Author Joan F. Smith on Writing and Publishing Two Novels

On Wednesday, October 12, 2022, the Word for Word Reading Series at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) featured Joan F. Smith, author of “The Half-Orphan’s Handbook.” At the event, Smith read from her forthcoming novel, “The Other Side of Infinity.” She also answered questions from attendees and hosts Jacob Powers, associate dean of BA and MA in Creative Writing programs, and Paul Witcover, associate dean of the online MFA. The following is an excerpted transcription of that interview, edited for the page.

Joan F. SmithW4W: Your pathway to publishing your first novel, “The Half-Orphan’s Handbook,” is an inspiring one and a demonstration of how savvy writers can harness the internet. Can you talk a little bit about how you found your agent and sold your book?

JFS: I pitched my book on PitMad when I was already live querying for a few weeks. A couple of agents liked one of my pitches, so the book was sent to them. I received my first offer of rep from a PitMad offer, but at the same time I sent an independent query to the person who is now my agent. I wound up with three offers, two of them from PitMad, but I went with the agent who was not participating in the event.

W4W: What was the process between your first book and second book?

JFS: I had the idea for “The Other Side of Infinity” when my son was a newborn. The main character, December, has clairvoyance, or foreknowledge, as it’s called in the book. That stemmed from my desire to want to know everything that’s ever going to happen so I could anticipate and deal with the anxiety that arises. I wound up writing it when my debut was out with editors to try to make the time go by faster, since that part of the process is very out of your control. So that’s what I did. For three straight months, I wrote my next book. When I finished it, I sent it to my agent and said, “If my first book doesn’t sell, please, let’s do this one next.”

“The Half-Orphan’s Handbook” went through a lot of editors, given COVID, job changes, and imprint changes. It was wild the way that that went down, but my final editor for that book got an exclusive on “The Other Side of Infinity” right before this one came out. She wound up wanting to buy it.

W4W: What stuck out to me is the sense of having very little control on your end—

JFS: Zero.

W4W: —zero control. But you utilized it by saying, “Well, what can I do with this time? I’ll write another one.”

JFS: It’s all that you can do. No matter what part of the process that I’m in, I’m always thinking what my next project will be, because you can’t control the outcome of a lot of it.

W4W: Going back to your debut, “The Half-Orphan’s Handbook” weaves elements of your own life and history into the work. Like Lila, the 16-year-old narrator, you are a suicide-loss survivor. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to take those painful episodes from your personal life and use them effectively as a work of fiction? How did you personally gain that necessary objectivity without losing the emotional connection, and what advice might you have for others who want to explore difficult themes from their personal lives?

JFS: First, everybody is different. I am the sort of person who can maintain distance from what I write. I worked to have some major character differences between me and Lila. If it had just been me, it would have been really hard to break up with my own story. I made sure to include events that did not happen to me or my dad. A lot of methodologies in the book were different. The addictions were slightly different. That gave me a little bit of distance from it.

When writing a book that contains elements of personal experience, the most important thing is to try to distance yourself from it in a way that makes you as objective as a reviser as you can be. If you are writing a truth as a fiction, you need to be prepared to change a plot point, deepen an emotion, or invent an emotion that you didn’t have to make the story more of a story.

In some ways, writing about the loss of a father to suicide was cathartic, but what surprised me about the process more than writing and publishing the book was the interviews and lead-up to its release. I talked about my dad in more detail and depth than I go into in the book. For whatever reason, I didn’t think about that as being part of that process. But I understand it is because it’s the impetus behind the story.

But being able to distance myself allowed me to see what I could be objective about. The grief arc is very similar to what I went through, which made it feel more authentic and more honest, but I didn’t go to a grief camp. I didn’t have Lila’s journey at all.

W4W: So getting distance helps. When you’re revising the piece with an objective lens, it’s easier to not be so emotionally entwined. You had mentioned catharsis though, and a question from our chat asks, “Aside from writing on these experiences, because it’s what you know, do you find it cathartic in a way to cope with your losses?”

