Welcome to the ninety-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with mystery / thriller writer Robert O’Hanneson. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Robert. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Robert: I was born in San Francisco and raised in the Santa Clara Valley prior to beautiful orchards being transformed into buildings that house high-tech companies. I travelled worldwide for many years selling amusement park rides, which gave me lots of free hours in the air. I think that’s when I starting writing ideas, then a screenplay since I knew I could never write a novel. Oops, I had it backwards. POSSUM BELLY QUEEN is available on Amazon and B&N. Maybe the movie is around the corner.
Morgen: It’s always lovely imagining who would play your characters. I heard a ABC radio (Australian) Book Show interview with crime writer Donna Leon as I walked to work (the joys of an iPod loaded with podcasts) and she was asked that question and she said she didn’t know because she’s never owned a television and has heard of George Clooney and Penelope Cruz but has never seen them act in anything. I haven’t watched any TV for about a month (although conscious of my faithful Sky+ chugging away) because I’ve been so busy (plus I’ve had hundreds of songs to rate on my iTunes and find I get more done as I end up staring at the TV) but think I’d miss the TV eventually. I do go to the cinema once or twice a week (the joy of a season ticket) so that makes up for it. You write the mystery/thriller genre, Robert, what have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Robert: I have published articles in a couple of magazines, but POSSUM BELLY QUEEN is my first book. I saw my first book at a writers conference in Las Vegas where my publisher brought me the first five copies.
Morgen: I bet you were thrilled. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Robert: Since my book is set on carnival midways, I’m trying to create a brand for readers to follow. I’m using the same social media networks as most authors but hitting state and county fairs, amusement park sites and blogs.
Morgen: Where people are happy to spend money… good plan. 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Robert: This book won Best Novel 2010 in the Dark Oak Mystery Contest.
Morgen: Oh wow, well done! Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Robert: I don’t have an agent, but prior to signing a publishing contract, had sent endless, both e-mail and snail-mail submission. I think the industry is changing and agents are slowly disappearing. Having said that, I believe a good agent can open doors and guide an author through the corridor to success. I had one years ago when I first started. Later I discovered that she had me doing all the wrong things. I spent thousands of dollars binding manuscripts and travelling to Book Expos instead of writers conferences.
Morgen: Oh dear. 😦 But now you’re meeting your audience. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Robert: My book will be available on e-books sometime in August. Yes, I carry my nook with me all the time.
Morgen: August… that’s now… ooh how exciting. 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Robert: This is my first. I remember getting an acceptance from Military History for an article, but when I opened an e-mail from my publisher, it was the Fourth of July.
Morgen: I guess that’s like our April’s Fool? (April 1st) Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Robert: Yes. The pile got so high that we had to add a room on to the house. I think it bothered me more in the beginning. After receiving so many, I just said, “Oh, well. I’m one closer to getting published. I think of J.K. Rolling and the many rejections she received.
Morgen: It does get easier. I was disappointed with the first (although my first submission was an acceptance so by law of averages, I’d expected it). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Robert: I’m working on a three book series. POSSUM BELLY QUEEN is the first. HELIX is the second and CHAIN DOGS is third. The second is set in a state of the art amusement park that’s self-sustaining and deals with international terror. I’m two-thirds of the way through it and have starting jotting down ideas for the third.
Morgen: They really do sound refreshingly different. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Robert: When I’m in town, I get up early, watch the news and read, then go upstairs and write. Now that I’m published, I spend about an hour a day on marketing. The most I’ve written is about two thousand plus words in a day.
Morgen: That’s really good going. I put somewhere the other day (on Twitter I think) that 500 words a day is 182,500 words a year (with Feb 29th off in a leap year) so even if we all wrote that, it would be amazing. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Robert: I don’t think it exists. I think we all have good and bad days. Writing is like anything creative. If I’m having a bad day, I take a walk or read for a while, then return to the keyboard.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Robert: I usually get an idea and run with it, never sure of what the ending might be. About a third of the way through I think I know the ending but keep an open mind to ideas that might pop up. Input from others and something I see on TV, read in the paper or a book all play a role in where I go.
Morgen: Another thing that Donna Leon said was that she never plots and never knows the ending when she starts so that was encouraging. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Robert: Yes. I like them to be different. I was taught that each character’s name should start with a different letter of the alphabet to make it easier for readers. Of course the character has to fit the story. Their dialogue has to fit their personality and their vocation.
Morgen: Absolutely they should be different. You could get away with it if they sound different (e.g. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter and Debra Morgan – the usual spelling of Morgan… I like to be different, besides Morgan Bailey is the name of a porn star!) although I’d still avoid something like Bill and Phil unless part of the storyline was to get them confused. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Robert: My wife. She does my editing. Sometimes it requires boxing gloves when I write 20 pages and she cuts out 11. For years, I travelled to Fresno and attended Bonnie Hearn Hill’s critique group of published authors and writers. The thousands of miles were worth every minute and every dollar I spent.
Morgen: And now you could probably do it all online from the comfort of your chair. 🙂 OK, maybe not the same but certainly sufficient for people who can’t travel. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Robert: My work has evolved to where it’s comfortable and requires less editing. Having said that, I don’t know of anyone who writes and doesn’t make changes every time read it. By the time my book was published, I was ready to move on.
