Wednesday, June 30, 2010
"The Writing Life" part 2 - Interview with Susan Gee Heino
Regency romance author Susan Gee Heino is with us again for the second installment of “The Writing Life.” She will share some writing advice and tips with us. You can find Part 1 of the interview here. Susan has a new book coming out in August (Damsel in Disguise (Berkley Sensation)) so we really appreciate the time she is taking to be with us. Susan, thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me, Michele. I love it here!
When and why did you begin writing? Did you just sit down one day and say “I’m going to write a book to be published?”
I’ve been writing fiction since I was a little kid. Seriously, I love stories and I love make-believe. But I hardly ever told people I wanted to write novels because I thought it was something so far out of the realm of possibility that talking about it would only lead to disappointment. Still, it was a dream that just would not go away. In college I studied theatre and turned my focus from acting to playwriting. I had some success with that, but not enough to pay the bills. After graduating, I went out into the real world and got a “normal” job, but just couldn’t shake the writing bug. I took correspondence classes, I wrote plays for church, I submitted short stories to magazines, and I filled journal after journal with story ideas and scene drafts. Still, though, what I really wanted was to be an author. And what I wanted to write was Historical Romance. So, I finally came out of the closet, joined a professional writers group, and put all my eggs in that basket. It was still several years of determined work, but finally I’ve seen that dream come true.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Yes, but I’ll be darned if I can define it! I think every writer has their own “voice”, or style, but generally we can’t see it as clearly as others can. I’ve been told my style is witty, quirky, emotional, unpredictable, and even farcical. Since those are all characteristics I love when I find them in other authors, I’m hoping this is an accurate description of my style! I think it’s very important for writers to understand what fires them and what they do well. Highlight those things and make sure they are front and center in everything you write. That is your “voice”.
Do you write an outline before every book you write?
I do now because my publisher requires it. Years ago I didn’t—I just started writing and let the story go wherever it wanted. The problem with this is that sometimes the story rambled into a place I like to call “Stupidville” and it was quite a bit of work and effort to drag it back out of there and carve it into something more closely resembling a readable plotline. Now that I’m on deadline, I don’t have that luxury. I need to keep things going full steam ahead without drastic detours into dumb stuff that just has no place in this particular book.
We talk about writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”. The Plotters are the ones who plot and outline and do character studies, etc. before they even begin their book. They revel in their plans and love setting goals. These are usually the OCD neat freaks who are convinced Pantsers must be insane.
Pantsers are the ones who fly by the seat-of-their-pants, just making stuff up as they go along and dreading the idea of outlines or plotting charts. For a Pantser, the thrill of writing a book is gone if they already know details of how it will end. The Pantser usually has 45 unfinished manuscripts tucked under her bed and thinks Plotters are weirdo control freaks.
I am a recovering Pantser. I realized that 45 unfinished manuscripts won’t help me much until I can find a way to get them finished. This century. So, I’ve learned to embrace the outline. In fact, I’ve discovered that I like having an outline! It helps keep my ADD brain focused on where the story is going and I’ve actually come up with a really cool Excel spreadsheet that I use to help me with plotting and keeping track of things like Goal, Motivation, Conflict, and whatever the heck I named the butler in Chapter three.
Do you ever experience writer's block? If so, how do you get through it?
I really don’t get writer’s block. I love writing and I always have many, many more ideas than I have time to write them. I do, however, get very, very tired of working the same idea for months on end. Long about page 200 I’m generally soooo sick of these characters and this plotline that it’s hard to get my head into my work. How do I overcome that? By pure, torturous plugging away at it day after day. I muscle myself into my chair, I wrestle my brain into working order, and I force myself to stay away from email and Facebook. Then I write the darned book until it’s done. Then I go back through it and rewrite. And rewrite. And proofread. And edit. I think writers must have some serious masochistic disorders to do what we do.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing your novel to life?
