Friday, April 24, 2009

Interview with Heather Horrocks

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Heather Horrocks has taught online writing classes for JorlanPublishing.com; she co-founded Word Garden Press and self-published two books, Women Who Knew the Mortal Messiah and Men Who Knew the Mortal Messiah; and her latest title, How to Stuff a Wild Zucchini is being released in May—by Deseret Book, the largest publishing house in Utah. Watch for her new series of novel plotting classes to be offered here at JP in the fall. It was a pleasure to interview "our" very own Heather!

Q: Tell us about your new book and why you wrote it.

A: Sophisticated New York playwright Lori Scott feels like a failure when her producer boyfriend calls it quits on both their relationship and her first play. On a dare, she throws a dart at a map and ends up moving to Brigham City, Utah, where she plans to set aside writing, religion, and men to focus on her new career substituting as The Garden Guru for the local paper. But fate has something else in mind. When she accidentally lights her house on fire, Lori has no idea of the sparks that lie ahead. Will she be able to resist the charm and persistence of local firefighting hero John Wayne Walker? Will old hurts and fears cause her to turn her back on the best thing that's ever happened to her? A delightful contemporary romance about following your heart, finding true love, and wrestling with a basket full of zucchini!

I wrote it for several reasons. I was working to create a line of romantic comedies, novels full of witty dialogue, books that were entertaining as well as uplifting. I was playing around with titles, and that old beach movie popped into my head: How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. I just thought it would be funny to switch Bikini to Zucchini—and others seem to have agreed. Also, it was right in the middle of August and neighbors left a bag of zucchini on our porch...which got me thinking. Hmmm.

Q: What sparks a story?

A: Almost anything can, but I do love to come up with really catchy titles and plot from there...things like Old Maid of Honor, Sunbeams On the Loose, Bat Out of Heck, Free Agency—And How to Enforce It, Holier Than Thou (Heavenly Donuts, Down-to-Earth Prices), and Remember the A La Mode, all of which are plotted and/or written, as well as others like Giraffic Park.

Q: How did you master the art of novel writing?

A: After many years of wannabe writing (even completing a novel, a teleplay, and a few children’s books), I decided to get serious (the exact thought was: “I’ve either got to start writing, or stop saying I’m a writer”). I had already joined the local chapter of Romance Writers of America, where I offered some of my first-draft pages for a critique example (I was so scared, I nearly didn’t go back the next time). Because I did that scary thing, I was invited to join a critique group class where I brought ten double-spaced pages a week and got them back critiqued the next week. This helped me become aware of the passing of time when no writing was getting done (as in, “Oh, man, it’s Wednesday again and I have class tomorrow night; I’d better write my ten pages quick!”). I had a great teacher, and I learned a lot from her. I’m also a great student, always wanting to learn more and striving to master techniques. For novel writing, you have to master both the craft of writing well and plotting with a satisfying ending. It’s helped that I also teach writing and plotting classes, as that has forced me to figure out things I might not otherwise have done.

Q: What is your plotting process? Do you outline?

A: I definitely do outline now; as a New York Times bestselling author, Kevin J. Anderson, said at a conference I attended: “If you don’t outline, then your entire book becomes your outline.” And that’s unwieldy. I used to be a seat-of-the-pants writer, but nowadays I have the most awesome plotting group ever. There are three of us, and we call ourselves a "conspiracy group"—you know: two or more people plotting together. We meet every month or two for an intense, approximately 14-hour plotting day. We stay until we have a skeleton of a book, usually about 45 scenes. We take turns on whose book we’re doing, so every third time, we’re plotting one of my books. In the couple of weeks following the plotting day, we flesh out the outline until we have 65-75 scenes. We’ve now done 35 books this way, and in the process have learned a great deal. It reminds me of a story my father, an oilman (I grew up in South America and the Middle East) told about being called out of retirement in his mid-60s to head up some of the teams putting out the Kuwait oil well fires. Before that time, if there was an oil well fire, Red Adair’s specialty team would be called in, but because there were so many fires to be put out, they tried many different techniques and quickly learned what didn’t work and what worked most efficiently (a jet engine blasted directly at the flame would put it out and the men would then immediately cap the fire, and this allowed them to put out several fires a day). With us plotting so many books so fast, and committing to stay until they were done each time, and with me documenting everything we’ve done so that we remember, we’ve also learned an amazing amount about what works most efficiently. Often even the order in which you do your plotting makes a huge difference. (I teach classes in the Salt Lake area based on our plotting days; I’m also working up an awesome series of online classes that will be offered on JorlanPublishing.com this fall). And I finally learned the real difference between a synopsis and an outline—the outline contains all the information needed for you, the writer, to write the book; the synopsis contains the information needed for you, the writer, to sell the book to an agent or editor.

