Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Guest Blogger: Homer Hickam

A few years ago I was working as a book reviewer and got to know today's guest blogger and his wife. It's a long story but it involves an ARC being sold illegally on eBay and the author's interest in attracting female readers. And that's how I got to know Homer, which impressed the heck out of my younger son's assistant college track coach and a total stranger in the Charlotte airport.

Today we have the distinct honor of having him guest blogging with us. He's taken time from promoting his new book to be here, so please make room on the swings for Homer Hickam.

February, 2008

First, thanks to Marilyn, Kimberly, Kira, Danniele, and Alexandra for letting me put in my two cents here. I'm a big admirer of them and all writers, published or not. Getting published is not an easy enterprise and pure talent sadly does not always prevail. So what does? Simply put, the ability to tell a good story combined with perseverance and a healthy dollop of luck. Recently, I had a movie producer friend (he's with Disney) send me his manuscript for a men's adventure novel. I read it and thought it was absolutely dynamite.

I sent it off with raves to my agent who has always respected my judgment. The answer came back from one of my agent's associates that, yeah, it's good but it could be better with a complete overhaul including changing the major character. Huh? This is a Disney producer who knows how to tell a good story and, what's more, he's got a track record that proves it! Yet, thanks but no thanks. Sure, I think he'll find a home for his work but this certainly reminded me how difficult it is to get represented and published even if your credentials are impeccable, you come with the highest recommendations, and your work is very good.

I started as a free-lance writer back in the early 1970's, mostly for scuba diving and travel magazines. I just pecked away, learning as I went. Eventually, I wrote TORPEDO JUNCTION, a true account of the U-boat war along the East Coast during World War II. When I finished it, I sent it off to the Naval Institute Press (Tom Clancy's first publisher), confident of its acceptance because I knew it was good. It came back several months later with a rejection form letter. I immediately sent it back with a letter requesting another look.

Astonishingly, this time they accepted it. Why? Because, luckily, this time it landed in the hands of someone who actually read it! TORPEDO JUNCTION was published in 1989 and was soon picked up by Bantam Doubleday Dell as a mass market. It's still in print and has sold probably in the neighborhood of a quarter million copies. The ability to tell a good story (honed over years), perseverance, and a big dollop of luck got my manuscript published. ROCKET BOYS, the book that made my career, required the same trio. That's just the way it is but do not be discouraged! You can learn to tell a good story (reading good ones help in this regard), perseverance is a given if you're a writer, and luck comes to those who try hard and long enough.

Now, let's turn to RED HELMET, my latest novel. After reading it, Marilyn wrote to say: "I do declare you have written a romance and not just a love story!" She then proceeded to give me the Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance which RED HELMET satisfies. I take this as high praise! Writers working in the romance genre today are some of the finest authors in the country. They work hard at their craft and pay attention to their readers. I am tickled to join their ranks!

Briefly put, RED HELMET is the story of a rich, beautiful, New York City woman who marries a West Virginia coal miner and the tumultuous romance that follows combined with a little deep mine adventure, murder and mayhem. Mickey, my Hollywood agent, called and pronounced it "Legally Blonde in a Coal Mine!" which was, to him, a big compliment. Song, the woman protagonist, is a brunette but there's some things you don't argue about with Hollywood. Mickey's going forward with it to the folks out on the Left Coast. We'll see.

Occasionally, a writer gets something really fun that just sails through the transom out of nowhere and here's the latest for me. Kathy Mattea, the big country music star, asked me to write the notes for her next album titled COAL. I did and she loved what I had to say. Now, we're going to make some appearances together to jointly promote Red Helmet and COAL which should be a lot of fun. We're even going to get together and go inside a coal mine in West Virginia later this month. More on all this can be read on my blogs and newsletters on While you're there, please take a moment to consider donating to the Homer Hickam, Sr./Red Helmet Marshall University Scholarship for the children of coal miners, and also sign a petition to create a National Miners Day.

Thanks again for letting me join you today. Please keep writing and reading. I love you guys!

Homer Hickam

P.S. Homer will be giving away an autographed copy of Red Helmet to one lucky commenter today. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Congrats on your story becoming such a wonderful movie. What a talent to be able to draw such emotion from people. To have people stand up and applaud your work is a great achievement. You must be so proud.

And good luck with your venture with Kathy M.

Pat L.

Smarty Pants said...

Morning Homer! Thanks for stopping by today. Some of us may have a slow start this morning - we got a 3AM tornado siren wake up call. Yay Alabama. :)

Could you tell us a little about the process of having your book adapted to film? So often the resulting movie barely resembled the original book. How involved did you get to be?

Problem Child said...

Very cool to have Homer Hickam here. I'm looking forward to reading Red Helmet--what a shame I'm not actually eligible to win.

I totally agree that it's luck that gets your paper baby into the right hands. I got a revision request on the same book another editor hated every word of...

And a rocket slide sounds AWESOME!

Sonia said...

This new book looks great. I like the "legally blonde in a coal mine" part. LOL! Sounds like it'll be fun. I have friends who live in Huntington and are huge Marshall fans. I know they'll appreciate the scholarship. I'll have to email them about your book.

Playground Monitor said...

What a night! Sitting in a broom closet for an hour just isn't my idea of fun.

I can tell y'all that RED HELMET is a good read. And the Legally Blonde analogy is pretty spot on (blonde/brunette thing notwithstanding). I really disliked Song in the beginning of the book. She was whiny. But when she set her mind to learning about the mine and trying to solve the mystery (yes, there's a little bit of intrigue in the book too) I came to like her more and more.

