Sasscer Hill On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer
… The first thing I needed was the courage to accept editorial rejection and criticism.
Some writers and authors have a knack for using language that can really move people. Some writers and authors have been able to influence millions with their words alone. What does it take to become an effective and successful author or writer?
In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer” we are talking to successful authors and writers who can share lessons from their experiences.
As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sasscer Hill. Sasscer Hill was involved in horse racing as an amateur jockey and racehorse breeder for most of her life. Her mystery-thrillers portray the world of horse racing, and the skullduggery that big money and gambling so often attract. Sasscer lives in Aiken, South Carolina horse country, with her husband, a dog, and a cat.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born with horses in my veins and started galloping about the family farm on a stick horse when I was four years old. By the time I was seven or eight, I was sneaking rides on the Belgian plow horses. I did this because my father didn’t like horses and considered ponies dangerous. So instead, I drummed my heels on the sides of a 2,000-pound draft mare, while grasping whatever string or rope I managed to tie to her halter.
My father died when I was sixteen, and Alfred H. Smith Sr., owner of the two-time Eclipse Champion steeplechaser, Tuscalee, took me under his wing, probably because my mother told him I was a handful and headed for trouble.
Mr. Smith, as I always called him, owned over a thousand acres of Maryland hunt country named Blythewood. He took me out horseback riding with his family, and after determining I could ride, he took me foxhunting, putting me on a just-off-the-track Thoroughbred, named Hillmar. Those were some wild hunts. I confess I committed the sin of “passing the master” several times, pulling vainly on the bit stuck firmly between Hillmar’s teeth. But I’d found a place to channel that teenage passion, and my grades improved steadily. I wound up graduating from Franklin and Marshall College with honors and a degree in English Literature.
After I married, we lived on that Maryland farm, where I bred, raised, broke, rode and raced Thoroughbred racehorses for more than 30 years. I believe my love and passion for these horses transfers itself to the written mystery pages. Writing makes me feel complete. When I’m “in the zone,” anything that is wrong in my life becomes unimportant.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Here is how I might use a memory from the racetrack and morph it into a murder mystery. One day at Laurel Park racetrack, the child in me was determined to catch a brown hen that pecked for grain outside my racehorse’s stall. A number of trainers raise hens in their barns at Laurel, and I’ve been fond of chickens since I kept them as a child on the family farm.
After chasing the hen into an empty stall, I asked a buddy to close the top and bottom doors so I could catch the hen before she escaped. I caught the bird, stroked her smooth feathers, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, just like a six-year-old.
Of course, I couldn’t stand around holding a chicken all day, so I pushed against the doors and discovered my buddy had fastened the latches on the outside. I called out and waited for him to come back. He didn’t. After a while, still holding the chicken under one arm, I stuck my hand through a hole between the doors where some anxious racer had gnawed the wood. I waved and yelled for someone to come and let me out.
A woman I didn’t know opened the door and said, “What are you doing in there with that chicken?”
But suppose I’d been in there with a dead body? Or suppose a man with a long-serrated knife had opened the door. What then? What would my protagonist Nikki Latrelle do? No doubt Nikki would launch the hen, flapping and squawking into the face of the man with the knife, then run for her life. But who, she would wonder, was this man? Why did he carry that wicked knife? Hadn’t the wife of a trainer been knifed to death some months back? And a mystery story begins.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a writer? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
After writing my first novel, HEART OF A WINNER, I acquired an agent, but the book was turned down by five New York publishers. I took the rejections hard. I’d never heard of mystery organizations like Sisters in Crime. I was a loner and had no writer’s group for support. Five years of pointless self-pity passed by before I started “Full Mortality.” I never thought about a female jockey series, only that jockey “Nikki Latrelle” seemed a good idea for a protagonist. Unfortunately for me, I galloped into the book the same way as the first novel — by the seat-of-the-pants. I took a snail mail course with Writer’s Digest, where I developed characters and setting, but plot totally eluded me. I’ve never been so stuck.
Desperate, I signed up for a mystery writing course at Maryland’s Bethesda Writer’s Center with author Noreen Wald. She told us to bring a one-page plot outline the first day. Yeah, right. But then I thought, “Okay, this will happen, then that will happen, the bad guys will do this, Nikki will do that.” Suddenly I “saw” the story, got pumped, and was able to write a basic plot outline. I was always a good writer, but Noreen showed me craft. Synopses, story arcs, chapter endings with a punch, all the things I knew nothing about. She also convinced me to nail down my plot first. It is, she said, a road map to keep you from getting lost. Amen to that!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started my first novel, which still hides in a drawer, I thought a group like Sisters in Crime was only made up of superstars like Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. I felt they would not want a newbie like me as part of their group, so I didn’t try to join. This is not the funniest mistake I ever made, but the dumbest. Dumb to let fear keep me from progressing as I would have had I joined. All writers need support and there are groups for everyone. Romance writers, thriller writers, and so many subjects like finance, self-help, and journalism.
Years later, I was talking to Sara Paretsky at a Sisters in Crime meeting and I told her about my early fear. She was surprised and told me it had never occurred to her that someone might be afraid to join. But so many of us are afraid of being rejected and criticized. It took me several years to realize that constructive criticism was my best friend. When I wrote that first novel in 1994 the internet was just being created. There was no easy place to discover what was available to help writers. Now there is so much information and so many classes available online it is overwhelming. What I’ve learned is to choose carefully and go after methods of writing and marketing that appeal to me. If I don’t like it, it will be harder to do it well, if at all.
