Q&A: Plotting rom-coms with Heather Horrocks

Heather Horrocks is the USA Today bestselling author of contemporary cozy mysteries, romantic comedies, and light paranormal romantic mysteries (one of which is set on a unicorn ranch). She will talk about how she writes humor, her amazing plotting technique to minimize the stress of revisions, and how she plots books with an author friend.

Q. The reason I wanted to chat you up—other than that you are an awesome author friend whom I admire very much…

A. Back at ‘cha!

Q. …is that I saw you post about your drafting method.

A. By drafting, I assume you mean our plotting process…? Or something else…?

Q. You said that you changed your method so you could keep writing. So that revision wasn’t so hard. Do you remember that?

A. Oh, okay. Yes. I’m working on book 51 right now. And I’ve now plotted 101 books with Diane Darcy, each in one day. For the change I made … I had worked up to where I could write a first draft relatively quickly, but then would have to spend weeks on revisions. I finally came to a point where I just couldn’t face those weeks of revisions.

Q. Yes, I hear you!

A. So now instead of writing 20 pages a day and getting back to revise them at the end of the book, I now slow down and write and edit as I go. I look up any research then (instead of making a note like *how much do these weigh, etc.).

I’ve slowed down … but I feel much better about my writing life when I get to the end of a book and it takes me two days max to go through my book in print, mark it up, make the changes, and forward it to the editor. The old way was sucking my will to live and I just didn’t think I could face that even one more time.

Q. So when you say you have slowed down, what kind of wordcount is that on the average per day?

A. One to three scenes a day, which is five to ten pages when I’m in a good rhythm. I’m also working to write during the daytime and to not have horrible deadline weeks anymore. I’m getting too old for those!

Q. Let’s go back for a minute, and tell me how you got into writing / publishing.

A. I started writing back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I got serious at age 37, got a New York agent a few years later, and sold a book to Deseret Book. Just about the time I was ready to move on because I’d written several books by that time but wasn’t selling them, the Kindle wave began and my friend Diane and I decided to catch that wave. And it has changed our lives!

Q. We all need a friend like Diane! How did you two connect? And what year did you start Kindle publishing?

A. I was teaching with another author and Diane took our class. She and I just clicked and have been best friends ever since. We’ve been through lots of writing and plotting since then. We call ourselves a Conspiracy Group (you know — two or more people plotting together : )

Q. Ha ha ha. Which leads nicely to my next question about humor…

A. We started publishing on Kindle in 2011. We had enough of a back list that we looked very prolific as we put up one book after another. And this was before all the cool software that makes formatting easy. We had to use HTML! (Have I mentioned how much I hate HTML?!?) Then we put all of our books up — and then to look prolific we had to actually start writing again.

Q. It’s all in the swagger! That is awesome. I can only imagine working with HTML. Thank goodness for formatting tools now.

A. I’ve finally embraced my silly, cheesy, punny sense of humor. The sillier I get (especially in my Moonchuckle Bay series), the more my readers seem to love it.

Q. Describe to me what kinds of books you write.

A. I have a few inspirational books, but mostly cozy mysteries, romantic comedies, and light paranormal romantic mysteries (where I have a unicorn ranch — who wouldn’t want to visit there, right?). I’m told by readers that my books lighten their hearts, that they’ll be depressed and then read my books, laugh, and feel better. That’s the best thing anyone could ever tell me. My job in this world is to spread light and light-hearted.

Q. I know for sure, just looking at your prolific and impressive back list, that you are great at punny titles!

A. I am ninja-expert at punny titles.

Q. What is the secret to writing funny?

A. I’m not sure I know. Because what one person considers funny, another won’t. I think it’s a matter of finding readers who appreciate your brand of funniness, your sense of humor. Embrace your own brand of funny. It is important to have readers you trust (critique group and/or beta readers) who will tell you when something you think is really funny isn’t. Because not everything I think is hilarious actually flies. So I take those things out or reword them.

Q. Makes sense. Do you have any special prep work to get you in the funny frame of mind? Watch movies, etc.?

A. I know I’ll read books that are branded as “hilarious” and I think they are  totally not. And I’m sure some misguided people think mine are stupid, too (though I hope they never tell me lol).