JFS: Definitely, especially in the first draft when I’m not worrying about what it looks like. It’s easy to get down the feelings and emotions. When you know the story’s arc from beginning to end, there is a way to heal through it, like I want my characters to heal.

W4W: The catharsis is a personal one, but also connected to the catharsis your characters are going through.

JFS: In my debut, definitely, because I was so close to that subject matter. But the same can be applied to any element of your life. If I’m writing with joy, the joy that I’m experiencing may not be the exact same my character is experiencing, but the character can still feel that joy.

When we were visiting my husband’s family this summer, I asked my then four-year-old, then seven-year-old, and my husband—who is neither four nor seven—what it feels like for them to have happiness. My daughter said, “It feels like butterflies in my tummy.” My son said, “I like it in my eyelashes,” because he’s four. And my husband said he feels it in his face. I experience it in my chest. The experience of human emotion is something that we can apply to different scenarios and to different people. Since feelings feel different for everybody, I can consider that as I apply them to my characters.

W4W: Catharsis is a part of the story writing, and objectivity is part of the revision. I assume maintaining that objectivity remains the same regardless of the story, but your new book deals with clairvoyance, which I know you would like to have—

JFS: I don’t.

W4W: You do not. OK, so how did you find yourself shifting focus when you began the second book, considering that it might have less of an emotional attachment to it?

JFS: A lot of this book’s process was more freeing because it’s so different from my own experience. Part of my second book stems from a what-if question. The lifeguard’s character is inspired by my friend Nick, who I lost tragically when we were 21, so the book asks what would have happened if Nick didn’t die, or what if somebody could have saved him? I was able to tap into that experience of panic and loss in the smallest of ways to write the book, and I think that’s probably true for a lot of writers.

W4W: I’m reminded of how oftentimes when student writing is critiqued, there’s this resistance to changing elements based on real-life experience—“That’s not what happened. This is how it happened to me.” But you mentioned earlier that at a certain point the story must come first. So how do you decide what that point is?

JFS: In The Half-Orphans Handbook, there was one element in a prior version that is very true for me and my dad’s story, and I had a mentor read it. Her biggest revision suggestion was that this specific element was implausible—it was something that would never happen. But it was something that had happened, so it was very plausible to me, and it was a big driving force behind the loss of my dad.

At that point I felt like I needed to do more work to the book. I didn’t know what that was, but it felt like I needed to do something. So I sat back and thought, “OK, I need to hear this criticism,” because if people are reading this and it’s not plausible to them, I have choices. One is ignore that criticism and keep it as is, but I could run into the issue again with another reader.

My second choice would have been to double down on what I had put in there, but give it more texture. I could have dropped more details, enhanced the plot point, drawn it out or slimmed it down—whatever it needed.

My third choice, which was what I wound up doing, was change it. There is still a small element in the book that is a version of a truth, but it’s rewritten in a more plausible way that fits seamlessly into Lila’s story. I didn’t need to do anything more than change that segment for it to become more believable to the reader.

When you hear that something in your story is not ringing true, try to do your best to not take that as a criticism of you or your storytelling. Instead, focus on the scene or detail  in front of you and decide how you can make it truer to that specific story.

A lot of things in this business are very difficult, and if you go into it with your heart wide open, you’re going to get burned. Part of it is developing the ability to withstand rejection. It’s the ability to take criticism and take feedback and to build from it, rather than trying to start your entire story from clay. Use all the materials at your disposal.

W4W: There’s a belief that in order to write fiction that moves people and to be capable of writing fiction that moves oneself, you have to have your heart open. But publishing can be rough. Your book was released during the pandemic, which doesn’t seem fair, so how do you manage to keep your writing heart open while at the same time protecting yourself as a human being?

