The Penmen Profile: Karen Jones, Author, Educator and Former Broadcast Journalist

by Pamme Boutselis

Karen JonesA retired broadcast journalist, author Karen Jones worked for a decade in public education, teaching and writing curriculum. A former director of the Virginia Writers Conference, she was also an advisor for the Bay School of the Arts. The author of four books—the novel, “Kingdom of Hearts,” two nonfiction books, and an historical romantic suspense novel—Jones is currently shopping her latest book, “The Marcell Glide,” a Southern literary fiction, coming-of-age story. She recently connected with The Penmen Review to discuss her writing.

Have you always written?
Yes. I began writing in 7th grade when my uncle gave me a homemade journal and told me to write my stories.  I still have that journal on my shelf.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I begin with characters. I find a character I’m drawn to and begin thinking about her (let’s just say her). After a bit, I write a 15 – 20 page character sketch. This includes everything I can think of – birth, school, first disappointment; you name it. This is for my eyes only and not shared. I don’t worry about structure or punctuation; I just let it flow. While writing the sketch, my character tells me what the story is going to be. This is my starting point from which to launch.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
For me, at this point in my writing career after being successfully traditionally published, the main challenge is not how to get an agent, but how to sit in the chair and just do the work. It is always difficult for me to get into a good writing rhythm.  I will do almost anything to avoid it.  My husband says that when he sees me rearranging the Tupperware, he knows a book is on its way.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
The first paragraph of my resume contains the following:

“Jones’ first novel, “Kingdom of Hearts,” was published in 1997 by the duplicitous and financially corrupt Commonwealth Publications in a disaster of epic proportions. The resulting scandal helped inspire former FBI agent Jim Fisher’s book, “Ten Percent of Nothing The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell.” This should give you a good idea about my publishing journey!

After this debacle, I worked with Adams Media on “Up the Bestseller Lists! A Hands-On Guide to Successful Book Promotion.” Adams was in turmoil. I had three different editors who seemed more interested in holding on to their jobs than working on the book. In addition, they did not pick this work to promote so all of the promotion was on my shoulders. Very disappointing.

“Death for Beginners: Your No-Nonsense, Money-Saving Guide to Planning for the Inevitable” took over 8 years to get published. One large publisher had me fly to New York for talks. The book was slated for a Thanksgiving release, geared to families gathering to make important decisions, when suddenly they contacted my agent and told her the accounting section had pulled the offer because they were concerned about the topic. Later, Quill Driver Books, a small publisher from Fresno, Calif., picked up the book and they were great. They worked closely with me on all aspects of the book and helped with promotion. Great people.

I chose to put “The Highland Witch” on eBooks because, quite frankly, I wanted to get the story out there and I am really quite tired of going through the arduous, lengthy and frustrating process of being with a traditional publisher.

How do you market your work?
I have a writing website, an interactive website for “Death for Beginners,” a Facebook page for “Death for Beginners,” and a Facebook page for “The Highland Witch.” Since I wrote “Up the Bestsellers Lists!” which is all about promoting your book, I am quite active. For “Death for Beginners,” promotion work included being interviewed by, writing articles for, and being an expert on my topic for all traditional media such as radio, television news, television talk programs, magazines, and newspapers, and internet media such as blogs, websites, magazines, and special interest websites. In addition, I arranged book tours nationally, arranged television and radio appearances to promote the book signings, offered my expertise for seminars with targeted groups. Looking back at the first 18 months after my book’s release, I have 13 single-spaced pages listing contacts I made to promote the book. Frustrating and exhausting but when it works – it really works!

What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
I wish I knew how difficult it was to get published by a traditional publisher, and how much work you have to do once you are published.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Shirley Ann Grau
“The Keepers of the House” is an amazing novel, and one of the very few Southern works that gets it right. I am writing in that genre right now and it is easy to go terribly awry! It’s lovely to see how effortlessly she has replicated the singing Southern cadence without bringing a bad TLC reality show to mind.

Stephen King (pause for reaction)
One does not go to King for elevated language but for a ripping good tale – and, for all of my nonfiction work, I truly am a storyteller at heart. When I work with students I teach them how to tear apart a first draft, add back-story, treat setting as character, begin and end minor arcs and so forth. Stephen King, for the most part, does this exceptionally well. He is all about “the story” and keeping the reader engaged. Plus, have you noticed the man’s output? He is dedicated to his craft and no nonsense about sitting down and getting the work done.

Anne Rice, because of her sheer guts.
She has published under several different names in a variety of genres. She also turned her grief over the death of her child into a breakout novel. Nothing has held her back from doing the work she believes she needs to do. I love that attitude. No pandering in that writer at all.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“The Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams,” because of the spare, heartbreakingly lovely language. These poems are the very best use of words I have ever read. Every time I read a poem I find something different; delightful beyond words

“The Stand” by Stephen King, because the more you read it, the more you find out about the characters and pick up nuances you might have missed. It is a wonderful yarn about the ultimate battle between good and evil, and a fine example of plain old storytelling.

“Into Thin Air” by Jonathan Krakauer, perhaps the best creative nonfiction book I have ever had the pleasure to read. This book is a continual surprise. Every time I read it, I find something new. I also take great pleasure in its construction, word choice and descriptive elements. A complete handbook on how to write creative nonfiction cleverly contained in a compelling story.