About a month ago, I was given the amazing opportunity of interviewing the wonderfully charming and talented self-published author Sue Horner. Sue, author of Second Place Sister, published her first book through Jera Publishing and is currently working on the sequel. I cannot begin to describe how grateful I am that she gave her precious time to a random high school intern she had never previously met.
Sue is everything I’d hoped she would be: kind, enthusiastic, eager to teach, and beyond humble. Because of her, I know so much more about the publishing process from the author’s perspective. I have learned a great deal from every member of the Jera team, but it was wonderful to see the point of view from someone on the other side of the computer screen.
Though I was very nervous leading up to the interview, Sue’s carefree personality quickly set me at ease. I left the interview with pages upon pages of notes, amazed at everything she had taught me. Now, I will share what I’ve learned about her writing experience with you.
Sue Horner describes herself as a “late bloomer.” She always adored writing but didn’t pursue it as a career in her early life as she didn’t believe she could ever become a successful writer. As soon as Sue said this, she instantly struck a chord with me. I felt the exact same way when I was younger—still do most of the time. Literature has always been my passion, ever since I was a little girl. However, it’s beyond nerve-racking thinking about one’s future writing career. Writing for hobby is one thing. Writing for others to read is a whole other conundrum. Shockingly, it turns out that I—a naïve eighteen-year-old—and this successful writer have something in common.
Instead, Sue decided to pursue a career in public relations. This was somewhat satisfying for her since it did contain many components of writing. The writing she dealt with was non-fiction rather than the work of fiction she has most recently released. Her job mainly entailed writing reviews and descriptions, like those found on the back of products. For example, the back of a shampoo bottle has a description that was written by someone in PR like Sue. While the description has to be truthful and informative, the key to this career is writing in an intriguing way to entice consumers. So, while Sue didn’t start publishing her own work right away, her career in public relations did allow her to use her creative side.
After telling me about her old career, I asked Sue how she embarked on her current writing career. Years ago, when she returned to Atlanta from up North, she joined a writers’ critique group. This first writing group she participated in didn’t stay together long; however, she found close friends who helped break off and form a second, more intimate group of about five members. This group fostered the meaningful discussions that ultimately led toward her writing career.
Though Sue was surrounded by encouragement from family and friends, she wasn’t sure what to do. She knew she wanted to write a book, but she didn’t know what to write about. She considered publishing a book with Kinko’s so she could give a handful of copies to a few close friends and family members, but her writing group insisted she go out and “officially” publish a book. She met with a few editors—focusing with one in particular—but never felt completely comfortable with the publishing process. Then, she met Kim Martin.
Along with the rest of the Jera team, Kim led Sue through the publishing process, answering all of her questions and making sure she knew everything that was going on. That’s when Second Place Sister truly came to life.
Second Place Sister was inspired by one of Sue’s very close friends. One day, and many other ones following, Sue’s friend Ali complained to Sue about her sister. She went on about their childhood, about how her sister, Janelle, has never changed, and described their relationship in vivid detail. This is what kicked off the idea for Sue’s first novel. Sue loved her friend’s unique relationship with her sister. As children, most sisters are extremely competitive, but once they become older, the competitive side eases and they become much closer. Most sisters, as they grow together, become each other’s dearest friend. However, this was nowhere near the case for Ali. She and her sister never went through the “growing up” phase.
Diving into the story, Sue created her characters in an alluring way. Though the characters reincarnate Ali and Janelle almost identically, they never stay stagnant throughout the story. They are both truly dynamic characters that encompass their distinct personalities. Many writers create one dynamic main character that displays many facets, both admirable and flawed, to create a stronger connection between said character and the reader. However, other minor characters tend to lack the same depth. It’s easy to see that the writer related to the main character greatly, which is why they could write such vivid detail about him or her, but the other characters are briefly described or described in a “basic” way. They lack the depth and meaning behind the main character. Sue does the exact opposite. No matter the character, each one is written in great detail, mainly utilizing indirect characterization, giving each one great depth. The two sisters—named after Ali and Janelle—are as different as different can be. One a common suburban mom, the other a fashionista used to the high life, both are described in immaculate detail. None of the characters are simply “stagnant.” Every character is relatable and changes as the story progresses.
