It’s Author Interview Thursday and you’re welcome to another exciting episode with our featured author in the hot seat. Many authors claim to love the written word but it’s obvious without a shadow of a doubt that our special guest does indeed love the written word! I met our featured author after she left a comment on the interview I did with Julie Grasso. I clicked the link that was hyper-linked to her name, had a ball going through her website and knew I just had to get her on AIT. She has so much to share with us today so I’d encourage you to grab your favorite beverage and snuggle up (if you can) into a comfortable position because you’re in for a treat. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming H.Y. Hanna (H.Y. stands for Hsin-Yi).
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up being a children’s book author?
It sounds terribly clichéd to say this but I was always a bookworm – it used to drive my family mad that I would walk around all day, literally always with my nose buried in a book – even at mealtimes and yes, once I even tried to take a book into the shower with me! So it was hardly surprising that my dream was to be an author when I grew up. Of course, I knew that that was a very impractical dream so I focused on other things for a while – such as getting into university and graduating with a degree in Biology, then starting work in the advertising industry in London. I then tried my hand at several other jobs – from marketing for a computer software company to teaching English in language schools – all while moving around and ultimately emigrating Down Under with my husband.
But none of those jobs made me happy and when I hit my 30th birthday (and my mid-life crisis!), I decided that since I wasn’t getting any younger, it was time I pursued my real dream. I pitched some article ideas to editors at several magazines and was surprised when I started getting regular commissions. Soon, I was working full-time as a freelance writer, writing feature articles for magazines in the UK, Australia and NZ.
After a few years of this, I realised that I still wasn’t happy – what I really wanted was to be an author. I had gotten quite close to being published several years ago back in the UK, with some romantic comedy and suspense titles and I still had a literary agent there – but I decided to try my hand at children’s fiction instead and write the kind of book I’d always loved reading as a child. As I was completing the first draft of my book and wondering which agent/publisher to submit to, I started hearing about self-publishing and was inspired by the success stories of various indie authors. Having gone through traditional publishing submission rounds before, I knew how long the whole process could take, with no guarantee of a book deal and probably a poor advance and contract as a new author – so I decided that I’d rather take my chances with self-publishing.
I made the decision back in April this year and threw myself into researching everything I could about this new industry. I hired a cover artist to design my book cover, found a freelance editor and collected a group of beta readers to give me feedback, while also attending writers’ workshops and critiques to improve my craft. And after five months of very little sleep and almost no social life, I published my book on September 1st. Seeing it live on Amazon and getting that first sale was one of the most exciting moments of my life!
An exciting, edge-of-your-seat adventure with lots of humour! So far, the most repeated comment from readers and reviewers is that they couldn’t put the book down once starting. Several told me they stayed up till the early hours finishing it and one reviewer on Amazon said they kept sneaking back to their hotel room while on holiday with friends to read more of my book on their Kindle – Ha! Ha! While I did set out to write a suspenseful story, it’s nice to hear from readers that they found my book such a page-turner. It’s especially nice when I hear from parents who say their son or daughter is a reluctant reader but was totally gripped by my book.
What inspired you to write the Big Honey Dog Mysteries series and are there any more books to come in the series?
I was an absolute Nancy Drew maniac when I was young – collected every book in that series – and generally devoured mystery stories. I also loved animal fantasies – books written from the animal’s point of view, such as Watership Down by Richard Adams and Bambi (the original by Felix Salten, not the Disney version!) – so I decided to create my own mystery series, told from the animal’s perspective. And I wanted to include all the things I loved as a child – such as riddles and secret passages and mysterious puzzles – all wrapped up in a fast-paced adventure.
The main character in the series is inspired by my own Great Dane, Honey, who has a very popular blog that’s been going for about 5 years now, with a large, worldwide fanbase. So the Big Honey Dog Mysteries are a fictionalised version of her adventures – well, with more intrigue and danger!