Morgen: Me too (after 3-4 drafts). 🙂 Apparent Jeffrey Archer dictates what goes off to the editor but some would say that’s clear from his books but he’s a great storyteller (or used to be – I wasn’t fussed about his ‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale’. Sorry, Robert, I keep getting sidetracked. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Robert: Life is my creative process. I look back on what has happened to me and the rest of the world. I look at the present and where we are as a nation and global community. Then I look forward as to where we might be down the road. There’s enough material in that space of time to fill bookshelves in thousands of libraries.
Morgen: Then I’d better let you get on. Oh, OK, you’ll stop a while longer… thank you. 🙂 Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Robert: Computer. I open my manuscript document and create one titled “Notes,” where I include things I want to remember: Character profiles. In the chapter they first appear and anything pertinent to the chapter. I also have a yellow note pad where I scribble things.
Morgen: What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Robert: It varies. Bob Seager, Jackson Brown and Paul Simon for energy. I also listen to a light jazz and light classical station in Sacramento.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Robert: Third person. I’ve tried first a few times and use it in my epilogue. Never have attempted 2nd.
Morgen: Oh it’s great. It provokes mixed feelings (from the writing world and your fellow interviewees) but I love doing it and would recommend at least having a go. You could pick one of my second-person https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/sentence-starts and see where it leads. 🙂 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Robert: I like some. My publisher read my last chapter and suggested I write and epilogue. She said there was so much testosterone going that I had to bring the reader down. I had several people read the epilogue and loved it.
Morgen: I used not to read them but then wrote a prologue in my second novel and am now much more sympathetic. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Robert: Probably. Not because they are bad but because of time. Manuscripts I wrote ten years ago were good publishable storylines with so, so writing. I believe if I go back and rewrite them, I can sell them.
Morgen: Me too. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Robert: I love seeing the story unfold in front of me. I remember writing a scene at a memorial for a person who had died in an automobile accident. His father gave the eulogy, and I cried while I wrote it. My least favourite aspect is the networking and marketing because it takes me away from what I really enjoy.
Morgen: Exactly how I (and many of the interviewees) feel. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Robert: The time it takes to produce a good piece of work. When I started, I knew I would be on a bestseller list as soon as the book was published. Not! The years since have brought me back to reality.
Morgen: But your writing will be better for it. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Robert: Write every day. Find a good critique group. Find your genre. Be tenacious and don’t give up. Pay attention to submission guidelines. Rejections are part of the business. Enter writing contests.
Morgen: Sound advice, thank you. What do you like to read?
Robert: I enjoy Harlan Coben, Dennis LeHaine, Lee Child, Sandra Brown, David Baldacci, Jack Higgins.
Morgen: I’m not familiar with Dennis LeHaine but the others are stalwarts. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Robert: I’ve read different books but the critique group I attended helped me more than any book I ever read. I’m on the Oak Tree Books blog. Murder Must Advertise. I also go to different author’s sites. I use Facebook and learning Twitter.
Morgen: Me too. 🙂 In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Robert: I’m in California’s Central Valley. I don’t think it matters where you write. The internet has made us all neighbors.
Morgen: It’s has, that’s very true. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Robert: I participate on my publisher’s site, Oak Tree Books (http://oaktreebooks.com).
Morgen: Ooh, I’ll have to take a look. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Robert: Since POSSUM BELLY QUEEN is my first book, you can Google me or go to my website http://www.robertohanneson.com.
Morgen: Yes, please do. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Robert: I believe people enjoy reading, which means there will always be writers. Some will stay as writers and others will become authors. As e-books become more popular, the need for more material will increase, which means there will be a greater need for authors.
Morgen: Yay. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Robert: If a person is serious about writing, they need to do it as much as possible and check their ego at the door. Rejections are part of the business. Learn the basics: Scene structure. Character development. Point of view. Verb tenses. Conflict must flow from scene to scene.
Morgen: Absolutely, I plan to do a blog post with some key ingredients – I podcasted them late last year so it’s about time I blogged them. 🙂 Thank you Robert. I then invited Robert to include a self-contained extract:
Even though Pop loved the carnie life, he used to call it the devil’s sandbox. He could never understand why Andy didn’t feel the same.
Amusement parks turned silent and eerie when the lights were out. Standing among the metal beasts, he got the same wrenching feeling in the pit of his stomach as he did in the Army when he’d been on a mission and hit a blind spot. No way out until it was finished. Couldn’t discuss it then, couldn’t forget it now.
He made his way down the Santa Cruz boardwalk past the Roundup and Paratrooper, then headed toward the Log Flume and a potential 90 G’s that would save his business.
Wood groaned above. He stopped and looked up. The Giant Dipper. Steel coaster didn’t make that sound.
Morgen: Ouch. Thanks again Robert. 🙂
Robert O’Hanneson spent over twenty years selling amusement rides to carnivals and parks worldwide. Now, he writes fulltime in California’s Central Valley. His novel, POSSUM BELLY QUEEN, is Dark Oak Mystery Contest’s 2010 winner and is currently available on Amazon and at B&N. He wrote BLOODY SOIL, which was partially read on Fresno’s NPR station. His article INSIDE THE SILOS OF DOOMSDAY, was part of Military History Magazine’s issue on the Cuban Missile Crisis. His work also appeared in Fresno Magazine. As board vice president of the Yosemite Writers Conference, he worked on planning of conferences, speaker acquisitions and generated scholarship funds for high school and college students.
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