Character development is one of the most important facets of novel writing according to Sue. In order for the story to be portrayed in the way the author desires, it’s necessary to plan out each of the characters to help contribute to the story. In Sue’s words, you have to plan out the “CVs of characters,” meaning you have to know EVERYTHING about the characters before writing a sentence of the novel. Their weight, appearance, quirks, opinions on global affairs—everything and anything you can think of. Make the characters come to life. Know your characters inside and out. Who are they? What makes them act the way they do? Don’t just create a dynamic main character surrounded by static minor characters. Make every character, no matter how “minor,” a dynamic one. Janet Evanovich, an American author well known for her contemporary romance and mystery novels, greatly inspired Sue’s attention to character development. Evanovich’s characters jump off the page as she pays enormous detail to each and every character. She flawlessly creates dynamic characters, which encouraged Sue to put great efforts in doing the same with her own characters.
Now, creating characters can be challenging, but it is still an overall engaging and exciting process. The tricky part of writing is creating the plot. It’s pretty simple coming up with the rising action, climax, and falling action, but all of the moments in between can be difficult. Sue gave me tips on how she came up with her plot. Going off of Ali’s relationship with Janelle helped, but Sue needed more than Ali’s life to create this story. Sue took numerous classes and read many informative books about developing plot, which helped her immensely. After she did her research and started putting pen to paper (or more like fingers to keyboard), she laid out the plot like a screenplay for a movie. She wrote out every “scene” with every character, every interaction, and every moment. This greatly helped her, but Sue informed me that this would not help every person. She told me there are two types of people: OPs and NOPs. You probably have no idea what that means, and neither did I. I stared at her for a good thirty seconds, not having a clue what she was talking about. Realizing my confusion, she further explained what these acronyms mean. OP stands for “Outline People,” and NOP stands for “Not Outline People.” Pretty straight forward, right? Sue learned from her classes and interactions with her writing group that some people love outlines, completely adore them. They’ll layout each and every moment in the book: what the characters are wearing, what time it is, the location, the weather, everything. It helps them know where the book is headed. Others hate outlines; thus, they are NOPs. They just write and write, letting the plot naturally flow from mind to hand. Sue emphasized there is no better or right way. It just depends on what the author finds more suitable. One piece of advice Sue had was not to spend too much time on the outline if you are, like her, an OP. If you do, you will either pay too much attention to the grand outline or go off course. Know the beginning, middle, and end of the book. That will help guide you.
Now, one of the easily overlooked yet important components of the novel is figuring out the title. Though I am a young writer without much experience, I was greatly interested in how Sue came up with her title. Titles are often what intrigue me to books. If they’re catchy or engaging in anyway, that entices me to pick up the book. Unfortunately, I’m horrendous at naming my work. So, I asked Sue how she chose her title. Sue said she had huge lists of titles she had created and showed them to the writing group, but they didn’t like any of them. Discouraged, she kept creating new titles and showing them to the group, but time and time again, everyone said no to all of them. She used the sisters’ relationship to inspire the titles and felt very eager about some of them, but the group didn’t like any of them. Not a single one. Though this bothered Sue, she soon learned that you have to make some decisions based on your own opinions. Yes, it’s easy to be swayed by others, especially when you’re writing your first book and you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. However, everyone will have something to say. Not everyone will love the title. All that matters is that you love it. After this realization, Sue turned to the Jera team for some help, which is when they suggested the title Second Place Sister. Sue then told me something I never knew before. In traditional publishing, the authors have very little to no say in what the title is. The marketing team figures it out. Now, this might be easier on some that have a hard time coming up with a title—oh, how I can relate—while others find that they want to be more involved in the publishing process, including coming up with the title. That’s one of the many reasons why Sue loves self-publishing.
Once the content of the novel and title are figured out, there’s one more key step in the production of a novel: interior and cover design. Sue had an original idea for the cover, but she didn’t want the characters’ faces to be seen. She wanted to leave their appearance up to the descriptions in the novel and the readers’ imagination. Stephanie and Jason—the interior designer and cover designer—made Sue a cover with one woman in heels and another in flannel, jeans, and some flats with a cute puppy in the middle. Not only did it include elements of the story, but it also accurately displayed the differences between the two sisters by their distinct apparel choices, showing them only from the waist down and keeping their faces unseen. It was just what Sue wanted.
