An avowed bibliophile, Jo Whittemore has been reading (and hoarding) books since she was old enough to tuck a library card into her Smurf wallet. This passion segued into a love for writing and the desire to share her stories with others. Jo now has three YA fantasy books published: Escape from Arylon, Curse of Arastold, and Onaj’s Horn. She’s been a member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) since 2003 and is one of the founding members of AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom), an online community that champions those who stand against censorship, especially of books for and about teens. Jo has also been featured in the national magazines For Me, East West, and Audrey.
At different times I wanted to be a veterinarian, an actress, a lawyer, and a writer (imagine that!). My first book was this sheaf of notebook paper that I’d folded in half and stapled together. It was an illustrated story about a race car, with pictures drawn by yours truly. On every page, the race car looked a little different until it resembled a lima bean on ovals. This is why I’m not an illustrator.
Well, it’s kind of a two-part answer. I decided to pursue a career in writing in 2000 after I heard fantasy author Terry Brooks speak at a local book-signing. I decided to pursue writing for a younger audience after seeing the crowd lined up around the block for the first Harry Potter movie. A movie that had developed an audience from a CHILDREN’S BOOK! How fabulous is that?
The journey to publication started with cockiness. After my first draft, I was convinced that I’d written the next Great American novel, and I started sending it out. After my first draft. Which wasn’t very good. And I had a horrible query letter that still makes me cringe (I’ll have to show it to you someday). I knew nothing about the business and queried EVERYONE, not bothering to check what their interests were. I was an amateur in every sense of the word. With every little mistake, however, I learned a little more. I read industry publications, I joined SCBWI and attended workshops and meetings, I revised the heck out of that manuscript and sent it back out to people that were interested in YA fantasy. After I’d bothered to learn more about my field, I started to get requests for more material. At the 2003 SCBWI meeting, Llewellyn’s acquisitions editor at the time made an announcement that she was looking for new material. I pitched my book to her, and she told me to mail it in. In 2004, after some revisions, I received a promising postcard that she was taking it to committee. Then, in early 2005, I came home to a message on my answering machine from the editor. She said she wanted to talk with me about the book and that I should call her. So, the next day I called her, and she made the offer! One of my co-workers could hear me squealing from the other side of a closed door.
Thank you for the compliment! One challenge in writing fantasy is living up to the expectations that have been set by all the other fantasy books out there. When I’m writing, I know I’ll be compared to another writer whose work might not even have the same tone as mine. Based on what they’ve already read, people will have expectations of what a fantasy world and its races should be like. I have to be able to show them that not all dragons have to be cruel, thoughtless monsters and that not all elves are serene and gentle folk. Paradoxically, if I don’t create a new and unique world with different monsters and races, I risk people thinking that I’m copying someone else and stealing their creations. So, I have to give readers something that’s different, but not too different.
When it comes to writing a trilogy, the challenge comes in bringing something new and fresh to each story. New scenarios must be posed and new characters must present themselves. But that’s also the fun part of a trilogy! Another challenge is maintaining a certain consistency with the major characters I’m carrying through from the previous books. The characters must develop, to be sure, but they can’t develop too much or too differently than what the reader is used to. For example, I can make a cowardly character a little braver by the second book, but I can’t have him busting down doors and picking fights. It would be too incongruous.
Only in my head, to be honest. I work out the scenes while I’m driving, in the shower (my best thinking spot), etc. Occasionally, I’ll jot down ideas that I don’t want to forget, but there is no method to my madness.
This is horrible to say about my own (book) children, but Onaj’s Horn is my favorite of the three, too! I’m big on humor, and with the inclusion of a particular character, I was able to throw a little more into the story. As silly as it may seem, I let a book play out as a movie in my head. In that way, I can see the characters and what is and isn’t believable for each. For me, it’s all about picturing a character in my mind’s eye.
Honestly? I created a world that I want to escape to, and I let my characters play there. I pull memories of places that I’ve loved and places that I’ve imagined when I played make-believe. For example, the massive plains that stretch between Raklund and Pontsford are derived from this farm my best friends had when I was little. They had acres of waist-high grass that their horses would gallop across, and I could just imagine it stretching on and on for miles. Another example is the geode room at the entrance to Raklund. When I was growing up, the local museum had a room of rocks and minerals, and you could step into this dark booth where they kept these geodes. The booth would light up with fluorescent light and you could see all the crystals glowing, and I thought it would be so cool to walk into a whole room of nothing but that.
For character creation, I wanted Megan and Ainsley to meet people I’ve never met before…to live vicariously through them, in a way. But I wanted the characters to serve a purpose and add to the world at the same time, even if they weren’t huge roles. Thus, you have the mind-reading hairdresser in the second book. He wasn’t a big character and only got mentioned in a few sentences of the third book, but what he discovered kept an important character alive later on.
Terry Brooks has been a big influence, of course, along with J.K. Rowling. I’m also a fan of Jonathan Stroud (author of The Bartimaeus Trilogy) who can take a dark character (a demon, in this case) and make it into one the audience falls in love with. The Lord of the Rings movies were also a big influence because I could watch the fight scenes and swordplay to see what my characters could realistically pull off. A lot of times, I would set my mental movie to the backdrops in The Fellowship of the Ring. And, of course, when it comes to placing real world characters in fantasy situations, nothing beats Charmed and Buffy.
The best thing about the trilogy was watching the characters grow and explore more of the world. I loved adding on to that world! My favorite characters (other than Megan and Ainsley!) are Frieden and Brighton. They’re both very cool under pressure, and they can make a horrible situation seem less so. With them around, you just know everything’s going to turn out fine.
I just found an agent for my new YA urban fantasy After School Demon Hunters, so I’m going to start on revisions for that so we can send it off to editors. As a side project, I have another YA urban fantasy that I’m working on.
I love doing school visits and presentations! My prices and some of my sample presentations are available on my website, www.jowhittemore.com, and I can be contacted with inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a massive hutch desk that I love, and it’s very heavy to move, according to my husband. In one hutch, I have a collection of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market books and a few other writing books. I have pictures of my family and friends propped against the sliding doors of the hutch, along with a card that’s a picture of a kitten looking into a mirror and seeing a lion. On the top of the card it says, “What matters most is how you see yourself.” I also have a Post-it stuck to the hutch door that says, “I traveled the world for inspiration and found it in a man who lives what he dreams.” In the other hutch, I have writing journals and a collection of soundtracks for fantasy/sci-fi movies. Of course, I also have a computer and printer and pens and the usual desk paraphernalia.
I have this procrastination/motivation technique where I start my writing day by reading blogs and literary discussion boards and checking sales rankings. In all that data, there will always be a snippet of information (usually good news about one of my friends) that motivates me and gets me excited to write. I also have to have a spiral, Post-Its and a Pilot G-2 black ink pen so I can jot down ideas that come to me that might be out of sequence with what I’m currently writing.
Don’t give up. There will come a day when you say to yourself, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m going to give up writing and sell macaroni art for the rest of my life.” Then, that afternoon, you’ll get home and find an email from a fan asking about your next book. When you feel lowest about your writing, you will get little signs from the cosmos to keep going. Pay attention to them!!!
Ferrets and unicorns make great sidekicks. :o)