Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Guest Blogger - Heather

Today's guest blogger is my daughter, Heather. The following is an essay she wrote for her English class at Northwestern College. She has a very proud mama.

My Mom, The Novelist

‘When people find out that I write novels, they inevitably ask: “How do you write books?”
Would these same questioners ask a pianist: “How do you play the piano?”
Or a surgeon: “How do you perform an operation?”
Or an athlete: “How do you play ball?”
When people are asked, “Can you write?” they often say, “I don’t know; I’ve never tried.” But when you ask these same people if they can play the cello, they don’t say, “I don’t know; I’ve never tried.”
The implication here is that most people believe anyone can write—’ From How to Write and Sell a Christian Novel by Gilbert Morris.

Writing a novel takes a lot more time and effort than most people understand. I know this because my mom, Erica Vetsch, is a novelist. As her Plotting Partner and Editorial Assistant, I get to help her with her writing. Her dream of publishing a novel has taken four years to see it happen.
My mom did not start out writing novels. She started out writing fan fiction—using ideas created by others and writing stories based upon those characters and ideas. From these short stories, a bigger dream grew. “I had one particular story that had some merit, I thought, to be turned into a mainstream novel,” Mom says. “I changed the characters and setting, tweaked the storyline a lot, and rewrote it, expanding on the original idea.” After several months’ work, this story developed to become her first novel-length manuscript.
After producing her first novel, Mom was faced with the challenge of getting published. She assumed, as many new authors do, that once she had a novel finished, she naturally would get published. The process turned out to be more difficult than either of us anticipated.
Mom sent a proposal out to several different agents. Most of them sent it back with a letter of rejection, usually a basic form letter. One agent, however, seemed interested and even asked to see the whole manuscript. We were very excited when he signed Mom on. With such a wonderful book, surely offers for publishing would come pouring in!
The agent sent the story out to publishers but also encouraged Mom to keep writing. With more books to send out, Mom has a better chance of being published. In addition, Mom can grow and improve her writing skills. That first novel and several subsequent novels were met with rejections from publishers, but Mom did not give up, and each novel improved as she continued to write.
My mom often gets asked where her ideas for her novels come from. “Every author is different, and for me, the beginning idea for every book has come from a different source of inspiration. Some come from reading an account from a history book, watching a movie, or visiting a museum. Others come from brainstorming sessions with friends, from ‘what if’ questions, or as a bolt from the blue. Some ideas have staying power that can sustain an entire book, and some, after a bit of thought, fade away.”
Those ideas that stick need a bit of structure before she begins the writing process. The structure comes from plotting and research. My mom’s research takes on many forms. Because she writes historical fiction, she must research the era of history she wishes to portray. To do this we visit historical sites and museums concerning that time period.
For example, for a book set in 1905 Duluth, we visited the city of Duluth. On this trip, we took a tour of Fairlawn Mansion. This old house was turned into a museum and portrays the time period we were researching. We also toured the last remaining whaleback ship, the S.S. Meteor. This ingenious design ship design was created in the late nineteenth century and was used extensively on the Great Lakes. Last but not least, we visited Split Rock Lighthouse. This visit included a trip to the lakeshore below the lighthouse. By visiting the setting of her novel, Mom gets a feel for what this place looks like and how people would act in this place.
After thoroughly investigating the setting, Mom researches the people. “I immerse myself in the era I want to recreate. I read sourcebooks, original documents, letters, newspaper articles, and the like to capture the language and atmosphere of the era. I look at clothing, particularly women’s dress, and hairstyles. I try to find photographs if possible. This helps me stay true to the historical era and also establishes the boundaries for the setting and characters.” This often means trips to the library and to Forestville, a historical reenactment site of 1899. The tour guides all wear costumes of the era and the site has many old photographs and stories of the people who lived there. Forestville is also much closer than Duluth, so this site is our gold mine.
At this point we begin plotting. I say ‘we’ because I am heavily involved in this process. “I couldn’t plot my books without Heather. She is my brainstorming partner, sounding board, and barometer of when things just aren’t working. By the time I finish a book, Heather has listened to the plot about a dozen times, picked holes in all the weak areas, and helped me strengthen the motivations of the characters to form a cohesive story.” Sometimes the plot my mom tells me first is nothing like the finished product, which is okay, since the original plot is only an outline and easily changed.
We use many different tools to plot these novels. Many are the times I’ve seen the table covered in books, papers, and Post-it notes. As Mom tries to establish a ‘road map’ of her book, we may have impromptu plotting parties on the bed, just to talk about the story. We have used timelines, plot ‘skeletons’, and even a display board to organize the story as it unfolds. “My approach to each of the eight novels I’ve written has been different as I try to find the particular method that works best for me,’ says Mom. “I started out a completely ‘seat-of-the-pants’ writer, but now I need to have a fairly good idea where the story is going in order to present it to my editor in a proposal. This requires more planning, more forethought, and more work!”
After the book is plotted comes the writing. This is the part that Mom does mostly herself. Typing on her laptop, Mom writes at least some on her novel every weekday. About every other Saturday, she goes to the library or a local restaurant to find a quiet place to have a big writing day away from distractions. I have been known to accompany her on these outings. Trips to the library are beneficial, because she gets more done on these days than when she stays home.
“I currently write about two books per year. From initial plotting to the final polish takes about six months. I typically set a word count goal of at least one thousand words per day. On days I write away from home, the word count is set at three to four thousand. My best day so far has been around nine thousand words, but that was mostly due to being at the end of a book. The pace always picks up towards the end of a novel.”
Once the first draft is completed the editing process begins. This part in the development of the book once again requires the help of others, including me. The first step in editing is the pencil edit phase. The novel is printed out on paper, and Mom reads it aloud as I listen. Between the two of us, we pick out redundant word usage, places where sentences are not clear, and sections that could be improved by additional plotting or description. After the pencil edits, the corrections get typed into the computer.
“I have trusted friends who read the manuscript once it is completed, and they critique it, helping me see errors or weaknesses that I don’t see because I am too close to the work. These friends are authors too, and I return the favor by critiquing their work. This kind of input is invaluable for me.”
Once the manuscript is finished, Mom compiles a proposal packet. This includes a synopsis of the novel, some sample chapters, a brief author bio, ideas for marketing, and ideas for sequels to this book. The proposal is sent to Mom’s agent, who sends it to publishers.
Getting a story from an author’s initial idea through the publishing process and onto bookstore shelves takes effort from a lot of people and a considerable amount of time. “No novel arrives on the shelves without a team effort. The author writes the book. Then the editors edit it to make it stronger and eliminate any errors. The marketing team, publicity team, cover artwork team, and the author all work together to make the book as saleable to the targeted audience as possible. From the edited/revised stage, the book is typeset, proofed yet again in the galley/mock-up stage, and then sent to print. Advanced copies might go out for review, and the book is advertised in the publishing house’s catalog. The book goes out to bookstores, book clubs, and other venues for sale. It’s a long process, often taking eighteen months or more from the time the contract is signed to the time the book is available to the reader.”
When asked how to get published, my mom has several things she tells aspiring novelists. “First, sit down and write. There is no substitute for writing. Most people don’t want to write; they want to have written. A lot of people have stories in their heads, but they will never be published until they put their backside in the chair and put words on the screen. Second, be persistent. Overnight success in this business is so rare as to be almost a myth. On average, it takes an author about five years and about five ‘practice’ novels before they produce something ready for publication. This takes a certain amount of stubbornness and belief in yourself. Don’t quit. About the time you want to throw in the towel, you’re just about there.”Though the road to publication is difficult, it is also rewarding. This past September, after four years and several novels, my mom finally got a contract to publish one of her books. Her novel, The Bartered Bride, releases in November of next year from Barbour Publishing. My mom is proof that with hard work and determination, dreams can come true.


