Ask an Author … Interview with JM Bolton (aka Johanna M Bolton)

1.How and when did your interest in writing begin?
Because I am dyslexic, I had a lot of trouble learning to read. I finally managed to figure out how to do this by myself. One of my elementary teachers used to read to the class after lunch. As I listened, with my head down on the desk and my eyes closed, I would watch a movie in my head. It turned out that I could also do this while looking at words on a page. And so, I began to “read.” Since I didn’t actually process groups of letters as words, I had trouble learning to spell, but at least I could read. And I did; I read constantly. Eventually, fed by reading materials, I started playing “what if.” And that led to writing. Now I get ideas all the time. I’ll never be able to write all the books that I imagine!

2. How would you describe your writing style?
I suppose I could write cerebral, academic tomes, but after many years as a high school teacher (and having to create a lot of my teaching materials), I have evolved a writing style that is (I hope) both entertaining and informative. I like to tell stories, and in order to reach your audience, you need to entertain them. At the same time, I seem to have a knack for organization. There’s nothing different from organizing items on a shelf or organizing words on a page. In both cases, you want to present material to show a logical relationship, be it linear or otherwise.

3. Who is your favorite author, and what is it that really strikes you about his/her work?
Nora Roberts. No matter what you may think of her subject matter, she is an excellent writer and a very good storyteller. She writes for her audience–women–and, I believe in the beginning probably pandered to the genre in order to earn her reputation–she has written her share of Harlequins. However, as well as her best-selling IN-DEATH series she has written some excellent mainstream mystery novels. She has hundreds of titles to her credit, she works diligently at her craft (some say she writes 8 hours a day every day!), and her books, no matter what the subject matter, read very well. She obviously writes what she likes, does it successfully and has made a very good living at it. What’s there not to admire in Nora Roberts? I hear people delegate her books because she writes “women’s fiction.” Be honest, who doesn’t like a good fantasy-romance now and then?

Nora Robert’s books are well crafted; she has never let me down with a weak plot, an illogical scenario, or inconsistent characterization. There are other writers I like and admire — Lois McMaster Bujold and Linnea Sinclair for example. I know when I pick up any book with their name on it, I’m in for a good read.

I prefer a good romance to explicit sex. Nora Roberts manages to get the emotions across without having to resort to biological details. Her descriptions of bedtime activities are well crafted. I’m getting so I skip the sex scenes in most books; they’ve gotten old and, yes, boring. I’m really not interested in spectator sports; I don’t understand why people pay good money to watch someone else have all the fun.

Bottom line: I want a book with a strong plot, usually a good mystery, interesting and likable characters, and a positive conclusion. And these are the kinds of books I want to read. Nora Roberts delivers.

If a book has what is touted as literary merit, I’ll probably hate it. I’m not interested in reading page after page of someone’s internal maundering about their childhood and the symbolism of their neighbor cutting down the oak tree that held their favorite swing and how that affects their ability to communicate with clouds. I suppose I could write this stuff (literature) but why bother? I’d rather write something fun that people will enjoy reading.

4. If you had to choose, which author would you say influenced your writing style the most?
This is a really hard question. Every time I try to write like someone else the results are terrible. As far as ethics, I admire writers who take their crafts seriously and actually work at it with discipline and dedication. I would like to be like them, but (and here comes my excuse) I’m so easily distracted!

5. Who or what inspired you to write your first book?
My first book was inspired by my favorite television show when I was 15 years old. The TV show was called the Buccaneers. My first book was the Lady and the Pirate. It took me 50 years to finish it and get it into print. And then it won a literary award.

6. Once you began writing, how long did it take you to finish your first book?
As I said, it took me more than 50 years to complete my first book. I wrote other books in the meantime, but the first book took such a long time for two reasons. One is that there were no personal computers when I started writing, and I wrote the first drafts of this book in longhand. Second, since the story was historical, and I had to do a lot of research. Back then that meant hours in a library. Third, I had to grow up and learn more about people and their social interactions. But the wait was worth it. The Lady and the Pirate turned out pretty well, I think.

7. Do you experience writer’s block at any time, and how do you deal with it?
I ignore it and do something else.

8. Do you have a special time to write, or how is your day structured?
I wish I could have a specific time to write, but no. Sometimes I work almost nonstop, and other times I just dink around, i.e. write a little here, ignore the manuscript there, and then go shopping.

9. Do you write every day, 5 days a week or at random times?
It depends on the project. When I’m in the middle of something, time does not exist. I write in manic spurts and snarl at anyone or anything that interferes. At those times, I get vast amounts of work done. Then, other times, I just dink around reading Facebook and let my mind wander. Who knows where it might end up …

10. Do you aim for a set number of words/pages per day?
No. For me, that way leads to frustration and madness!

11. Do you write on a typewriter, computer, dictate or longhand?
I write on a computer, although my first book was written longhand, and the second novel with a typewriter – all seven drafts — yikes!

