Joelle Charbonneau is the author of three very different series. One focusing around roller skating mysteries, one glee club mysteries and the third The incredible Testing trilogy. She has been in opera and musical theatre. She teaches voice privately. She is a talented author and busy touring promoting The Testing series. She recently took some time from her busy schedule and answered 20 questions for the readers at Book Reviews and More. But she sort of fell into writing. Read the interview below to find out more. So here in her own words Joelle Charbonneau:
1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer and how did you pursue that goal?
Funny, but I didn't ever know I wanted to be a writer. Had I thought about it as a career path I probably would never have sat down to write that first manuscript. I was 29 and doing dinner theater at Drury Lane OakBrook here in the suburbs of Chicago when I first had an idea for a book and wondered if I could actually write a story from beginning to end. As a reader, the idea was exciting. As a girl who had never had to take an English class in college (yay honors program), it was an intimidating prospect. But I wanted to see if I could, so I sat down and started writing and I got to The End. After writing that book, I wanted to see if could write a book someone might want to read. The challenge more than the career was what motivated me to try. Turns out, I really liked it and have been doing it ever since.
2. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?
Well, my family has always been my biggest supporter. My husband seemed to think it was only natural that someone who read so much (and I'm talking about 200 books a year) would turn to writing. He's a musician, so I guess he embraces creative hobbies a little more easily than others. He also read all of the early books that were bad. BAD I tell you.
My mother was another huge supporter. She has supported me in every unstable career choice I've made be it theater, music or writing and she, too, has read everything I've ever written.
As for writers, I'm certain I wouldn't be the writer I am today if it wasn't for the support of the amazingly talented and incredibly kind Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I met her at a local literary festival and she took me under her wing. It is because of her that I joined a local writers group. She also was good at nudging me at just the right times to ask if I was submitting or seeing where I was at in my career. She is still the author I go to for advice whenever I have a question. Susan is awesome. If you haven't read her books- go do it. Now. I'll wait for you to return!
3. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?
This sounds really jaded, but in regards to publishing I really wish that someone had told me what realistic sales expectations are. You always here about the books that make it big. People love quoting those numbers, but no one ever talks about the smaller books (of which there are way more) and what a publisher hopes a book will sell. I also wish I understood that without huge marketing help from your publisher there is only so much you personally can do without investing large amounts of money. Since you can't do everything, you have to pick the right things that make sense for your book. Learning how to identify the right marketing goals is something I've learned along the way, but wow I wished I'd understood that when I started. I don't regret anything, but I would have gotten more sleep had I had a better idea of what I was doing.
4. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?
I'd probably still be going to auditions and singing and dancing on stage. I'd also be teaching voice lessons, which I still do. However, now that I'm writing more, I have less time for teaching, which is sad. Teaching is still one of the best parts of my life.
5. What authors influenced your writing style and format?
Oh - goodness. I don't know about who influenced me in format. I guess when I first started writing I tried writing like Jodi Picoult because I had just read several of her books and I was amazed at the emotional pull of her work. I think I then tried to write a thriller like David Baldacci because I was reading a lot of his work then. And I know that much of how I think of Dystopian books or Horrific thrillers has been shaped by the incomparable Stephen King. I started reading Stephen King when I was 10. His work is disturbing in the best possible way.
6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
Well, my process isn't great, but it's mine. Typically, I come up with a what if idea that really intrigues me. Kind of like "what if the college admittance process and the standardized tests to get into college were way more stressful than they are now." Once I have that, I start to look for a time or place for the story question to make sense and have the highest stakes. Then I need a main character. I figure out who the main character is, where they live and what their main motivation is. I also typically know kind of how I want the first chapter to end. Then I write.
Nope…no outline. No other idea of where the story is going to go. I write like I read…to find out what happens next. Sometimes I have an idea of where the story is going. Most of the time I'm totally wrong and the story surprises me.
Because I don't outline, I find that I have to write every day. My goal is at least 1000 words a day. Most days I hit or exceed that, but there are days where I really struggle with what happens next and I only get about 500 words or so written. While I hate those days, I know that they are important because I have moved the story forward and soon I will end up writing 2500 words because I finally know what happens next.
