Today’s interview is with Janice Fosse, a children’s playwright and writer who is a connection of mine on Twitter (never underestimate the power of social media in networking!) Here, in her charming and comic style, she discusses her love of writing, the difficulties of writing for children and her optimism in the face of a very difficult publishing market…
Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your career.
I have been telling stories my whole life. From organizing make-believe on the playground to circulating stories in serial format to devoted readers in high school via spiral notebooks, I mistakenly thought my love of telling stories translated into a love of performing, and for many years my educational focus was on acting, with writing stories nothing more than a diversionary hobby.
After completing the requirements for a BFA in Acting from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, I found myself with one more year of school to go, and decided to pursue a second BA in English with a creative writing concentration. I finished the degree in one year, and found that writing had been the underlying passion all along. While performing is fun, you are always saying someone else’s words. It turned out that I wanted to be the one to make the words, the worlds, and the rules. You could call it creative megalomania, I suppose!
Upon graduation I secured a job in the public access department of a small-town cable company as a producer. I wrote scripts for commercials, did voiceover work, produced television shows, and even helped create and was chief question writer for a local-access game show that gained modest popularity. Writing was always there in the background though.
After eleven years at the cable company I became an asset, which led to me being liquidated when the cable company sought to purchase a larger media outlet. With eleven weeks of severance pay, I found myself with the free time I needed to finally write a book from beginning to end. I managed it in eleven weeks, completely hated every word and abandoned the work without revising it. During that time I also organized an improvisational comedy troupe and skated with the local roller derby league, where for a time I led the league in ejections for poor sportsmanship. Still, writing was there. By this time I had created the basis of a fantasy realm called Ethia, to which my current series of novels refers. With eleven years of dabbling, I’ve managed to come up with a rich history and mythology for Ethia, which has been an invaluable resource from which to draw. I hope someday to novelize some of the incomplete snippets I’ve written about Ethia’s history into some sort of cohesive work.
The trick is writing a play that the children can understand and appreciate, while still providing something that will be entertaining for the parents to watch.
There are now far more writers than there are places for them in the market. What made you realise that your writing might be commercially successful one day?
A friend of mine sent some of my unpolished science fiction to an editor for critique without my knowledge, and the editor was impressed enough to suggest that, with some tweaking, my story could be quite successful. I’ve been working on that story for the last couple of years (with a rather large hiatus due to the birth of my daughter), and have one novel in the series in revision, and a second over halfway through the first draft.
How did you get into the theatre industry and what is the biggest challenge in writing for children?
I met the owner of Stars of Tomorrow, a company that teaches acting and play production to school-age children, through my work with the improv comedy troupe. I became one of their senior instructors, thanks to my theatre degree, and began writing plays for the classes. To date I have had over a dozen plays performed by students in classes throughout the Northern Illinois area, which have been extremely well-received by their audiences.
For the most part, when children are performing a play the audience is going to be largely comprised of parents and other adult family members. The trick is writing a play that the children can understand and appreciate, while still providing something that will be entertaining for the parents to watch. I write comedies, and I try to find that tricky place where the humor is appropriate and entertaining for both adults and children. Many of the characters I write in my plays are wryly self-aware, and the whole play comes off as a little bit cheeky, which usually fits the bill for all parties involved.
Why do you enjoy writing for children?
I enjoy the opportunity to be silly, to stretch my imagination and sense of humor without having to cater to the inherent cynicism of adulthood. It’s also important to write things for children without pandering to them. Kids will rise to the intellectual level with which they are presented, and I enjoy the opportunity to teach, through writing paired with instruction, various aspects of comedic theory, so that they know why what they’re saying is funny.
Why is it so important for writers and publishers to engage in social media now?
With the current market saturation and the ease of creating an online presence, writers and publishers must engage in social media if they are going to get anywhere with promotion and publicity. Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve noticed happening, particularly with Twitter, is that some authors misunderstand the difference between using social media to build an online following and simply spamming adverts about their book every few hours. Social media is an absolute necessity for writers and publishers because there is no freer and more easily accessible marketplace for your book than the Internet, but it should be used wisely. Sharing blog posts, thoughts about writing, and anything else gives what would otherwise be nothing more than a faceless advertising machine a human feel and more of a sense of connection with potential readers.
How do you maintain confidence and motivation in your efforts to become published, especially if you’re ever rejected by a publisher?
For many years I thought that nothing I wrote would ever matter if it wasn’t picked up by a mainstream publisher, got worldwide distribution and a movie option, possibly a spinoff TV series, a theme park, etc. However, the more I’ve gotten into my story and learned to love the characters and the world in which they reside, I find myself caring less and less about the end result, as long as I get to tell the story. When the story is the most important thing, success comes from within, and no amount of outside rejection can touch it. I hope.
What do you think your writing can offer readers that others might not?
I try to blend emotional honesty in my characters with fantastical situations, while incorporating elements of almost-believable science fiction. I’ve been told my greatest strengths are in my humor and my characters – they are very much alive, and likeable (even the villains, in their own way), and they are, I hope, realistic. Even when the situations surrounding them are anything but. I like to think of my characters as atypical heroes – they are insanely human (even when they aren’t); they’re flawed and not necessarily pretty, a little bit dorky and absolutely relatable. My books are for the kids who read books but never see characters all that much like themselves reflected back in the pages.
I enjoy the opportunity to be silly, to stretch my imagination and sense of humor without having to cater to the inherent cynicism of adulthood.
What are the biggest differences between playwriting and writing novels? Do you have a preference between the two?
For whatever reason, playwriting comes much more easily for me than novel writing does. I can kick out a final draft of a play in a matter of days, while novels are far more arduous. However, I enjoy novel writing far more than playwriting. In a novel, you get to climb into the characters’ heads and see the world from their perspective. In a play, motivation is implied and not directly discussed, where it is one of the main foci of writing a novel.
What is your personal view on self-publishing?
It’s tempting, for sure. It offers the possibility of total creative control – everything from the story to the cover and all publicity. Which is a double-edged sword, because it means the author is responsible for everything from the story to the cover and all publicity. The more I read about self-publishing, the more tempting it sounds. However, in the YA market, I think it’s a bit more difficult to self-publish, because metrics show that YA readers still prefer print books to ebooks, which presents a larger upfront cost, plus figuring out ways to get your book into the major retailers. They get grouchy when you just stick copies of your book on their shelves!
And finally, what do you like to read?
Right now I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series from the beginning, as well as Parkland by Vincent Bugliosi. I read anything I can get my hands on; science fiction, fantasy, YA of all sorts, histories and philosophies, books on writing and folklore and utter trash. A writer needs to have a deep well from which to draw, including books that are so awful they serve as a reminder that even bad books get published. I do hope that my books don’t end up on that list for anyone. But, hey, if they do, at least they serve as some sort of inspiration.
You can follow Janice on Twitter @JaniceFosse and learn more about her and her work at janicefosse.com
Do you have any questions for Janice? Post in the comments below and I will get your questions answered!