WG: Welcome and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month. To start off, please tell us about yourself.
SS: I live in the Midwest with my husband, three children and a dog. I'm about as average as you can get!
WG: Let's talk about your own personal road to publication:
Is there some individual, group or event that you can point to as the catalyst/impetus that set you on the road to becoming a writer? Explain.
SS: I wasn't one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a writer. I was in my late 30's before I decided to try my hand at writing. I picked up a book by Pam Crooks and realized she lived in my city. Wonder of wonders! Pam mentioned in her bio that she was a member of something called Romance Writers of America. I researched RWA and found their local chapter, Heartland Writers Group. I attended my first meeting in August of 2007. I hadn't written a WORD. Cheryl St.John took me under her wing -- she's been a good friend since that fateful moment.
WG: Tell us about your journey.
SS: I started with less than nothing! Cheryl St.John invited me to 'sit in' with her critique group for six weeks. I was TERRIFIED the first time I had pages critiqued. From there, writing became almost an obsession. I couldn't stop even if I wanted to. Cheryl even invited me to join her critique group permanently. After a year or two, I tried my hand at contests. My scores were abysmal. I attended workshops, seminars and conferences, learned as much as I could, and tried again. The scores were better - but I still hadn't really found my genre. In January of 2011, I started an inspirational western. My critique partners liked the story so much, they encouraged me to enter the Genesis Contest sponsored by ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). I entered ½ dozen contests that year, and placed first or second place in every one, including the Genesis. By the time the winner was announced, I'd been disqualified because Harlequin had already bought the book.
WG: How many books did you complete before you sold your first? Have all/any of them sold since?
SS: I can't say I had ever really "completed" anything. I had two finished manuscripts that needed major polishing. I skipped around genres, trying to find my voice. I only finished Winning the Widow's Heart was because my (now) editor requested the full. I had pitched the book to her as a 'finished' product-only a small fib. Since I was more than halfway done, I figured that was close enough. Of course it never even occurred to me she might request the full book! I really scrambled.
WG: Can you tell us something about your experience in getting 'the call'?
SS: A lot of people have heard this story because it's fun to tell. An agent called and rejected my request for representation early in the afternoon. I was devastated. I called my husband, emailed my critique partners, and generally felt awful. Exactly two hours later, I got ANOTHER call, also from New York. All I could think of was, "How many times am I going to get rejected today?!" As the editor introduced herself, I was preparing for another disappointment. When she said Harlequin wanted to buy the book immediately, I couldn't wrap my head around the news. I kept asking her if she was certain she had the right person. I even summarized the book because I was sure she had made a mistake! I called the agent back, she negotiated the deal, and we have a great story to tell at cocktail parties.
WG: How has being a published author impacted your life?
SS: Getting published was the hardest thing I've ever done. I have always avoided criticism, and writing books is ALL about criticism. From agents, editors, readers…everyone. This business is brutal. I worked harder than I've ever worked, and I didn't quit even when success seemed impossible. I'm proud of that. I'm proud that I taught my children they can be a success at any age, and that dreams can come true.
WG: What aspect of life as a published author surprised you the most - either in a good or bad way?
SS: I thought getting the second book published would be easier. I'd written my first book in six months. It wasn't something I'd been polishing for decades. It took me almost a year to get a second contract. Luckily, that contract was multi-book, so I had guaranteed work. But I went through a lot of self-doubt that first year after publishing. I'm currently on the fourth book in the series and my editor just asked for more!
WG: What about your writing process. Do you maintain a set schedule? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
SS: I get up and get ready, take the kids to school, then I have about 2, 2 ½ hours to write before I go to my second job. If I'm behind, I get up early on the weekends and write. Writing is the one place in my life where I'm disciplined.
WG: Do you set writing goals for yourself?
SS: ALWAYS! I am extremely goal-oriented. We should tell people that you've even helped me out on occasion, Winnie. If I get behind, I put together a writing contract. Reporting my progress to Winnie keeps me on task. I haven't needed the contract in a while…but you never know…
WG: Do you have a 'mood setter', something (music, ritual, environment, etc) you use to get you going when you sit down to write?
SS: I keep my office organized. I find clutter distracting. When I'm about to start a new project, I clean & organize. My husband will say, "She's about to start another book. She's ordering her world."
WG: Do you do a lot of up front plotting before you start or do you just dive in?
SS: I became a touch superstitious that first year. I was plotting extensively before writing. It was only when I went back to writing the opening scene before working on the synopsis that I found success. Now when I start a new project, I always have the conflict and the idea for an opening scene, then I get to know the characters before I plot the details of their story.
WG: Do you normally start with storyline or with character or with some combination of the two?
SS: A combination of both. I've been working with the same families and the same town, so I'll usually pick a secondary character for a story. Since that character will have a bit of a backstory already, it's a matter of finding the perfect love interest.
WG: Do you find certain themes or character archetypes making recurring appearances in your stories?
SS: My stories tend to revolve around family dynamics. The families of our birth, and the substitute families we create among our friends and in our community.
WG: What do you see as your own personal strengths as a writer?
SS: I'm willing to take criticism. As the old saying goes, you have to learn to love the thing you hate in order to find success.
WG: Are there any obstacles/conflicts, specific to your particular lifestyle, that get in the way of your writing? If so, how do you try and overcome them?
