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20 October 2009 @ 05:35 pm
THE SHIFTER: an interview with Janice Hardy  

One of the most original books I've read in a while is THE SHIFTER, by debut novelist Janice Hardy, so I was delighted when Janice granted us an interview.

THE SHIFTER is the first book in THE HEALING WARS series and tells the story of 15-year-old Nya, an orphan who has the power to shift pain from one person to another.  Her homeland, Geveg, has been invaded by the Baseer, and in this oppressed world the ability to shift human pain into a substance called pynvium is worth money.  Big money.  The League charges to remove pain, pain merchants buy pain to enchant weapons, and anyone able to 'shift' pain is subject to death, pain, and "maybe even experiments". So Nya suppresses her power to shift, but then her sister Tali and other League apprentices disappear.  Forced to use her power to find and free her sister, strong-willed Nya is faced with the complex moral dilemma of deciding who will live, or die.

Q & A:

Did you always have a fascination for story, or is it something you discovered after trying other things?

According to my mother, I’ve told stories since I could talk. I started writing them as soon as I could hold a crayon. I can’t ever remember a time where I wasn’t story crafting in some fashion. I can’t really do much else, LOL.

Can you talk a little about the premise of The Shifter? What inspired its genesis?

The premise is pretty simple. What if you could heal someone by pulling their pain into your own body? And what if you could then give that pain to someone else?

Six years ago, I was playing around with twisting various fantasy tropes, and thought about doing something different with healing. You rarely see healing have consequences, and I thought it would be fun to make that the dangerous magic. I wrote ten pages about this boy who accidentally healed people by touching them, and then couldn’t get rid of the pain. Three evil men wanted to get his pain, and then use that pain as a weapon.  It was a terrible idea, and I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot all about it.

Then two years ago, I was at the Surrey International Writers Conference, and the presenters were stressing fresh ideas. I happened to have a very unoriginal novel I was submitting at that time (and was having no luck at all with it), so I came home, looked through my old ideas and came across “The Pain Takers.” It was still horrible, but the core idea of pain shifting really struck me and I started world building a society that would buy and sell pain. The story just developed from that.

Did you set out to write a fantasy for 9-12 year olds?  Or did the idea come before the choice of genre and target reading age?

I’ve always loved the MG/YA markets, and my childhood dream was to write for teens, but for some reason my first “real” novel (one I wrote with the intent to try and sell) was for adults. When I sat down to write The Shifter, Nya was 17, so the novel could have gone either way. I figured I’d start writing and see where it ended up. It only took a few chapters before I realized it was YA, and that I was totally loving it. My voice and style fit YA and I’m happy I found my niche.  When we (my agent and I) were submitting it, editors felt it was solid middle grade, so after we sold it, I lowered the ages and tweaked a few of the more adult details (there were very few of those).

Did you experiment with different points of view or experiment with voice?  Or did Nya’s strong-willed first person narration emerge from the story you needed to tell?

Nya fell out of my head onto the page. I’d never really played with first person much before (I was always a little scared of it to be honest) but she spoke in first and there was no way she’d let me do anything else. Turned out that was the perfect POV for me and I can’t see myself doing third again. Nya drove the story from page one. I just thought about what she’d do and let her do it.

How did you approach the detailed world-building so evident in The Shifter?

I like to use real places as foundations and build from there. World building usually comes early on in the process, because the world and culture offers so many opportunities for conflict in the story. For Geveg, I wanted to do a lakeside Venice, with a small island city with lots of canals. I started researching the world’s biggest lakes, and came across Lake Victoria in Africa. I then took the basic climate, ecology, agriculture, etc. of that area and started creating the city. I like to figure out how the culture works and lives, and that makes it a lot easier to lay the story over top of it. It also makes the world feel deep, which is a bonus. 

It’s funny, because I do a lot of setting work, but I’m not a fan of heavy description. My critique partners are always asking for more details and I have to force myself to get them in there. So when I do, I try to background them or make them part of the story so it’s not just chunks of description.  

How did you decide what internal and external conflicts and forces of antagonism Nya would struggle against?

