Talking Craft with John Herrick, Author of ‘Beautiful Mess’

jh_image001_thumbA self-described “broken Christian,” John Herrick battled depression since childhood. In that context, however, he developed intuition for themes of spiritual journey and the human heart.

Herrick graduated from the University of Missouri—Columbia. Rejected for every writing position he sought, he turned to information technology and fund development, where he cultivated analytical and project management skills that helped shape his writing process. He seized unpaid opportunities writing radio commercial copy and ghostwriting for two nationally syndicated radio preachers.

The Akron Beacon Journal hailed Herrick’s From the Dead as “a solid debut novel.” Published in 2010, it became an Amazon bestseller. The Landing, a semifinalist in the inaugural Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, followed. Publishers Weekly predicted “Herrick will make waves” with his next novel, Between These Walls.

Herrick’s nonfiction book 8 Reasons Your Life Matters introduced him to new readers worldwide. The free e-book surpassed 150,000 downloads and hit #1 on Amazon’s Motivational Self-Help and Christian Inspiration bestseller lists. Reader response prompted a trade paperback.

His latest novel, Beautiful Mess, folds the legend of Marilyn Monroe into an ensemble romantic-comedy.

Herrick admits his journey felt disconnected. “It was a challenge but also a growth process,” he acknowledges. “But in retrospect, I can see God’s fingerprints all over it.”

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Beautiful Mess. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?

Beautiful-Mess-Low-Resolution-Color-Book-CoverA: Thanks very much! Here’s the gist: Del Corwyn hasn’t had a hit film since his Academy Award nomination 40 years ago. He’s desperate to return to the spotlight but teeters on bankruptcy. Del is a forgotten legend—until, while combing through personal memorabilia, he discovers an original screenplay written by his once-close friend, Marilyn Monroe, who named Del as its legal guardian. The news goes viral. Suddenly, Del skyrockets to the A-list and has a chance to revive his career—if he’s willing to sacrifice his friend’s memory and reputation along the way. 

As for what compelled the idea, years ago, I read a biography on Marilyn Monroe and learned the actress was forced into a mental institution against her will. That ordeal frightened her because she was trapped, all alone, and couldn’t do anything to stop it. 

I thought to myself, “Even though they released her, the experience must have left scars. Nobody could escape that predicament unchanged.” I sensed a story and couldn’t shake the idea. I sought a way to delve into that experience while respecting her memory and presenting her as a human being who had vulnerabilities like you and I.

Q: What do you think makes good contemporary fiction? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: The key elements, for me, seem to be point of view, balance and heart. POV is important not only because it’s part of the craft, but readers recognize when it goes astray. Writing from your heart breathes life into the story and gives your readers a way to identify with the characters. And balance makes sure all the bases get covered, but recognizes one size doesn’t fit all.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: Beautiful Mess features an ensemble cast. So I started by developing a story arc for each character, then overlaid them to see where their stories bled into each other. In a way, I treated each character’s story like a subplot for development purposes. My IT background had me assigning alphanumeric codes to each event, then drafting the story by piecing those blocks together much like a flow chart or storyboard. (A total geekfest on paper!) I didn’t intend to plan the book that way—my personal motto is “Whatever works!”, and that method got me moving forward.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: Del is 78 years old, but he feels like a perpetual 29-year-old. So in terms of his perspective and behavior, I started with that younger mentality, then aged him. I added his biographical sketch, which gave him decades of life experience. Finally, regardless of how Del sees himself, he can’t deny reality—in fact, reality of his age annoys him most—so I sprinkled in physical characteristics of someone his age. For example, I gave him recurring lower-back pain to bring him down to earth.

Yes, I create biographical sketches for all my main characters. Usually, I also conduct character interviews to get a feel for their voices. But Del and the other characters were so clearly defined in my mind, this book didn’t require as much prep work. Once I got past the initial mental barriers, the project unfolded fast. 

