CH@T: Pittsboro author’s debut book was labor of love, time, and experience

‘Rook Makes a Move’ examines family dynamics, the role of faith and the ‘confounding human act of forgiveness’

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Ohio native Cynthia Hilliard and her husband, David, moved to Chatham County in 2017 to be closer to their son and daughter-in-law and their two grandsons — both of whom attend Chatham County schools. She’d spent 40 years working in information technology sales and management, then in retirement took on a new role: author.

Hilliard’s debut novel, “Rook Makes a Move,” has just been published. We spoke with her this week about the experience of writing and publishing, about to-do lists and her advice for aspiring writers.

A graduate of both Miami (Ohio) University and Capital University (in Bexley, Ohio, where she earned an MBA) she’s lived in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Colorado. She and David, who serves on the board of directors of the Chatham Education Foundation, will celebrate 53 years of marriage this fall. They attend Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian.

“Pittsboro’s size and vibe remind her very much of the town where I grew up,” Hilliard said, “so Chatham County really feels like home.”

You started writing your novel after retiring, when most people are thinking about relaxing, traveling, visiting friends and family, and other leisure pursuits. What set you on the road to becoming an author?

The precipitating event was the birth of my first grandson in 2013. I was retired, and I volunteered to babysit him one day a week. I began thinking deeply about the grandmother/grandchild relationship: the love, the fear, the yearning to be remembered, the thrill of a “do-over” from my direct parenting days.

Just before my grandson’s first birthday, I was walking in my neighborhood when a person popped into my brain: a woman named after a chess piece. That intrigued me, and I immediately gave her two brothers, also named for chess pieces. A scene of her walking to a mailbox in the mountains formed in my mind. I rushed home and started typing. (I still call it typing, although I suppose it’s technically called keyboarding on a laptop.)

That was the start. I just kept writing, and reading it, and changing it, and reading/changing it again, and sharing it, and revising again, until seven years later, I felt “Rook Makes a Move” was ready to put out in the world.

You self-published “Rook Makes A Move.” Tell us about that decision, and what it entails ...

Oh my goodness. Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. It’s like driving a train down tracks that you are laying as you go. I would have loved for a publishing house to have picked up the book, but after months/years of trying, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

I hired a book designer/consultant in New Jersey and began (the often daunting) task of doing it myself. I won’t go deep into the weeds here, but let’s just say, thank heaven for Google. I’d read and research and ask dozens of questions, and usually end up doing the steps in a less than desirable order.

It certainly opened my eyes to all the little things about a book you never notice. For example: how did I want it formatted? In chapters? In blocks of text separated by asterisks? Did I want the page numbers at the top or bottom of the page? I needed to purchase a set of ISBNs (book numbers and barcodes), and copyright the text. I formed an LLC and registered it with the state. I hired an accountant, opened a business checking account, and tracked my expenses. My designer and I went back and forth finalizing the cover, spine, title, colors, price, size, and so much more.

Finally I had to decide how readers would obtain the book. I choose to use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) on Amazon, which presented a whole new set of decisions and detail.

It all took twice as long and cost twice as much as I originally thought. But oh, when I opened that first box from Amazon and took out that paperback copy, and saw my name on the cover of a real, grown up looking book — that was the thrill of a lifetime.

How close are the parallels between your main character, Rook, and you? Is this a thinly-veiled autobiography?

My main character, Rook, is a lot like me, for good or ill. Remember, I was writing the book partly as a legacy for my grandsons (the second one came along in 2015) and I wanted to have a lot of me/my story in there: my values and observations, my struggles and “voice,” and, well, my wisdom, if I can be so bold. I also wanted to examine family dynamics, the role of faith in someone’s life, and explore the amazing and confounding human act of forgiveness.

It isn’t a memoir; I did invent a number of plot points, but the parallels are there. For example, Rook is an inveterate list maker, which is why I put a “To Do” list at the beginning of each chapter. Surprise! I love “To Do” lists and I make a new one every day.

Since the book reflects a lot about my own life, it’s gratifying when readers respond positively to the story, and enjoy spending time with Rook.

Lead us through your writing process. What surprised you about that creative undertaking?

At first I wrote in a method that I later learned is called “pantsing” — winging it by the seat of your pants. You just write. Then, about four years ago, I read an amazing and helpful book — Save The Cat! — which teaches you how to write a successful screenplay. I adopted many of the techniques taught in that book. I bought a large white board, and divided my book into five acts and fifteen beats, using sticky notes of different colors to identify scenes.

That’s when I morphed from “pantsing” to “outlining.” I actually wrote the last scene of the book early on, and played with the sticky notes: re-arranging scenes and discovering holes and excess. I recently read a phrase from George Saunders, a writer I admire, who noted that writing is basically “intuition plus iteration.” I love that. I would write, reread what I’d done, change it to be “better” (to me), then repeat.

