Peg Herring is a former educator from northern Lower Michigan whose published works include plays, short stories, magazine articles, and novels. When not writing, editing or reading, Peg enjoys choral music. She and her husband of four decades love both travel and working on their ancient but comfortable home.
What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
Five Star will publish my historical mystery, HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER, in January of 2010. The protagonists, young Elizabeth Tudor and a crippled young man named Simon, are drawn into danger when they investigate the beheadings of a series of beautiful young women. Needless to say, Henry VIII does not know of his daughter’s involvement in crime-solving.In addition, my first novel, MACBETH’S NIECE, comes out in large print in April of 2009. Since it’s what’s called a “sweet” romance, it is especially suited for older readers who want or need a little larger font size and enjoy a good story without a lot of sexual specifics. All my books are available in bookstores and on amazon.com.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract. What went through your head?
The journey is long, long, long! After I finished MACBETH’S NIECE, it took almost two years to find an agent. She gave up after a year, saying she loved the book but couldn’t sell it. I had another manuscript finished by then, so I found an agency that took that one on. After a year, they also wrote to say that although they loved the book, they couldn’t sell it. I was quite dejected, but about that time the first agent wrote to ask if MACBETH’S NIECE was still available. That led to a contract with Five Star but even then, the publication date was sixteen months later. That’s a lot of waiting (six years total) to hear whether your work is good enough, catchy enough, sellable enough.
When I got the call (actually it was an email), it seemed like a vindication of all my work and worry. I had told no one except my husband and one of my sisters that I was trying to publish, but once I had that contract and that advance check, I was willing to tell anyone who would listen!
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
I don’t really doubt that my work is interesting, because I’ve had great reader feedback. Due to my nature, however, I can always see areas to improve upon. What’s strange is the feeling of “celebrity” for lack of a better word. Although most of my friends treat me the way they always have, some people look at me differently, whether in a good way or a bad one I can’t say. I’m no smarter, better or more admirable than I was before, but the title “published author” makes a difference in people’s perceptions. It’s hard for me to put myself “out there” as someone who calls herself a writer.
Years as a reader and an English teacher taught me that styles differ. For every person who loves my work there will be one who doesn’t. It’s disconcerting to be asked for advice by aspiring writers, because I haven’t got the magic they want. All I can do is give my opinion and tell my experiences. Yours will be both different and the same, somehow.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
Persist! When at first I read that six years is the average wait-time for publication, I thought, “Not for me.” I was wrong. Persistence is key, because so few succeed on the first try, with the first novel, or in the first year. Or five.
How do you plot?
Usually riding along in my car. I love to drive, and my sister lives seven hours away from me. The plot for HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER evolved in that span. The creative part of my brain is free to roam in long periods of silence, so I carry a small recorder and tape what I’m “hearing” in my head. That provides the story’s skeleton. Then I love to go to a library and surround myself with books, which provides a great deal of the story’s “meat.” Yes, I use the Internet too, but there’s always a day or more of the library experience to sort of get my bearings. Could Elizabeth have lived in such-and-such a place when she was fourteen? What was Henry’s condition at that time? Answers to such questions fill out the story, add characters, and keep me honest, at least as far as a novelist using real history is likely to be. Of course that’s the fun part.
The work part is doing the actual writing, where things I thought would work don’t and characters won’t behave themselves and do as they’re told. Shifts, often major ones, come in the writing phase, when creativity meets reality.
Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand or do you write scenes as they come to you?
My story is very, very vague in the beginning. I’m like Mark Twain, who said that once he’d invented a character, he simply followed him and wrote down his story. I have a goal in mind, such as the solution of a murder, and as I think things through, the murderer shows up, perfectly willing to kill until I find someone who can stop him.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
Organize and file! Keep track of every idea, every person you meet, every snippet of networking information, everything you do to promote your work and yourself. Put it into some easily accessible format.
