Every other Wednesday, I’ll be showcasing authors who got an agent in the last couple of years. If you’d like to be a part of this, let me know in the comments or contact me via Twitter @judi__Lauren
I’m so excited to be interviewing Ashley Hearn today! Not only is she an awesome human being, she’s funny and incredibly generous with her time. We both mentored in Nightmare on Query Street in October and we’ll both be mentoring in the upcoming FicFest contest! And then I found out we both intern at the same publishing company! So basically she also has great taste. She signed with Christa Heschke with her Southern Gothic MS The Sumerlin Curse. Welcome, Ashley!
What was the hardest part about writing your book?
The Sumerlin Curse is steeped in Gullah folklore and Lowcountry history, which means research, research, research. The Gullah Geechee are decedents of freed slaves who settled in the Lowcountry and retained many aspects of their African heritage, including their practice of hoodoo. The story’s plot, while channeled through a Southern gothic lens of horror, magic, and mysticism, is rooted in the very real issue of the Gullah Geechee’s land and culture becoming endangered due to coastal development. Making sure I’ve treated these cultural details with respect is something I’ve focused on with every draft.
Ohhh that sounds so good! How did you meet your agent?
At Midwest Writer’s Conference in Muncie, Indiana!
I actually didn’t sign up for an agent pitch session at the conference, but after a client of Christa’s overheard my practice pitch, she figured my book would be right up Christa’s ally. She introduced us, and Christa and I hit it off immediately—we’re both huge Green Bay Packers fans! At some point over the conference weekend, I mentioned my travels through Lowcountry Georgia and South Carolina and how they pertain to my Southern gothic WIP. She emailed me a few weeks requesting the manuscript once my revisions were complete.
Do you have a rough number of how many queries you sent out before being offered representation?
The short, and misleading, story is that my first query for The Sumerlin Curse turned into an offer of rep. The long, and more truthful, story is that between query number one and my eventual first offer, six months passed along with thirty or so rejections/ no-responses.
#ProTip: Don’t query too early! I sent out a few queries in May of last year (my offer came in August) and while one of those turned into my first offer, it caused me a real headache when I had to nudge agents who had seen different drafts. It worked out for me in the end, but the whole process could have been much smoother.
Also, The Sumerlin Curse is the second manuscript I queried. My first, a YA contemporary fantasy, found some success with contests, but failed to gain traction in the query trenches. I stopped querying it after about thirty rejections and no real answers on how to fix it. Shelving it was the best decision for me, though, because starting a new project really helped me see how much I’d grown as a writer from book one to book two.
Without saying too much, you’re not the only person in this interview who queried too early. What inspires you to write?
Wow. So many things. I was born and raised in Georgia, so this particular story was inspired by my fascination with the coastal south. I also love fairy tales—1990’s Disney girl at heart!—and for The Sumerlin Curse, I wanted to twist some of my favorite tropes with the Deep South’s history.
In general, though, I’m just a fan girl. I love falling in love with characters, worlds, and magic systems. I crave stories that stick with you long after that last sentence. That’s why I started writing fan fiction in high school. I just couldn’t leave my favorite worlds and characters behind. Now that I’m writing original fiction, that’s the feeling I hope to inspire in my readers.
A lot of writers I know got their start in fanfiction! Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? Where do you get your ideas and characters?
Each story has been different so far. But I think research is my key jumping off point. Everything I write about is something I want to learn about (and am passionate enough about to spend a considerable amount of time with).
Book one was mostly inspired by research I did on folk magic for a paper I wrote in college. Book two had its roots in shelved book one. I recycled some elements of the folk magic, and then once additional historical research gave shape to the plot, I found the characters, villain, and subplots all fell into place.
I also have two future ideas I hope to draft in 2016. One is a YA fantasy inspired by Islamic Persia. Obviously, I love folk magic and I’d love to learn more about alchemy. The other is a LGBT Southern gothic romance, exploring my interests in gender identity politics.
Ohh hopefully 2016 is a great drafting year for you! Many people have jobs along with writing. How do you balance that schedule?
The truth? No clue. And if you ask my boyfriend, he’ll probably say I don’t.
At the moment, I work full time as a producer for The Badger Sports Report, which is the football and basketball coach’s TV show for the University of Wisconsin. I’m also an intern for the fabulous Kate Brauning at Entangled Teen, and I nanny for a ten-year-old aspiring gymnast and twelve-year-old competitive dancer. It’s a full schedule without writing.
There are a few things that help me though:
- Mondays are MY day. I put in a few hours of work in the morning, and then have the entire afternoon and evening to write. Knowing I have this one day to knock words/ revisions out helps for when other things pile up later in the week.
- Setting personal deadlines. I’m almost always overly optimistic, but striving for a deadline is a great motivator.
- Word count goals. Like having mini-deadlines. I love Scivener, and when I’m drafting I use the word count tool to track my daily progress. I like to strive for and average of 1000 words per day. I’m a pretty slow drafter.
- My critique group. We submit every week through Google Docs and meet every week on Google Hangouts. I cannot emphasize every week Critiquing around 10k words per week on top of everything else I’ve got going on is a huge commitment, but having that weekly deadline is a massive kick in the pants. No one in the group wants to be the only person who doesn’t submit that week.
Is there a fictional character or book you wish you had created? Why?
The Harry Potter series, because it lead me to my earliest experiences with fan culture, and fandom, as I mentioned above, is one of the many reasons I write speculative fiction for children and young adults.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
Being a god.–Amen to that
No really, I love it when characters worm their way into my head and heart and I get to spill their stories out onto the page. Plotting is fun. But characters are why I write—they’re why I read too, which is not a coincidence.
Can you describe your MC(s) in three words each?
George: cursed, creative, chimera
Grace: stubborn, Geechee, rootworker
Before you leave, would you share the first sentence of your query that got you an agent?
Sixteen-year-old George Sumerlin is a boy, no matter what he looks like.
Thanks for joining us, Ashley!
Ashley Hearn is a producer for the Badger Sports Report, the football and basketball coach’s television show for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an addictive coffee drinker, a Gilmore Girls fanatic, and a proud Gryffindor. When she ferrets away enough gas money, she can be found scouring the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands for ruined plantations, folk magic, and a fresh story. She can be found on Twitter and at www.ashleyhearn.com