My editor, Steve Peha, challenged me to get serious in 2018, and that’s when I blocked out three or four hours a day to write. I’d go to an upstairs room, shut the door, and work. The time would fly by. I would put a character in a particular place, with specific other people, then step back and watch. A comment would be made, a response would rise up. In other words, I captured what the characters were enacting in front of me. If they stayed mute, I would force some physical change (movement, a gesture) that would generally unlock the flow.

I had a good time in those daily sessions. I’d laugh out loud, or tear up, or be caught off guard by a new way of thinking about the characters and their situations. In a way, it was therapeutic. I felt refreshed afterwards.

Your book, as you said, features a “To Do” list at the start of each chapter. Tell us about the lists in your life. Are they friend or foe?

I’ve mentioned that I love lists. They keep me organized and focused, which I value. The items I don’t cross off my daily list get carried over. These are paper based lists, you understand. I have lots of technology in my life, as we all do: a laptop, an iPhone, a tablet, a Kindle, headphones, earbuds, Bluetooth speakers, and more remotes and charging cables than I know what to do with — but I love paper calendars, paper daytimers, and paper lists. Grocery lists, project lists, gift idea lists, recipe lists, well — you can see I’m addicted.

Are they a foe? They can be unhealthy. Structure is fine, but I know obsessing about filling every hour with a task is not what the doctor ordered. So I work on that. The obvious joke is to add bullet items to my lists like:

• Take a walk

• Go read in the swing

I’ve actually put items like that on my lists! How sad am I? But the idea of going through a day without setting some over-all priorities does give me heart palpitations.

Probably the best way forward is this:

1. If you currently don’t make lists, give them a try.

2. If you currently use lists, back off a bit.

Balance and moderation, right?

What’s been your favorite part of this journey from retired IT professional to author?

I love the writing part. The publishing and marketing were, and are, interesting, but the writing enlivens me. When I’m writing and I notice that “click” in my brain that says — “Oh, that’s better, that’s nearer to what I want” — I feel a thrill of satisfaction. I spent most of my life leaning heavily on my left brain: solving problems, running projects, and organizing people and tasks. Now I get to use the right side: creating a whole world that comes to life when I sit down at the keyboard.

I’m humbled and thrilled when a reader tells me I’ve touched them emotionally. Isn’t that an amazing dance? I pour my thoughts and passion onto paper that someone reads and responds to with their mind, heart, or gut. I’ve been a reader all my life, and ever since I was in elementary school crying over ““Charlotte’s Web, or laughing at “Eloise at the Plaza,” I’ve found books (especially fiction) reveal to me the important truths about life. To see my name on a book, to contribute in some small way to that author/reader exchange, is one of the most profound experiences of my life.

What advice would you give to someone at a later stage of life who wants to write and publish their first novel?

Be prepared for hard work and a long haul. Sure, you could write your first book in six months and sell it to a New York house on your first try, but the odds are not with you, my friend. Be patient, be persistent, be realistic.

Hire expert help! Find a good editor, designer, proof reader, honest beta readers, and ask lots of questions. Seek out local or state-wide writers associations: you will find a wealth of advice, recommendations, conferences, and classes to help you on your way.

It’s truly a golden age for self-publishing. Print-on-demand means you don’t have to contract with a vanity press and personally buy thousands of copies of your book to store in your attic.

You will spend some money. I spent around $15,000. I could have spent more, for example, I could have hired a professional actor to create an audiobook, but I didn’t want to commit to that (yet).

Document and track! Track your time, track your expenses, and especially track the different versions of your manuscript. It’s so easy and frustrating to get confused about which edited version you are working on, or to lose your text altogether. Back up often! You’ll be very despondent when you accidentally delete, and can’t recover, large chunks of good writing. And yes, that’s all said from bitter experience.

Have you moved on to a second book?

I have not started a second “Rook” book yet. I have ideas! I didn’t want to start until I felt this book was well and truly launched. Marketing “Rook” has taken a good deal of mental energy and time. I’m not sure I have even cracked the code on that, and perhaps it’s partly due to my lack of a presence on social media. I just could not summon the interest to engage with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., or to blog. I’ve probably handicapped myself on that front.

Regardless, I do ask that any reader of this who is intrigued by my book to try it, and to then please post a review, and pass it along or recommend it to friends, neighbors, or to any book club you know. I have discussion questions for book clubs on my author website (cynthiahilliard.com) and the book clubs who have selected it tell me how much they enjoyed it.

To read a review of Hilliard's new book, click here.

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