Q. Ha ha ha. No, I get you. Sometimes I think people are funnier when they aren’t meaning to.

A. I owned a video store for five years (you remember those, right?). I’ve watched so many movies over the years, but it’s always the funny ones that are my keepers. I love funny movies (Galaxy Quest, While You Were Sleeping, The Kid, and so many more) and books (Anne George’s Southern Sisters myseries). Even my husband is funny, so I’m never bored, which is nice.

Q. I want my hubby and I to double date with you and your hubby someday. Seriously putting it on my bucket list.

A. I’d love to double date!

Q. That is cool about the movies. I am sure that has helped with your storytelling. Let’s talk for a minute about the romance portion of your books. What is the secret sauce for a good romance? What do your readers seem to enjoy?

A.Romances. For me, I need a heroine who isn’t too stupid to live. A hero who actually is. I need an honorable choice as part of the satisfying ending. That’s part of our plotting process, finding the perfect honorable choice (that makes it look like they’ll lose everything). I believe Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer when he said that, no matter how jaded, everyone wants the good guys to earn their reward — and then receive it. It’s why people clapped and cheered in the theater where we watched the Death Star get blown up in the original Star Wars.

Q. The honorable choice. Yes! I have struggled with that sometimes. It just doesn’t seem like I have enough of a meaningfully hard choice sometimes. How do you keep that fresh after 51 books?

A. By plotting a book in a day LOL.  I had taught some classes on plotting. Diane came to one of my classes and, when it was over, asked why we weren’t using that to plot our books. So over the past fifteen or so years, we’ve plotted 101 and the process has evolved in amazing ways.

Q. I need that plotting book STAT. Do you have one or one in the works?

A. I was waiting to hit the magic “100” number. Or maybe “101” is more magical, especially if we put a Dalmatian on the cover LOL I’ll be working on publishing it in 2020.

The process reminds me of a story my father told me. He was an oilman all his adult life and I was raised overseas. He even came out of retirement in his sixties to lead teams in putting out the oil well fires in Kuwait (where I’d gone to junior high). In the past, they’d have to call in a specialized team led by Red Adair, who would go in and blow out the flame with nitroglycerine (like in the John Wayne movie, The Hellfighters) and cap the well, a highly dangerous job. But because they were putting out so many fires in a row in Kuwait, they came up with a way to do it quickly and less dangerously — they brought in jet engines and used them to blow out the flame and then quickly capped the well. Diane and I learned something new with each book we plotted.

Whatever system you use, we recommend you start and end with a prayer asking for guidance and inspiration. We feel it’s why we can come up with fresh new books. The satisfying ending isn’t really the conflict — it just ties it up really nicely. And each time we get together, we are amazed at how different each book is. We pray … and then we trust the process and our creative voices.

Q. That is wonderful advice, about prayer. I checked out Diane’s author page, and I thought for sure it would feel similar to yours, but it’s not. Is that the key to plot collaboration? To work with someone with a different style?

A. The key to plotting with someone is being able to trust the other person and to work with someone who has a great creative voice. Diane writes medieval and contemporary romance with knights, but she writes humor. I write other stuff, but with humor. We laugh a lot during the process. For us, it helps to have a friend. I don’t think it needs to be someone with a different style of writing. It may take awhile to figure out who you work well with and people you don’t.

We also plotted a few books with a historical western writer and a young adult adventure writer. They slipped out of the group but we stuck around. Maybe you just need someone who persists just like you do.

Q. Gotcha! Did you study to be a writer? Or know from a young age that you would be one?

A. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a preteen. I wrote stories for years. I wrote my first novel at the age of 21 on a typewriter. It took me three months, will never see the light of day, but it allowed me to prove I could write from the beginning to The End.

Q. Ah, I love typewriters! If only they weren’t kind of inefficient.

A. I’ve always been a voracious reader. My 5th Grade teacher in Kuwait had me in an advanced reading group where we read Charles Dickens and other classics. I read most of the classics in my teens and early twenties, then shifted to more contemporary books.

Q. Wait. 5th grade teacher in Kuwait? Hold the thought…you grew up there? How long? Did you grow up elsewhere? (Oops…I missed that part about your oilman father…Okay, noted!)

A. I was born in Utah, lived in South America (Colombia and Venezuela) until 5th Grade, moved to Kuwait, then Tehran, then Venezuela again. And then finally back to Utah. So I feel my horizons have been widened.

