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When I Get Stuck on a Book. . . I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

When I Get Stuck on a Book. . . I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

He got your attention, didn’t he? He got mine too.

A long time ago, I wrote a book about a wild rocker with long dark hair. It was a romantic suspense and got several rejections. Shortly afterward, I went to a writers conference. The speaker said that whatever you read the most is probably what you should write. Ding, ding, ding went off in my head. What was I doing writing romantic suspense when I rarely read it. I love reading contemporary romance the most.

So, I switched to contemporary romance and after 9 1/2 years, I finally got a contract. A few years later, Harlequin bought the Heartsong Presents line and I got the opportunity to continue my Texas rodeo series with three more books. I only had one, so I dusted off my old moldering early manuscripts in the depths of my computer hard drive. I found something for book two and then thought, hmm, that rocker could be a country star.

But when it came time to write Rodeo Song, it wasn’t so easy to change this wild rocker who’d lived in my head for 13 years into a country music star. I didn’t want to change my hero’s image, but in today’s country music, there aren’t any long-haired stars. I struggled with my second case of writer’s block.

Until, I heard my local ACFW Arkansas group was setting up a retreat. Just what I needed. Being with other writers always gets me going. So, I made plans to go, hoping my writer friends could fix me.

The retreat was at a church camp. Once everyone arrived, we got right to work. Jenny Carlisle gave us each a poster board, we paired off, and took turns writing everything we knew about our story and brainstorming with our partner.

Hannah Wood, Me, & Jenny Carlisle

Hannah Wood, Me, & Jenny Carlisle

Kimberly Buckner & Nichole Hall

Kimberly Buckner & Nichole Hall

I worked with Rosie Baldwin, who encouraged me to figure out how my guy dressed. I hadn’t even thought about that. She also brought up a new conflict for my characters that made the story more plausible. But still, I had nothing to explain why my country music hero has long hair when long hair on men really isn’t in style anymore and especially not in country music. Even without my problem solved, I felt like Rosie helped me more than I helped her.

After our one on one sessions, we went back to tables. Some of us wrote. Some of us discussed our stories with the other writers at our table. Pretty soon, everyone was probably sick of hearing about my long-haired cowboy, but nobody let on if they were. Lisa Collins started googling long-haired cowboys and showing me pictures. We laughed about how we were at a church camp for a Christian writers retreat googling men.

This was the Garrett Steele I had in my head:

Inspiration for Garrett Steele

Isn’t he pretty. Yep, but he’s a rock star. I found this picture of the same model.

Garrett Steele with horse

It helped me begin to think of him as a country star. Or at the very least, a cowboy at heart. I ended up using this picture as inspiration for a scene in the book when Garrett moves back to his hometown and reunites with his horse.

These are a few examples of what Lisa found:

Garrett Steele 12

Cute, but I wasn’t satisfied with the hair length on any of the cowboys she found. We could not find a guy who looked like a cowboy or country star with hair as long as the Garrett in my head. But something about the pictures and the brainstorming made it all click into place.

Ding, ding, ding—I got my answer: My hero spent two years in Nashville, playing music in bars, trying to get his break. By the middle of that two years, he was really broke and couldn’t afford a haircut. He’d always hated his natural curl and the longer it got, the less it curled, so he ended up letting it grow. By the time, he got discovered, his hair was pretty long, but the woman who discovered him thought his look was something new and fresh for country music. She marketed him as a sex symbol. Poof, just like that, my story came together with a little help from my friends.

We celebrated with the Mexican food we’d brought and fellowship.

Debbie Sheetrum & Rosie Baldwin

Debbie Sheetrum & Rosie Baldwin

With my story fixed, reality set in. This was my closest brush with church camp I’ve ever had. I’m not the camping type. I like modern conveniences. Yes, we were in a building, not a tent, but I was completely unprepared.

We slept in squeaky bunk beds and there was a ladder in the middle of the bunk which made crawling in and out of the bottom bunk a challenge for an adult. Sort of like crawling out of the birth canal. My husband called me just after we’d all gone to bed in the same room, so I had to get up and answer in case anything was wrong. I disturbed everyone for nothing. He’d actually called hours before, but we only had a signal in the bedroom. He was just checking on me.

I couldn’t sleep since I never sleep well away from home. And I’d drank too much coffee, so I had to get up and go to the bathroom several times. My retreat mates were probably ready to shoot me and since one is licensed to carry, she was packing heat.

After sitting and writing or brainstorming all day and half the night, the next day, we decided to go on the prayer walk. But I hadn’t planned on walking and only had sandals with me. High heeled wedge, gold sandals. Nevertheless, I climbed the mountain right along with everyone else while they commented on my hiking boots.

Debbie Sheetrum, Rosie Baldwin, Ann McCauley, & Me - the mountain climbers

Debbie Sheetrum, Rosie Baldwin, Ann McCauley, & Me – the mountain climbers

I didn’t feel like I helped anyone else with their stories, but I hope everyone got as much out of the retreat as I did. The experience was priceless. My friends helped me fix my book and we writers get each other like no one else can. We all hear voices and have imaginary friends, but we think that’s normal. I left the retreat thinking—I’m going to write down everyone’s name who was there and dedicate this book to them.

Nichole Hall

Lisa Collins

Kimberly Buckner

Jenny Carlisle

Rosie Baldwin

Ann McCauley

Hannah Wood

Debbie Sheetrum

But I didn’t write it down. By the time I finished the book, went through the editing process on two different books, and was working on another book—my brain was fried. When I got my publisher’s request for the dedication page—I forgot my plan. Now, who was I going to dedicate this book to? I. Could. Not. Remember.

I ended up dedicating Rodeo Song to my husband.

I hope this blog lets the ACFW Arkansas gals know how much I appreciate them, reminds them of how they saved my book, and helps them to forgive me for forgetting them when I was in a brain/time crunch.

  1. Nichole Hall04-01-14

    I got the biggest kick out of reading this Shannon! It brought back so many great memories…of looking at men! Just Kidding! Sort of 😉 I’m so glad we could help. I loved the part where you said you planned to dedicate the book to us. Then I cracked up laughing when I read that you forgot. Because that’s SO something you would do!! Love you girl! And thanks for reminding us to lean on each other. That’s what makes this journey a bit easier.

  2. Shannon Taylor Vannatter04-01-14

    Hey Nichole,
    Glad you got some giggles.
    Still forgetting things. I forgot this post went live today until I got your comment.
    I have plans to dedicate a future book to the ACFW AR gals.

  3. Regina Merrick04-02-14

    Love this, Shannon! I so giggled at your “hiking boots,” and can just imagine how comfortable you were! LOL I’m glad you were able to get your long-haired rocker after all – he was pretty darn good! 😉

  4. Shannon Taylor Vannatter04-02-14

    Yes Regina, you know me well. We decided to make the retreat an annual thing and I’ll go again. But I’ll take tennis shoes and I won’t drink so much coffee. I might sleep in the top bunk too.

  5. Jenny Carlisle04-02-14

    So many great memories! The thought of being included in a dedication tears me up! Believe me ACFW-Arkansas will be in my first dedication! So glad we got to be involved in the “birth” of a character!

  6. Shannon Taylor Vannatter04-02-14

    I’m so sorry I forgot, Jenny. Y’all will be in a book dedication soon even if y’all have nothing to do with that book. But who knows, y’all may have to save another one some day.

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