T. H. Hernandez is the pen name for Theresa Hernandez, author of The Union Series. She originally wanted to be traditionally published, and although publishers loved her writing they weren’t looking to buy more dystopian fiction at the time, and she was ultimately rejected.
Theresa chose to self publish instead as she wanted to bring The Union Series to life. I’m in awe to her dedication to publish the series, and was enthralled in her answers to my questions about self vs. traditional publishing, her life as both a writer and an editor, her reading habits, and much more!
Why did you choose your initials, instead of your full name, to use as your pen name?
Theresa Hernandez is a fairly common name. Don’t believe me, Google it. I know I did. I got dozens of pages of hits, including several mug shots! So to differentiate myself from the masses as well as the incarcerated, I chose my initials. I did another quick Google search just to be safe, and the first result that came up was a professional ballplayer by the name of Felix Hernandez. My father-in-law’s name was Felix and it’s also the middle name of one of my twins, so I just felt as if the universe had spoken.
That’s very interesting, and quite logical. I’ve heard of female author’s using initials to attract boys, as well as girls – such as J.K. Rowling herself. Did that at all play a part in your choice?
That didn’t play into my choice because I think with the young adult genre, that’s less of an issue. Both men and women have written wildly successful books appealing to both boys and girls. Think John Green, Suzanne Collins, James Dasher, and Veronica Roth.
For readers who haven’t got their claws into The Union, can you give them a brief overview?
The Union started out as this big “what if” experiment. What if global warming is real? What if government tries to regulate everything to prevent it from getting worse? And what if the people fight back? With record droughts in Southern California where I live, it wasn’t a stretch to wrap my mind around the concept. I took every possible scenario to the extreme and then tried to envision what society in the United States would look like in the aftermath. How they would live, what they would believe. Once I knew what my world would look like, I tried to decide who would be the best character to tell the story.
I chose the young adult genre because I think teens and young adults are still figuring out the world around them and it gave me more flexibility to explore themes that might not work with older characters.
The series follows seventeen-year-old Evan Taylor. She grew up in the Union, a utopian society rimming the former United States. In The Union, she discovers life outside the Union walls in the Ruins, the devastated mid-section and the survivors who live there. She’s forced to choose between two worlds, but it’s more than that. The series explores themes of bullying and fighting back, of preconceived ideas about how things are and how they should be, coming of age and falling in love, and about making tough choices, all against the backdrop of a future society that might not be that inconceivable.
So much for a brief overview 🙂
I knew that global warming would be part of the underlying message, but I stopped short of identifying the cause. My goal is to tell an engaging story without alienating one side of the debate. Regardless of anyone’s personal beliefs on the cause of global warming, it’s kind of hard to deny we’re in the throes of real climate change, and that man needs a healthy environment more than the environment needs man.
Did it add an extra element of immediacy to the writing as this is a future that is possible since you’ve based it on a real world phenomenon?
I began writing The Union in late 2010. By the middle of 2011, the midwestern section of the United States was experiencing record droughts, which only confirmed that I was telling a story that teens and young adults would be able to relate to. And the weather extremes have only continued to pile on. It’s also reinforced my decision to self-publish rather than wait to see if traditional publishers would be ready again to acquire dystopian stories in the future.
How did you feel to have agents (or publishers) love your writing, but reject your manuscript because of its genre?
It was bittersweet. At the time, I didn’t realize what it meant to have an agent ask for a full manuscript. I thought it happened all the time. So the initial rejections stung. But I also had to take a good portion of the blame. I tried to sell The Union as anything except dystopian because I’d read all the articles that said the genre was dead. I billed it as speculative fiction or a futuristic scifi adventure, but in every case, I was told by agents that it was “too dystopian for the current market.”
The thing is, I didn’t actually set out to write dystopian. My series doesn’t contain many of the dark themes that most dystopian series do, and for that reason, I think people either love it or hate it. People who want that dark, kids-killing-kids angle, find The Union to be too light and fluffy, which is why I didn’t want to sell it as a dystopian.
Ultimately, I embraced the title of dystopian because I don’t think it has to be just one thing.
It does sound like a hard novel to place. I can’t believe publishers think dystopian is over. I can’t get enough! But, I also don’t read many current books as my TBR pile is enormous! For me, dystopian is a difference in the entire world, generally futuristic, but it’s something that affects the whole world. Not a secluded group of supernatural creatures living through everyday society. Do you agree with this definition?
