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Author Update: Joyce Hertzoff

Retired from over four decades in a science-based career, author Joyce Hertzoff now writes flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels in several genres including mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. She released two books in 2018: So, You Want to be a Dragon, a middle-grade adventure, and Beyond the Sea, book three in The Crystal Odyssey series for a YA audience. You’ll find Joyce on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, as well as her website at and blog at Read more about Joyce in her SWW interviews for 2015 and 2017, and visit Amazon Central for all of her books.

What is your elevator pitch for So, You Want to be a Dragon?
When three children succeed in turning themselves into dragons to parlay with real ones and protect their town, how can they change back?

How did the book come together?
I honestly don’t recall the spark that ignited this story. I had an image of a teenager selling shellfish and her little sister alerting her to the dragon attack on their harbor town. That’s basically still the first scene in the book. I had to put it together after that. What would they have to do to reason with the dragons? What process would they need? That was all based on the characteristics dragons have. It’s not a long book, so it took less time to write than my novels, but there was a lot of thought and research necessary to bring it together. And then I got the services of the amazing Rik Ty to give me drawings I could use and even a cover design.

Tell us a little about your main characters.
Bekka, the fourteen-year-old first-person POV character, is the responsible one, but she’s caught up in her little sister’s enthusiasm. She also learns during the story that her sister has skills and abilities she’s never known about. Cora is described by Bekka as seven going on forty, full of energy and enthusiasm. She’s the one who comes up with the idea to shape-shift into dragons. Derry, the third of their group, is a next-door neighbor, the kind of boy mothers are wary about. Additional characters include a revered mage, a self-styled shape-shifter, a boat captain, and the girls’ mother, as well as dragons (of course).

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for this book?
Finding ways for the kids to turn into dragons when the shape-shifter failed them, and then ways to turn them back.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
I had fun writing the story, and my enjoyment doubled again when I saw Rik’s drawing of the dragons and the kids, both for the cover and the inside of the book.

The Crimson Orb, the first book in The Crystal Odyssey series, follows teenager Nissa on a journey to find the wizard Madoc, her missing magic teacher. The series continues in Under Two Moons with Nissa searching for the source of Madoc’s strange books which leads her to discover secrets about her world and its lost crystal-based technology. What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in book three, Beyond the Sea?
It continues the story of Nissa’s growing awareness of the world she lives in. Traveling beyond the sea to Fartek, she has more new experiences and learns how divided the people of that continent have become since the fall of the artificial satellites a thousand years before. Finally, she and her companions find the source of the strange books Madoc got from a traveler from Solwintor.

Each of the books in the Crystal Odyssey Series takes place in a different part of your story world. How did you decide on the settings for this book?
I wanted it to have a somewhat Asian influence, as opposed to the Scandinavian features of Solwintor and the British feel of Leara. But the setting had to have inherent dangers too, like the chasm and the tigers.

What do you like most about Nissa, the main character in the series?
She is open to learning new things and accepting new people. She’s also a feminist, encouraging other girls and women to take charge of their lives.

What unique challenges did this project pose for you?
I wanted to make Nissa’s experiences different from those in The Crimson Orb and Under Two Moons. I also wanted each group of people to have unique characteristics and knowledge.

How do you meld science with fantasy elements to make this series work?
When I wrote the first book, I referred to it as crystal punk. Rather than electricity powering the machines, everything works using crystals. But they had to focus energy for that to be true. I based part of it on things like crystal radios, and the rest on the characters’ abilities to use their minds to focus the energy all around them. I wish we could do that. Many fantasy stories refer to the ley lines supposed to exist all around the Earth. The energy is strongest at certain places.

You help facilitate online courses for Writers Village University. What do many of the beginning writers you deal with misunderstand about storytelling?
Many don’t know how to bring out the emotions in their characters. That’s part of what engages readers. I struggle with that skill myself. Also a few rely too heavily on descriptions that have nothing to do with the plot or characters.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on several projects: the fourth book in The Crystal Odyssey series; a sequel to my award-winning portal novella, A Bite of the Apple; a story about a train disaster that turns out to be apocalyptic (I’m writing the third novel of that series); and an enviro-apocalyptic story about a girl exiled from a domed town.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I’ve also had a few short stories published. The latest story, “A Woman Hobbles into a Bar,” appears in the charity anthology Challenge Accepted.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

An Interview with Author Lois Ruby

Ex-librarian Lois Ruby is the award-winning author of 18 middle-grade and young adult books. Whether the stories are contemporary or historical fiction, reality-based or paranormal, her characters are ordinary kids in extraordinary circumstances who always have options but don’t always make the best choices. Her latest novel, The Doll Graveyard, is a “gently spooky” work published by Scholastic Paperbacks (2014). You can find Lois on her website at

TheDollGraveyard200What is your elevator pitch for The Doll Graveyard?
What if you’re twelve-year-old Shelby, and you’ve just moved into a house populated by mysterious, mischievous, highly spooky dolls that refuse to stay buried in your backyard? And they keep changing before your eyes! 

