JoAnn Durgin ~ Interviewed

JoAnn Durgin lives with her husband and three children in southern Indiana. An estate administration/wealth transfer paralegal in a Louisville, Kentucky, law firm, she is a graduate of Ball State University. JoAnn’s well-received debut novel, Awakening, a contemporary romantic adventure, released in late 2010 from Torn Veil Books of Winnipeg, Canada. Her second book in the series, Second Time Around, releases in September 2011, with the third installment, Twin Hearts, coming soon. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) as well as its Indiana chapter, and the Romance Writers of America. JoAnn was a finalist in the 2010 Romance Writers of America/Faith Hope & Love Touched by Love contest for unpublished writers in the long contemporary romance category. Visit JoAnn and leave her a message on Facebook or at her website.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever heard? Why? 

First, find your own unique voice. If you can do that, it will make your writing soar and catch the attention of agents, editors and readers alike. Infuse your fiction with your characters’ personalities and make that story shine! I can’t say whether a writer possesses the innate ability to write in a unique voice or if it can taught and/or learned. But I know you can work on it, develop and fine tune it. I like to think it eventually evolves from habit and practice as you discover what works best for your own individual style.  

Second, in terms of point-of-view, always write a scene from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose. If you stick with that credo, your writing will be sharper, more passionate and full of emotion, drama and conflict—all necessary components of good, involving, well-written fiction.  

Tell us a bit about your current project.

Second Time Around is the second in a series published by new Canadian romance publisher, Torn Veil Books, and the follow-up to Awakening (released November 2010). It continues the adventures of Sam Lewis and Lexa Clarke and the TeamWork crew, and features newlyweds Natalie and Marc Thompson. When a fateful misstep steals Natalie’s memories, it leads to Marc’s fall from grace. Calling on Sam and Lexa for help, Marc takes his bride from Massachusetts to Montana as he attempts to trigger her memories and restore her love for him. It starts out being a story of the fallout and ramifications of amnesia—told primarily from the husband’s point-of-view—but it ultimately evolves into a story of trust, forgiveness and learning that surrendering all at the throne of grace isn’t failure, it’s faith

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book?  

I started writing full-length contemporary Christian romance as a stay-at-home mom in the Philly area. When we moved to Boston, and although an editor and agents expressed interest, I wore too many hats as a pastor’s wife and mom to give my writing the focus it deserved. Out of necessity, I put my writing — but never the passion—aside for a decade. A few years after we moved back to my hometown in southern Indiana, I took another look at my manuscripts. Awakening was the last book I wrote, but I only found half of it. Looking at it through fresh eyes, I knew it needed a ton of work, but recognized it could also be the start of a series. The dramatic story of how the Lord gave my entire manuscript back to me and then confirmed it was the “one” is on my website (   

I’m impatient, and after getting the attention of a top Christian agent (twice) and being rejected (rightly so, I realized in that all-important hindsight), I googled “Small Christian Romance Publishers.” I systematically went down the list, and that’s where I found Torn Veil Books and submitted a query. They requested the full be mailed to their office in Canada without even a synopsis or proposal. When I later asked them about it, the publisher told me it weeded out the writers who weren’t as serious about their project. He could tell I believed in my book by taking the time, effort and expense to send it. It was an interesting way to look at it that I hadn’t considered. My manuscript was the last one Torn Veil received before cutting off submissions, and about three months later, I read that e-mail all writers long to see, “We’ve decided to publish your book.” Awakening has done well for a debut novel from a small, independent press, and we have high hopes for Second Time Around and the other books in the series. 

I honored the Lord by putting aside my writing for a decade, and I feel He honored me by connecting me with the best publisher of His choosing in His perfect timing. Being a small, independent publisher, Torn Veil can publish books quicker than bigger CBA publishers. I’m loyal to Torn Veil, as they are to me, and it’s a great partnership. They like books that are different, and there are certain scenes in my books that other CBA publishers might not allow—not because they’re edgy (and I’m learning one person’s “edgy” is another’s “sweet”), but because they reflect real life on a very human, emotional level without being graphic or offensive. My books often don’t follow the tried-and-proven romance “formula,” and readers are responding to that in a very positive way. 