Q: Okay, you have 12 novels either finished or ready to finish. How do you produce so many stories?

A: To start with, I've been working at this seriously for 16 years, and it's possible to generate a lot of ideas and pages during that much time, even when you mess around here and there. Getting together with my group to plot regularly has given me another 8 plotted novels that I haven't even started writing yet. It allows me to choose what is wisest for me to finish at any particular time.

Q: How do you come up with your characters?

A: I interview my prospective characters in depth before I plot them into a book. I ask them all sorts of questions about their baggage and what they want out of life. I ask them what others in their life think about them. And I ask them what the worst situation would be for them—and then I always put my characters in that situation they don't want to face. I do always make my stories end happily, so I figure it's worth a little angst for them for awhile.

Q: What kind of writing routines do you follow?

A: Unfortunately, in the choice between the tortoise and the hare, I'm usually the hare, making wild dashes here and there—writing a first draft in two weeks, for example—and then not doing much for awhile, and then making another huge push. Now that I need to write three books a year (two for Deseret Book and another to get my mysteries going), I'm working this year on making some gentler but more steady tortoise pushes in between the wild hare rushes. I'm trying to learn how to unclutter my life, including my schedule, to accomplish what I want to accomplish and keep the self-sabotages to a minimum.

Q: What advice do you have for establishing a productive writing routine?

A: Do something writing-related every day. Set small "deadlines" for yourself. I have my one-day plotting days. Two weeks to whip my outline into shape. Two weeks to do a BI2W (book in two weeks, because, though I have written a first draft in four days before, it’s too hard of a schedule). Then I have to force myself to do regular revisions of those first-draft pages. Give yourself lots of smaller achievements to celebrate.

The most important thing is to START. If you have to, set a minimum 15-minute-a-day goal, just so you can get started (because 15 minutes is not intimidating enough to stop anyone!). And because you’ll probably spend more than 15 minutes once you do start. So STARTING is the first part of the equation – and STOPPING is the second. Get your writing done and behind you, so you can enjoy the rest of the day without that nagging feeling of having to get back to it.

And never, ever lose heart.

Q: Do you set daily page or time goals for yourself?

A: It depends on the week and what part of the book I’m working on. Sometimes it’s all about tricking myself into being productive, day after day. Plotting is all day and sometimes all night. Outlines consume many, many hours a day for about two weeks. The first draft takes many hours, but I usually have a scene count goal; for example, if my book has 66 scenes and I have 10 days to write them (for my BI2W), I’ll aim for 7 crummy, fast, first-draft scenes a day (I can do this because I already have my character’s goals and setbacks in place in the outline phase). I’ll also do a scene count goal for revisions, though that’s usually 1-3 scenes a day rather than 7.

Q: At what point did you sell "Zucchini"? From a book proposal or completed manuscript?

A: The journey for “Zucchini” has been an interesting one. I’d actually written about 8 novels before deciding to get wiser about my market. You know, what you hear all the time—study the market. What did that mean for me? I decided to pursue two paths. The first path would be romantic comedies for Deseret Book. I chose this market because there was nothing similar to my chick-lit type books on the LDS market and so I thought they might be open to my books. I also don’t care for the smut and language that goes into so many national romances and I figured an LDS publisher would be thrilled to accept my cleaner romances. The second path would be two mystery series (the “WhoDunHim Inn” and the “Bad Mothers Club”), which I’m working on selling on the national market (cozy mysteries don’t seem to have the smut problem that romances do).

Anyway, I came up with my plan. I was going to write four romances for Deseret Book, whether they bought any of them or not. And, if they didn’t buy any of the four, I’d turn my focus to my mysteries. Deseret Book actually rejected the first one I sent (“Old Maid of Honor”) but because the editor gave me lots of suggestions, I thanked her and asked if she’d given the suggestions in the hope that I’d revise and resubmit. She had, so I did. Next I sent “How To Stuff A Wild Zucchini” and “Sunbeams On The Loose.” My fourth, partially completed, is “Bat Out of Heck” (and, because of my awesome plotting group, I have another four plotted and outlined, ready to go). Deseret Book chose to put out “Zucchini” first because they felt it was the strongest, and they’re hoping, after this year, to put out two a year. I’m totally thrilled, of course.

