Janice M. Van Dyck is an award-winning novelist and freelance writer.
Her current release, Finding Frances, is based on her experience during her mother’s decline and death in 2005. Her first novel, The O’Malley Trilogy, is about five generations of Irish-American mothers and daughters and the destructive beliefs passed down from generation to generation. She’s at work on a third book about teenagers growing awry in the 1970’s.
Van Dyck spent 25 years in business, specializing in strategic management, organizational development, human resources and corporate communications. Her passion was in the written word – telling the story of the business, its history, hopes and dreams in a way that inspired the loyalty and pride of its stakeholders.
Her strength is in her insight and ability to describe a situation clearly, gracefully and with compassion. It is the cornerstone of her writing style. Her understanding and experience with social systems and human behaviour have become the basis for her character development. Van Dyck tells stories that catch the reader’s attention, give a new perspective, and motivate the reader to keep thinking about the topic long after they put the book down. A native of Philadelphia, she now resides on the west coast of Florida.
What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
I confess to having been snowed by one of the big self-publishers for my first novel. It was a disaster, but disasters can be great learning opportunities. I learned more about the publishing industry by doing it wrong on the fringes than I ever would have as a passive insider doing it right. At the School of Hard Knocks, this was a quick course with no credits. But it was a very good prerequisite.
Writing is easy. Marketing is hard. It’s a whole different skill set. I didn’t put myself out there to publicize my first book because I didn’t have the guts. I had no idea how much hard work was involved. With my second book, I’m in it up to my knocking knees! I’m working with a great sales team and publicity firm to lead me.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
“Writers write.” It’s that simple, I think. I can wish I’d started writing books when I was younger, but in reality I wouldn’t change a thing. I am proud of what I’ve made of my life and my God-given talents. It doesn’t matter when I finally started living my dream. I’m living it now.
What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn’t write?
Passion does fuel my writing. I write on different topics, so I don’t think there’s any one issue that fires me up. But once I do get fired up, it’s easy to write about it.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
Finding Frances is based on the true story of my mother’s death and inspired by the Terri Schiavo tragedy. It’s about whether or not we have a right to die when we’re terminally ill—and how we define “terminally ill.” The protagonist is Frances, who is sick and will die without heroic medical procedures, but that’s okay–she’s ready to go to the Lord with open arms, unafraid. But the doctors and her family won’t let her. They insist that the medical system ought to make the decisions about her life and death. Frances asks her oldest son to help her negotiate the system so she can die peacefully. He keeps looking for signs that he’s doing the right thing, and all he gets are mysterious messages through his Christian radio station. He’s kind of a philosophical and theological person, so he studies dying from different religious perspectives, different cultural norms, and different time periods in our own history before he can accept that it’s okay for his mother to die naturally. It’s a topic that touches all of us, but we tend not to talk about it. That’s why I wrote it—to start the conversation.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
I spent over twenty years in business before ever committing to write a book. I’d always wanted to, but I was so tired at the end of the day! I was doing leadership development and coaching at the time, and one day one of my executives made a bargain with me: He would take the weekend off and rest if I would write the first chapter of my first novel. I agreed. It turned out that starting was the hardest part. A year later I self-published The O’Malley Trilogy, and that process had a lot of low points. But the high point moment was when I held the first book in my hand and paged through. I had done it all—written it, edited it, laid it out, designed the cover, selected the font—everything. It may have only sold a hundred copies, but it was mine!
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I know I’m still improving as a writer, but wish I was more disciplined. If you open one of my kitchen drawers, you’ll see I’m really organized in my real life. But while I’m writing, my desk and my mind are like a ticker-tape parade–all kinds of noise and little slips of paper blowing in circles, up and down, all of them mixing and landing all over the place! Next thing I know, Mike’s found his way into chapter two and Maria turns out to be unable to do what I needed her to do in chapter five. After a while I just give up and let them have their way with me. It all works out in the end. I’m completing my third novel now, and I think the characters have written themselves!
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I had understood alternatives to traditional publishing earlier. Traditional publishing has its place at the top of the pecking order, but every book cannot fit the prescribed commercial mold. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. It just means the author needs to find a different way to get it to the target audience. With the advent of ebooks, micropresses and the internet, the possibilities are endless. Authors need to research and understand the options before deciding the proper course for their project. I spent two years petitioning agents before starting a publishing company for my second novel. I will try the traditional route again for my third, but if agents don’t think it’s commercially viable, I have other options. Knowing that is very empowering.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Nothing beats real life. It’s all right there. I look for themes, trends and an unusual juxtapositioning of opportunity and character. I have the unfortunate quality of always having an opinion, so I can use my writing to opine on things I wouldn’t necessarily bring up in conversation.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I was raised a good, Catholic girl. I always conform!! Seriously, I think my third book might raise a few eyebrows. I’ve gone from a heaven-seeking protagonist in Finding Frances to a sociopath antagonist whose soul is totally corrupted when he literally gets away with murder—sort of a Crime and Punishment theme set in the 1970’s. My husband had no idea I was capable of writing anything so gruesome. I think he was a bit shocked. Even my friends are looking at me sideways when they see what my latest character has gotten away with.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Just do it. Start. And there are other ways to learn besides making mistakes. Messing up can be very instructional, but there are less painful ways to go about it. Attend more classes and learning events. Network with more people. I’m pretty introverted, so this was hard for me to learn and to trust.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
Anne Rice fascinates me. I’ve never read a modern writer who seems to understand human nature so compassionately, nor have I ever been transported to other worlds so completely as she has done. Whether she’s writing about Jesus, castrati, or the paranormal characters of her past storylines, she writes so gracefully about the human condition. Even her villains struggle with being so imperfect, so un-Godlike. Even though I can’t do it as well, I try to create real people as she does, flawed and aching to understand our purpose here. I also yearn to come close to making time and place come alive as a character the way she does. I doubt if I’ll ever come close to that.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
When my husband and I married, I wrote a poem to read at the ceremony. It was about our two different lives converging—Where The Sea Meets The Shore. I love the metaphor and imagery. Every anniversary I read it back and think, Who wrote that?
