Debut author Marilyn Brant already has an award winner on her hands, as her novel, According to Jane, won RWA’s prestigious Golden Heart Award in 2007. Now, Marilyn has not only an award for her efforts, she has a book. As I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Marilyn over the last few months, I can tell you that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to read her book, which was just released yesterday, October 1st, its high-concept premise promises a fantastic read.
Want to know more about that premise? Me, too. That’s why I’m thrilled Marilyn agreed to an interview with me here at Writer Unboxed.
Interview with Marilyn Brant
Q: What’s the premise of your debut novel, According to Jane?
MB: According to Jane is the story of a modern woman who has the ghost of Jane Austen in her head giving her dating advice. Some of this advice is welcome. Some of it is most seriously not… My heroine, Ellie Barnett, is 15 and in English lit when she picks up her first copy of Pride & Prejudice. The spirit of Jane whispers in her mind that the bad boy she’s had a crush on for ages is just as bad as the villainous Mr. Wickham in the book. Thus, Ellie’s two-decade-long search for her hero or, in Austen lingo, for “her Mr. Darcy,” begins. Meanwhile, Jane is determined to steer her toward better life/dating choices than Ellie seems inclined to follow on her own and, also, to get Ellie to find some common ground with her wild older sister. Neither of these are easy tasks for a long-dead author.
Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?
MB: One of the biggest challenges for my heroine is her ability/inability to sift through the wisdom of others and listen to her own voice. Of course, that skill doesn’t evolve effortlessly when we’re growing up. We tend to make a lot of mistakes and ignore really good advice because we still need to learn from personal experiences. However, there also must come a time when–after looking at a situation analytically, listening to the wisdom of others and weighing the pros and cons–we need to put our faith in our own intuition…and leap.
Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, and how did you overcome them?
MB: The unique challenge of this book was in the actual structure of the novel. I’d originally written it chronologically–an Odyssey-like detailing of my heroine’s romantic life from age 15 to 34–so readers would get to “come of age” right along with her. From a pure story standpoint, I enjoyed telling the tale from the beginning, with no prologue and no flashbacks. From a marketing standpoint, however, strict chronology posed a problem. There was a concern over whether the book was YA or women’s fiction and, with such a large section of the story devoted to what happened to my heroine in high school, the confusion over genre was valid. So, I set about trying to tell the adult story as my heroine would have–if she were 22 at the beginning of the novel and in possession of vivid high-school memories, many of which greatly impacted the decisions and behaviors of her young adulthood. From there, I was able to jump back in time to show what led to these attitudes and actions. In that way, the altered structure became a bit of a game for me and added a puzzle layer to the telling of the tale. So, ultimately, the challenge became a satisfying piece of the writing process. But, I’ll admit, there were a couple of months where working on that revision made me a little nutty!
Q: What is your process? Are you a night or day writer? A pantser or plotter? A writer of habit or a spurt writer?
MB: I write during the day (when everyone is out of the house) and late into the night (when everyone is asleep) in my home office–a messy place, cluttered with stacks of paper and towers of books, but also a very nice window overlooking our backyard. Sometimes I’ll write at a local coffee shop–either with my laptop or, most often, just by hand on notebook paper–and that place has the advantage of endless cups of coffee and occasional snacks. As for my process, I’m a very slow writer. It’s rare that I can draft more than a page or two in an hour. I obsessively reread and wordsmith before moving on to the next scene, which in no way means that I don’t also revise again–multiple times–at the end of a manuscript. It takes me about 9-10 months to completely write a women’s fiction book from start to finish. I plot loosely, trying to outline the basic action of a scene, and I *love* Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! beat sheet for an overall plot arc. But when I actually draft a scene, the narrative details and dialogue are all spontaneous. So I guess I’m a plotter-pantser mix. A plotser?!
MB: Oh, sigh… I have prologues sometimes. I use long, windy sentences. And adverbs. I “quote” far too many things. (And I put too many others in parentheses.) Really, I break lots of rules. I try, however, not to break them out of simple laziness. I write to please and entertain the reader in me. So, the only rule I really have is that if I read a passage where the Reader-Me starts falling asleep because of a dragging plot, or if she gets really irritated with the main characters, that’s a big problem J. Also, if my trusted critique partners say something like: “Um, this section with the weird appetizers and that one naked guy? It makes no sense. At all.” I change it.
Q: Tell us a little about your journey to publication. How long were you working on Jane? How did the deal come through?