I knew the core conflict right away. I have to know that about any story or I can’t write it. Nya’s sister would go missing and she’d have to use her shifting ability to save her. And that shifting was risky and could get Nya into trouble. Something bad had to happen to set everything in motion, but early on I had no clue what. The rest just grew from the characters being themselves and seeing how they lived in that world. For example, I had no idea the night guard in the first scene would be anything more than a throwaway character to open the book, but he popped up later in a significant way. I didn’t know what he needed until I wrote it, but when I sat down and thought, “What would this character need Nya for?” it was obvious to me. 

I was talking to my editor the other day about book two, and was telling her about a great new twist I had for the ending. (sorry, no spoilers!) She liked it, asked for more details, but I didn’t have any to give. I knew the general situation and consequence of it, but not exactly how it would work. She warned me about writing myself into a corner, but that’s exactly what I do all the time. It’s part of my process. I think of the worst thing I can do to my poor characters and then do it. Then I have to figure out how to get them out of it, which can be a challenge sometimes. But it makes for a better story, because I don’t take the easy way out. I just put myself in their shoes, look at what resources I (the character) have around me, and do what they’d do.

One of the most intriguing themes in The Shifter, for me, was the way that difficult choices can take Nya into moral grey areas that may change her forever. What is the most difficult choice Nya faces in The Shifter?

Can’t say or it’ll give away the ending (grin). But I think her final choice is the hardest one for her.

In your opinion, is the fantasy genre an easier or more difficult genre to write in?

I think it’s a lot easier because I get to make up everything. I don’t have any real world rules to follow, and if I need something to work a certain way for the story, I just create situations for it.  I find it harder to write in the “real world” and have trouble pushing my stories where they need to go, because I keep trying to stay within the laws and rules of our world.

Do you think that the ability to write is something one is just born with?  Or is it possible to learn how to write?

I think anyone can learn how to write from a purely technical standpoint, but I don’t think you’ll get very far if you’re not a good storyteller, and I’m not sure that can be learned. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of great writers and storytellers out there, so I think you also need that intangible spark, be it a great voice, strong plotting skills, natural raw talent—something that pushes you over the top and makes you stand out. That can be almost anything, so you just need to find it.

Can you share your writing method with us?  Do you plan your stories in advance, or just start and see where the characters take you? Do you listen to music when you write?  Do you write at home or go to the library or a café? Do you have furry writing companions?

I’m a loose planner. I need to know my core conflict, stakes and what my protag needs to win before I can do anything. Then I do a rough outline and figure out my major set pieces. I use the Three Act Structure, so that gives me about six major turning points in the novel. (inciting event, first act crisis, mid-point reversal, second act crisis, third act crisis, climax) That provides me enough of a foundation to write the rest. These are often pretty general, like “finds out the bad guy’s plan,” but it gives me something to work toward. I point my protag in the direction she needs to go and turn her loose. I always know where I’m going, but rarely how I’ll get there. 

For this to work, it’s critical that I know what my protag wants, what her weakness are, and what her fears are (just know her well in general really). That way I’ll know how she’ll react to things, and I know what buttons of hers to push. I love having the inner and outer goals conflict so my protag is constantly at odds with themselves.

I like quiet when I write, but soft instrumental music doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I’ll write while my husband reads, and we’ll have music on for that. I write at home, either in my office, downstairs in the living room (away from distractions) or on the back porch. I’m usually surrounded by furry companions, my oh so helpful cats. They’re convinced that lying on my mouse pad or flicking their tails across my monitor helps my creativity.

Do you work with a critique group?

I have two actually. A first draft group where we read work in progress in all its ugly first draft glory, then a second group that reads finished work and helps put the final polish on.

How long was it from the time you began writing The Shifter to the time the edited manuscript went to press, and what were the stages of the process?

Initial world building took about two months, then six months to write the first draft. Another three months to polish. Then it went to agents for two months. After I signed with mine, it was a few more rounds of editing, maybe two to three months. Once the book sold, it was constant back and forth, maybe six months total, going through all the copyediting rounds and whatnot. And of course there are wait times in between all these, some a week or two some several months.