CURSE OF THE SCARAB (Book #1) is the first in the series and yes, I’m planning many more! Each book in the series is a standalone mystery adventure, rather than a sequel – although each will feature the same key characters – and every story will revolve around a certain dog myth or legend. Book #1 involves missing puppies, cryptic riddles and an Ancient Egyptian curse… and Book #2, which is coming out early next year, will be set at a glamorous dog show, where Honey steps in to take the place of a show dog who is mysteriously poisoned…
Can you take us through the writing process from getting the idea for the book to the characters, theme, dialogue, plot, setting etc.
I had been brewing the idea of a mystery series starring a Great Dane and her canine friends for a while. Then one day back in 2010, while I was vacuuming, I suddenly “saw” the final scene of CURSE OF THE SCARAB playing out in my head like a movie. It was a “what if?” scenario involving the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ritual from Egyptian mythology. I was surprised to find myself tearing up. I knew I had to write the story. I’ve always been fascinated by the question of what it really means to be a “hero” and having the courage to do something that will save others, even if it means sacrificing yourself.
This also tied in nicely with another theme close to my heart – the danger of judging on stereotypes. One of the big topics in the dog world is breed-specific prejudice – judging certain breeds based on stereotypes – which I think is similar to racism, something that children encounter and have to deal with (and which I’ve dealt with myself)… so that is something I wanted to highlight – but in a non-preachy way, by incorporating it into the story.
I didn’t sit down to start writing the first draft until April last year (2012) and I sort of worked backwards from that final scene. I think it really helps in plotting if you know exactly where your journey needs to end and what choices your characters need to make to get there. Having said that, I did change a fair bit of the plot once I started writing! I had to stop for long periods in between due to a family illness and then a big interstate move…so overall, if you added up the actual time I was writing, it probably took me about 5 – 6 months to write the first draft, and then another couple of months to revise & edit it, including sending it to beta readers.
What in your opinion makes a great children’s book?
A book that challenges your perceptions and makes you think; a book that has a “powerful” story – even if it does not have a perfect, Disney happy ending. In fact, I think many of the most memorable children’s classics – such as Charlotte’s Web – have stories that are not afraid to tackle darker themes like loss and death and the harsher side of reality. My favourite books from my childhood often did not have fuzzy happy endings (the real Bambi is nothing like the Disney version !!) but they taught me so much more about life and the shades of grey, and are the books that left the biggest impressions on me.
How do you handle bad reviews?
I have been incredibly lucky in that of the 30+ reviews I’ve received since my book’s release in September, I haven’t really had any bad ones. I did get one, though, that – while she gave me 4-stars – the reviewer basically rehashed the entire plot, including giving the ending away! As anyone knows, giving away the ending in a mystery totally ruins the book. So that really annoyed me. I’m sure I will get bad reviews eventually – that seems to be the sign that your book has “arrived” – and I’m sure that since I’m already a very self-critical perfectionist, it’ll probably knock my confidence terribly – but hopefully, I’ll rally after a bit of ranting and moaning to my poor husband!
I was very lucky to already have a “platform” when I released my book – the fans of my dog’s blog have been very interested in my self-publishing journey and I’ve involved them in the whole process, from choosing the cover design to helping with the blurb to asking for volunteer beta readers in the right age group… and I’ve been overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and support. Every time I’ve needed help – whether it was a boost in sales ranking or ‘Likes’ for the book’s new Facebook page, they have rallied around me and I’m incredibly grateful. Their support in spreading the word for my book meant that it got to #1 on the Amazon Bestseller lists for Children’s Detective stories and Children’s Dog stories in its debut month and had a better launch than a book from an unknown author normally would.
But this would not have come without the 5 years of relationship building and connections I’d made through blogging & social media previously – and always trying to provide posts with honest, genuine and educational or entertaining content. So in my case, blogging (& Facebook tie-in with the blog) has really paid off but it does take time to build up a following, I think. Even if you’re just starting to build a following now, though, it’s really important to interact with your (few) readers & followers on a regular basis and be generous with your time & knowledge.
