In a time of LOL and OMG, author Susan Dennard has her own acronym approach when it comes to writing: “BICHOK.”
Translated, that’s “Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.”
The somewhat draconian approach has paid off. Dennard, a Dalton native and 2002 graduate of Dalton High School, recently sold her Victorian-era novel “Something Strange and Deadly” to HarperCollins Children’s, which is part of one the country’s largest publishing houses. The book is expected to be released in summer 2012 and will have two sequels.
“Even before I had sold my novel, I approached writing as my job,” said Dennard, who now lives in Germany. “I’m very strict about this! I go into my office as soon as my husband leaves for work, and I write-write-revise-revise-outline-outline until he comes home. I rarely take vacations, and I work at least a few hours on Saturday and Sunday.”
So what’s the plot of “Something Strange and Deadly”?
“It’s 1876, and Philadelphia is hosting the first American World Fair,” Dennard said. “It’s also hosting rancid corpses that refuse to stay dead. When one of those decomposing bodies brings Eleanor — a 16-year-old with a weakness for buttered toast and Shakespeare quotes — a hostage note for her brother, she resolves to do anything to rescue him. But to face the armies of dead that have him, she’ll need a little help from a rag-tag ghost-fighting team called the Spirit-Hunters.”
Dennard’s interest in writing was nurtured by her parents, who were strict about television watching. Librarians such as Beth Lunsford and Zena Gibson introduced Dennard to new books and authors. And her fifth and sixth grade English teacher, Bette Chesser, helped Dennard form a life-long love for storytelling.
After high school, Dennard attended the University of Georgia and earned degrees in fisheries and statistics, then received her master’s degree in marine biology at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research in Windsor, Ontario. She intended on majoring in English at Georgia, but “got sidetracked by science.” She still wrote in her spare time and dreamed of being a published author.
Dennard ended up in Europe because her husband works for a German company. The couple doesn’t have any children.
Just the sheer number of people seeking a book deal could be a deterrent to prospective writers. Being an unknown author, Dennard knew it would be an uphill battle, but she was determined to succeed.
She took workshops, read books on writing, found critique partners, connected with other writers and worked every day to improve her writing. Dennard concentrated on perfecting the fundamentals of storytelling — “structuring a plot, building tension, creating three-dimensional characters, heightening conflict, raising the stakes, etc.” as she says.
“Of course, there were bumps in the road and days I wanted to give up,” Dennard said. “But every time something discouraging would happen — maybe negative feedback or the release of a book similar to mine — I’d tell myself, ‘It’s not a race. It might take a long time and a lot of work, but one day, your name will be in bookstores. You’ve just got to keep working and never give up.’”
To begin negotiations to sell a novel, Dennard first had to have a completed novel. She spent almost a year working on “Something Strange and Deadly” until it was “in the best possible condition.” She said agents receive hundreds of letters from aspiring authors daily, so they are looking for a story that is “both compelling and well-written.”
“Once I had signed with my agent (Sara Kendall of Nancy Coffey Literary), we revised the book some more,” Dennard said. “Then, Sara approached acquiring editors at the big publishing houses with ‘Something Strange and Deadly’ — editors she thought would be interested in the story. This process (called ‘going on submission’) can take months and months because editors are busy people. Fortunately for me, one of the acquiring editors — Maria Gomez at HarperCollins — loved my novel so much, she made an offer within the first week.”