For a timeline, I started doing the world building right around Halloween 2006 (right after Surrey, which is the end of October). Started writing January 2007. Started submitting to agent in September 2007. Signed with my agent Halloween 2007. Started submitting to editors end of May 2008. Sold the trilogy June 26, 2008. Book went to press end of August 2009. Book one hit the stores October 6, 2009.

Hmm, stages: Stage one: write the book. Two: Polish the book. Three: Submit the book to agents. Four: Revise the book some more based on agent comments (if applicable). Five: Submit to editors. Six: Revise based on editor comments. Seven: Make copy editor corrections. Eight: Work on marketing materials, cover, jacket copy, catalog copy, bio, create website, etc. (not all publishers have you involved in all aspects) Nine: Proof Advanced Reader Copy/Galleys. Ten: Get final book.

How did you find representation? 

The old fashioned way. I went to AgentQuery.com and made a list of all agents who represented YA fantasy, then started researching them. If they had blogs, I started reading those to get a feel for what they liked and who they were. I also read a few books from their list to see what they liked. Then I wrote my query and sent it out. I did pitch my agent in person (at Surrey), but she was on my to-query list. Had she not been at the conference that year, I would have just emailed her like the others.

When your agent achieved a six-figure deal for the trilogy, did it change your life?

You’d think so, but not really, LOL. That number is spread out over three books and three years, with payments coming in at certain times as you write the books. So it sounds great, but it’s not like I could quit my day job. It did give me the confidence that I might be able to do this for a living one day though, and that makes it easier to put in the effort required. From a daily standpoint, my life is no different than it was before I sold my book.

If you have other stories waiting in the wings, are they in the same genre or will you move into new areas with your next project?

Mostly fantasy, from traditional fantasy like The Shifter, to urban fantasy. I have some science fiction ideas, and one supernatural thriller, but everything has a speculative element in some way. And all for the teen audience.

How difficult is it to balance your time now that you have to market The Shifter as well as writing the sequel?

Some days it’s rough. There are a lot of things to do on the marketing side, and they take time. It’s easy to get caught up in it because it’s fun and exciting, but it can quickly take over if you aren’t careful. There’s also a lot of pressure on you to make the second book just as good if not better. It does get overwhelming, but you just take a step back, breathe, and take it one step at a time. I’m very lucky that I have a husband who is incredibly supportive in all this, and he takes great care of me when I’m on deadline.  

Will Nya be older in the next books in the series?

No, it all happens in a fairly short period of time. Maybe over three or four months.

I was intrigued by the way Nya continued to learn more about her powers right up to the end of The Shifter. Her talents are different to those of the other Takers.  Will we find out why in Book Two?

Not in two, but possibly three. I know why she’s different (I had to), but I’m not sure if it’ll ever come out, because it’s not something she’s thought about. I don’t know if I can get into the story without it sounding like a big old, as you know, Bob, infodump. (grin)

Did you always know what was going to happen in the subsequent books in the series?  Or did you have to start from scratch with book two?

I wrote The Shifter as a stand alone (you need to as a new author) but I saw where the story could go, so I pitched it with trilogy potential. I knew generally what would happen, enough to know I could do two more books. When we were submitting it to editors, they wanted to see where the story went so I had to write up a synopsis for each book.

How far along are you in the writing of the second book in the series, and is it any easier to write than the first one?

Done and into revisions. It’s been a nightmare! But everyone tells me this is perfectly normal, and that second books are always hard, and the middle book of a trilogy is the hardest thing to write. That helps a lot, because it’s easy to think your first book was a total fluke and you’ll never write another, LOL. I think I’ve finally gotten the bugs worked out, though. It’s a learning process like everything else.

Oddly enough, the story itself hasn’t changed, just how that story is presented is what’s changing. Middle books are rough because they often wind up being a set up for book three, so they’re not satisfying on their own. You have to find a complete story for the middle that doesn’t rehash too much of the first, yet still leads smoothly in to the third. The original draft wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t where it needed to be, and I’m lucky enough to have an editor who won’t let me slide by with “good enough.” She wants the best, so I have to push myself to do that.