SS: I don't like my own writing and I battle self-doubt. Every time I turn in a book, I'm certain it's a career-ender.
WG: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your process?
SS: If I can get published, anybody can get published. I don't have talent, I didn't start young, and I'm perpetually crippled by insecurity. If I can find success through all that, anybody can!
WG: Do you have a favorite sub-genre as a writer? as a reader?
SS: I adore Regency England
WG: Is there a genre you haven't been published in yet that you'd like to try your hand at someday?
SS: Regency! I wanted to write category regencies, but the last line closed in 2007. I don't know if we'll ever see the traditional category regency in the same way.
WG: Do you have any advice to offer writers still striving toward publication?
SS: Nothing trumps hard work and perseverance. I know a lot of talented writers who've never finished a project.
WG: Is there a specific 'ah-ha' moment you've had as a writer that you would like to share with us?
SS: My 'ah hah' moment was realizing that I will never feel like the work is 'done.' Eventually, you just have to let go. No book is ever really finished. There's always something to be changed or improved. Knowing when to let go is the greatest skill a writer can have.
WG: Rejections, notes from unhappy readers and less than stellar reviews are all part of this business. What is your own method for dealing with these and moving on?
SS: I don't read reviews anymore. Someone on a popular reviewer-website once wrote that 'she wished I had been aborted in the womb so I wouldn't have written the book.' After that I realized there will always be people that just want to create controversy, and it's not worth wasting my emotion.
WG: Is there some piece of advice you received or bit of 'conventional wisdom' that you wish you had ignored?
SS: When I first started writing, a lot of the established authors were still operating under the old paradigm. Someone I really admired publicly chastised me for taking a pen name before I'd been published. I dropped the name and stopped trying to build a platform. BIG mistake. With the explosion of self-publishing, platform is everything.
WG: What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What aspect do you struggle with the most?
SS: I'm still shocked by fan mail. Receiving fan mail is absolutely the best feeling for a writer. But I will always struggle with insecurity. Recently my agent rejected a proposal and I was devastated. Later I accepted that my worst fears had been realized, and I had survived. There's something liberating about that.
WG: When you're not writing, what do you do for fun or what is your favorite self-indulgence?
SS: I love my family and we have a great time together!
WG: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SS: A veterinarian.
WG: What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
SS: Hmmm…I once had a top-secret security clearance. The FBI questioned me for days and then investigated my background for three months before I qualified.
WG: What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?
SS: I don't watch a lot of TV. I have seen Downton Abbey and the BBC Sherlock.
WG: I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share.
SS: "Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty." Brene Brown
WG: Please tell us about your current project.
SS: My current book is The Marshal's Ready-Made Family. The heroine is JoBeth, a character from Winning the Widow's Heart. I received several letters asking me to write Jo's story (once she was all grown up, of course). I couldn't refuse!
Here's the blurb:
Gentlemen don't court feisty straight shooters like JoBeth McCoy. Just as she's resigned to a lifetime alone, a misunderstanding forces the spunky telegraph operator into a marriage of convenience. Wedding the town's handsome new marshal offers JoBeth a chance at motherhood, caring for the orphaned little girl she's come to love.
Garrett Cain will lose guardianship of his niece, Cora, if he stays single, but he knows no woman could accept the secrets he's hidden about his past. The lawman can't jeopardize Cora's future by admitting the truth. Yet when unexpected danger in the small town threatens to expose Garrett's long-buried secret, only a leap of faith can turn a makeshift union into a real family.
WG: What inspired you to write this particular story?
SS: Jo is a tough, no-nonsense character. I gave her a hero with a past…I liked the idea that Jo wanted a family, but since she grew up a tomboy, the men in town saw her as a 'buddy' rather than a love interest. She needed a hero who truly saw her inner beauty.
WG: What sort of research, if any, did you have to do? Did you stumble across any unexpected interesting/fun tidbits along the way?
SS: Jo is a telegraph operator. Turns out Western Union liked to hire women because they could pay them less money! Go figure.
WG: Tell us about your upcoming plans.
SS: In August I have a book coming out called The Cattleman Meets His Match. It's about a cattle drive with an all-girl crew. I had a lot of fun writing that book, and I hope the readers like it as well!
The main character is John Elder, he's the brother of the main character in Winning the Widow's Heart, Jack Elder. Poor John has been surrounded by men his whole life, and now he's trapped in Indian Territory with five girls.
In the first part of 2015, I have a story featuring a suffragette. I've had a lot of fun researching the topic. It's amazing how much those women were willing to sacrifice for their beliefs.
I learned that suffragists (with an 'i') were considered peaceful, and suffragettes (with an 'e') were considered militant. A fine distinction…
The hero of book four is a reoccurring character, Caleb McCoy. He's been unlucky in love and avoids the public eye. I figured matching him up with someone who lives her life in the spotlight would be perfect!
WG: And before we close, tell us how your readers can get in touch with you.
SS: I love, love, love to hear from readers! firstname.lastname@example.org, sherrishackelford.com, PO Box 116, Elkhorn, NE 68022.
WG: Thanks so much for spending time with me and my readers this month. It was fun 'chatting' with you, as always!
SS: Thank you for having me. As a side note, I read through your author, editor and agent interviews while on my road to publication. Your archives are a great resource for writers!