You’ve spent the last twenty years writing fiction, the last ten years working on a novel, and the last three years sending your manuscript to agents and publishers. What’s it like to get a voice mail from an editor at HarperCollins Publishers saying that they will indeed publish your book?
“First, I jumped up and down,” Heather Newton, Asheville writer and attorney, says. “I saved the message and listened to it over and over again.” She laughs before getting more serious. “It’s all pretty exciting, and it was twenty years coming. More than anything, I feel gratified and affirmed that what I’ve been doing is what I should be doing.”
Heather’s life as a writer can be described by two words: calling — “I write because I just have to,” and perseverance — “I began the book in 1997 when my daughter was a baby and have sent it to over fifty agents.”
The book, titled Under the Mercy Trees, is set in the high country of Western North Carolina. The plot comes from a real-life event that has haunted her husband’s family for years. An uncle disappeared, and when his body was found several years later, there was no way to determine the cause of death.
“Being middle aged, I also wanted to explore the theme of regret that clouds the choices we make earlier in life,” she says about the novel’s theme and protagonist, Martin Owenby. Martin, who left home thirty years earlier, returns when his older brother, Leon, has gone missing. While helping with the search, he has to come to terms with regrets over lost loves and family relationships. Even though Martin is a gay man, Heather explains that she feels comfortable writing from his perspective. “We writers extrapolate from our own experiences. Like Martin, I grew up in the South, left for years, and returned to make peace with the place I’d left.”
In addition to Martin as a point of view narrator, Heather tells the story from the perspective of three other characters. She made this choice to add tension, where “one person knows something and the others don’t.”
Heather’s writing is filled with a rich sense of place and sensory details. When asked about cultivating this aspect of her craft, she admits that writing about the western part of the state didn’t come naturally, since she’s a Raleigh native. She was able to add to her knowledge of this region during regular visits to the Boone area, home to her husband’s family, where she noted the smells of different plants, the sights of changing seasons, the land’s topography, and the speech of local folks. Details are drawn from snippets of her own life as well– an event in Blowing Rock (“Howling Rock” in the book), and her husband’s Chevy truck that he drove when they first met, which is transformed into Leon’s truck.
With the journey from hopeful author to published author fresh in her mind, Heather offers insights into the world of agents and publishing. Although she sent out “cold” query letters, she advises writers to exploit all connections that they may have which personally link themselves to agents. Friends, fellow attorneys, and other writers helped her create a bank of contacts. She also attended a writing program at Sewanee, where she was able to meet with three agents face-to-face. Before sending out the final manuscript, Heather strongly advises, “Make the final product the best it can be. If you think it’s done, realize that it probably isn’t. Revise it a few more times.” She also says that rejection is usually the norm. Of the fifty agents, only five or six actually asked to read the entire book.
What’s it like working with a large publishing house? For Heather Newton, it’s been a satisfying process. First, the editor sent her a lengthy edit letter, that led her to make some substantive changes. Next, the copy editor showed her errors in spelling and grammar, as well as researched details that were incorrect. (For example, Heather writes that Amtrak ran in 1958, when service actually started in 1961.) The cover illustration was selected by HarperCollins and approved by her. Suzanne Newton, Heather’s mother and an author of children’s books, helped her come up with the title, which is a reference to a line in a Baptist hymn that Suzanne, a shape note singer, was familiar with.
Under the Mercy Trees hits the bookstores in January 2011, and HarperCollins has recently contacted Heather about publicity. Harper's promotional plan for the book includes a possible author web chat and a national radio campaign. A person who stays actively engaged in any project, she’s already contacting book stores about readings and has set up a Facebook page and website/blog (heathernewton.net). Heather admits that she’s “a shy person, and the publicity is not easy to do. At the same time, it’s part of the business of being a writer.”
As for the business of being an attorney — Heather offers some pros and cons of blending a law career with a writing life. On the plus side, a law practice exposes her to great people-watching opportunities. “I see all kinds of folks from different classes and nationalities, and I see them in all types of stressful situations.” As a sole practitioner, she’s adept at managing multiple projects and tight deadlines, which helps her work effectively with her editor. She does admit, though, that lawyers are notoriously florid writers, a style that doesn’t fit creative writing. As an employment lawyer, she’s expanded her practice to include helping writers and artists deal with their businesses.
Managing a busy life as a creative writer, mother, wife, and professional would challenge even the most skillful multi-tasker. Heather emphasizes structure as a means to cope. She reserves Fridays for writing and works at her office instead of at home. At certain stages of her novel’s development, she’s been able to carve out larger two-week blocks of time.
In summary, what advice does she have for writers, who, like her, have been plugging away for years at their craft?
“As I said before, exploit all personal relationships before sending out cold query letters to agents. They are inundated with them.”
“Persevere, but admit to the fact that you’re living in two alternate realities. You need to believe in your product but also be able to accept rejection.”
“Have a written plan. Break it down into tiny steps, check things off as you accomplish them, and do something from the plan every day.”
“Have good writers critique your work. It’s hard to see your own flaws. Hear the criticism as constructive, don’t get discouraged by it, and listen to those writers who have credibility. Join a group that uses a good format, that emphasizes positives, gives suggestions and insists on deadlines for submitting your work.” Heather has been in two groups for years, the Flat Iron Writers and the Great Smokies Writing Program. She’s also had the support of her mother, an award-winning writer herself, who reads and critiques her work regularly.