When will we be able to read the next installment?

Fall 2010.

What were your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?  And do you think those books would get published if they were submitted today?

I loved the humor of Paula Danzinger and Judy Blume, and how those stories could have been from my own life. They were so relatable. Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series was one of my favorites, probably because I was a horse nut. (And they’re great stories on their own). Lois Duncan was another favorite, and she was one of the first (I think) to do dark and scary stories for teens. I loved reading books that weren’t about romance or relationships. The Secret Garden has always been one of my favorites, because the author took something so mundane (a neglected garden and son) and turned it into this magical place and adventure. There’s nothing fantasy about it, but it almost reads like one due to the wonder of the discovery.

I think they all could get published today, because they’re all strong writers with stories that people can relate to, with solid plots and great characters. Most of them are still in print, so people are reading them.

What's your idea of a great day off from writing?

It really depends on my mood. If I just want to curl away from the world, a day spent reading is delightful. If I’m feeling sociable, going out with friends and laughing all day. Then there are days where I just want to be a lump and watch movies.

What's your guilty pleasure of choice?

Computer games. I’m a big geek, and I love city builders and sim games. And those first-person sneakers, where you’re a spy or a thief and have to sneak around and do missions.

Janice lives in Georgia with her husband,
four cats and one nervous freshwater eel.

marissa_doylemarissa_doyle on October 21st, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
Excellent interview, you two!! And an original premise...okay, I'm hooked!

P.S. Have you considered talk therapy for your eel?
annastanannastan on October 21st, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
Great interview! I love the idea of there being consequences to healing. Other kinds of magic tend to have consequences; why shouldn't healing have them too? It's so interesting to think of healing being used as a weapon.
liakeyes on October 21st, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
I know, right? That's what hooked me - the idea of healing being used as a weapon, but also being used as a commodity. A whole financial system rests on the buying and selling of this power to heal. The stakes are inherently high, built into the premise. No wonder Janice got one of those buzzed-about debut author deals!
keelyinkster on October 21st, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
great interview Lia, man Jancie works fast, here I am struggling my way though the fifth draft of my WIP wondering how I can build up the climax. I think I'll take her advice and write my way into a corner and see how my main character digs his way out!
ebooraem on October 21st, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
Great interview. And I'm utterly taken by the book's premise--it makes so much SENSE that pain would go somewhere during healing, and then be used as a weapon. One of those ideas that make you slap your head and say, "why hasn't someone thought of this before?" Brilliant. Can't wait to read the book!
(Anonymous) on October 21st, 2009 11:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks Lia for the interview. I will be picking up the shifter over the weekend to read. Janice Hardy sounds like a knowledgeable author that knows what she wants to write and is going for her goal.

(Anonymous) on October 21st, 2009 11:11 pm (UTC)
I really like this. I find it very interesting and want to read the book The Shifter.
natalieag on October 22nd, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)
The Shifter
Thanks for the great interview. I saw a copy of the book cover flashing at the top of the Publishers Weekly Children's Newsletter about a month ago and put it on my list of books to read just based on the title and cover. Now I really can't wait to read it.
katecoombs on October 22nd, 2009 01:00 am (UTC)
Wonderful premise, and I liked hearing about how Janice thrives on writing herself into a corner--risk-taking is clearly the way to go!
anesbetanesbet on October 26th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
Well, now I can't wait to read this book! Such a brilliant idea -- the price of taking away pain (or, rather, "shifting" it). You've got me totally engaged!

Thanks for the wonderful interview, Lia and Janice. & writing oneself into corners is a great technique (just pick a really fascinating corner!)

kikihamiltonkikihamilton on October 30th, 2009 04:49 pm (UTC)
What a great interview Lia - and thanks for visiting the Inkpot Janice! I loved hearing about your writing process and how you tackled book 2. I've read lots of buzz about THE SHIFTER and can't wait to read it!