Q: How many books did you self-publish before selling this one?

A: So far I have brought two incredible books into the world of publishing. My inspirational books (“Women Who Knew the Mortal Messiah” and “Men Who Knew”) have definitely been a walk in faith for me. I certainly never, ever planned to self-publish. In fact, I was offered three different contracts for “Women Who Knew” and each time I was impressed to say no. So, after fighting the impression to form a small publishing company and put the books out there myself, I finally faced my fears (and my resistance) and just did it. I founded Word Garden Press and printed “Women Who Knew the Mortal Messiah” in 2004, followed in a couple of years by “Men.” I’m now working on “Women Who Knew the Great Jehovah” about women in the Old Testament who are in Christ’s lineage. And these are some very challenging stories. I triple-dog dare you to make the story of Tamar seducing her father-in-law inspiring. (I’m just finishing that story and, incredibly, it is an inspiring story — but it took quite awhile to bring it around to that place.) I’m hoping to have that book out sometime later this year.

Q: Did self-publishing help or hurt you when approaching traditional publishers?

A: I think on the national market they wouldn’t have made much difference either way. Because I’d signed a distribution agreement with Deseret Book Distribution for the two inspirational books, and had some rapport there, I did mention them in my initial query letter to the Deseret Book Publishing editor (and she was familiar with them).

Q: What is the question that makes you laugh, at least inside?

When people ask when I find time to write. There is no time to write. We're all incredibly busy, with careers, families, and getting dinner on the table. It's a matter of deciding you're going to make it a priority. And my smart-aleck answer doesn't work any more—when I was younger, I would tell people there are four hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. But my body doesn't do that any more. So now I'm more apt to answer seriously—just get a little in every day toward your dream and the pages will add up to books. (Back to the tortoise theory here.)

Q: What was it like to get "The Call" when you sold How to Stuff a Wild Zucchini?

A: Absolutely fantastic. And, after all those years, sweeter than it would have been earlier. Like now, instead of people looking at me with pity in their eyes because I was still going for my dream after all those years, I could become a success story that could inspire—if you persevere for 16 years and 2 months, you can win the dream that would have been forever lost if you'd quit at 16 years.

Q: If you hadn't sold How to Stuff a Wild Zucchini, do you think you would have kept on trying to get published? What made you keep going up to this point?

A: If I could have given up writing, I would have done it years ago. At times of discouragement, I've threatened to quit—after all, I'd have time to keep my life in order, time to spend with my family, time to sleep enough hours, even time to keep my house clean (ugh!). But I have learned that I can't quit. It's something I have to do, just like I have to breathe. So because that is true for me, then I may as well get on with it.

Q: Any final words of advice for the aspiring author?

A: Don't lose heart. Keep going—despite every discouragement, every rejection, every disappointment. I just read a great quote by an accomplished mountaineer, Lincoln Hall, who scaled Everest on his second attempt, but then tragedy struck and he was left for dead so that all the men didn't die trying to get him down—and then he was found barely alive the next day. Later, he said, "There may have been some luck involved, but luck is of no use unless you have a never-give-up attitude." In addition to mastering the craft of writing and plotting, you must cultivate your own never-give-up attitude, because that might be all that gets you to the peak and back safely. To quote one of my favorite movies (Galaxy Quest): "Never give up. Never surrender." So I wish you good luck in going for your dream, no matter what your dream happens to be.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Book Awards

[caption id="attachment_14" align="aligncenter" width="156" caption="Whose Ears Are Whose?"]Whose Ears Are Whose?[/caption]

My rhyming picture book, Whose Ears Are Whose? was awarded an Honorable Mention this month in the 16th Annual Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards! The notification letter stated, "Competition was particularly fierce this year so your accomplishment is truly impressive...We're extremely pleased at the quality of the winning books, and indeed, at the level of self-publishing quality evidenced by a great many of our entrants."

Whose Ears Are Whose? was previously named a First Place Winner in the League of Utah Writers 2008 Publication Awards and a Finalist in the 2008 Next Generation Indie Book Awards in both picture book and poetry categories. It's available for purchase on JorlanPublishing.com; PuffballPress.com; Amazon.com; and at your favorite bookstore.