Thursday, May 1, 2008
An Interview with Author Sharon Dunn
I welcome humorous who-dun-it author, Sharon Dunn, to my Authors-Helping-Writers segment today. Sharon currently has two follow-the-clues mystery series in the works. They are written in the tradition of Agatha Christie books but with a touch of humor and a focus on the relationship between the characters. Her Ruby Taylor mysteries, published by Kregel publications are written in first person with a chic lit flavor and her second series, Bargain Hunters, mysteries focuses on four women who are bonded together by the need to clip coupons and find treasures at garage sales.
Just hearing those descriptions puts a smile on my face. They sound like such fun reads.
Sharon, tell us a little about yourself. Do you have any hobbies?
Sharon Dunn: Hobbies? That is one of the sacrifices I have made in order to find time to write. I haven’t been able to sew in years. With my part time job at the college, three kids and their activities, digging up crock pot recipes and the writing, I just haven’t had time for hobbies unless you consider the reading I do to be a hobby. Also, I often take walks to think through writing issues or pray.
That makes total sense, Sharon. I know the feeling. Will you share your road-to-publication story with us? First, tell us about the all-important “Acceptance Call”.
Sharon Dunn: When my first book, Romance Rustlers and Thunderbird Thieves was accepted, I received notice via email. The weird thing is I didn’t have extreme elation right away. I just felt sort of numb. Here was this thing I had wanted for so long, had dreamed about and now, it was happening. It didn’t feel real at first.
I know you’ve published several books, but how many and when were you first published?
Sharon Dunn: Right now, I have five books out and a sixth, the third book in the Bargain Hunters mysteries, is scheduled for release early 2009. My first Ruby Taylor mystery was published in 2003. That works out to about a book a year.
Have you received any publishing awards/credits since publication?
Sharon Dunn: Early on when I was selling short stories for minimal money or contributor’s copies, the magazines would have readers vote on best story of the year and I won twice with two different magazines. I won a scholarship for a screenplay I wrote when I was an undergrad. When I would get discouraged about my writing, I would remind myself of those accolades. I kept the acceptance letters and certificates in a folder that I could look at. I would say to myself “hey somebody likes my writing” and it kept me going. My first Ruby Taylor, Romance Rustlers was nominated for Inspirational Novel of the Year by Romantic Times magazine and the second book in the series Sassy Cinderella and the Valiant Vigilante was voted book of the year by American Christian Fiction Writers.
That’s awesome, Sharon. I can see how they would encourage. Prior to publication did you enter any writer’s contests?
Sharon Dunn: I did a ton of contests. First with short things, short stories and articles. Byline magazine used to have contests and I entered a lot of those. Also, I entered an RWA contest (I think it was Texas chapter) with a novella I had written and I won that contest. I placed in some contests and won some, it was a nice source of encouragement and kept me going as a writer. The contests are nice because they are sort of an inexpensive (and I am all about the good deal) way to get professional critiques. If my contest entry didn’t at least earn honorable mention, I seriously considered not sending it out.
In addition to working on your manuscripts, how else do you participate in the writing world?
Sharon Dunn: I have judged the Genesis contest through ACFW for two years. It has been a good experience for me. ACFW has been such a support for me that I wanted to give something back. Some of the entries were fabulous and I realized how fortunate I was to be published. So much about getting published is about timing and patience and believing in your gift when no one else seems to. I hope some of those entries find publishers. I blog on Faithchick.com. This fall I will be teaching a workshop at the ACFW conference and have taught at Glorietta. Also, I love to write how-to articles on writing. I have written for Byline, Writers Journal, The Christian Communicator and others. Most of the articles come from me making a discovery in my own writing and wanting to share it with other writers.
You’re one busy woman. It’s great to see how involved you are with helping writers. Will you tell us how you write your stories and have all of them been published?
Sharon Dunn: Post-It notes are my salvation. I have to have everything in front of me when I write, so my walls and my desk are filled with Post-It notes when I am working on a book. I write down details about character descriptions like “Ginger is 57” or “Earl has bushy eyebrows” and I write down the next scene or two that could happen. When I am in the rewrite stage, each Post-It makes note of things I need to fix. Once that change is made in the book, I pull the Post-It off the wall. Once all the Post-Its are gone, my rewrite is done.
I have two polished novels that will probably never sell and another one or two unpolished, mostly finished ones that were practice. Those early novels were very imitative of what I thought would sell. I am glad that Romance Rustlers sold and then later the Bargain Hunters mysteries, those books are my true voice, not me trying to sound like someone.