MB: Jane took quite a while to go from idea to published novel. It was my 5th completed manuscript, and I began work on it in the summer of 2004. I wrote the first draft in less than a year, revised and began querying agents. My agent, the lovely Nephele Tempest (who introduced me to you!), signed me on this book in 2006. After suggesting further revisions, she began the submission process to editors. The early feedback we got was fairly consistent: Love the story but…what is it? YA or women’s fiction? In the meantime, the book finaled and then won the Golden Heart® for “Best Mainstream Novel with Strong Romantic Elements” in 2007, but I knew the structure would have to be revised more significantly before we submitted again. So, while I worked on two completely different women’s fiction manuscripts, I did my last major revision on Jane, which Nephele then sent to John Scognamiglio, awesome editor-in-chief at Kensington Books. Less than two weeks later, on a sunny and surrealistic day in April 2008, he made us a two-book offer. And a mere year and a half after that–which is almost “fast” in publishing–the novel is finally on the shelves!
Q: Do you think winning the Golden Heart in any way helped you along the road to publication?
MB: Without a doubt, winning the GH was a tremendous honor and a fabulous experience. As a result of going through the finalist process in 2007, I made some wonderful writing friends, many of whom are now my “Bond Sisters” (that is, members of our finalist group blog: the ‘007s Nobody Writes It Better). From the standpoint of submissions, the nomination gave me an opportunity to get my manuscript in front of a number of publishing professionals. Many acquiring editors quickly requested GH-finaling manuscripts and, though I had already signed with my agent, some literary agencies offered to read any GH finalist’s manuscript without the need to even query. However, winning the award didn’t guarantee a book sale. Not at all! Even though I’d revised the book several times prior to the GH, the manuscript was still written chronologically, and I had yet to make that last but very significant revision that proved necessary to fully ground the book in women’s fiction. I did that a few months after my GH win, and it was only then that the book finally found the right editor.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about this industry since landing your book deal?
MB: That, once I had a contract, I’d have far less time to actually write! This has been one of the biggest challenges for me. I now have to split my real writing time with promotion and publicity. In some ways, it’s helped me use that time more efficiently–I don’t have a half hour to web surf for just the perfect name for some character’s pet, I need to get to the heart of the narrative much faster and save some of the detail hunting for later. Regardless, it’s proven to be quite a juggling act: promoting book #1, revising and finalizing book #2, drafting book #3…simultaneously…while also still trying to have a family life and make time to sleep/eat/shower. Also, authors are no longer quite so anonymous in today’s world. Aside from the work of keeping up with my online life, the fact that my photo is visible on my website, blog, Facebook page, etc. has made me a more frequently recognized person in my community. That, too, has been surprising, and it’s led to some rather interesting, impromptu conversations at the local Piggly Wiggly.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
MB: It’s getting to fulfill a longstanding, very personal dream, of course. But beyond that, I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to give back to the reading community a tiny bit of what other women’s fiction authors have given to me. When I began reading commercial, contemporary women’s fiction again (after years of college textbooks and a long string of nonfiction), I was both stunned by these authors’ insights into the life of adult women and, also, incredibly appreciative. These writers not only experienced and understood the challenges women today face, but they painstakingly wrote about family dramas, the subtleties of friendship, romantic relationships and the choices and struggles so many of us share. And several of them did it with humor, as well as with honesty and love. I’m indebted to those women’s fiction writers. Their novels kept me from feeling alone and misunderstood as I navigated the new waters of marriage and motherhood. I couldn’t help but wish I would’ve had their guidance through my years of dating, too.
Q: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received, and what advice would you pass along to other writers aspiring to publication?
MB: The best advice I’ve been given is: Write the book you want to read. To that, I would add: Really understand WHY you write. This is a personal thing, of course, and it’s rare that two writers in a room would share the exact same reason, but what’s YOUR draw? Crafting characters? Plotting something dramatic, suspenseful, funny or heartwarming? The possibility of fame, fortune, movie deals and lengthy book tours? What brings you back to your notebook or your computer screen, even without a contract nudging you? I say remember that. Cherish it.
Q: What’s next for you?
MB: I get to visit a number of book clubs that chose my debut novel, According to Jane, as their monthly book pick–I’ve been promised wildly fun evenings and more than a few margaritas!–while also starting the production/promotion process all over again for my next women’s fiction project. That second book is done, but we’re still working on finding the right title. It’s a modern fairytale about three suburban moms who shake up their marriages and their lives when one woman asks her friends a somewhat shocking question J. That’s due out in October 2010.
Therese, thanks so much for having me as a guest on WU today! It was a pleasure to be here with all of you. And I’m looking forward to getting to return the favor as we celebrate YOUR debut novel in just 11 days!!
Thank you for being here, Marilyn, and may According to Jane sell, sell, sell! Readers, you can learn more about Marilyn and where you might purchase her book on her website HERE.