Before she begins writing a book, Evanovich keeps her story on task by using a screenwriting technique called storyboarding
Demystifying Janet Evanovich

by Carol DeFrank

AUTHOR JANET EVANOVICH has always had, as she puts it, “a loony imagination.” As a kid she spent a lot of time daydreaming. Reminiscing, she describes the experience; “while your mouth is eating lunch, your mind is conversing with Captain Kirk.” She went from imagining herself as a galloping horse to opera singer. Becoming an author never entered into the equation.

Evanovich was born and grew up in New Jersey. She majored in art at Douglass College, part of Rutgers University. Evanovich was in her early 30s before she realized she enjoyed making up stories to go with her art projects more than creating the art itself. So, she retired the art equipment and tried her hand at writing the great American novel. “I knew nothing about writing. I’d forgotten how to punctuate, hadn’t a clue how to write dialogue and didn’t even know anyone who wrote.”

She claims her first attempts “were horrible and embarrassing.” After reading several romance books and taking lessons in improv acting to learn how to write dialogue, she decided to try her hand at writing a romance novel.

Ten years, and a box of rejection letters later, she sold her first book, Hero at Large, to the romance publishing house of Second Chance at Love. She received $2,000 and immediately went on a shopping spree, thinking she hit the jackpot. At the publisher’s request, she authored her first three books under a pen name: Steffie Hall.

She then went to Bantam Books, where she wrote nine additional books, this time under her given name. “Writing romance was a great experience, but after twelve books, I ran out of sexual positions and decided it was time for a change.”

She realized that tackling the challenge of a different genre would require extensive research. Not many people would consider drinking beer with law enforcement types, learning to shoot a gun and practicing cussing as research, but to her it was necessary because she needed that kind of information to develop a tough, believable heroine. She concentrated on research for two years, before she wrote one word. At the conclusion, she created Stephanie Plum, a lingerie buyer from Trenton, New Jersey, who became a bounty hunter to make some quick money. “I loved working with Stephanie and her cronies so much that I knew I was going to keep writing about them,” she says.

Plum books have become a successful mystery series. In 1999, the third book, High Five, landed Evanovich on The New York Times best-seller list. It hit the at number 13. The next, and all subsequent Plum mysteries, opened at number one.

Bazaar, quirky characters are prevalent in the Plum books. Most are composites of family and friends. For example, Grandma Mazur is a combination of Evanovich’s Aunt Lena and Grandma Schneider. She admits Stephanie is a little autobiographical.

“Stephanie’s sidekick, Lula, on the other hand, is not based on anyone I know. Lula is Stephanie times ten,” says Evanovich. “When I read Robert Parker’s novels, I realized it’s best for a character to have someone to play off, like Spenser and Hawk. In action fiction, if you leave a character alone too long, no matter what he or she is doing, it gets boring. So I thought Stephanie could use a sidekick like Lula.”

Evanovich is 63 and still producing four to seven books a year. Two are new Plum novels; some are rewrites or edited versions of earlier romance books. Others are non-fiction books or collaborations with friends like Charlotte Hughes who she worked with on the ‘Full’ series. Fearful of not meeting reader expectations she tries to weave her stories in such a manner that fans are never disappointed.

Evanovich is inspired by Carl Barks, creator and writer of the Uncle Scrooge comics. “He gave me a lifelong love for the adventure story. Donald, Scrooge, Huey, Dewey and Louie were a little dysfunctional, but basically liked one another and were always going on adventures—just like Stephanie Plum. I also studied Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser series as well as Tom Clancy, who taught me the value of timing and writing for the market.”

Before she begins writing a new book, Evanovich keeps her story on task by using a screenwriting technique called storyboarding, which is character sketching, a tool movie directors use. She also uses a notebook to develop characters, biographies and a detailed outline.

She keeps an intense work schedule. “I usually work an eight-hour day, five days a week. I’m at my computer by 5:30am, take a break around 2pm and put on my businessperson hat. That’s when I answer phone calls, read the mail, and have discussions with my publicist. I take an hour or two in the middle of the day to exercise. Five days a week I work evenings answering mail and having phone meetings with my Web master. On weekends I work in the morning, but keep the afternoons and evenings for fun. When I’m up against a deadline, I write continually day and night.”

At this stage of her career, the publisher has little influence on book development. Evanovich’s editor offers opinions, as does her family, but ultimately, the final decision is hers. Whichever book she’s writing at the moment is the one she likes best.

When she moved to New Hampshire in ‘95, she morphed her writing into a business, Evanovich, Inc. It includes a web store, online advertising, contests and newsletters. Her husband, Pete, is the general manager, son Peter handles the finances and daughter Alex created and updates her website, which gets more than five million hits a year. Fans are so involved in the interactive site that, after her third Plum novel, every title is the result of an on-line contest.

Evanovich collaborated with Alex and Ina Yalof on How I Write, a nonfiction compilation of archived questions and answers that have appeared on her website since 1996.

This book explains how she creates remarkable characters, offers techniques on revising and editing, and describes life as a full-time writer. In addition, there are tips on building a web site and writing query letters. It includes examples of writing pulled from the Plum series and is a reference tool for writers trying to improve their skills. It offers practical and inspiring advice on everything from structuring a plot to handling rejection.

A self-declared workaholic who doesn’t believe in writer’s block, Evanovich does admit that some days are more productive than others. She has no hobbies, but relaxes by going to dinner with her husband, following NASCAR and watching happy movies. An avid shopaholic, the author keeps herself motivated by spending money before she makes it.

Janet Evanovich will be the guest luncheon speaker and sign books as part of the Naples Press Club Writers’ Conference on Saturday, April 5. Information and tickets are available by calling 593-1488. •

from the March-April 2008 issue