I don’t know if dystopian needs to be a global concept to be classified that way. I totally think you could create a dystopian society that was isolated from the rest of the world. Think Lord of the Flies, or even Tomorrow When the War Began. In John Marsden’s epic series, only Australia is really plunged into this dystopian nightmare. But I will agree with you that it’s not supernatural creatures living in our current society.
Did anyone suggest any major changes to make it sell-able to publishers?
I was lucky to get fantastic feedback from some amazing people. Other writers, an editor at a publishing house, and an agent. I took every suggestion to heart and made a ton of revisions before I ultimately published it. I honestly believe the book is so much better because of that.
But did anyone suggest you take the characters and put them in a different situation to make it not dystopian? I know that would be an insane re-write, but people say crazy things sometimes…
No. No one suggested that at all. But if they did, I don’t have any idea what that would look like. I probably would have cried, shoved it in a drawer and given up, so I’m glad that didn’t happen.
Considering you wanted to do traditional first, what lead you to self?
A lot of advice you get when you’re writing is to write what you love. You need to write the story that keeps you up at night, the one you obsess over and can’t get out of your head. The one that compels you to sit at your computer and write at least one scene before you go to bed. For me, that’s The Union series. The other bit of advice you get is when your story’s been rejected, put it in a drawer and work on something new. Those two pieces of advice seem to be at odds with each other, but I decided to try something different. The problem was, I just couldn’t let go of The Union.
There are so many options for authors now to self-publish, which made the decision easier. But I also knew I wanted to do it right. I wanted the book to be as good as it would have been if it had been chosen for publication by a traditional publisher. I’m exceedingly fortunate that I know a lot of talented people. Writers, editors, artists, and my day job as a writer, editor and publisher of technical documents gave me the knowledge and experience I needed to ensure a quality end product. I’m not sure I would have tried if not. Self-publishing is daunting, even if you have a quasi-clue what you’re doing, which I only sort of did.
So continuing on from you first paragraph of your previous answer, if you could offer one piece of non-conflicting advice to aspiring authors what would it be?
If you’re rejected, try to find out why. If your writing needs work, find a local or online critique group to help improve your writing. If your story needs work, get specific areas that need improvement. Never stop improving your story. If you believe in your story, if it’s burning a hole in your soul, struggling to get out, never, ever give up.
Has your opinion of T/S publishing changed now you’ve self?
Yes and no. I still believe there are merits to both, and that both can result in outstanding or subpar quality books. I have an incredible amount of respect for what publishers do now that I might not have otherwise had. I appreciate how much work goes into publishing because I’ve had to do it all.
Can you give us an overview of your self publishing journey?
Once I made the decision, I began to research. I read blogs, books, articles, joined a Facebook group, introduced myself to other indie authors and picked their brains endlessly. I made checklists and got to work. I was in the middle of researching cover artists when I visited my brother at his new condo. Hanging over his fireplace was this fantastic painting of a Vespa scooter. It was edgy and I knew that I wanted that look and feel for my cover. Luckily, the artist is my brother’s best friend, so it was just a matter of begging him to work with me. Turns out he was more than happy to take on the project. I highly recommend him to anyone who needs graphic work done. His name is Mark Sgarbossa and he has an impressive client list, including Jason Mraz, Ice T, Target Stores, Tony Hawk, and more. His website is www.popgroovy.com.
Next came finding an editor. Again, I’m lucky to know people. My sister-in-law is a newspaper editor and agreed to provide copy edits. Then I hooked up with a fantastic critique group who provided me with valuable constructive criticism. I did my own formatting, since it’s what I know and didn’t see the benefit of hiring it out. After that, it was learning how to upload my files, order proofs, tweak stuff, and get exactly the look and feel I wanted. That actually took the longest outside of the writing process. Self-publishing is definitely not for the faint of heart!
I really think it’s been worthwhile. In fact, as I sit down to write this, I’m looking at a certificate that arrived in the mail today. My book was one of three finalists in the San Diego Book Awards in the Young Adult category. San Diego is home to a lot of authors and some of the top literary agencies, so even though I didn’t take the top prize, just being a finalist was beyond gratifying.
Do you think you feel more proud of yourself for self-publishing considering you had to do the work yourself? Or possibly just as proud because you published a book?
I don’t know if I feel more proud. There’s certainly something to having a traditional publisher read your book and tell you it’s worthy of publication. But that’s not really the ultimate goal. More than 25% of traditionally published books are returned to the publisher unsold. Many advances paid to authors are never earned out, meaning the advance check the author gets, is the only royalties they’ll ever earn for that book. So, I think I’ll go with just proud because I published a book, or actually two books, now.
Why have you decided to give traditional a go even after self? What was it about self that was lacking for you?
