Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Conversation with Joy Hensley, Author of RITES OF PASSAGE

Joy Hensley, author of RITES OF PASSAGE

Hi Joy! I'm so glad you agreed to stop by the blog for a chat. I wonder if now is the time I should tell everyone you are PATSY CLINE'S COUSIN????? (fangirl swooning) Okay, all silliness and fame mongering aside, you wrote a book! And it's awesome! Tell me about the first time you thought "Hey, I'm going to write a book about a girl who wants to go to an all-boy's military school." Or did it develop in some less direct way?

Goodreads Link

Aw, JRo, you can fangirl all you want! Funny story--my kids' doctor is such a Patsy Cline fan that he's been to her grave site and actually made his kids pose for pictures there! Every time we go in for a check-up, their doctor mentions it. :-)

On to RITES OF PASSAGE--it is awesome that I wrote a book. I still kind of can't believe it. They say a book is a lot like having a kid and, since I have two, I can say without worry that it most definitely IS like carrying a baby for nine months and then delivering them and watching them grow up.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably say that this book didn't just spring fully-formed in my mind. I wanted to go into the military and had actually gone to the Marine Corps recruiting office in my home town. My mom freaked out over this, as some moms do, and begged me to go to college first. That way, if I still wanted to go into the military afterwards, at least I would be an officer.

When I was in college, I just couldn't really find my way. I kept thinking about the military and one of my best friends dared me to go to a military university. It was a $25 dare for me to spend an entire school year going through the recruit year at a military school plus take college classes. I took the dare immediately. I applied to Virginia Military Institute (who were only in their second year of having females on campus) and Norwich University. I got accepted to both and chose Norwich because they'd had females longer and I thought it would be easier.

That's the most ridiculous assumption I've ever made in my life.

Anyway, fast forward to last year when I was doing revisions on a book that my agent still hasn't seen. I was stuck on that book. Something was broken and I just couldn't figure out how to fix it. I e-mailed Mandy and asked her if I could just take a break during NANOWRIMO and just play around with something. Six weeks later, the first draft of RITES was born!

So, while I wrote RITES just last year, the ideas have been in my head for...holy cow, I just did the math...nearly fifteen years. Wow. I'm old.

You said an interesting thing, that you knew your other book was broken (not RITES) but couldn't figure out how to fix it. I've found the same type of thing, that if it's like pulling teeth, at least at the draft stage, then I'm off track in some way. How intuitive is the writing process for you?

Being a writer is so weird sometimes, isn't it? When I come up with a story, here's what I see first: a main character in the climax. I know instantly who she is and what the climax is. I can see it like it's a movie. What I don't know when I come up with a story is how they get there.

Sometimes I start at the climax and write to the end, just to keep the energy of that scene like I see it in my mind. Then I go back to the beginning and meander my way back to the climax. If I am trying to make something happen that doesn't want to work--if writing is like pulling teeth and I can think of a million different things to do BUT write--that's when I know my story is broken. In the book before RITES, specifically what happened was I wrote an entire book based around an environmental problem. Unfortunately, those types of books are so narrow that you can lose the bigger young adult themes like finding your place in the world and things like that. I couldn't figure out how to make the story BIGGER. 

That's where critique partners come in. I have one critique partner in particular who is great when it comes to fixing the broken parts of my books. If I'm pulling my hair out and crying, he can always find where I went wrong and gives me great suggestions for fixing the problem. I count on him probably to much if I'm being honest, but I wouldn't be at all where I am without him.

My broken story is still there in my mind, though, and I hope that once I'm done working on my second book for Harper Teen I might be able to go back. I love that story and I think I've figured out a way to fix it, but I don't have time to play with it right now.

You start with the climax of your story? That's wild to me. I start with a feeling, or a word, or a character's voice -usually, but then every story is a little different. You mentioned one of your critique partners and as you and I both know, writing is not as solitary as it seems. If you were talking to a writer just starting out, what recommendation would you give on how to find CP's and how to know if they're a fit?

How do I love my critique partners? Let me count the ways! None of my writing would ever get anywhere without them. The biggest piece of advice about critique partners that I ever got is this:

If a CP doesn't have anything negative to say about your writing, they're not doing their job.

It really is the truth. There are times when all I want is praise. When I just need someone to tell me all my words are beautiful. At those times, I go to my friends and my family--the people who don't understand how writing really works, you know? They, without a doubt, will tell me that everything is perfect and can boost my self-esteem enough to continue writing. That only works so far, though. 

I need CPs to tell me when something's not working. Who can spot what sucks in the story and then tell me that. There's a fine line, there, too, of course. I need constructive criticism. And I guess that is the key. CPs are people who can spot what's wrong and give ideas or direction that might be just what you need to fix it.

I've found it's also important to find someone at your own writing ability level and/or with your same dreams that understands the writing path you want to take. If you want to be published in the big six but your critique partner is writing a story to share only with family and friends, in my experience, that relationship won't work out. The two paths are too different. Likewise, getting someone at your same level. If you dream of having a NYT bestselling author as your CP and you've only just finished your first short story, I think there's too much of a gap there for the relationship to be productive.