JFS: It’s the same way you need to address any kind of act of life. If you keep your heart open, you have to have the ability to protect it in other ways. I find a lot of joy in things that are not writing. I make sure I spread my interests around. If something is bothering me, I can go for a walk. I can go for a run. I can take my kids out for ice cream.

Finding different interests beyond writing and publishing is important. I seek out things that  move me—books, movies, shows, experiences, places—and really try to invest myself in those, as opposed to focusing on the toxicity and pain.

W4W: It’s important to invest your time in other activities to help guard the heart, but I can see balance being an issue too. What are your current strategies for staying focused on one project at a time? How do you develop a discipline to stay motivated? If the project’s not going one way or the other, do you switch tracks?

JFS: I am not focused on one project at a time, just given where I am in my career. “The Half-Orphan’s Handbook” came out in 2021. The paperback came out this past April. Audio rights were sold, so I’m balancing promotional work while editing “The Other Side of Infinity” and drafting my third book that is now with my agent. I have about two-thirds of another YA book drafted but set that one aside because I am really focused on what would be my fifth book. But I know where all those projects are going, so it feels OK to put aside projects for a while if I’m feeling fiery about something else.

I tackle different books in different stages. I’m not going to draft my fourth and fifth books at the same time. I will lose every thread, and I will not do well. But I can handle promotional work, editing one project, and drafting another.

In terms of focus—I have ADHD. I can bop all over the place, or I can hyper fixate. And I often do hyper fixate on the things that I’m working on because I lose myself in them. And it’s all I think about. If I’m stuck, I will go for a walk, or I will go for a run. I will write the next scene in my head, and then I’ll just come back and let loose.

Also, it’s really, really good to take breaks. I didn’t write much this summer. I just thought about the next book. Plus my kids were home. My house rule is no screens unless it’s raining. So unless it was raining, which it really wasn’t this summer, I didn’t have time to sit down and bang out the words. And that was OK. I watched TV. I read a ton. I filled the well, basically. Whatever that looks like to you—knitting, video games, whatever it is—find something that can inspire you.

W4W: Your bio mentions that you are a dance instructor. Tell me about the connection between dancing and writing.

JFS: Movement. I am very known to print out scenes or write down note cards and move them around. Again, I have ADHD, so bopping all over the place is very helpful to me. I don’t talk to myself in my head. I don’t have any kind of internal monologue going on. I think in shapes and feelings and gut instinct. Being able to block out what my characters are doing is helpful, since movement and song is so vital to storytelling.

W4W: I see that there’s a couple of folks in the chat who are also sharing that they have ADHD, so I think the lingering question is, “How do I find that specific avenue to help me?” And it really boils down to exploring all options.

JFS: Totally. I know a lot of people who can’t really sit down to write. So they walk and talk, and that’s OK. Whatever it is that jives with you, do it. Very individual.

W4W: With exploring options in mind, what does that typical day-to-day writing process look like for you?

JFS: I wish that I could give you a beautiful demonstration of it. During the pandemic, I lost childcare, and my son was two when it started. So that blew up what was my writing process. But now he’s started kindergarten, and my daughter is in second grade, so I typically write in the mornings when they go to school, do some kind of exercise and eat lunch, and then I sometimes do a little writing in the afternoon.

I have one notebook per book that I allow myself to cart around. And a lot of times, as I am driving to and from my kids’ school, or when I’m driving to teach dance, I dictate into my phone, or sometimes I email it to myself. I’ve written on my hand before if I forget things. I’m all over the place.

I am somebody who has a very chaotic process. I write the full synopsis before I begin. I’ve had a story percolating in my head all summer, and I finally just sat down and typed it out, so I know point A to point B with absolute permission to deviate. Once I have a full draft, I usually print it out and revise from there. After that I punt it out to my trusted critique partners, and then it goes to my agent.

W4W: We mentioned early that you used to be the associate dean for the online MFA program here at SNHU. You directed its development and served as the program’s first dean. What did you take away from that experience as a writer? And how does that help you navigate your process?

