Heather Burch talks process, craft, her amazing ride as One Lavender Ribbon continues its global explosion, and what’s next. For her, and for all of us who write.
One Lavender Ribbon, by Heather Burch, as of this writing has 4,285 Amazon reader reviews, the vast majority bearing four or five stars. That alone is worthy of our attention, but in Heather’s case she represents everything that a breakout novelist should be. She earned her chops with a successful YA series (The Halfings and other titles), and she is a passionate student of craft and story architecture.
I met Heather last Fall when her writing group invited me to Florida for a weekend writing workshop (I’ve written about the one several times here), and we immediately recognized kindred spirits relative to the craft of storytelling. I read OLR in one sitting and used it the next day as a deconstruction model in the workshop, and have watched it continue to succeed (over 175,o00 Kindle downloads alone in the first several months, and now, with editions in several other languages).
LB: Let’s begin with the obvious – your home run with One Lavender Ribbon. It’s truly a “breakout” book… was it designed with that in mind, or were you surprised by the market response?
HB: When I started my writing journey, I took a class that stressed the importance of writing breakout fiction. At that moment, I said, “Okay, that’s what I want to do.” I’ve spent the last several years honing my ability to distinguish between a “breakout” idea and just a “good” idea. Yes, in answer, it was intentional. But one never knows how a novel will hit the readers. I’ve been very fortunate to have this level of success.
LB: In your view, how and why did this happen (other than the fact it’s a stellar novel on all fronts… is that all it takes?)? Were there elements of timing, luck, strategy or other unpredictable factors involved?
HB: Even a great novel can fall flat if it’s released at the wrong time. I’ve seen it happen. So, yes, there are always different pieces of the puzzle that fit together—often things the author has no control over. One Lavender Ribbon released at the time of the 70th anniversary of WWII. I think that played a part in its success. Across the nation, people were thinking about that generation.
LB: How has this success changed your career and your life?
HB: I’m busier now than I ever expected to be, that’s for sure. And I’m having to take a real strong look at things like hiring an assistant. Also, the monetary success has been nice and because of it, my husband gets to travel with me.
LB: You are a student of craft, in a way that makes guys like me smile. No muses whispering to you from the clouds, it’s pure concept-driven craft executed with a keen eye toward story architecture and story physics. How would you describe your awareness of these issues and essences as your career has progressed?
HB: I’m very comfortable with my process. In fact, way back I tried to alter it to be more productive and just messed myself up. Basically, I’m constantly on the hunt for a high concept idea. Once I have that, I begin generating “obstacles” that would keep that idea from being “too easy.” I think of high concept as a story where two worlds that should never meet do. (This is another workshop altogether!) It can also be a new twist on an old storyline. Hollywood is great at this!
As far as craft, I try to continually study writing books to help make my own craft stronger. I dissect novels to see why they did/didn’t work and ponder what would have made them work better. I think a student is a student 24/7. We don’t even think about it, we just choose to be sponges soaking up everything! (FYI- my area of study right now is micro-tension) But all of my process comes back to a book I read years ago titled SCREENPLAY by Sid Field. It broke down—in simplest terms—the idea of plot points, for many years I’ve built on that foundation. When I finally sit down to write, much of the plot happens organically. I don’t say, “What can my characters do now?” I say, “What can go wrong now?” There’s no story until things begin to go wrong.
LB: You broke in with success in YA/paranormal, with your Halflings series. Why did you move from that into the romance genre?
HB: I had never intended to write YA. I was writing books that were more on the order of One Lavender Ribbon, but this high concept idea hit me and it was all about teens who were half-human and half-angel and though they were outcasts on every level, they were sent to save the world. I couldn’t resist.
LB: This had to have been fun. What’s the emotional journey of a bestseller like?
HB: I’ve been around long enough to know that each book will have its own lifespan. You can’t compare…much like it’s dangerous to compare your children. I write for two publishers (I write YA for BLINK, HarperCollins and adult romance/fiction for Montlake.) Each publisher handles their titles differently. There is a completely unique experience with each. I will likely always write YA. I love having that connection with teen readers and giving them a little “hope” in a world that all too often offers them nothing but sorrow. But my heart also loves big, epic love stories. So, I will concentrate on the adult stories like OLR, but try to write at least one YA every year
LB: Your new book, Summer by Summer, releases in April. After a breakout hit like OLR, are you anxious about it?
HB: Summer by Summer – about two teens stranded on a deserted island in Belize – releases in April and targets a completely different market. It’s another YA from BLINK and those are largely sold to libraries and of course, and it will be in book stores as well as online venues. And yes, I’m anxious, I’m always anxious and hopeful when a new book releases.