So how long did you concentrate on learning how to write then before your initial offer?
Sharon Dunn: From talking to other writers, the average time to learn to write a novel is probably about ten years. I had a little bit of a head start because I had studied story structure as part of my degree in Film Production and I had a good understanding of character development from the theater I had done and the acting classes I took. It took three or four years of picking away at that first novel before it was finished and then it took another two years to sell the first book.
If it took a couple years to sell your first book, I’m guessing you received some rejections along the way, do you remember how many and how you handled them?
Sharon Dunn: I don’t remember the exact count, probably somewhere between 12 to 14 publishers turned down Romance Rustlers before Kregel picked it up. When a book is being considered, it goes through a series of committees at the publishing house before a contract is offered. In one case, my book made it past the editorial committee and was bounced up to the PR committee. I became hopeful. My agent became hopeful. We waited and waited. I kept telling everyone it was okay if it was turned down, but that was a lie. I really wanted this book to sell. My not being honest with myself manifested itself in a skin condition. Even though I told everyone I wasn’t anxious about the book, the red spots all over my skin showed that I was stressed. In the end, the book that became Romance Rustlers got turned down by that publisher because they weren’t sure how to market a mystery to a Christian market. Mysteries were just starting to gain hold in the market at that time.
I was devastated. I prayed. I walked. I didn’t think about quitting writing, but I thought about returning to doing shorter things because there is less of an emotional investment in writing a 1000 word article that doesn’t sell. Shortly after that, my agent decided to not be an agent to pursue his own writing. I prayed and walked some more and then sent out the book to the two or three publishers that still took unagented submissions.
The support I receive from other writers buoyed me up. I went to conferences, joined ACFW and belonged to a local critique group. This is such a solitary life, it is really important to connect with other writers who practice the art of encouragement (I know some writers practice the art of tearing each other down, avoid those people). Also, I kept writing, worked on shorter things, treating my writing like a job in which I was punching the clock, sitting at my computer and not getting up until my two to three hour shift was over. You have to let yourself be sad or angry or whatever for a season when rejections happen and then it’s time to go back to work.
Great advice, Sharon! Can you give us an idea of how long a typical manuscript takes you to write?
Sharon Dunn: My first novel took three to four years because I had three to four years, I didn’t have a deadline and I would drop the novel and work on other things. That first novel is a luxury because there is no deadline pushing you, so you can tweak and tweak. I know that I can comfortably write a 70,000 word novel in about eight months now, so that is what I ask for in my contracts. I could push that to six or seven months if needed, but it would be a really stressful six or seven months and my kids would forget what I look like.
That’s encouraging to here. I was hoping my writing speed may pick up with experience. Do you have a specific approach to plotting that helps you write at such a pace?
Sharon Dunn: I am very much an SOTP. When I write, I know what the next two or three scenes will be and I have a general idea of where I want the book to end. Although I have been surprised by the ending and the person I thought was going to be the murderer turns out not to be the one that works best. Often, I make the discovery that the book will have a stronger twist ending, if someone else is the killer. And when I go back through the book I see scenes that with minor changing will make the true murderer into a suspect. The thing about being a SOTP is that you have to trust the process, not the outline. On some unconscious level, I have laid out a plot that allows for that twist ending that I didn’t see coming. If I had an outline, I would be bored out of my mind. It’s the surprises and the discoveries that make me want to get to the keyboard.
What is a typical writing schedule/plan for you?
Sharon Dunn: The general process is that I take two weeks to a month to brainstorm, do some prelim research and find the perfect place to start the story. This usually involves a bunch of false starts, of thinking I have chapter one in place and then realizing the book doesn’t start until page forty of my rough draft. Once I have the first couple of chapters in place, I write a quick very rough draft, no going back and making changes (just put up a Post It note about the change that needs to be made) Write write write, keep the book moving forward. This takes about four or five months and then the rest of the time is for fixing the book. The rough draft is usually a mess, some scenes will be nothing but dialogue or I will make notes to myself in bold (“need more descrip here” or “blah blah blah” or “this scene is not working. Why?” and my favorite “Icky”)
It sounds like you make the process as fun as your stories are. What a great way to keep the story moving while making follow-up notes. I’ll have to try that. Will you tell us about how you go about promoting your books?
Sharon Dunn: I am a seat of the pantser when it comes to promotion too. I learned as I went and with each book I have become more confident and organized about the way I handle the promotion. I figured out what works and what is a waste of energy. Because I live in a rural state, I focus a lot of my attention on internet promotions. My brand of, humorous who-dun-its, has become more defined with each book and that has helped too.
