Best-selling Author Jerrilyn Farmer On How Aspiring Authors Can Master Novel Writing

farmer99Name: Jerrilyn Farmer
Author’s Websites, Publisher’s Page
Hometown: Lincolnwood, IL
Current Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Education: Northern Illinois University—majored in Theater/English
Briefly: #1 LA Times best-selling author Jerrilyn Farmer is a former television writer. Among her nine award-winning mystery novels are the Madeline Bean series and a Red-Carpet mystery co-written with Joan Rivers. In addition, she teaches fiction-writing at UCLA’s Writers Program.
Favorite Read: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Game of Thrones series; Hunger Games
Pet Peeves: I am too Zen to have any peeves, except maybe how difficult it is to reset/record programs on my DVR, or how irksome it is when someone leaves the door open and crickets inevitably want to move in, or…
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…very likely unemployed, as my fall backs were a) Supermodel, b) doted upon mistress of a billionaire, or c) riverboat captain.
What You Have Lined Up Next: Working on hush-hush manuscript of something quite different.

At which point of your life did you first meet another Jerrilynn?

Strangely, I have met quite a fair share of Jerrilyns in my life. One in particular had my same last name too (what are the odds?) and went to my high school. That Jerrilyn was an honor student and when her induction to the National Honor Society was printed in our local paper, my mother and I received many congratulatory calls from friends and relatives. We thought it too impolite to correct their error.

Did you always dream of becoming an author?

I did not. I was an avid reader, of course, but somehow thought books just sprang into being and I rarely noticed that a human being—and a lot of hard work—was needed to produce them. When I was enlightened, I could never imagine that I might one day be able to force myself to put out such effort. It took quite a while before I gathered that writing was what I was meant to do and rolled up my sleeves.

Publishers use book tours to get the word out on their new authors and new titles. Do you think that book tours effective in selling books?

For fiction–maybe at one time, but not any more, and not really for new authors. Only the already-crazy-famous authors/celebs can get booked onto the top shows and into events at huge bookstores. When authors already have a following a book tour alerts their fans to run out and get a copy and the cost of schlepping an author around may make sense. In this way, I was lucky to write a mystery with Joan Rivers because while I would hardly be invited to appear on “The View,” or “The Today Show,” Joan was. Of course, that was a huge boost to book sales. But touring may make less economic sense now for the new writer starting out than it did even a decade ago. When I started (and I did quite a few tours), small independent bookstores were flourishing and hand-selling was a great grassroots way to introduce readers to new authors. Meeting those store owners and their loyal customers was a great help. But now, sadly, many of those outlets have closed. So now, I think internet events/connections make the most sense. Using new media wisely, we can reach more readers in our target audience while losing less time for actually writing our next book. Blog-tours are pretty cool.

Your book’s titles are quite creative. They truly stand out. With titles like Mumbo, Gumbo…

Thank you! I was surprised to learn that control of everything that appears on the book’s jacket belongs to the publisher—whereas everything inside the covers belongs to the author. This means the cover art, the book’s actual size, and even the title may get vetoed or influenced by the marketing department whose job it is to make sure the book sells like the latest iPhone. A good title, truly, is part of the sales pitch. Readers appear to be drawn to mysteries with certain ominous words in the title, and humorous mysteries often have puns. My title for my second book—about the murder of a string of Jesuit brothers as the pope is due at a breakfast reception in Los Angeles—was originally called Losing My Religion. At the time, I was planning to title all of my books after favorite song titles—my first was Sympathy for the Devil. But my publisher—a huge Rolling Stones fan, it turns out—thought that first title was great, but the second one was too dark to draw a new cozy reader who might not know that it was a song reference. But I loved “Losing My Religion”. I listened to it throughout the writing of the book; it underlined the book’s theme. They vetoed it and many many other choices. Finally, my best friend Erica thought up: Eggs Benedictus. Avon loved it, but another book by Mary Daheim had a very similar title. Saving the day—and my sanity—my wonderful husband suggested Immaculate Reception and thank the mystery gods, that one stuck.

You’ve been nominated quite a few times for the Agatha Award, because your books typify the well-plotted structure of a great mystery. Do you think that certain elements are essential to writing a successful mystery?