Organization is key to success in both the creative and the business aspects of writing. Plots need to be organized of course, but you need to know where to find the name of that person who said she might write a blurb or that agency that said to check back in six months and they might take a look, too. There needs to be a balance.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
The hardest thing for me is my personal life drifting like a snow-bank over my career pathway. It’s hard to sustain the intense focus that writing a novel takes when there’s something else niggling at my concentration. It’s hard to arrange promotional events when medical necessity might wipe out all my plans.On the other hand, writing is a great escape once I get into it, so outside troubles can be made to disappear.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
I’ve become MUCH pickier about what I consider good writing. I recognize weak plots almost from chapter one, become disgusted with flat or illogical characters, require an ending that clears up all questions, and find redundant/incorrect writing intolerable.On the other hand, I SO appreciate the great writers who pull it all together and make me sad that the story has to end.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
Like many writers, I love whatever I’m working on at the moment. I suppose MACBETH’S NIECE will always be special because it’s the first one that won the “prize” of publication.
What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?
I’ve been lucky with copy editors. My initial-reading editor is very patient and helpful. My editor at Five Star is also great. Because I know she’s very, very busy, I try to maintain clear communication without bothering her with needless questions. I’ve found that the author’s handbook I was given provides answers to most of my concerns. I do keep my editor informed of my promotional activities, because it helps the company keep track of where sales are and when they need to consider reprinting. It doesn’t hurt to let them know that I’m out there working on it, either!
How many drafts do you edit before submitting to your editor?
That’s hard to say, since the computer allows mini-edits. Once I’ve got a finished first draft, I like to edit in layers, so I’ll do a read-through just looking for sensory detail, another just looking at dialogue, another for chapter length, and so on. I’d guess I read a work twenty times before I submit, probably print it out five times (I’m a former English teacher and need to feel the pen-in-my-hand edit) but I’ve had the luxury of time so far. It should get easier as I get more practice.
I always tell aspiring writers to put the MS away for a long time, six weeks to six months, once you think it’s finished. When you come back to it you’ll see the big problems. However, that’s not possible once an author starts on a publisher’s schedule. For example, a friend just told me her publisher gave her six months to write, edit, and submit her next novel. That requires multi-tasking as you write and edit. A good piece of advice I’ve heard is to read the whole thing in one day as a sort of test to see if it holds together, then go back for a final edit.
We often hear how important it is to write a good query letter to whet the appetite of an editor. What tips can you offer to help other writers pen a good query?
I do three paragraphs: one on the book (genre, length, why it’s exciting), one about me (very basic stuff related to publishing), and one on my marketing strategy and promotional experience. Some in the industry feel that the query is losing importance because everyone these days gets lessons on how to do it well. I don’t know about that, but it’s a requirement, so try for sparkle without sounding either pompous or silly.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
Not really. I get frustrated because everything moves so slowly in this business, but I have a very supportive husband who just says, “Keep doing what you love.” And I do love it.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I use my teaching background as a base and present on a variety of topics at libraries, writers’ groups, and schools. This provides lots of contacts, and I feel that I’m not just “pushing” my book but offering an entertaining/enlightening presentation as well. Writers have to work with what they have in terms of promotion, and we all have different strengths. I’ve seen writers who wear costumes, writers who make outrageous claims about their books, writers who make it their goal to visit every bookstore in the United States. They say in promotion that everything works, you just don’t know how much any one thing works. Oddly, I’ve seen a lot of writers spend time promoting to other writers, which seems to me less productive than going where the readers are.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
The most recent one was from a young mother who berated me (in a teasing way) for keeping her from home-schooling her four young children. “I can’t put your book down!” was the opening line. Another was from a former school principal who claims that MACBETH’S NIECE should be required reading in every high school where Macbeth is taught, because students would like the story. I wish she ran the Department of Education!
Thanks to Sandra for the “pulpit” and to everyone who reads and promotes reading. As a teacher, my highest goal was to create readers, because they are people who will never be bored, will never be dull, and whose worlds will always be expanding.