so his sister sets off for Hollywood to find him and convince him to come back with her to talk to her brother. They're both going to be great books.
Betty: Have you had any unusual experiences connected to your writing?
Janette: I've had to make some bizarre phone calls while I've researched topics for my books. Once I had a character who was a doctor and I wanted him to give one of his patients statistics about STDs. I did some research on the Internet but couldn't believe the numbers because they were so high. I called two different STD hotlines to try and verify the numbers. It felt really awkward.
Me: Hi, um, I'm a writer and I wanted some information on STDs . . .
Them: (Sounding jaded) Sure, right honey. You're calling for a friend. We understand. What are your symptoms? I've called doctors, vineyards, pool halls, motorcycle shops, botanists, combustion labs, police stations, and the Italian embassy. I once had to call an entomologist to find out how many times a fly throws up per second. And in case you didn't previously know that, yes, they do. That's what flies are doing as they walk around on your counter tops.
Betty: What writer's organizations do you belong to? Who is your "first reader," the person (besides yourself, of course) who sees your manuscripts first?
Janette: Well, I'm not sure anyone is still reading this because they've all just logged off to disinfect their counter tops, but I belong to SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), IRA (International Reading Association), ARA (The Arizona Reading Association), ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents), ANWA (American Night Writers Association) and another informal critique group. My critique groups get to read parts of my books while I'm writing them and then I send the manuscript to my parents. It's nice to get a lot of feedback. I know if a bunch of people have a problem with something then it needs to be changed.
Betty: What advice can you give aspiring writers?
Janette: Quit now--I already have enough competition. But if I can't convince you of that, I would tell aspiring writers to read a lot of books on writing. You'll save yourself a ton of time in revisions if you can learn from others first.
To learn more about Janette Rallison and her books, check out