When the publisher schedules a radio or online interview, I do it. I deal with all the local level stuff for the booksignings, contact local media. Although with my new book Death of a Six-Foot Teddy Bear, my publisher hired a publicist and she was instrumental in me getting a cover story on the local entertainment paper. The local paper has been good about posting announcement for my booksigning, but a cover story with photos made the booksigning a huge success. I have a website and run a contest through that. Keep a Shout Life and Amazon connect page, blog on faithchick.com and I put together an influencer list and sent out copies of books. My publisher has never given me a list of expectations, I make myself as available as possible and try to never say “no” to a promotional opportunity.
I have a problem with knowing when to let go of my manuscripts. Do you have any advice for those of us who keep editing and revising endlessly?
Sharon Dunn: At some point, you hurt the book more than you help it. I read and read, adding layers of emotion and nuances to the skeleton of the plot. But sooner or later, I got to let the baby go. I think a lot of writers have a hard time letting go because there is a fear of failure or even a fear of success that they have to deal with. I know for me I often think of the reasons other manuscripts were rejected and I start to second guess what I have written. Getting feedback from other writers helps me to know if a manuscript is ready. When you have looked at and examined a piece of writing over and over, it’s easy to lose perspective.
You’ve been a great source of encouragement and help with all these answers, Sharon. Thanks so much for your willingness to participate, is there any final direction or thoughts you care to share with weary authors-in-training?
Sharon Dunn: Here are some of the things that helped me:
At first, a three or four hundred page book seemed like too big a project to fit my tight schedule. Then I read an article that pointed out if you wrote a page a day on a book at the end of the year you would have a 365 page book. I do more than a page a day, but the advice broke things down in a way that made a book seem doable.
When I told myself I couldn’t spend any money on my writing until I made money, I came across an article that said you should treat the writing like a hobby in relationship to money. A quilter spends money on fabric, thread, books and classes because she really likes to quilt. I spent money on books and classes and conferences because I loved to write. A word of caution here, conferences are expensive, don’t spend the grocery money on them. Spend the hobby money. For my first conference I saved a little from my paycheck and saved all the money I earned from writing. I think it took three or four years before I had enough money to go to a conference.
I collected war stories from other writers. I read articles about how many times now famous books were rejected and read about other writers journey to publication and listened to the stories told by other writers.
Finally, it is so important to connect with other writers. I have found the Christian writing community to be invaluable for the amount of encouragement and expert advice that I get. You need to feel less alone when you write and to know that others have gone through the same things you have gone through.
Wonderful advice, Sharon! Thanks so much for sharing all this with us, now will you tell us some about your books.
Sharon Dunn: My new series the Bargain Hunters mysteries combines two of my favorite things, a fun follow the clues mysteries and the hunt for a good deal. You can read more about my humorous who-dun-its at http://sharondunnbooks.com/.
Book One: Death of a Garage Sale Newbie
Released: March 2007
Death of a Garage Sale Newbie is about four women who are bonded together by the need to clip coupons and be first in line at doorbuster sales. When one of the bargain hunters goes missing, it is up to the other three to figure out what happened to her and why. The main character is Ginger who is a recent empty nester and bargain hunting expert and then there is Suzanne, mother of three with one on the way, and Kindra, the college student with a taste for designer clothes without the budget.
Book Two: Death of a Six-Foot Teddy Bear
Released: January 2008
Calamity, Nevada isn’t exactly Mecca for high rollers, but it is host for an Inventors’ Expo and the Squirrel Lovers’ Convention. Ginger hauls the ladies of the Bargain Hunters’ Network and Earl to the Wind-Up hotel in Calamity to help Earl market his invention, hit the cheap buffets and do a little outlet shopping. The hotel has been designed around a classic toy theme; the doors look like Bazooka bubble gum and the lobby floor is a checkerboard. When the hotel’s owner, a Donald Trump wannabe, is found dead wearing a teddy bear costume (it was a publicity stunt), suspicion falls on ex-wives, an angry son and Ginger and Earl.
Book Three: Death at Discount Prices
Scheduled for release January 2009
Book Three has the Bargain Hunters ladies headed to the Discount and Value Network (a shopping channel for the coupon clippers) where Ginger is scheduled to be a guest. A snowstorm traps the bargain hunters in the studios with a murderer, Ginger must figure out who-dun-it before it’s too late.
If you have any questions for Sharon, feel free to drop a note in the comment section and I'll be sure to pass them along.
Thanks so much for participating in this interview, Sharon. It was a pleasure getting to know you and hearing your road-to-publication story! All the best to you and yours.