First and foremost, you've got to find someone you trust. You've got to be able to take criticism. Sure, I usually take my criticism with a pint of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food ice cream to help soften the blow, but once I've wallowed, I look at what they say and figure out how I can adapt my story or my writing style to make improvements.

As for how to find them? On-line writing  communities. Swap sample chapters with people you know in the writing community. Critique and be critiqued. See if you like their story or their critiquing style. Places like Absolute Write or the NANOWRIMO forums are also great places to find critique partners.

Above all else, though, you have to be READY for a critique partner. It's not easy getting a critique for a book you've spent four years writing. Sometimes it HURTS to know you need to cut scenes or characters that you love a lot. If you're not ready or are just looking for praise, just send it to your mom to get words of praise.

I've gone through many critiquing relationships that started out working but just fizzled out or one of us moved on to the next phase of writing and the other one wasn't ready or couldn't take critique and use it. You've got to know when you've outgrown your CP or they've outgrown you, as well. You can always be friends, but a CP is more for business, not pleasure, if you know what I mean.

Wow. I guess I have a lot to say about CPs, huh? 

It may be a lot but it's so well said! I remember vividly my first scathing critique. Gosh it burned, but I knew at my gut she was right and I was so thankful someone had taken that much time to be honest with me.

So let's get back to RITES OF PASSAGE. Were there any scenes you loved that you ended up having to leave behind? Or conversely, did someone ask you to add some salt or pepper that wasn't there to start?

Oh, RITES OF PASSAGE. I want to hug my first draft because I love it so much. It's my baby, you know? The book that sold. I thought it was PERFECT just the way it was. It sold at about 70k words and I actually had in my mind two more books to go along with it. Harper bought it as a stand-alone, though, so I had to tie off some loose ends. Also, the book deals very heavily with a secret society. In my first draft, the show-down was really serious. There were secret tunnels and rituals involved and I worked so hard on making it real. Writing the climactic scene actually put me into a bit of a depression because of what ended up happening with some of the main characters.

Through revisions, though, a lot of that changed. RITES grew to a hefty 100k, with some serious subplots being added. The climax changed entirely and I actually had to go back and work in a year-long competition within the military school structure that I had built to make it work. It's completely different than the first draft--some characters are different genders, there's romance where before there was none at all--just a hint of something that I thought would grow over the course of three books.

I thought my baby was perfect, but as RITES has grown into the young adult book that it is, I'm grateful for every change I've made. When it comes out in September, it'll be able to stand on its own and I'm so proud of all the work that's gone into it--from the suggestions by Mandy, my agent, and Jen, my editor, as well as all the others at Harper Teen who are making my little recruit into a shining cadet. :-)
Well I know how excited I am for RITES OF PASSAGE to be out in the world. It was such an immersive experience into a world I knew little about and that's what I love about reading! I can't wait for the praise to start rolling in for you from readers.

Well, that's all for us, Joy. But before you go, would you mind sharing with the readers the following: What are the next 3 books in your TBR pile? What liquid's in your cup? And what's playing on repeat these days?

Aw, thanks, Jaye! I just hope people fall in love with Sam and root for her like I did! She's so kick-ass, despite everything that happens in the book .She's definitely an idol of mine!

Okay, nitty-gritty questions require nitty-gritty answers. Here I go:
1. I'm starting a manuscript critique today for my most epic of epic critique partners, the Falconer by Elizabeth May, and White Hot Kiss by Jennifer Armentrout.
2. Right now, because there's a foot of snow on the ground and my kids are playing out in it, I'm drinking a nice relaxing cup of special tea from some Himalayan mountain region--my hubby is a tea snob. Later today when the hubby is working? Coffee. Lots and lots of it.
3. On repeat these days is a playlist on youtube of MMA Entrance Theme music. Lots of cuss words and heavy beats. Perfect for first drafting. :-)

Thank you SOOOO much! This was so much fun. I love the conversational e-mail interview thing you've got going on!

And thank you! Next week be sure and stop back in when I'll be chatting with Jessica Love, author of PUSH GIRL.


  1. Adding RITES OF PASSAGE to my TBR-list, sounds like a great read. I wish I could write the exciting scene first and go from there, but my darn, linear brain just won't let me. I spend weeks and months frantically typing out words until I FINALLY get to the exciting parts.

    I live in "Patsy Cline Country" as I like to call it. When her former house in Winchester was renovated and turned into a museum a few years ago, that was major news in the local papers. She's a proud claim to fame of the area :)

  2. So many good things to say about finding and working with CP's! And Rites sounds amazing. My brother went to a military college and I always saw the girls on campus and bugged him about what that must be like (he thought it was strange that I was asking, but I was curious!). Love these interviews, JRo! :)

  3. Congrats and best of luck to Joy!

    Jaye, I hope you might consider joining my bloggers' book club. Details are here:

  4. So excited to read RITES OF PASSAGE, it's been so exciting to watch Joy's journey to publication over the past couple of years. I hope someday you get to go back to your original book. If it's still in your head, then there's probably something in it, and someday it'll click over breakfast. Maybe it's just a matter of time.


Hey, do you ever wonder why they call it 'your two cents?'