I also think that with something like children’s fiction – which is such a tough market and can’t take advantage of many of the conventional promo opportunities that work for popular adult genres – you have to think a bit more laterally and find marketing opportunities that are “outside the box.”
What were some of your favourite books as a child?
As I said, I was a voracious reader of mysteries and loved Nancy Drew. I also loved animal stories and I still have faded and worn paperback copies of all my childhood favourites: E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan, Felix Salten’s Bambi, Jack London’s White Fang, Richard Adams’s Watership Down… I also loved the Ramona Quimby books by Beverley Cleary and the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley. Oh, and I loved to live vicariously through the Little House on the Prairie books – like how they used to churn milk to make butter and curl their hair with heated lead pencils! Other favourites are the sci-fi classic A Wrinkle in Time books and the Five Children and It series by E. Nesbit, which was sort of like an early Harry Potter!
What mistake(s) have you made while publishing your books that you would advise other authors against?
I think I spent a bit too much time and money setting up the book website – because I really wanted it to be interesting and inviting, full of fun, interactive things to give readers & fans a rich experience. In hindsight, though, from a purely business point of view, it probably didn’t/doesn’t make that much difference to sales. I did design and build the website myself, using the WordPress software but for example, I could have saved myself the money I paid a software programmer to create the special Hieroglyphic Code-Maker which ties in to the storyline in Book #1 (although I hope children who do visit my site have lots of fun with it!)
I think you can get a bit dreamy-eyed and idealistic with your first book and want everything to be “perfect” and end up spending on things that aren’t really necessary or going to make that much difference to getting more sales. For example, while you do need an online presence – ideally your own website – you can get away with a relatively simple design that just fulfils the most important functions, such as providing a signup for your newsletter or easy purchase links for your book. I hear of some new authors spending a thousand dollars on having a website specially designed and it looked wonderful but I’m not sure it affects sales enough to be worth the investment in the beginning.
I’m also still struggling with the advice that you’re better to spend less time on marketing and more on writing the next book …it always feels like there’s something else you could be doing to promote your book and if you don’t, it will be a terrible, missed opportunity – so it’s hard to abandon the marketing and focus on the next story.
How do you reward yourself on completing a book or achieving a specific publishing goal?
Oh, I’m a terrible workaholic so I’m usually worrying about the next thing on my ‘To Do’ list and trying to get started on that immediately! My husband is constantly telling me I need to take a break. I do reward myself occasionally by taking the night off (I often work 12 – 14hr days, late into the night) and watching repeats of my favourite TV show, Fringe!
Oh, there are so many, it’s almost impossible to choose! I don’t like the cheesy, animatronic versions that often dominate the cinemas now. One of my favourite “dog” films is the old Disney animated movie, The Fox and the Hound – it is one of the most beautiful tales of friendship and loyalty – and actually, is one of the few Disney films that doesn’t have a perfect, fuzzy happy ending but a very moving, powerful one… which is probably why it’s so memorable for me! It’s also got wonderful music, including the song, ‘Best of Friends’.
You travelled quite a lot while growing up. What particular location gave you the fondest memories and why?
Of all the places I have lived in, I think the one that I fell in love with the most was New Zealand. It is one of the most beautiful countries on earth – with the sort of wild, untouched beauty that’s rare to find anywhere else – and the Kiwis are really lovely, modest, friendly people. I had a wonderful time during the 8 years we lived there and was very sorry to leave.
That was somewhere I lived in as a grown-up, though – as a child, I think I identified more with the English way of life during my years living in London – which is why I chose to return to the UK for university.
What should a first time visitor to Western Australia do while there?
