More Than Just an Author and Editor, Meet Sheaf House Founder, J.M. Hochstetler

Welcome back to our special Two Part interview with Sheaf House founder, J.M. Hochstetler!
J. M. Hochstetler writes stories that always involve some element of the past and of finding home. Born in central Indiana, the daughter of Mennonite farmers, she was an editor with Abingdon Press for twelve years and has published three historical novels. Daughter of Liberty (2004), Native Son (2005), and Wind of the Spirit (March 2009), the first 3 books of the American Patriot Series, are set during the American Revolution. She is also the author of a contemporary novel, One Holy Night (2008) a modern-day retelling of the Christmas story.

Hochstetler is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Christian Authors Network, Middle Tennessee Christian Writers, and Historical Novels Society. She lives with her husband near Nashville, Tennessee.

Since you’re also an editor, let’s chat about that. What made you decide to launch Sheaf House?

It sure wasn’t my idea. Do you think I’m that insane?!! I never ever conceived that one day I’d start my own publishing house. I’m a creative person. I want to write, not administer and figure out financials and plot marketing strategy!!

But, as so often happens, God pushed me out of my comfort zone. Over the years, as publishing contracts regularly didn’t come my way, I’d mutter to myself, “I just ought to start my own publishing house.” That’s a dangerous thing to do, as I’m sure you’ve experienced in your own life! Anyway, back in 2006 when my 2 published books had fizzled and every door slammed shut in my face, one day I was stomping around the house, totally frustrated, and I uttered that threat once too often. This time I heard a distinct voice very clearly saying, “Well…why don’t you?”

I stopped in my tracks. I didn’t have a single doubt who was speaking, and I knew that if I didn’t say yes right away or if I hesitated for a split second, reason and common sense would prevail and I’d decide I hadn’t really heard anything and tiptoe away. So I gulped and said, “Okay, Lord, if you hand is in it, I’ll walk through every door you open. You know very well I can’t do this, so if it’s going to happen, you’ll have to do it. It’ll be what you want it to be, big or small, success or a failure, because it’s yours, not mine.”

Well, the Lord began opening doors, and he’s still opening them. Every day I’m amazed, but I’m not surprised. There is literally nothing impossible for our God. If he can enable me to run a publishing house, he can enable you to do anything he calls you to do.

As an editor, what’s that special something you look for in a book?

Tingles. If the first few paragraphs make me tingle, I know it’s the kindling of the Holy Spirit. But that’s pretty subjective and impossible to quantify. So a proposal has to intrigue me. It has to grab my attention from the beginning and hold it or I’m not going to read very far. I’m sure that’s true for every editor, and really, it’s the same for readers.

To really grab me, a story first has to deal with a subject I’m interested in, one I believe will inspire and elevate readers. It has to have well-drawn characters and setting and a distinct sense of time and place. Quirky is always good as long as it has a natural, unforced feel. Subtly profound is even better, and an angle on the story’s theme that’s different from the usual take on it. I have no interest in publishing the same old same old. There’s enough of that available already.

What are some things that set off red flags in a manuscript?

Bad grammar and spelling. Historical inaccuracies, if it’s a historical. A lot of “God talk” in place of deep insight. Cardboard characters who are all the same and a very generalized setting that doesn’t spring to life. A boring or unrealistic opening and/or premise. Prissiness. At Sheaf House our motto is: Real life. Real faith. Real fiction. And we mean it. Get real—even if it isn’t always pretty. We need to reach readers where they are.

What makes a manuscript stand out from the rest?

Excellent use of the language; a fresh, authentic voice; a compelling plot, believable characters, and a vividly drawn setting; and a profound theme.

We all hear how subjective this business is. Can you elaborate on that?

Any creative endeavor is highly subjective. It’s like the old saying: I may not know what I like, but I’ll know it when I see it. Sometimes I dislike a project for reasons I’m not able to define. It just isn’t right for me. But another editor loves it. Which one is right? Ultimately time is the only way to tell. One hundred years down the road, will this story be a classic that still speaks to readers, or will it be compost?

What’s the best piece of advice you can give our readers about getting published?

Acquire broad experience in life and ponder it profoundly. Work diligently to learn the craft and constantly improve. Form networks of support with other writers. Suck up to editors. Hey, we’re all suckers for flattery, and chocolate doesn’t hurt either.

Let’s say I have an intriguing query, a well developed synopsis and my three sample chapters are strong. Why might I still get a rejection?

There are all kinds of reasons you might be rejected, many of them having nothing to do with the quality of your writing. The editor might have a similar proposal on his or her desk that has just been accepted. Or it might be a bit stronger than yours or fit the publisher’s mission more closely. The market for that kind of story might be weak just then. The publisher’s list might be full for the next few years.

Or there might be budget cutbacks at the publishing house and they’re not taking on any new authors. The editor might be so covered up with submissions that it’s easier to surreptitiously stuff some of them back into the SASE and drop them in the mail than to plow through them all. The editor might be having a very bad day and even Shakespeare would look like something produced by a chimpanzee randomly pecking away on a typewriter with a stick. Maybe the editor just has bad judgment and doesn’t recognize true genius.

As writers, we have to learn to not take rejections personally—and I know that’s hard to do. It sure is for me. But if you don’t get over it, you’ll quit, and you know where that leads. On the other hand, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

If a writer is rejected and reworks the manuscript, can he/she resubmit it?

That depends. I have invited some writers to work on their manuscript and resubmit. But don’t do it unless you’re specifically asked to. Otherwise, a rejection is a rejection.

Would you recognize a resubmission? If you did, would you be able to see it with fresh eyes?

Yes, in both cases. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I was with Abingdon Press for twelve years, and I’ve been writing since 1977. Plus I’ve been an avid reader since I consorted with Dick and Jane. I’ve developed a pretty good feel for story and character. I’m also willing to give most people a second chance. There are a few exceptions…

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Never give up! I know you’ve heard that before, and you may be at a point where you’re asking what’s the point? Believe me, I totally relate to the pain of rejection and hitting yet another dead end every time you allow yourself to hope for a breakthrough. But do you believe in your heart of hearts that writing is your calling from the Lord? If you are persuaded of that, then remain faithful no matter what the cost, no matter whether you see any success as the world defines it. God has a purpose for the stories he gives you, and it will come to pass if you only endure. It can’t fail! But if you quit writing, I guarantee that the blessing God meant for you will go to someone else who refused to give up. Don’t do it!!