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I’m a person steeped in pragmatic realism. I don’t believe in supernatural hokum. But that doesn’t stop me from writing about it. The challenge for me is making it sound plausible, as if (under the right circumstances) everything in the story could happen. So, I had to avoid outrageous leaps that couldn’t, even by the wildest stretch, have realistic explanations. I also had to overcome my resistance to writing such an absurd story and cope with the truth: that I had a great time writing it.

What is it about your main protagonist that makes readers connect with her? Did your characters surprise you as you wrote their story?
My characters always surprise me. I do an extensive inventory on each of the main characters as if I were interviewing them for a biography. Just when I’m sure I know them, know what motivates them, know what stumps them or terrifies them, they turn on me and do something I never expected. What’s worse (or maybe it’s better) characters appear on the page that I never invited and sort of thumb their noses at me and say, “Hah! I’m here now, so what are you going to do about it?” My first inclination is to scold them and send them back into the hazy oblivion from which they reared their heads. Then I decide to trust them for a while and see where they lead me. Sometimes they’re pretty clever and bend themselves to just the plot turn I needed. As for my main protagonist in The Doll Graveyard, I hope what makes readers connect with her is that she’s normal, healthy, inquisitive, and secure in a loving family—but lonely and vulnerable just the same. Like the best of us in this life.

Tell us about the setting and why you chose it.
As I’ll explain later, the idea wasn’t my own. It came from a wonderful editor as just a wisp of a preposterous plot, with lots of freedom to develop it any way I wanted to. The only absolute was that there would be a girl named Shelby and a bunch of tiny dolls that refused to stay buried. I decided to set the story in a remote part of Colorado. Why Colorado? Honestly, because my only nonfiction book, which has garnered as much attention as, say, soggy coffee grounds, is entitled Mother Jones and the Colorado Coal Field War. I thought a paranormal novel also set in Colorado might cause a librarian or teacher or two to suddenly discover Mother Jones. (It didn’t work.) Anyway, Shelby’s house is one of two lone, scary old houses up on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and the graveyard behind the house is home to a bunch of small, mysterious graves. The novel has all the standard creaky floors and doors, hidden places and dark corridors savored in this sort of story, plus creepy, misbehaving dolls.

Is there a scene in the book you’d love to see play out in a movie?
Oh, yes! There’s a scene at the end of the book where all the disparate characters come together in the graveyard for a funeral for the stubborn dolls, each of whom represents something dramatic that happened in the history of the house. Now each doll merits a touching testimonial, as he or she is laid to rest. Good, satisfying ending. They’re buried for good, right? Believe me, my readers are sure they shall rise again! Do I hear sequel?

What makes this novel unique in the children’s/teen market?
I suspect it’s not unique but is rather one in a slew of gently spooky paranormals that tickle the fancy of young readers. And when I say gently spooky, that means nothing horribly violent happens. To the disappointment of children I talk to in schools, these dolls are not Chucky and Annabelle, the killer dolls. They’re just mischievous and stubborn and creepy. So, maybe I’m trying to say that what’s unique is that this book is relatively safe for readers who don’t want, or can’t handle, really intense supernatural or hyper-violent material, but still like chills to race up and down their spines.

Tell us more about the book: where the story idea came from, how long it took to write, editing cycle, etc.
As I mentioned, the idea came from an editor, generated in-house at Scholastic. But she gave me free rein to develop it any way I wanted and to complicate the story way beyond her expectations. I’ve often been chastised for including too many characters and too many complex issues in an otherwise simple story. That’s what makes it worthwhile for me. So, this was pure fun to write, and it wrote itself very quickly in about six months. I ran a fairly detailed plot proposal by the editor and got her go-ahead. Then she didn’t see it again until I’d written and revised it about six times. When next her eyes fell on it, she had some good suggestions for the logical tying up of loose ends, and for one or two more dramatic scenes, all of which I gratefully heeded. And then it took very little more work. This experience was totally different from the process of my more serious books; the books that consume me for two, three, five years; the books that touch my heart and challenge me after I’ve researched them to death, but aren’t as jaunty and fun to play with.