JFS: A big running theme for the development of the online MFA was distinguishing it from other MFAs by establishing a business and marketing focus, and coupling that with different methods for developing your thesis. My number one grammar rule is that you need to know the rules to break them, and I think that applies to different writing methods too. Knowing how to outline, even if it does not do it for you in the end, can give a scope and shape to your story, which is important when working through the degree. Authors still need websites, and we still need to more than ever market and promote ourselves. We focus on other learning materials too, like querying, which hasn’t really changed much over the years, because having this background information to try to make a living as a writer is important. I’m proud that we focused on that, and that we did our best to diversify a lot of the materials.

W4W: SNHU’s online MFA has a couple of different genres that students can pursue—contemporary, romance, young adult, and speculative. Your new book seems to have a speculative paranormal theme. I know that a lot of our students also like exploring multiple genres, but sometimes publishers are averse to writers striking out in new directions. They want you to stick with what you know. Do you see a change in winds, though? Are people more open to allowing writers to explore multiple genres, and what advice would you give our students who might want to explore different genres as well?

JFS: One thing that hasn’t changed is that you still need to be able to go into a bookstore and know where your book is going to sit on a shelf. I wouldn’t necessarily say that publishers are getting more generous with cross-genre, but I think that you can have a primary genre and deviate a bit from there. Romance bleeds into many, if not most, genres, because it’s often the b-story to most works, but there’s definitely a rise in contemporary works with a tiny speculative twist. Dystopian vibes are coming back too. As long as you ground it and make it believable, it does find its spot.

W4W: You had mentioned at one point that you don’t write a book anymore until you know the twist. The twist might be a plot element, but as you were talking about the addition of speculative fiction or paranormal elements to contemporary works, it occurred to me that a twist in a book could also be the blending of genres.

JFS: The twist is dependent on a lot of the speculative things that I play with, but there’s more than one twist in a story, too.

W4W: Even though you’re bringing a lot of different genres into your work, it seems like you’re sticking to the overarching YA genre. It seems that a general trend that one can see in YA is what was once considered verboten, off limits, taboo is progressively no longer taboo. All of these subjects that once could never be treated in a YA novel are now fair game. Is that still true? Is the field now wide open just as it might be in contemporary adult fiction?

JFS: It’s pretty wide open. YA is more at risk of having banned books in some states than some adult fiction because parents feel strongly about what their teens are reading. You typically don’t see the more graphic things in YA that you might see in adults, thrillers, or fantasies. Some of the books I’ve read in the medium have gotten gory and graphic, but many do not delve into that. It depends on the author and the subject matter. And just to touch upon your first part of this, I’m splitting YA and adult in my own career. My third book is adult.

W4W: As you move from YA to adult, how do you discover where your writing sits on the bookshelf? Do you let the writing discover itself, or do you keep the genre contained with editing blinders on?

JFS: I go with it and serve the story. One book that I’m about two-thirds done writing started as a  standard YA contemporary. But it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I figured out why, and I was able to weave a speculative element into it. Now I know how it’s going to end.

Any time you discover a thread that’s going to possibly make your story better, explore it. You don’t have to delete all your files and restart on page one. But explore it. Write a chapter where you incorporate it, or rewrite a scene. Bounce it back and forth. Sleep on it.

I’ll get an idea and obsess about it for two days and then never think about it again. So I write everything down. If I come back to it in a week, and I think it is still a good idea—or if I especially haven’t stopped thinking about it—then I have a better gut feeling to keep going with it.

If you can find trusted people—writing partners—run things by them. The people who you trust are going to tell you whether a voice is realistic or an idea makes sense. It might end up being deleted. But if there is something that’s screaming at me, I’ll explore it and see if it’s something that works. And if not, that’s OK. At the end of the day, if you write something that doesn’t go anywhere, you still leveled up yourself.

For more readings and interviews, be sure to check out the Word for Word Reading Series YouTube Channel.