I can’t expect the same “type” of response for Summer by Summer because it’s geared to a different audience. Many of my One Lavender Ribbon fans will read it, but I think the instant visceral response will be for a younger reader.
LB: You were at my workshop with 35 other romance writers last fall. Sometimes I felt like they were staring at me as if I were an alien speaking the language of invasion. Do you think that romance authors have a different take on craft as a group, and is that a legit rationale for viewing craft differently than any other genre?
HB: Largely due to the organization RWA, romance writers are one of the most educated groups of writers on the planet. RWA has incredible workshops on topics ranging from voice to craft and everything in between. But, because it can offer literally hundreds if not thousands of workshops in the course of a year, it’s fairly easy to find the ones that work for each individual process—always honing the skills we have.
What you offered was the bones of writing breakout fiction. And it was in a very solid package with solid walls—that’s the beauty of your classes. These are the MUST HAVES for great fiction. Instead of teaching how to “fix” what they already have, you took us back to the drawing board and said, “Is what you have a strong enough concept for a novel?” Those that were looking at you like an alien, I don’t think they’d ever considered their concept may not be good enough. And that is soooooo important! Especially in romance.
LB: “They’d never considered their concept may not be good enough.” That’s been a bit of a teaching mantra for me lately. (For all of you who are tired of me writing about it… notice that Heather mentioned it here. Your story idea, the core it, is every bit as critical as your ability to execute it.)
HB: Amen to that. The romance market is highly competitive. It also accounts for a large percentage of books sold, the largest, I believe. So, it’s a tough market (aren’t they all) to break into. Agents are looking for high concept ideas. Even in romance, there better be something “bigger” about your story or it won’t find a home in this competitive industry.
LB: I believe that romance is one of the most challenging genres to find “high concept.” Two people meet, they feel attracted, stuff happens, it isn’t easy, it almost fails, then it doesn’t, then HEA. And yet, all of that can be in context to a killer CONCEPTUAL CORE, as well, as you demonstrated in One Lavender Ribbon. That discovered WWII diary, leading to a parallel love story that connects two generations… that’s the very essence of high concept.
HB: I like to think so. Cross-generational romance is a trope of the genre to some extent, and yet, it endures because it works, readers are drawn in.
LB: The highest concepts – vampires, time travel, ghosts, terminal disease – always work. Because they’re conceptual and emotionally resonant at their core.
HB: Absolutely. They imbue the story with context that makes everything work better. Readers say they want love, but they really want to be touched at their core and their imagination. The whole genre is driven by vicariousness, one of your six realms of Story Physics.
LB: What’s your message to new writers these days, relative to storytelling craft, and then, relative to the business of publishing versus self-publishing and the branding that both require?
HB: Don’t give up. Don’t back down. If you write a book and it doesn’t sell, write another. And another. Very few authors sell their first book. Most sell book #5 or #6. If you stick it out for several books and continue to learn and grow, you will sell one day. Join a great organization that can help you along your journey. Read Storyfix and take notes! Find your voice and your process then dig, dig, dig to make it the best it can be.
Have social media, but don’t let it have you. Your #1 author job is to write amazing fiction. Never ever let anything (FB, twitter, blog) get in the way of that!
LB: What’s next for you, both near-term and down the writing road?
HB: OLR just released in Germany. It’s my first title to be translated, so that’s been exciting.
I’m writing a series for Montlake titled the Roads to River Rock. The books follow a military family after the combat death of their father. Book 1 is titled Along the Broken Road. It releases in June this year. Book two is titled Down the Hidden Path and releases in January/February 2016. There will be one or two more Roads to River Rock books after that.
I also have a new writing venture that will be taking me out of the country for some lovely “research” time. Unfortunately, I can’t share details yet. But am honored to have been offered this amazing opportunity. (Yes, I’m smiling as I write this.)
Thanks Larry, for having me stop by. I took so many great nuggets home from your Story Physics classes. I’d encourage anyone to dive in and take a class if they haven’t.
LB: Visual footnote… that’s me in the middle (duh) with my Florida romance author friends (what an amazingly passionate and skilled group of writers). That’s Heather, second from left.
Two words: Hog heaven. The hog, of course, being me.
Breaking Story Coaching news… in a few days I will roll out a new focused tutorial-driven coaching product called “DRAMATIC ARC – An Analysis of your Core Story.”
More affordable (at $95) than the current Full Story Plan evaluation program, this one will pick up where the Quick Hit Concept/Premise Review service leaves off, isolating your core dramatic spine arising from premise, leading through the critical First Plot Point ignition of that arc within your story.
If you’d like to pre-order at a discount (pay now… submit any time during 2015), write me to request invoicing at $75, valid until launch (probably next week).