12. How did you come up with the title?
I have several titles in mind as I’m writing, but the final title doesn’t appear until after the story is finished. And even then, it sometimes needs to be changed especially after I check how many other books on Amazon have the same title.

13. Who designs your book cover(s)?
I do. I have degrees in art and design, and I do covers professionally.

14. How much of your writing is based on fact and how much is fiction?
It’s probably half and half. I write novels, fiction that is sometimes inspired by actual events both modern and historical, and I also write how-to books and music books, based mainly on fact, but sometimes with a touch of fiction.

15. Are characters based on people you know? If not, how did they come to be?
My characters create themselves. I begin with an idea, but then let the demands of the plot and events in the story shape the individual personalities.

16. What challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) have you experienced in bringing a book to life? What was the most difficult?
I have a gifted IQ plus some issues with introversion (Aspergers), and as a result, I didn’t manage to get socialized properly as I was growing up. Figuring out a normal persons’ motivation is often difficult for me. This makes character development problematic. I have managed to overcome most of my social deficiencies, but sometimes such difficulties can help me to come up with unique plot twists. It’s the classic six of one, half a dozen of the other.

17. How did you get your book(s) published? Would you take a different approach next time?
My agent sold my first two books. Then he sold the rights to my books overseas, and – oops! – neglected to tell me that they had been sold! Since then I have been dealing with publishers myself. This is uncommon and I don’t recommend it. I’d really like to have an agent who is dedicated to promoting my writing career and making me successful, but when I mentioned this to my “then” agent back, he replied:  “I don’t have to; I’m already rich.” I’ve had bad luck with agents.

18. Did you learn anything from writing your first book, and, if so, what was it?
Stop listening to other people who tell me I can’t do something. There’s a balancing act. You need feedback from other people, but it’s important to be able to distinguish what is real and useful, what’s someone else’s personal take on the situation (perfectly valid, but different from your own), or what are motivated by envy. You have to earn not to take negative reactions seriously while at the same time finding something useful in them. This is hard.

19. What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Don’t listen to people who tell you what you can’t do. Don’t give up no matter what happens. (Look up how many times Margaret Mitchell had to try before anyone would agree to publish Gone with the Wind!) At the same time, get other people to read your manuscript and evaluate any advice, suggestions, or criticism they might give you. Filter it through your own common sense while keeping your ego in check.

It’s a balancing act; you need to take criticism constructively, not letting it discourage you while using it to make yourself a better writer. Try to elicit feedback from people who can be objective about your writing. There are people who may be your friends, and at the same time be jealous of your aspirations. That’s a delicate thing. Some family members might not want you to do something that will make you stand out … that would make you seem different. I had to face that the entire time I was growing up.

On the other hand, your mother might one of those wonderfully supportive people who will love everything you do no matter how bad it is. In this case, you’re the one who has to try to be objective about your writing. In fact, it’s your job as a writer to try to learn and improve constantly. I let my books sit, sometimes for years — even the ones that have been published. After a period of time has passed, I will re-read the manuscript with a more critical eye. Let me tell you, this can be embarrassing when you discover the glitches that slipped past you the first time! Just tell yourself that it’s not as bad as it could be without a chance to rewrite and refine and correct all those mistakes. Sometimes I even come up with a fresh angle that really improves the plot.

Here’s an example: My sister read and edited Heirs to the Empire. As she gave it back to me she told me that it wasn’t finished, that it needed a lot more description and characterization. What!!! I thought I was finished with the thing! Of course, I was disappointed and, yes, a little put off by her blunt assessment. But despite the resentment, I respected her judgment, and so I went back to work. I added a lot more material (several hundred pages!) to the manuscript. The plot became more convoluted, some new characters emerged, and the story was improved immeasurably. And all because of what she said. (Thank you, Mo!)

According to Hemingway, every first draft is terrible. What you do with it after that is what will make it into a good book. So this is what you have to do. First, write. Get something down on paper, but don’t go back and look at it until you’ve finished the entire first draft. Then go back and rewrite. You know, the author who tells you he spouts perfect prose the very first time he sits down at a keyboard is either lying or a terrible writer.

And so my advice to beginning writers is if you want to write, do it! Don’t stop, don’t give up. You can get better, you can fix a bad sentence, you can improve a weak plot. As I tell my students: “It’s not brain surgery. If you make a mistake, no one is going to die.” So try. Do it. If something isn’t right, fix it! And most of all, believe in yourself.

(Oh, and watch out for the word “was” and for words ending in “ly.” Avoid them both as much as possible.)

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!!!
Write to me at

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