Well, start in Perth, which is the capital of WA and a beautiful city situated on the banks of the Swan River. Then – depending on your tastes – you could travel around the state and swim with whale sharks, do 4WD drives across the outback, have sunset cocktails by the Indian Ocean, check out the lunar landscape of the Pinnacles, sample some wines at local vineyards, go on a camel safari across Broome beach…the choice is endless!
People are often attracted and fascinated by the size of a big dog, especially a giant breed like a Great Dane (if I had $1 for every time we’re stopped when we’re out walking Honey, I’d be very rich by now!!) but they are not really the dog for everybody. They require a lot of commitment and specialist care so my advice is actually NOT to get a big dog as a pet if you’re not passionately in love with them and have spent a lot of time researching them – and especially not if you’re scared of them! Dogs can sense fear and won’t respect a “weak” leader – all dogs will try to push boundaries but a big, powerful dog will cause a lot more damage/problems if you don’t impress him with your natural confidence and authority.
If you’re interested in any breed of dog, then the best thing is spend time with real adult examples of the breed (not cute puppies!) in their home environment. Dog shows are very artificial places and you won’t get a real idea of what the dog is like in “real life”. Find the breed club and ask if you can join one of their regular group events to meet some members and talk to them about life with that breed. See just how big (or hairy or slobbery or hyper or greedy, etc) the dog really is; spend a few hours in their company and handle them if possible (e.g. take them for a walk). Most people love to talk about their own breed and are keen to share information and help you decide if they’re right for you.
Remember also that a dog is the product of its owners so even if you see a wonderfully-behaved specimen of a breed, that doesn’t mean you will end up with the same thing, even if you choose the same breed – unless you put in the same amount of training & socialisation that the other owner has.
What can we expect from H.Y. Hanna in the next 12 months?
Well, I’m currently working on a Christmas-themed mini-mystery in the Big Honey Dog Mysteries series, which I’m very excited about, and then I’ll be releasing Book #2 in the series early next year and hopefully Book #3 later in the year. I’m also toying with the idea of writing a spin-off series starring the feral cat colony that featured in Book #1.
I am also hoping to do some Skype school visits in the US and UK, if I can work out the logistics of that!
Where can fans and readers of your books discover more about you and connect with you?
I love to hear from readers! You can contact me and find out more about me & the ‘real-life Honey’ who inspired the Big Honey Dog Mysteries at: www.bighoneydogmysteries.com – where you’ll also find book discussion questions, parent/teacher resources and some really cool interactive puzzles and fun activity sheets!
You can also follow me on the Big Honey Dog Mysteries Facebook Page (www.facebook.com/bighoneydogmysteries ) – I post fun photos and tidbits about an author’s life, progress on new releases, share book reviews, competitions and giveaways – and we also have posts from readers sharing pictures of their own pets with my book (we’re starting an international gallery at the moment!) and their thoughts on the story.
Any advice for authors out there who are either just starting out or getting frustrated with the publishing industry?
I’m not sure I feel very qualified to give advice since I’m still such a newbie myself! J I think producing a professional product is very important because people DO judge on first impressions. So investing in a professionally-designed cover is one of the few things you really should do, followed by professional copy-editing and proofreading. Especially in the children’s market, where you’ll have to get past the gate-keepers of parents and teachers who may be very critical about what they will let their children read, you really have to prove that you are not an amateur.
If you’re self-publishing, then read & research as much as you can – and never stop! J Keep on top of the market trends – places like the Writers Café on KBoards are a wonderful source of information on effective tools for book promotion and mistakes to avoid in the publishing & distribution process. There are certain indie author blogs that I have found to be a wealth of information: Susan Kaye Quinn, Lindsay Buroker and of course, the famous J. A. Konrath, to name a few – and the books, Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran have been absolutely invaluable.
Thanks so much for spending time with us today Hsin-Yi. Your passion for writing and life just oozes through on every line of this interview. There’s just so much good stuff in this interview that I’ll definitely be coming back to read it again and again. You can get a copy of Hsin-Yi’s book at the link below
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