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?  

Pretty much anything is fair game. I heard about a real life story similar to Second Time Around on a television news magazine program when we lived in Massachusetts. The newspaper is an excellent source for ideas. I read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Oxford Hills of western Maine being the most mineral-rich region for its size of anywhere in the world. So, I wrote a book about a mineralogist/college professor and a girl from a wealthy Boston family who defies family expectations by moving to Maine and designing jewelry. Awakening is loosely based on my courtship with my husband, Jim, and traits of other family members show up in my characters. It wasn’t until it was under contract I realized how many parallels there were. My co-workers at the law firm have started pitching story ideas to me, which I find amusing and endearing. Ditto my church family, friends and family at the dinner table. I joke and tell everyone, “You realize that anything you say is fair game to one day end up in print.” I’m seriously thinking of drafting a legal disclaimer. 

Have you ever had those awkward writer moments, the ones where you get “the look” from the normals?  

I got behind an EMT at my local Circle K convenience store, and said, “Excuse me, but can I ask you a question?” I got the “look,” but plowed on. “If a woman falls down the stairs and presents unconscious but with no obvious head wound . . .” I made my questions precise, and got confirmation that I’d written it right in Second Time Around. I was at a minor league baseball game and mentioned how my hero in the book, Marc Thompson, played for the Pawtucket Red Sox and his dad was a two-time Celtics champion. I could tell the guy seated in front of us was listening to the conversation and wondering who I was talking about—if only he knew. For an upcoming book, I called NASA in Houston and asked the receptionist about the color of the jumpsuits. For the dramatic conclusion of Awakening, I called the marriage license bureau in San Antonio and asked how to get a waiver of the three-day waiting period. In most cases, people are accommodating, but you can sense the amusement. And yes, I can tell they think I’m a little crazy, but I believe that makes for a better writer, don’t you? 

With the clarity of experience, what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears if  beginning this writing journey today?   

Write from the heart and write your passion, and you can’t go wrong. Know your characters from the inside out. Put yourself in their shoes. As their creator, you’re the only one who knows about their childhood, education, speech patterns, hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities and insecurities, quirks, passions and strengths. Follow-through with the thought process: how would they react given certain circumstances? Be true to them. Live and breathe them while you’re writing their story, and you’ll absorb the reader into their world. It can be a difficult thing to do well, but if you’re successful, it’ll make your book all that more believable and real.  

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?  

Joining the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) taught me so much in a short span of time. I’ve always been a writer, and thought I knew how to write, but I didn’t know the techniques to help my writing stand out in a crowd and what not to do. I submitted the manuscript for Awakening to Torn Veil Books, and joined the ACFW shortly thereafter. I cringed when I saw how many adverbs and tags I had in that manuscript; I was so embarrassed I sent an e-mail of apology to them. Thank goodness, they were very gracious and understanding, and I praise the Lord for the miracles of editing.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through 
your writing career. 

Above all, I want to share through my books the love, grace, forgiveness and redemption our Lord offers. I always said if I could touch one heart for Christ, then I’ve done my job. He sent His Son to die a horrible, disfiguring death on a cross—because He loves us. It’s truly the greatest love story of all. Nothing thrills me more than to read about the unfolding love story between a man and woman.

The current trend in fiction tends to be historical and/or Amish, perhaps because it’s a simpler time and/or way of life. But with a lot of the same issues, heartache, temptations and challenges. I write contemporary romance combining the elements of humor, adventure, great characters, romance and a plot that moves. I understand humor can be difficult to write well, but I love it! There’s enough heartache in the world, and while there’s a certain element of sadness and necessary conflict in my books, I want to make people smile and laugh. As a matter of fact, my publisher told me my characters laugh, grin and smile way too much, and cut it back. But you get the point. GRIN.