There’s a lot of work that goes into publishing. Work that keeps me from writing. Besides the big stuff like editing, layout, artwork, printing, having a publisher behind you can boost visibility. They arrange for signings, publicity, and placing your books in major retailers. Although every author needs to spend time doing their own marketing, but it helps to have a publisher behind you.
So many people won’t give an indie author a try because they’ve been burned by poorly written, edited, or published books. I can’t blame them. I mean, even if the book is free, you only have so much free time, and who wants to waste that on a poorly written book? By having a traditional publisher backing you, it gives you more credibility with a huge portion of the reading population.
This is a very interesting opinion. I quite like it. It encompasses mostly what I feel about self publishing. Were you ever struck down by the enormity of self publishing, especially since writing a novel is a big enough task?
I was overwhelmed in the beginning. It felt like too much. There are so many self-published books out there and it’s hard to make yours stand out from the crowd. But I believed in my book and in my series, so I was willing to at least give it a try. And succeed or fail, I know it all rests on me. If the series doesn’t work, I can’t complain that covers don’t accurately reflect the story or that editorial direction moved the series away from my vision. This is the tale I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it, presented the way I envisioned it. If it fails, I take full responsibility.
Are you planning to write a new series to appeal to traditional publishers?
I am planning a new series, and I hope it appeals to traditional publishers. But if not, I’ll definitely self-publish it. Because it’s a series I believe in.
Can you give us a sneak peek of what it’s about?
I’m calling it Super Hero High for now. The story centers around the offspring of the world’s super heroes. After the program has been defunded, the teenage children and their families are relocated to San Diego where they can be closely monitored and “phased out.” For the first time ever, the heroes and their non-endowed siblings, known as “zeros” will go to school together and be forced to find a way to coexist. It’s ultimately a story about fitting in and finding value in who you are and not in what you can do, but they’re teens and they have super powers, so of course there will be villains, adventure, and probably lots of kissing.
What does an average day look like for you?
What it looks like now and what it will look like next month will be very different. For the past four-and-half years, I’ve worked for a company headquartered 120 miles north of here, so I telecommute. My day typically involves getting my three kids off to school, stopping at Starbucks for coffee and sitting down to write. Because the office hours are 9:30 to 6:30, I can usually get an hour or two of writing in before I have to logon and work. After work, dinner and family time, I can usually put in another hour or two at night before going to bed. Once I fall into bed, I pull out my iPad and get lost in someone else’s writing for an hour or two.
However, my company has decided that remote workers are a thing of the past and if I don’t uproot my family and move two hours north, I’m out of a job come September 1. I’m looking to do freelance writing and editing going forward, and have lined up a couple of clients. I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to do the writing I want to do, the fun kind, the kind that brings my imaginary friends to life.
Wow, that sounds very interesting. What would be your dream day schedule? If you could choose the way you wanted your day to go, how would it?
Ha! Well, if I could design my day anyway I wanted, it would probably involved lots of coffee, hanging out at the my local Starbucks and being creative, before spending quality time with my kids after school. And of course international book tours, author appearances, visiting movie sets where my books are brought to life.
Do you find it hard to write fiction with your job as an editor and technical writer? Or do you think the difference in writing styles helps separate them?
I think the differences are definitely a plus. I also think that both types of writing keep me on my toes. Because I go back and forth daily, I’m constantly forced to switch it up, never get too comfortable with one or the other. I think challenging yourself is key to becoming a better writer, no matter what you write.
What are your top social media tips for writers?
Oh boy, this is tough because it never feels like enough, but I think if I had to distill it down to the biggest lessons I’ve learned it’s to know your readers and where they hang out and to be patient. It takes time to build a following, and there are no shortcuts. There’s no end to the number of people who will offer to sell you followers, but do you want followers or readers? Finding readers is organic. The only way to find them is to write the best book you can and market it.
My first book was published nine months ago, and I just this week hit 60 reviews on Goodreads, and I haven’t quite hit 30 on Amazon. I’ve seen books by traditionally published authors with even fewer than that and I’ve seen indie authors with a book published the same day as mine with thousands of reviews. You can’t really compare yourself to other authors, though. Track your own progress. Once a week I write down a number of social media statistics. Basically, if I’m not losing my audience, it’s a good week. Most weeks I gain, but sometimes not by much. Other weeks it’s a big spike. I’d like to say that I also know why these spikes occur, but I honestly don’t.
Probably the most important tip I can give a writer is to be yourself on social media. Readers want to engage with authors not a marketing machine.
Do you have a strategy for social media? Or do you just record how your progress is going, and look for a tradition?