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: In Beautiful Mess, my antagonist isn’t a person; it’s the realization that Del is aging. But he can’t admit that to himself, so he creates his own antagonists, and those people/facts aren’t out to get him like he believes. In his own mind, it’s Del against the film industry, Del against the world, Del against his competitors. Not to be crude, but he’s always on the lookout for the latest excuse to tell someone, “Go f*** yourself!” He thrives on that—on being the lead actor in his life’s movie. But the truth is, by living that way, Del has become his own worst enemy. That becomes part of his self-discovery process. On the surface, Beautiful Mess looks like a man-vs.-man story, but when you get to know Del, you discover it’s a man-vs.-self story.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: Subplots are so valuable. They add depth to your novel; offer opportunities to highlight aspects of your plot or protagonist through parallels or symbols; and buoy up your novel during lulls in your plot, which helps maintain a sense of motion for your reader. That’s one reason richly drawn characters are so critical: they help you develop those subplots. Their stories and backgrounds provide so many places to dig for ideas. And in Beautiful Mess, Tristan’s subplot provided comic relief—it allowed me to dabble in caricature without sacrificing the gravity of Nora’s plight.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: Instead of simply decorating the scene, I try to allow my characters to experience the setting and incorporate all five of their senses. I also try to use setting to give clues about a character’s emotion or inner predicament. 

The world is much smaller than we tend to think. Beautiful Mess examines how, in a pool of humanity, individual lives can cross paths and produce startling consequences. It describes every person’s need to rise above that pool and be known and appreciated for their distinct natures. Los Angeles provided the perfect setting—America’s second-largest city, a mecca where millions flock to pursue the same dream, where it can be easy to feel lost. The cityscape on the cover conveys that sense. The city and its foremost industry are not just the setting for the story, but also symbols for what the story is about.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: Del, my protagonist, came to me early, along with his insecurities. So his internal predicament drove the story’s theme and structure. To date, my books have focused on the human heart, those hidden corners we all possess but try to hide. As a result, my books are character-driven. Each book has an external plot, but the true plot—the more important action—occurs internally. I create an external parallel to amplify and shed light on the protagonist’s inner struggle.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: I’m a fan of balance. Because of how my planning process works, I conduct a lot of “pre-editing” before I write a word, which has prevented me from having to rewrite any chapters from scratch. And I’ve gotten to the point where I tend to edit a bit as I write, but if it starts to interfere with my creative flow, I force myself to postpone edits to the revision phase. But when it comes to craft vs. art, if you want people to read your books, it’s important to remember that the book isn’t about you—it’s about your audience. What will serve your readers best? Has your manuscript answered the questions your readers will have? Will your readers relate to a character or care about a storyline, or at least be able to get on board it? As a writer, it’s your responsibility to locate win-win scenarios. You need to sacrifice some things you want in order to give the reader what they want. You can also look at art vs. craft as hobby vs. profession—you can keep a 100% focus on art if your goal is 100% hobby.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: 1.) Cherish your audience—respect them, appreciate them, serve them, be aware of their expectations by reading what they read. 2) Understand people. 3) Pursue excellence in your work—do whatever it takes to achieve it.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A: Another famous writer, Mark Twain, said that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s a more accurate description for me. Yes, it’s hard work, but that work should bring you joy.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: Read, read, read. Anything and everything, especially your counterparts in the marketplace. You’ll stay aware of current standards, and you’ll learn what to do (or NOT to do) as your technique evolves. Oftentimes, when I read another author’s work, it gives me technique ideas. 

Learn, learn, learn. Pay attention to the news. Read or scan nonfiction books, magazine articles, books on business or computer programming or wines. Anything. When you meet people, ask them about their careers. Ask your Starbucks baristas which products customers like best (and why), or how a promotion is working. The more you learn, the more background you have on the world around you. It will trigger novel ideas, give you direction for how to plan a novel (“I remember reading about X, where it said…”), and will expand the network of people you can talk to for research purposes. Reading nonfiction helps you ask better questions when your path crosses with someone in that field. Also, watch people; listen to what they say and how they say it, which will help you sharpen your dialogue skills.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: Never give up! Books are a subjective field, so rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t succeed or your work is poor; often, it just means your work isn’t the right fit for the needs of that particular moment—but needs change. Feel free to say hi at http://www.johnherrick.net, Facebook, Twitter or Goodreads!

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