  1. There is so much pride in this essay. Well done, Heather, you and your mom have a lot to be proud of.

  2. Great article and very pretty guest blogger. If you two were speaking at a conference, I would definitely sit in on your session. I enjoyed reading your path to publication, Erica. I'll bet you two will be co-authors some day. :)

  3. Wonderful essay! So well written. You must be very proud of your daughter. Blessings from a writer/missionary in Costa Rica

  4. Nice work, Heather! Is a copy of this going in the scrapbook?

  5. Great job, Heather! There really is a lot that goes into writing a novel, and you've highlighted it beautifully. I can't wait to see Bartered Bride in print!!!!!

  6. Jess- I'd love to be a co-author with Heather. She helps me so much already, I don't think I could write a book without her. I am truly blessed.

  7. Kathie, welcome to OTWP. Thanks for commenting, and I hope you enjoy the blog. :)

  8. Ooo, Linda, that's a brilliant idea! Scrapbook, here we come! Which reminds me, I should take the scrapbook for Lorraine to look at. She might get a kick out of it.

  9. CJ...I'm not sure who is more proud of who (or is it whom?) Heather is a great girl. We're pretty blessed, aren't we, in our girls?

  10. G- not only was it a blast to have Heather on the blog (And I think it might become a regular feature.) but it gave me a day off trying to think up what to talk about on the B-L-O-G. ;)

  11. Thank you all for your comments! I had a great time writing this essay with Mom. She is fun to write with. I know a lot of hard work goes into every novel. I wanted to show my teacher and my classmates haow proud I am of my Mom and what she does. I can't wait to see her books in print! Now I have to wait for a grade on the paper. If all your comments are any indication, I'll do great!:D Thanks again!

  12. Kudos to Heather for such a great essay. Erica, it must be a joy to see your daughter "shine" in this way that reflects your own passion. And Heather's right--I can't wait for your book to come out.