It’s so good!
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
I think many agents and publishers could afford to operate with a little more common courtesy. Some of them treat writers as if we’re beggars holding out the same cup every day they walk past. They don’t even notice that we have different faces and abilities and are being very nice to them. It’s hard work to prepare a query and submission package that meets their individual requirements for inclusions, font, spacing, page count, word count, size of envelope, etc. A number of agents couldn’t even find time to return my self-addressed, stamped envelope, and one publisher wouldn’t even answer me once I submitted the manuscript they requested. There’s no reason for that. We’ve all got a role in the system, and it would work better if we could respect each other.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
It would be nice to be well-known, but more than that I would love to believe that my books make a difference in readers’ lives. It’s one thing to entertain. It’s quite another to enhance a life. It is my dream that my writing to be socially relevant and meaningful. Whether it’s an insight, a comforting word, a validation or a spiritual challenge—there are so many ways to touch someone’s heart.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
I love to hear from readers about what the book meant to them. I am overwhelmed with the reader response to Finding Frances. Even if no one else were to read it, I feel it’s been worthwhile because of the lives it’s already touched.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
These days I most enjoy a quiet house, a comfortable chair, an ergonomic keyboard and my two dogs alongside me. That’s when I get the most done.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Staying in tense is, for some reason, difficult for me. I always want to switch to present tense, and unconsciously switch as I’m writing. I’ve learned to ignore it on the first draft and deal with it during my first round of edits. To stop and perfect each sentence would make me lose my flow. I can catch things like that in the proofing.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
I think it all through in my mind—the characters, the plot, the conflict, the relationships. Once I’m sure that those people would do that, I start mapping it out. I love to make mindmaps with drawings and squiggly lines and idea balloons jutting out in all directions. At the beginning, that’s what my thoughts look like. It takes a long time for me to make them linear. Even after I get organized and make outlines, character sketches and timelines, I leave them open-ended.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I hate distractions. I have to be able to sit by myself and let inspiration flow, so I might not write for weeks at a time. My husband travels a lot for business, so sometimes I go with him and sit in a hotel room all day and write, write, write. I’ve mastered some of my critical plot moments in places like Paris, London, Mexico, Madrid and Long Beach, California. Normal people would be out at museums and cafes. Me, I order room service, curl up on the couch with my laptop and time travel into my book. When I finish for the day, I don’t go back and read it. I wait for the next time I sit down. Then, I read through and fix my last session, and once I’m back in the flow, start the next scene. By the time I’m done the first draft, then, it’s already been edited once.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Combination. I always have a plan, but people never seem to do what I want them to do! I start the plot. My characters finish it.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
Actually, for me, the most difficult part is having enough detail. My base training is in business writing, which is like a chocolate chip cookie. It has to look good, have kernels of truth and be taken in two or three small bites. Fiction is a wedding cake with a unique theme, many layers, and a blend of flavors so captivating that once you read it, you can’t sort it all out right away. My first draft novels are short. When I shape them up, my goal is usually to pages.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
I’ve received so many meaningful letters about Finding Frances that I’ve broken down and cried repeatedly. One letter was from a 94-year old woman in an assisted living facility that she shares with her 96-year-old husband. She said that all around her, children of her friends are making “Frances Decisions,” referring to the conflict of how and when to discontinue medical treatment and allow a natural death for their parents. She said that she put a copy of my book in the facility’s library and that there was a waiting list for it. There is no peer honor that could top the feeling of bringing peace and insight to people who need it.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
PR guru Marika Flatt recently blogged that “every book…has an audience who needs to know about it.” I totally agree with that perspective. We all don’t write for Oprah or the New York Times bestseller list. But we write for someone. The trick is to seek them out and try to deliver our message. I think any marketing or promotional plan that carefully selects its audience and has specific steps to reach out to them has the best chance of success. The internet makes that possible in ways that were never possible before.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
You asked such good questions, and I had fun answering them. I sincerely thank you for the opportunity to tell about myself and my books. You have a great website and I am honored to be part of it!