Once the entire draft is written, I go back and edit. Often near the end of the draft I'll make notes to myself of things I know I need to go back and change or fill out or tie up. During the revisions, I am pretty ruthless about cutting words and hacking things that don't work. When that process is done, my agent gets the book. She reads everything I write whether it is under contract or not. She also is my first editor. She does a content and line edit with me. Sometimes I get lots of notes. Other times I'm astonished when I only get a few. But she helps me tighten the book before sending it off to my editor who then does at least another 2 rounds of revisions on the manuscript with me.
When we have decided the book is as strong as it is going to get (for now), my editor sends it off for copyediting. That's always fun. I learn I don't know how to punctuate anything during that process. Then the book heads off to typesetting and once again we read the book and make any cuts or changes we think need to be made. After that, a proofreader goes through it to make sure I didn't add typos along the way. Hooray. During the editorial and production part of the process there are also covers chosen (of which I have almost no say, which is wonderful because I can't draw a stick figure very well), back jacket copy written and cover quotes added which have been graciously given by some incredible early readers or selected from reviews of previous titles.
That process ends about 9 months before the book comes out. Sometimes the cover still gets tweaked, but mostly the book is done. Then you have nothing to do but wait until readers get their hands on the book and let you know what they think.
7. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
As an actress, I always looked at the characters as three dimensional, but only alive when they walk the stage. I feel the same way about my characters when I write. They walk around in my brain when I'm writing the book and often I'm busy thinking about them when I'm cleaning or making dinner because I am trying to figure out what happens next, but once the story is over the characters take their bow and a new story starts.
8. One of the greatest strengths in your books are the characters, like Cia Vale, they are so solid and believable. The characters you create, are they reflections of people you know, composites of different people you know or entirely your creations?
I think all writers end up pulling in pieces of people they know and using them in stories. It's inevitable that you use characteristics that you have seen to round out characters and make them feel real. However, I will say that I have never tried to write a character based on someone I've met or know well. I have, however, borrowed names from friends or family and I do ask first!
9. Your books are also marketed mainly to teen and youth and yet I have read them and recommended them too many adult friends who loved them. You also appear to have a very large adult audience. Do you see yourself writing a book aimed at the general fiction audience?
Marketing books is a tricky thing. They have to pick a category to put your book in and marketing to that segment. But I do think that I write for a more general fiction audience. I feel like the stories are adult stories that happen to have teens at the heart of them. I admit that being marketing as a YA author has been amazing. Getting emails from teens that tell me they never liked reading until they picked up The Testing makes me feel like I've touch at least a small piece of the world in a wonderful way. But while I love writing in the YA segment, I have a feeling I'll find myself crossing back over to the General Fiction or adult side again. Hopefully, readers will follow me wherever I go.
10. With your Testing series, there will always be comparisons to The Hunger Games. Had you started your series before the Hunger Games grew in popularity?
I was aware of The Hunger Games when I first started writing The Testing, but only because of seeing booksellers discussing it online. I wasn't aware of how hugely popular it was until I was in the middle of writing it and was seeing all sorts of posts about THE NEXT HUNGER GAMESLIKE SERIES that was about to hit shelves, which was Divergent. I didn't read Divergent or Insurgent until after I finished writing Independent Study, mostly because I wasn't understanding how big that series was yet, either. Apparently, I'm slow on the uptake.
11. Now that rights have been acquired by Paramount for the Testing do you think the comparisons to Hunger Games will only grow?
If the movie moves from Development to Production, I'm certain comparisons will grow. It is the nature of the business to say "this is like that so if you like this you'll like that". Cover quotes do that all the time and movies take the comparison idea to a whole new level. I can't complain. The Hunger Games is beloved by readers. Being compared to something that inspires that kind of passion is an honor.
12. Since you love music and teaching singing, what are some of your favorite songs to belt out?
Anything. Honest. But my favorites often come from Les Miserable, The Secret Garden or anything Stephen Sondheim has written.