After describing her writing process, Sue began to tell me about her experience with Jera and everything she learned during the publishing process. According to Sue, “Jera made it easy.” The team was very helpful, made publishing straightforward without any fuss, and kept her involved throughout the whole process. She would publish with Jera again in a heartbeat and has continued working with Jera on her blog.
When I asked what she learned through this process, she elaborated on how writing is tough, but marketing is tough as well. She never thought how difficult marketing would be, but thanks to Jera, she had help. With traditional publishing, you have to market on your own, but with self-publishing, you are free to employ much more help—another plus to self-publishing!
There are many pros and cons to the writing process. The most fascinating part? Sue believes it’s how the characters take over everything. “Ask any author. The characters truly become a part of your life, like real people.” The most tedious? The editing and proofreading process takes a long time and involves reading and rereading your novel over and over and over again. You think you caught all the mistakes? You think you’re happy with your work? Think again. It’s easy to overlook mistakes, especially when it’s your own work. That’s why editors are necessary for the publishing process. The editors at Jera are so eager to help that Sue said it makes the process easier. Nothing is worse than continuing the editing process with someone who is just as done with your book as you are.
Going further into the pros and cons, I wondered about the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Sue explained that in traditional publishing, authors don’t have much say in certain aspects of marketing—the title, layout of novel, interior design—but authors have to figure out how to market their book all on their own. Yes, there are “experts” out there and agents who can help you market your book, but they are not part of the traditional publishing company. You have to find these marketing agents on your own or try to manage the marketing process by yourself. The great benefit to self-publishing is that authors have a much greater say in the publication of their book. Its design, the title, how it’s put together, and so much more is determined by the author, not the publisher. Yes, there are some guidelines that need to be followed, but unlike a traditional publisher, the author has much more say. And the self-publishing team is much more willing to help the author through each and every step of the publication process. That’s why Sue loves self-publishing so much.
As I am an eager aspiring writer, I wondered how long it took to write and publish the novel from the moment Sue started writing to the moment she saw it for sale. With an exasperated smile, Sue said it took five years for Second Place Sister to be created. She began writing in 2009, and it was published in July 2014. So far, the sequel has taken one and a half years to write, and she is still in the writing stage.
After the publication process is over, I asked Sue how she felt. Overwhelmed? Exuberated? Satisfied? Sue answered honestly and said she actually didn’t really feel anything. She was happy that she finally did it, her life-long goal was completed, but there wasn’t a huge release like she expected. She felt kind of numb, probably in too much awe that she’d finally completed her goal.
Her future plans? She’s writing a sequel and has plans for a third. As the writing process takes much longer than she previously thought, she probably will only write three more books (or at least that’s what she says now—who knows what the future will bring?). She is also continuing to work on her website. Jera has continued helping her with her writing, marketing, and development of her website.
Throughout the interview, Sue gave me tons of advice on book publishing which I have included in a bulleted list below. Most are helpful tips that I never thought about before, and I can’t wait to incorporate them into my writing process.
- When writing a book, think about a sequel and third novel ahead of time before you publish the first book.
- Tianna Holley, author of Unexpected Entrapment, had plans for her sequel and third book before she even published her first novel, which greatly helped in the publication and marketing processes.
- Join book clubs!
- They will help your writing and editing skills.
- They help spread awareness of your book (marketing).
- Create a website or blog BEFORE you publish your first book. That way you have time to set it up the way you want.
- When writing a novel, keep a brief bio of each main character beside your workstation as a reference tool.
- How does an author know when the book is finished? They just know. Don’t overedit your work.
- Get people to read your book! Have them review it! Amazon has a review system that is very easy-to-use.
- Let the negative comments roll off your back, or acknowledge them and apply the critiques to your next work. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t let the comments bother you.
- Without a doubt, Sue encourages aspiring writers to self-publish.
Sue also brought in some of her favorite books that helped her through the writing/editing process. She adores these books and insisted I get them, so I thought I would share this list as well.
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
- Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts
- What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Sue was so eager to share her knowledge with me, and I cannot begin to explain how grateful I am. I can only hope to one day become as wonderful a person and as gifted a writer as she is.
Want to learn more about Sue Horner? Check out her website: suehornerauthor.com.