I do! But I also think that clever writers must somehow twist up the required elements to catch the reader off-guard. One of my twistier plots was in Perfect Sax. I had been given an interesting puzzle by my brother. He had a strange thing occur in his quiet neighborhood, a tiny mystery, and he thought it would make a great opening. He had walked outside one morning to discover his lawn was covered with dozens of papers and folders. At first he thought it was just trash—perhaps some teenaged prankster—but as he picked up the various items, he noticed they included a file of bank statements, a current US passport, a confidential report from a psychiatrist, several 8×10 photos of celebrities including Cher and Michael Jackson with warm personal inscriptions… and all of it belonging to the same man. But how had such private, and likely important material become scattered on his lawn? I used almost exactly the same set up—and exactly the same items—and strew them around Madeline Bean’s lawn. I think a great puzzle is one of the benchmarks to a great plot. If you’d like to know what those private papers were doing in a stranger’s yard, please read the book. Oh, am I a tricky self-promoter or what?

What do you least like about being an author?

All that time stuck inside my weary head. I am a bit of a freer spirit than perhaps is best suited to getting book after book written quickly. So like many writers before me, I’m afraid I like having written a bit more than actually, in the moment, telling all my friends and family to get lost—I’m writing.

Could you walk in the shoes of Madeline Bean?

I think I have walked in her shoes—sans the murders of course, back in the day. Same fish out of Hollywood, same lots of opinions on everything, same wry humor of course. She’s clearly a better version, but then we both have the same weakness for Diet Coke. And other vices.

When you’re plotting out a book, and you have two choices before you, in terms of what direction to go…how do you determine which path to take the plot?

Well, first, I try to think of many more than just two directions. Many more! I brainstorm many paths, many interactions, and see where each one of them leads Maddie. It’s like playing chess and imagining each move and then five moves ahead, then going back and trying another piece. The more unexpected—yet grounded in the character’s true nature—the path, the more I’m drawn to working it in. My series, as you know, concerns an event planner in L.A., and yet my plots have led to gem mines in Rhodesia, the Vatican during Nazi occupation, art fraud schemes and hookers, and more, so I think you cleverly deduced my fondness for taking the exotic side road that most others never even saw off behind the bushes.

I thought it was really cool to learn that you actually studied acting. I’m just curious as to whether sometimes you act out the parts of your characters when you hit writer’s block, or just to help you flesh out the characters you create–period.

Well, again, you caught me. I think acting training is excellent preparation for a novelist. In fiction, each character must act from plausible motivation. Get a roomful of characters together, and conflict or alliances arise from the clash or sympathies of their goals, their personalities and their private histories. What keeps it interesting is that so many of us have secrets. That translates well to fiction, too. I’m also conscious of diction in real life, so I try to make sure each character’s speech is true to their region and lifestyle and as realistic as possible to age and educational background. In fact, I love to people watch—which I always thought was a good thing until one of my dear children pointed out years ago that such an activity was just plain nosy. Ah, well. But there again, watching people for mannerisms and personality quirks is part of an actor’s preparation. Really, it’s not my fault! I was trained that way.

If the Madeline Bean mysteries were to be adapted to the screen, who would you have in mind to play her?

It would have been a great part for Sarah Jessica Parker—I always thought Carrie reminded me a bit of Maddie. Present day—and while I’m dreaming—I really admire Natalie Dormer and Olivia Munn.

What’s the best way for an author to perfect her—or his—craft?

Three ways. First, read a lot. Read well. Trick: when you finish a book you love, re-read it right away. Clearly, you will now know exactly what is coming, who is who, but this time look for how that author did it. Only then, with the veneer of happy reader wondering what’s coming next rubbed off, will you be able to peek behind the curtain and clearly observe how it’s done. Read that opening chapter twice. Think about what resonated with you. Was it writing style, characters, dialogue, wit, plot, relationships? Then think hard about what you are writing and where it converges with this ideal and where it should, but doesn’t. Determine how you can craft your own books to emphasize these same aspects.

Second, write a lot. Get into the discipline of writing a set number of pages/day or week. It can be ideal to take a class or join a writers workshop to get inspiration, guidance, atta-boys, suggestions and feedback. Find great readers and cling to their input. Set a goal and finish your manuscript. In all the classes I’ve taught I’ve met hundreds of truly talented writers. A tiny fraction get to the end of their first draft. So sad, that.

Lastly, rewrite a lot. Be ruthless with your darlings. If you were clever enough to write this one good sentence, please have faith that you can cut it and—no surprise—be able to write many many more even better sentences in the future. Only, hopefully, those sentences will further your action, deepen your characters, move your book along at a better pace than that dear old sentence that was gumming up the works.

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5 thoughts on “Best-selling Author Jerrilyn Farmer On How Aspiring Authors Can Master Novel Writing

  1. Wonderful interview–and Jerrilyn’s comments on how books are promoted today are spot on. I have known Jerrilyn for many years, love her writing, and she is a fabulous teacher of fiction writing in the program I run–the UCLA Extension Writers’ program.

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