I really don’t have a strategy, and I probably should. I’m not much of a marketing guru, but I’m trying to learn. I signed up for a class on marketing with the Kiss of Death chapter of the Romance Writers of America in June and then managed not to be able to attend a single class due to my crazy schedule. But since it was conducted online, I WILL find the time to go in and read over all of the material. It was specifically designed to help authors with their social media strategy.
Book three is called The Uprising and told from both Cyrus’s and Evan’s points of views, so you’ll get a peek inside Cyrus’s head for the first time. It’s going out to beta readers probably next week and will hopefully be ready for publication by the end of this year or very early next.
The story picks up where The Ruins ends. I don’t want to say more because if you haven’t read The Ruins yet, it could spoil things.
You mentioned before, you read on your tablet before bed, does that mean you are team e-reader? Or do you still enjoy a physical book?
Totally team e-reader. I can easily carry one iPad with me as opposed to three or four books because I can never read just one book at a time. On top of that, the built in lighting means I can read in the dark. But I’m so addicted, I also have a Kindle Paperwhite I take to the pool with me so I can read in direct sunlight.
I read your post on platonic friendships in YA , and that spiked curiosity as to which three plot/relationship cliques do you think are over done in YA?
I like a lot of the typical tropes you see, the bad boy redeemed, best friends to lovers, even a good love triangle, but – and this will no doubt make me some enemies – I’m pretty much over the snarky teen girl. I think witty dialogue is fine, but for me, the snarky girl who wins the heart of the popular boy with her smart mouth has been done to death lately, and I’m ready for something different. If I have to come up with two more…the girl who is out of her league and gets the boy by a) developing a power she didn’t have before, b) getting a makeover, or c) changing in some other way that makes her more his equal. And I think I’m pretty much done with lust at first sight that leads to an antagonistic relationship and ultimately true love. I think that one’s been done to death.
Do you read whilst writing? Or do you have big spurts of writing, and then reading?
I read and write every day. So no, I don’t alternate spurts.
Are you worried about your writing being influenced by authors?
No. Reading inspires me. There are certainly authors who influence me, the same way Arcade Fire, Muse and The Beatles influenced the music that Imagine Dragons puts out.
I learn something about the craft of writing from every book I read. I read a lot of different genres as well as non-fiction books on craft. My favorite is On Writing by Stephen King. He famously says that in order to write well, you have to be well read. He reads over 100 books a year. In 2014, I challenged myself to do the same. I made it, but it was rough. I scaled way back on my reading goals for this year 🙂
How did you manage to read two books per week as well as having a day job, self publishing a novel and writing another? Did you sleep? What tips can you offer readers wanting to achieve a similar goal?
To be fair, I had The Union drafted well before 2014. It was mostly revisions, but still. I do read fast, and because I love my eReader, I read anytime there was downtime. Standing in line at Starbucks waiting for my coffee? Pull out my iPhone and fire up the Kindle app. I’m embarrassed to admit, I even read while at NFL football games both before and during halftime. Plus in the car on the way there and back.It was a fun challenge and I’m glad I did it, but I also wonder if I would have been able to get both The Union and The Ruins published in 2014 if I hadn’t.
How did you get into the teenage mindset to write YA?
I’m convinced a tiny little teen (14-year-old boy to be exact) lives inside me. It horrifies my 15-year-old daughter and amuses my 12-year-old sons on a daily basis. I think fart jokes are hysterical, my knees still get weak by a good, passionate kiss, and Adam Sandler may be a comic genius. So really, I have to work to get into an adult mindset. And that’s a lot harder.
What are you tips for creating a vast cast of characters, who are unique and their own persons?
Have lots of imaginary friends 🙂 . But seriously, you do have to spend an inordinate amount of time inside your own head. I have spreadsheets I use that help me determine who my main characters are, what their personalities are, quirks, flaws, hopes and dreams. Then I flesh out their character arcs, even minor characters have to be three-dimensional. After that, I figure out how their flaws and fears factor in.
I write using Scrivener and each character has their own sketch. As I write, I refer to it regularly, and the characters come to life more fully as I draft. Then I update their sketches as I learn more about them. In subsequent drafts, I go back to earlier chapters and round out the characters more fully based on what I learned about them in my first draft.
Thank you so much for hosting me. Your questions were unique and thought-provoking!
Thank you very much for answering my questions Theresa. I’d like to interview you again, after you’ve published traditionally – it’ll be a good comparison – but for now these answers have made me happy!
I’d like that. I’m interested in seeing the differences myself.
To purchases T. H. Hernandez Union series head to her website: http://thhernandez.com/my-books/