The Penmen Profile: Award-winning Fiction and Nonfiction Writer Joan C. Curtis

by Pamme Boutselis

small JoanJoan C. Curtis manages a consulting business, Total Communications Coach, in which she leads communication and motivation seminars.  She has a doctorate in adult education, Master of Arts in Journalism, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology.

An award-winning author of four books (“Hire Smart and Keep ‘Em: How to Interview Strategically Using POINT,” “The New Handshake: Sales Meets Social Media,” “Managing Sticky Situations at Work: Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace” and “Strategic Interviewing:  Skills for Savvy Executives”) and many short stories, Curtis’ work has been recognized by the Malice Domestic Grants competition, the Cassell Network of Freelance Writers Association, Reader’s Digest, McCall’s Magazine, the Harriette Austin Writer’s Competition   and Whispering Willows Annual Sleuth Competition.

Have you always written?
That’s a tough question. I’d say I began “professionally” writing—that is for publication—in the late 80s. Shortly after that, I published a story in Reader’s Digest. It won a prize and caught the attention of the Reader’s Digest editor. That spurred me on to more writing.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
My fiction characters come in two ways. When I start a story, I have a protagonist in mind. That person becomes my main character. I know of some supporting characters, but many pop up as the story progresses. For example, in the mystery titled, “e-Murderer,” the main series character is Jenna Scali. I had her completely developed in my mind when I started the book. But, not long into the writing, Quentin Pearson popped up. He’s her gay, belly-dancing BFF from Manchester, England. I have no idea where he came from, but he’s remained and is a lot of fun to write about.

As for the storyline, I tend to be a writer who lets the story evolve. I begin with an idea, but because the characters take over, the idea usually changes. This style makes for an editing nightmare, but it’s the only way I seem to let things flow. I tried writing with a strict outline, but I couldn’t stick to it. That being said, I did have a plot outline for the cozy mysteries. As a writer, you do need to know who the murderer is. At least I think you do. It might be kind of interesting to write a story and not know the killer until the end. Hmm, maybe my new mystery?

Hire Smart and Keep EmWhat challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
The main challenge is to stay motivated when agents and editors turn you down. Furthermore, as a writer, you hear all kinds of things about how to market your book, how to write query letters, synopses, etc. And, unfortunately, one person will say, “This is how you must do it.” And another will give you opposite advice. It is very frustrating. The best thing  to do is to keep writing and to keep sending out. The more polished your work, the greater the chance to get past the roadblocks. I’ll add one more thing: listen to your readers. If you ask someone to read your work, don’t get defensive when they say something doesn’t work. Listen, think about it, let it rest for a while and then give it a try.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
My road has been a bit strange. I’ll try to explain. I began as I said above with a story published in Reader’s Digest (in fact, I had two published). Later, I wrote several fiction stories that got published in small magazines and/or won prizes. I have found that submitting your work to contests is a great thing to do.

My first story won second place in a national contest sponsored by Reader’s Digest and McCall’s. My nonfiction proposal won first place in a contest for proposals and that proposal later got accepted by a publisher and resulted in my first business book. My cozy mystery, “e-Murderer,’ won the Malice Domestic Grants Competition and that work is still awaiting a publishing home. So, I’d suggest submitting your work to contests and then start looking for publishers.

That said, getting fiction published is very hard. I published four business books by a very well-known publisher, but that meant nothing in the fiction world. In fact, they really didn’t care because the work was nonfiction. I wrote the four business books because I wanted to keep writing while my fiction languished and limped along looking for a publisher.

Two years ago after making a commitment to myself that I would publish one of my novels no matter what, I focused on really getting the work polished. Then, I began searching for an agent. That search led nowhere. Agents are very difficult to nail down. Most are looking for something very particular. If you haven’t written that “something,” it’s impossible. And, you can’t ever tell what the something will be. I stopped looking for an agent and went directly to small publishing houses. That was how I placed “The Clock Strikes Midnight.”

Managing Sticky SItuations at WorkHow do you market your work?
I’m just beginning to market my work. The publisher will do some marketing, but I want to create a community and a buzz around my new novel. I plan to increase my activity on Goodreads as well as LinkedIn. I’m making a promo podcast which will be on my website. I also have a sign-up on my website ( People who sign up will get the first chapter of the book and will get notices when it’s possible to pre-order the book. I plan to update my Author’s page on Amazon and look at ways to make my book more visible on Amazon. Finally, I am looking to get people to review the book before it’s released. I plan to give away at least 10 copies of the book to people willing to write reviews.

What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
I’ve learned so much over the years. I know it’s impossible to try and write something that you “think” will be the next big fad. Instead, writers need to write what they love to read. That’s always been my mantra. I’m not sure I would have spent so much time looking for agents had I had it to do over. For one of my books, we spent money on a publicist. That was not money well spent. This time I plan to do my own marketing with the aid of the publisher.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Susan Howatch remains one of my favorite writers. She creates amazing characters in wonderfully interesting settings. I like the way she takes one character’s point-of-view and then moves to another to give the reader some different perspectives. But she does this in segments of the book (or in the church series, each character is linked from book to book.) I tried to do that in “The Clock Strikes Midnight.”

Lee Smith wrote one of my all-time-favorite books, “Fair and Tender Ladies.” Smith inspires me with her Southern writing and the way she develops her characters.

Another of my favorites was “A Woman of Independent Means” by Elizabeth Forsyth Hailey. That was the only book I purposefully read twice. What I loved about that book was the epistolary style. I love books of letters. I wrote a story like that, titled “Dear Callie.” It won a prize in a writer’s contest, but has never been published.

Ron Rash is another of my favorite writers because he knows how to create the ultimate villain. I adore Abraham Verghese, mainly because of his amazing writing. He writes like a poet. I’ve read all his books, the last being his novel, “Cutting for Stone.”

This question is quite hard for me because I read so many different kinds of books and many authors. I read biography, and I love Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read the Scandinavian mysteries, including Henning Mankell (And I gobbled up all the Stieg Larsson books). I like Jonathan Kellerman. And one of my all-time favorite books was “Room.” How cleverly written was that?

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“A Woman of Independent Means”—because of the epistolary style, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (I didn’t mention Betty Smith above, but she’s also a master writer.), just because the story is so touching, and “The Colette Omnibus”—because she writes with such passion. I don’t usually read short stories, but Colette is my favorite writer, hands down.