13. If you were to pick 10 books an aspiring author should read what would your list be?
Oh no! This is so hard. It depends on the genre they are writing in. I know that lots of writers love how-to writing books. I hate admitting that I've never read a single one of them. Although, I know that Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (hi Don!) and On Writing by Stephen King are hugely influential and I do plan on some day reading because so many writers I know love them. Mostly, I would say that if you are an aspiring author, read in your genre. Find the books that resonate with you and then go back and reread them to find out why the books worked for you. Look at the chapter hooks. Pay attention to the dialogue and the amount of white space that is on the page. The books that speak to you as a reader will be the type of books you'll gravitate to writing as an author. Learn what makes those books work and then apply that to you own writing. I love reading mysteries, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. That wasn't what I started writing, but it turns out that it is what I was meant to write.
14. What were some of your favorite books and authors when you were younger?
This is easy! My favorite books as a very young reader were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all of the Boxcar Children books as well as the Alfred Hitchcock Three Detective Series. Around 10, I found Stephen King. I loved reading Firestarter and Christine, but it was when I read The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, I knew I was hooked for life.
15. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?
I really love the J.D. Robb In Death series. The character development that occurs over the series for both the main characters and the supporting players is really fun to follow. I also adore Lois Lowry and her Giver Quartet, all things Harlan Coben (especially his Myron Bolitar) and I go back and reread David Eddings Begariad and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series at least once a year.
16. All of your books are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?
You know - ebooks have created a unique marketplace for electronic pirates. For some reason, when something isn't tangible (like a physical book) people feel like the sharing and essentially stealing of it isn't real. Whenever a book is found on one of those sites, I have a mixed reaction - yay they think I'm important enough to steal and HEY! Why do they think it is okay to steal.
However, I will say that this kind of thing isn't occurred before ebooks. The sale of used physical books, for authors, really is the same thing. I love the sale of used books because often it is libraries using those sales to make money for their programming or development and used book sales always draw new readers to an author. But technically, while money changes hands, the author never sees any of it. So…I guess this is something that happens no matter what format a book is sold or distributed in.
17. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?
I hate admitting that I don't monitor. I guess if I had Google alerts on, I'd probably get notification about these sites, but I have turned those off for my own sanity. So I am grateful when friends notice these things for me and that I have a publisher who is ready, willing and able to get the illegal versions taken down.
18. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why
Ha! This feels like a question that is going to get me into trouble. I think that higher education needs to be about encouraging students to learn how to question. So much of our education system is about getting the right answer - but real life situations are rarely black and white and require understanding that there is more than one answer to a lot of problems. You have to question each answer and determine which one is the best for you. It would be nice if higher education and really education in general went back to the idea that questioning and learning how to problem solve should be at the forefront of our educational goals. Just getting the right answer doesn't always mean you understand why it is right.
19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
AH! Can it be 14? Then I'd pick The Wheel of Time series. Okay, no cheating. 10 books
The Stand by Stephen King (to prove to me that anything can be worse)
A survival guide - because - duh
Some sort of food, wilderness cooking thing because I like food and I want to live.
Absolute Power by David Baldacci - an all time favorite thriller
The Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean Auel - which I think is 6 books now and they are all big books. At least then I'll have an entire series to read from beginning to end and all the books have plant, survival tips, which will help me figure out what I can eat and how to survive.
20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
There are all sorts of methods to measuring success. The most important is the passion you have for your work and the satisfaction you get in doing it. Never look at others who are in your field and think you should be doing better than you are. Your journey is your own. Enjoy it.
Joelle thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for our readers. I look forward to what you bring us next.
Books by Joelle Charbonneau:
The Testing Guide - Short Story Prequel
The Testing - The Testing Book #1
Independent Study - The Testing Book #2
Graduation Day - The Testing Book #3
The Skating Series:
Skating on the Edge
Skating Over the Line
Skating Around the Law
Skating Under the Wire
The Glee Club Series:
Murder for Choir
End Me A Tenor
A Chorus Lineup
Author Profile and Interview with Joelle Charbonneau