In your opinion, were you a “natural born writer” or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you
I believe I was born with an ability to write. As a little child, I was always “pretending.” Pretending to be a horse, pretending to be a cowgirl. It was a natural step for me to read every horse story in the library written for children. My favorite books were by Walter Farley, The Black Stallion series and the Island Stallion series. Naturally, when our teacher asked my fifth-grade class to write as story, I wrote a scene with a boy and an old man trailering a horse to the races. Something was wrong and the boy was worried. That’s all I recall. But I do remember this — after the teacher asked me to read it to the class, several kids asked, “What happens next?”
There is no greater compliment a writer can get than to have that question asked, and I knew I had something.
Walter Farley’s stories were filled with action, adventure, and excitement, and that is what I like to write. I started with a story about a female jockey and currently have a five-book series about jockey Nikki Latrelle. They say, “Write what you know,” and I was involved in horseracing for over 30 years. Following that advice made the writing so much easier for me.
Today people are doing so well writing cozy mysteries — cooking mysteries, knitting mysteries, dog related mysteries and guess what? They are writing about what they know.
Nevertheless, no matter how much natural talent you have, you need to study the craft of writing. Polish your grammar, learn about story arcs, setting, plot, and characters. Study reader’s expectations. If you list your book as a cozy and write a darker murder mystery, your readers will be annoyed and stop turning the pages. You will have lost them!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently, I am writing a cozy mystery. A murder takes place in a five-star hotel
in my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. Aiken is known for horse racing, golf, and polo. If you want to know if the murderer uses a polo mallet or a golf club, you will have to read the story when it comes out in September.
Once this book is out, I will begin the sequel to Travels of Quinn. Quinn O’Neill is born into a clan of insular con artists known as Irish American Travelers. Abandoned by her mother at two, Quinn is left with the father she loves and a stepmother and stepbrother who hate her. Though she’s indoctrinated into the criminal ways of her clan in South Carolina’s Tinker Town, by the time she’s nineteen, a part of her rejects this life. Her core yearns for something better, especially after she’s forced to steal the family silver and jewels from a woman who has been kind to her.
In the sequel to Travels of Quinn, the protagonist will follow a dark path from South Carolina to Washington D.C. in search of the mother who abandoned her so many years ago.
Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer”? Please share a story or example for each.
The first thing I needed was the courage to accept editorial rejection and criticism. When my first novel was written I sought an agent. After writing and sending 40 query letters I finally secured one almost a year later. Every New York publisher to whom this agent sent my manuscript rejected it. This agent then sent me the publishers’ rejection letters. They were like bullets to my heart. I was so devastated that I gave up, devoted myself to raising horses and wasted five years not writing but feeling sorry for myself that I’d flopped as an author. My teachers in high school and my professors in college said I was a good writer. Why had I failed so miserably?
This brings me to the second thing I had to learn. Get help! Take a course in novel writing, join groups who write what you do. For me, it was Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Armed with new knowledge about the craft of mystery writing and networking, I wrote my second novel, found a small press that would take it on, and was astounded to find it short listed for both Agatha and Macavity Best First Mystery Awards.
The third thing I learned that helped me was the more you write, the better you write. Write, edit repeat. Find people, not your family and close friends, but other writers who will give you honest and constructive criticism. Join a critique group of at least four people. If one person has a serious problem with a sentence or paragraph you have written, but everyone else thinks it’s fine, go with the majority opinion. But do look at the criticism to see if there’s something there that niggles at you. There might be a better way to write that sentence by changing one or two words.
The fourth thing I learned is the power of critiquing other writer’s stories. It’s a great way to learn how to write better. Remember it’s easier to see other’s mistakes than your own, and after suggesting corrections for others’ work enough times, you recognize your own more easily. Another great way to edit your own work is to use Microsoft Word or some other application’s read out loud feature. I wish this had been available when I started. When you listen to what you’ve written read back to you, you hear the mistakes far more quickly than you do when you proofread or read out loud to yourself.
The fifth and probably most important of all is don’t give up. When I had doubts while writing my first published novel, author Noreen Wald gave me the best advice I’ve ever received. She said, “Keep going!”
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study). Can you share a story or example?
Trust yourself. In 1986 I bit the bullet and told everyone I was entering my horse, Rascal, in an amateur timber race in Potomac Maryland. It was a mile and a quarter course over solid, nailed board fences and you had to go twice around. The jumps were four feet high. Months before the race, I began jogging Rascal up and down hills to build up the muscles in his hindquarters. As he got more fit, I began galloping him a mile or two almost every day. This was in the winter and the riding was usually after sunset when I returned from my office job. My husband built me one solid jump with “wings.” Rascal and I practiced over that. During the months I prepared for the April race, Rascal and I were alone out there in the back forty acres. No one witnessed our progress and a great many people I knew made fun of me. They said I didn’t know what I was doing and that I didn’t know how to get a horse fit for a race. I read a book by an English steeplechase jockey who described how to let the reins slide through my hands, giving the horse his head, once I was inside the wings, that is, a yard or two before the jump. Either the horse jumps or he refuses, but if he jumps, the last thing you should do is to jerk the bit in his mouth. If you do, it hurts, so good luck with the next jump.
The day of the race I was very nervous. But after those months of preparation, I trusted myself and I trusted my horse. We won that race and the lesson I learned from that experience that I used in the future was to trust myself to go the course and write the novel.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I majored in English Literature in college and received a tremendous appreciation for imagery, setting, and the power of language. There is one stanza from a poem called Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy. These four lines had a tremendous impact on me:
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing….
Those four lines were so powerful and beautiful in their starkness, they became a bar to reach for in my own writing.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Allow people to speak freely without fear of reprisal.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Sasscer’s website: https://SasscerHill.com
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/SasscerHill
Sasscer’s tube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAJHmSpEYwIP0l4oX1cGt5Q
Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/sasscerhill/
pinterest page: https://www.pinterest.com/sasscerhill/
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!