Q. Wow! That is amazing! Do you have books set in all those places?

A. I do not have books set there. Those places have changed too much. I have my memories. Oh, and I also spent a few months in London, where I started picking up a British accent. : )

Q. Actually, you should write a funny memoir set in those places!! Please.

A. I’ll consider it.

Q. I think at one point you described to me that your plotting is a lot like playing charades. Okay, maybe I am remembering wrong. But tell me how you ladies do it.

A. Okay. Here’s our system. After a prayer, we look for our Universal Idea by going through a list of motivators, spicers and tropes (we used the list from Steal This Plot and added tropes by searching online). We ask ourselves how can these play out in this book? We talk through ideas, many of which don’t make it into the plot, but pretty soon a good idea starts to form.

Next we interview our characters. If it’s my book and my characters, I’ll do interviews as if I am the character. I spent six months coming up with an effective interview sheet that brings up a character’s baggage and motivation. We interview the heroine, next the hero, and possibly the villain and suspects in a mystery.

We brainstorm good titles that capture the flavor of the book. And then we go for the Satisfying Ending. I taught a class on this and began to see patterns that showed up in many of the best movies.

Most importantly, make sure there’s a right-but-looks-like-they’ll-lose-everything choice vs the wrong-but-looks-like-they’ll-win-everything choice.

In Disney’s animated Aladdin, if Aladdin keeps his promise and uses his third wish to free the genie, it looks like he’ll lose everything, but if he keeps the wish for himself, he’ll win everything. He does the right thing — and then wins. (Though you’ll want to come up with a less contrived win than someone changing the rules.)

In While You Were Sleeping, when Lucy asks Peter if he can give her any reason not to marry his brother, he says, “I can’t.” Later, Lucy interrupts her wedding to confess she was never engaged. (And that worked because she told her truth. They tried to recreate that in The Proposal where it totally did not work because she was doing the dishonorable thing, instead.)

Q. I looked at a character sheet once and did not want to fill it out, but I can see how helpful it would be.       

A. It’s because most character sheets are, excuse the French, stupid. “What is your favorite color?” doesn’t add anything to the book (or only rarely does). You need to draw out what the character’s baggage and motivations are.

Q. Ha ha ha. There. You made me feel better. LOL

A. Then we identify all of the turning point scenes (where the story changes direction) and make sure they work — disaster to new goal to new disaster etc. — all the way from beginning to end. And then it’s time to fill out all the goals in between the turning points. There will be a new section goal from one turning point to the next, and all the scenes in that section will match it.

The easiest example is from Groundhog Day. The movie goal is to escape from Groundhog Day, and each section has a different way to do that. In one section, his goal is to kill himself, and all the snippets are then him trying different ways to (unsuccessfully) kill himself. In another, his goal is to at least enjoy himself and he does things like steal the money and run into a train.

We write a rough blurb that we then put at the top of our book file so we see it every time we open the file and can work on it often so by the time the book is written.

And then all that’s left is to actually write the book! Easy-peasy, right? LOL

Q. Ta-da! Yes. The way you break it down, it sounds easy. It probably really is easier than floundering all over. LOL Let’s talk for a bit about your USA bestselling author status. How did you snag that?

A. I took Heather Brown Moore to lunch and asked her questions. I mentioned that people were doing anthologies and getting bestseller statues — and she ran with it. I credit her with accomplishing it. She’s amazing.

Q. So with Heather, you mentioned the trend and you were in an anthology with her?

A. She asked if I’d like to be in the anthology and I jumped on it. She did her magic, which involves tons of work, and got the status. She’s done it several times since. When I grow up, I want to be like her. LOL

Q. Me too! She is on my shortlist of authors to Q&A with for sure. Heather, our time is almost done, and I could keep going! So one last question…what would be your parting advice to an author wanting to enjoy a sustainable publishing career?

A. Don’t give up. Associate with successful authors in groups like The Writing Gals and your (Jewel’s) billionaire group. We need authors around us. Write, learn the craft (which may take a few books), and write some more to gain momentum. And good luck!

Q. Lovely!! I really appreciate your time, Heather. You are awesome, and I am so glad to know you.

A. And join a sprinting group or two. That helps get you writing.  Oh, and turn off the internet!

Q. Ha ha ha! I will include that for sure.

A. Thanks! I’m glad to know you, too!

Check out Heather’s books here.

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