New Voice: Rosanne Parry on Heart of a Shepherd

Rosanne Parry is the first-time author of Heart of a Shepherd (Random House, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Brother has never been the rancher that his father and the older boys are. Sure, he can ride a horse, rescue a wayward calf, or mend a broken fence, but his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. Even worse, every time one of the ranch animals dies he feels it too keenly. Still, with four older brothers to carry the load, it’s never been much of a problem.

Then Brother’s father is shipped off to Iraq with the rest of is reserve unit. With the older boys away at school, Brother must help his grandparents keep the ranch going. He’s determined to maintain the ranch just as his father left it, in the hope that doing so will ensure his father’s safe return. But life rarely goes according to plan. The hardships Brother faces will not only change the ranch but also reveal his true calling.

In her first novel, Rosanne Parry takes a thoughtful, uplifting look at one particular corner of the heartland and the people who call it home.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there?

I’ve always thought of my process as leap first and then look. I never know if there is enough meat in a story idea to sustain a whole novel until I’ve really absorbed the voice of my main character and worked through at least a dozen scenes, so I tend to plunge into a new story.

It’s not a completely random plunge. I need to have at least two characters, a setting, and a general story direction in mind before I get started, but I never know how the story will end while I’m writing that first draft. For example, in my next novel, coming out in 2010 from Random House, I started with three girl musicians living in Berlin at the end of the cold war. I knew that they would rescue a Soviet soldier and run away to Paris, but the girls were on the night train with two violins, a cello, an escaping communist, and an agent from the KGB in pursuit before I had any idea of what would happen to them when they got to Paris.

Once I have an endpoint in sight, I stop writing and begin researching, which in this case involved everything from music written for string trio to Russian fairy tales.

I do the major plotting work in the middle as well. Maps and timelines are much more fun for me to work with than a traditional outline. I like to have a timeline for all the events of the story and larger timeline that reaches long before and after the time period of my story. A map of the setting, family trees for my main characters, and a chart to track the interpersonal relationships round out my plotting tasks.

When most of the background work is in place, I go back and rewrite the beginning and carry it through to a finish. Once that is done, I run the story by my critique group a few chapters at a time, polishing and clarifying in response to their comments. Then I let the story rest for at least a month before I go back to a final revision of the whole draft. That final revision is usually the first draft my editor sees, and then we get down to the work of the “official” revision process.

What about this approach appeals to you?

This is not a very efficient process, and it’s one I arrived at by instinct, not reflection. If I had more time to write, I might be inclined to plunge through an entire draft. I like the spontaneity of following the thread of a story idea. Sometimes a character will take a story in an unexpected direction, and the story is almost always stronger for it. On the other hand, there’s no escaping plotting, so sticking that step in the middle seems to work for me.

What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I think the more you like to have plans, lists and detailed instructions in your day to day life, the more likely you are to be an initial plotter. For people who tend to rely on intuition and relish spontaneity, plunging into a story may be the only way.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career?

I would be lost without my tree house. I have four school-aged kids, and in the summer when they are all at home, my back-yard tree house gives me enough separation to concentrate, but not so much distance that they feel alone. I’m near enough hear trouble coming and help. On the other hand, I’m far enough away that my kids get a chance to practice independence (not to mention the long list of chores on the kitchen door.)

When it’s too cold and wet to work outside, I work at this cozy window seat upstairs while the kids are at school.

After school is another story. My kids have lots of activities, ones I enjoy as much as they do, so I pack up my work and bring it along for the hours between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. when they have places to go. I’ve written at the doctor’s office, the dentist, the dance studio, the children’s theater, the fencing club, and in my car. I’m never in a comfortable chair. Often I sit on the floor. It’s loud and busy, but it is possible to work.

I tend to save tasks that require less focus, like email, marketing, book keeping, reading for research and proofreading, for the afternoon. A laptop and earphones are the essential ingredients to success here—and an oven with a timer so I can cook dinner while I’m away from the house.

What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Short of hiring a nanny, a cook, and a housekeeper, there are no easy answers to the problems of work-at-home parenting. Although teaching your children to cook, clean and be kind goes a very long way. When I’m really pressed for a deadline, my kids do all the cooking, all the laundry, and most of the house and yard chores for a week or two, and as a result they feel like they had a substantial role in the creation of my book and are even more proud of it.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him at a conference? Did you read an interview with him? Were you impressed by books he has edited?

I met my editor, Jim Thomas, at the Oregon SCBWI Fall Retreat at Silver Falls. It’s a wonderful four-day retreat with lots of time for leisurely meals and long conversations. Jim critiqued a story of mine, liked it, and asked me to send the whole manuscript. A few months later he sent it back saying, great writing! Send me something else. So I threw something large and heavy at him (fortunately there is a continent between us.) And then I took a few more workshops and read some books on craft and practiced the things my critique group regularly flagged as issues and wrote a better story. I sent him that story and got the same response.

I might have gotten discouraged at that point except by that time I’d made many friends in the writing community who encouraged me to stick with it. I also realized that I was enjoying the process of writing even if I wasn’t being published. I invested more time in my writing, and applied for a fellowship from the Oregon Literary Arts. I was awarded that fellowship and shortly after found my agent, Stephen Fraser, and most importantly, I finished a story that was stronger than anything I’d written before.

I had a hunch Jim might like Heart of a Shepherd, even though it’s nothing like any of the other books he’s edited, so I asked my agent to send it to him. Jim loved it and made an offer right away.

As we got to work on the manuscript, I was very relieved that we’d had the opportunity to get acquainted at the retreat four years earlier. The revision process ended up being much more intense than I thought it would be.

Heart of a Shepherd
is about a family with a dad deployed to Iraq. My husband is a veteran, and I have extended family members on active duty. Several deployments occurred while I was working on this book. If I hadn’t known my editor and trusted him, I’d have written a much easier but far less honest book.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.