StealAwayHome150Steal Away Home (Aladdin Paperbacks/Simon & Schuster, 1994) is your most well-known book. Why do you think it continues to be so popular?
It’s an absolute conundrum as to why this book continues to have a vibrant life 22 years after publication, while so many of my other books have quickly vanished into the miasma. (As some famous author once said, “First you’re an unknown. Then you write one book and quickly sink into obscurity.”) I like to think it’s because Steal Away Home is a magnificent masterpiece of brilliantly universal appeal. Yeah, sure. There are a few more likely reasons. It’s set in Kansas in two periods—the present, and 1856. I wrote it while I was living in Kansas, and it caught immediate attention as a local book by a local author. But it moved beyond that designation and continued to be read in schools all over the country and in some foreign countries, as well. Right now it’s being used in a school in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I’ve been invited to speak. The main reason for its longevity, however, is that five years ago the state of Georgia adopted this novel for its fifth grade Civil War curriculum. So, this anti-slavery book has reached a much wider audience than I ever dreamed possible, and in a former slave state.

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you started your publishing career today?
I would have found a young, hungry agent who would read my manuscripts immediately, make a few suggestions for quick revision, and submit them to a dozen editors at once. Alas, that’s not what I have, though—can I brag a little?—that’s what just occurred in my son’s life. He wrote a wonderful middle grade novel, found an aggressive agent who submitted it to eleven houses, and within a month he had three offers and just signed a contract with Random House. I, on the other hand, wait six months to two years for response. Often it’s a rejection, but after blubbering for a day or two, I ask my agent to send it out again. Sometimes she does.

What is your writing routine like? What is your writing process like? What part do beta readers or critique groups play in your writing process?
Calling it a routine is a big stretch, as each day is different, and life intervenes. What generally works is that I’m up about 5:30am, take care of a few emails that dared to come in while I slept, then get right to writing the ideas that I’d processed in those few precious minutes before I fell asleep the night before. About 8:30 I saunter into the kitchen for a cup of tea and a bowl of cereal. Then, on an ideal day, I return to the writing until noon. More likely, other pressing engagements, such as reconnecting with my sweet husband, or running errands, overtake my compulsion to write.

As for process, I do not outline a novel. I do extensive, character sketches of the principal people who populate (talk about alliteration!) the story at hand, and let them take over. I complete one scene, print, revise, print, revise, sigh, then move on to the next scene. When I think I’ve reached something approaching a cliffhanger after two or three conjoined scenes, I declare it a chapter and move on to the first scene of the next chapter. I keep revising the completed chapters maybe a dozen times more, until I discover that they’re woefully out of sequence. That calls for a detailed summary of what I’ve done so far, chapter by chapter, and then I begin shifting. Sometimes I jot a few key words of each scene on a Post-It note and tack them to the big picture window above my computer, then juggle Post-Its until something makes sense.

Now, about critique groups. I’ve been in some fabulous ones, in some humdingers, and a couple that did me little good because no one in the group understood how novels for youth were different from novels for adults. Still, any kind of critique group is better than laboring in the field alone without anyone’s help with the back-breaking (mind-bending) work.

If you suffer from writer’s block, how do you break through?
I don’t suffer from writer’s block. Just the opposite. I suffer from resistance to taking up the work in progress because I’ll be reluctant to quit and do something else that’s more necessary but less satisfying. I suffer from fear that I’ll submerge myself in my work, become a cranky hermit who never brushes her teeth and lives on cold pizza or macaroni and cheese, and neglects loved ones who deserve something better from me.

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
Message, no. But I discovered after about nine books, that a theme pervades all of them, despite their diverse subjects and eras. The theme is justice, whether I’m writing about abolition of slavery, faith healing, skinheads, the Battle of Gettysburg, Holocaust refugees in China, or even my sweetly weird paranormals. As it says in the Good Book, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” I try.

How has the teen market changed since you first started publishing?
Interesting question that stumps me, yet one I’ve puzzled about quite a lot. In terms of the emotional preoccupations of young people, nothing has changed. There are still the terrors of the emotional dark, the confusion over identity and purpose, the family entanglements, and school. Books for this readership need to deal with those unchanging issues along with the joys and optimism of youth. But there are differences. Thanks to the Janus effect of technology, it being a blessing and a curse, kids have much more limited attention spans. You’ve got to hit them right away, scene by scene, and keep it short and immediate, or they abandon you. Harry Potter and a few other long and complicated books are delightful exceptions, of course. And books for teens are definitely edgier; there are no subjects, violent events, or unsavory language off-limits.

All the above is from the standpoint of subject and style. As for marketing, that’s where I’m clueless. I can’t fathom why some books get published and widely/wildly read, while others more worthy languish, if they see print at all. The one thing I do know is this: it’s no harder now to get published than it was 35 years ago when my first books came out. It’s always been difficult and very much a crapshoot.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
Yes, I’ve got to add this: no matter how things change in history or in our social milieu, books for young readers must offer hope, must assure them there are caring and responsible adults to turn to, and must remind them that the universe is not indifferent to their highest aspirations.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

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