What are the life experiences that have given you an extra oomph in your writing?  

I was blessed to travel both inside and outside the U.S. when I was a college student (including a semester in London and touring the European continent) and in my twenties. Those experiences opened my eyes to various cultures, history, people, geography, art, languages, you name it—all invaluable, and they made me the writer I am today. Secondly, becoming a wife and mother made me a better, more emotional, sensitive writer. Nothing beats those life experiences for filling in the all-important spaces and rounding out the writer inside. I understand not everyone has the benefit of these things, and writers often write about subjects of which they have little or no firsthand knowledge, making the powers of observation so important, and the wonders of research via the internet nothing short of incredible.   

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?  

I fell prey to the curse of info “dumps.” I hate that term, but it explains it quite accurately. The reader doesn’t need to know everything at once. If you give them that, why will they keep reading? You need to give them just enough to intrigue and entice, but leave enough unanswered questions in their mind to keep turning the pages of your book. Drop hints as you go, fill in with bits and pieces of back story here and there, and you can convey a lot through well-placed and informative dialogue. 

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Pray and dedicate my words to the Lord. He’s my partner and my inspiration. Believe it or not, I’ve never had writer’s block, and the words flow. There aren’t enough hours in the day for writing!
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Total panster. Only way to go. Anything else stifles my creativity and stilts my writing.
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?
I just deleted the entire first three chapters of the draft of the third book in my series, Twin Hearts (originally written a few years ago). It now starts exactly where it should—at the heart of the action, the inciting incident, the “meat” of the story that propels the characters forward in his personal journey. It’s also the point where the reader will be hooked into the scene, and that’s key.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
First and foremost, write the best book you can.
Second, do something every day to further your writing career—no matter how big or seemingly insignificant. Even though you might blog, write guest blogs, do interviews and promote your book until you think people are surely sick of you, there are still others who’ve never heard of you or your book (especially if you’re published by a small press). Without being obnoxious or insincere, try to get your name out there as much as possible to keep your book in the minds of potential readers. Respond to e-mails, visit other blogs, make comments (but please don’t drop the name of your book all over the place). My point being that you have to be visible without being overbearing.
Third, network in your own community. Talk to people at the grocery, library, bookstores, schools, everywhere you see and meet people. It’s difficult if you’re not a social person, but it can be done in bits and spurts. You can tell if people aren’t interested, but on the flip side, it never ceases to amaze me the people you least suspect of being supportive of you and your book might turn out to be huge promoters and supporters. You’re your own best salesperson, and what better product to market than your own book?

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
In the easier-said-than-done department: accept the fact that not everyone is going to like or appreciate what you write. I’m human, and perhaps overly sensitive, and sometimes it can get overwhelming to the point where you need to take a step back, take a deep breath and give it to the Lord. Sometimes I feel like romance writers are the perceived stepchildren, and we’re not taken seriously, especially if we write humor. I don’t let that bother me because it’s my passion; conversely, I have no desire to write heavy suspense or gut-wrenching books. Others do it very well, so let them do it. Others have said they don’t write romance because they can’t, but they admire those who can. I’ve been told by some they don’t read romance because it reminds them of what they once had, don’t currently have, or feel like they’ll never have in their life. But I’ve stayed true to my passion. I write exactly what I like to read, and while I want to give readers a solid, well-written story with a smooth flow, I don’t aim to be particularly literary or deep. My readers aren’t going to read a passage three times, scratch their heads, and ask, “What just happened?” or “What did he say?” Writing isn’t for wimps, but the Lord gives me the strength. There’s also something to be said for commitment, willpower, guts and sheer determination.
So, there you go. It’s not the perfect answer, but it’s my answer. Thanks so much for having me on Novel Rocket today. It’s a true honor, and many blessings to you, my friends.
JoAnn Durgin
Matthew 5:16