I think the biggest challenge was to believe that what I was doing had value even though I had nothing to show for it. Writing is very solitary. It’s just you and your keyboard. In my early years, it seemed like the only feedback I was getting was rejections. But I’m stubborn and pretty self-centered, so I kept on writing because I wanted to and it didn’t really matter that no one was interested in buying it. I realized that I wrote for ME and that I was a better person when I was writing. I gave myself permission to continue. I learned to navigate the logistics of spreading my braincells out between mothering, house-wifing, and writing. And I had fun with it. It’s good to be challenged. It gives you a target to shoot at.
Have you ever had to put a project away because you couldn’t write it?
Yes. Some years ago I sat beside an editor at a luncheon and she told me there was a specific type of story she’d been looking for but it seemed no one was writing it. The next day, I went home and started writing that kind of story. A few months later I had something pretty good and I submitted it to her. She liked it, but requested a few revisions before she could consider making an offer. Her suggestions were right on the money and I could have easily made those revisions and sent the manuscript right back to her, but I didn’t.
The more I thought about it the more I realized I did not want to write in that genre. I didn’t write this book for ME, I wrote it for HER. Did I really want to sign a contract saying I would publish this book and then write more like it? Did I love this type of story enough to spend the next couple years at it? No, honestly, I didn’t. That very day I put that manuscript aside and began working on the one that eventually won the Golden Heart and became my first sale. Guess I owe that first editor a big thank you, don’t I?
Have you ever hated something you wrote and why?
Oh heavens yes! Practically every day. I always thought this would go away, that once I got published I would somehow magically no longer need my delete key. Wrong! But I have learned that this is just one of those things I have to live with. I am getting better at recognizing what works and what doesn’t, even if I’m having an “I hate everything I write” day. It’s never really as bad as it seems.
What was the hardest part of writing your first book?
Realizing when I made a wrong turn and deleting the stuff that just had to go. I’m getting much better at recognizing when my hero is acting out of character or when a scene I love is going to bore readers to tears, but I still find myself having to cut things I really wish I could keep. But the sad truth is that most manuscripts don’t need stuff added to them, they need stuff cut from them. Embracing that truth was not so much fun, but it has helped immensely.
Does it get easier to write the second book? Third?
As with just about any skill, the craft gets easier the more you practice. However, once you’ve made a sale and now have deadlines and contractual obligations and promotional opportunities, things get really tricky. My writing time now has to include not only writing a book that is better than the last one, but managing the business and marketing aspects of my career. That’s hard work!
Plus, I decided to write connected stories, so my second and third books all have plot elements that must fit a pre-established storyline. My characters have to fit the mold I made for them in previous books. I thought this would make things easier, but really it makes it a lot harder. Instead of a big, blank page to color on, I have to be very careful to stay inside the lines I’ve already drawn. Ugh.
Do you see yourself writing something other than regency romance in the future?
Regency is my fave, but I also have a couple really fun contemporary romances that I really, really want to see in print someday. I would totally love to write more contemporary. Also, I’m working on a proposal now for a non-romance YA Paranormal series (yeah, I know—who isn’t?) that my agent is really excited about. Hopefully we’ll see something coming from that before too long. Oh, and I’d love to see Westerns get popular again. I looooove cowboys and it would be so much fun to write one.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I just met author Heather Graham at a conference and she said something immeasurably profound. I think I’ll steal it from her: “Read read read. Write write write. Live live live.” That’s the best writerly advice I’ve ever heard and I don’t think I could possibly give any better. What about others? What advice has helped you in your writing journey?
Susan, again, thank you so much for joining us today.
Readers, we want to hear from YOU! Tell us what advice has helped you in your writing journey. Plus, do you have more questions for Susan? She will be hanging out with us today, so leave your question in the comments section.
Also, check out the Tuesday Contest, where we are giving away an autographed copy of Mistress by Mistake (Berkley Sensation) to one lucky follower.
We'll conclude this series of interviews with the next segment of "The Writing Life" in 2 weeks. Susan will be discussing rejection - how she deals with it and how it's affected her writing. Check back with us then. Click here for Part Three.