One of my favorite musicians is featured in the opening of the book and that made me go dig out some CDs. I'm not telling who it is. LOL!

Welcome to the ranks of romance writers, Homer!


hhickam said...

Good morning to you, too, Smarty Pants! Yep, Linda and I and all the cats were up with that 3 AM tornado siren, too. I had trouble getting back to sleep but L and the kitties were soon curled up and snoring (the cats, not Linda). Once I wake up, my mind starts to swirl with plot problems with the next novel. You know, a writer's mind never stops. I live with the characters in my books and they demand attention. The next novel is tentatively titled The Dinosaur Hunter and is set in today's Montana ranchlands where I spend a good part of each summer. It tells the tale of a rancher's widow and a widower paleontologist (the dinosaur hunter) who have both given up on love and, to a certain extent, life. They keep trying to tell me their story even during a sirenic, tornadic moment.

As for the movie October Sky adapted from Rocket Boys, it was clear to me early on that the storyline for the film was not going to match that of the book which I considered a long love letter to my father. But the producers and director and all who worked on the film did it with such love for the project, who was I to get in their way? Instead, I joined in to make it as good a movie as I could. I spent nearly every day on set and influenced what I could. It ended up being a very good film, one I'm proud to be associated with, one that seems to inspire a lot of people, young and old, and who can argue with that? It also happily helped to sell a lot of books. :)


Vanessa said...

I lurk here a lot and have never commented but I loved your Rocket Boys book and would love to read this new one. I don't come from coal mine country, but my family all worked in textile mills, so I know the value of hard work and how these industries help our nation.

Angel said...

Welcome, Homer! I'm dragging in this morning after being up most of the night. That close weather call was not fun!

As you make a shift in your books to feature romance and romantic storylines, do you find it comes naturally with the characters and plots?

Legally blonde, huh? Somehow I just cannot picture that. :)


Playground Monitor said...

Oooooookay. Just got hubby out the door to work (better late than never, right?).

The Dinosaur Hunter huh?. Interesting that your characters were talking to you during the storm. All I kept hearing in my head was "I wanna go to sleep. I wanna go to sleep." And it wasn't a character talking; it was me. This was our first storm closet adventure since we had to get rid of our last cat in November. I'm not sure I can fall in love with another kitty and then have to say good-bye again. *sniffle*

Back to Dinosaur Hunter -- Are you a plotter or do you just write by the seat of your pants, following along wherever the story leads you?

hhickam said...

Good morning, Angel. Hmmm. That sounds like a great book title. Anyway, about your question concerning the difficulty of shifting toward romance and a romantic storyline in my books. No, not difficult because actually all my books have had a strong underlying thread of romance despite perhaps their outward appearance (well, maybe not Torpedo Junction but all the rest). Rocket Boys had the yearning of Sonny for Dorothy that was ultimately satisfied by the experienced Valentine in the backseat of her boyfriend's car (you read that right), The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone both had Sonny still tragically yearning for the unobtainable female with love yet finding its way in its own way. The Keeper's Son is a very romantic novel of love and war. With a dramatic backdrop of the Outer Banks of North Carolina during World War II, Josh and Dosie fight two wars, one against the U-boat, the other between themselves. And there's a romance between the U-boat captain and his tragic near-bride back in Germany, too. Similarly, The Ambassador's Son and The Far Reaches, though outwardly military novels, have embedded love stories that are actually the main thread. In TAS, Josh romances a woman who, granted, tends to cut off men's heads with her machete but is otherwise splendid, and in TFR, he is up against a nun who carries with her a terrible secret, her greatest sin which is romantic in perhaps a horribly, twisted way but the only way she had.

So... long way to answer - not hard at all to write romantic stories!


Instigator said...

I'm dragging in this morning as well. My girls never did go back to bed after we woke them up at 3AM. I'm guessing their teachers aren't going to be happy about that around 1 or 2 this afternoon.

Welcome to the playground, Homer! We're very excited to have you here. I can't wait to read Red Helmet! PM's said so many good things about it. And I absolutely LOVE the cover. Do you get any input into cover art/copy?


hhickam said...

Two answers to two good questions - PM, I don't lay out the plot for my novels in advance but I do kind of know where I'm going in my subconscious. Occasionally, I get off into the weeds but Linda reads all my stuff and lets me know when I've lost my way. I've thrown away a lot of "good" writing because it ultimately didn't work. It's hard but I do it, anyway. Instigator, yes, I do require in my contracts at least consultation on all my covers. Thank you on liking the Red Helmet cover. With just a little tweaking, it is essentially the very first one the publisher suggested. As soon as I saw it, I loved it and said so. Somehow, they just couldn't accept that and kept suggesting others, even hiring a different model for Song. I kept telling them - no, no, go back to what you did first! Finally, we had a contest on my website between this cover and another and this one won. Over two thousand people voted! Being sneaky, I voted twice for MY cover but Linda caught me and threw it out so it was a honest vote.


Rhonda Nelson said...

Morning Homer! So glad to see you here. I can't wait to read Red Helmet. I've got a trip to beach coming up in a couple of weeks and had planned to take my RITA books to read. Not anymore. :-)

Mark said...

I haven't read Rocket Boys but I did read Torpedo Junction. Not only was it an astonishing chapter in WW2 that I knew nothing about but it was really written in such a way that it didn't become a dry series of "this ship was here, this u-boat sank this ship on this date" etc. You have a knack for making the people behind the story seem real and that drives the story better than any historical facts. Too bad you can't be involved in the history textbooks in the schools!

hhickam said...

Thank you, Rhonda. Have fun at the beach! Red Helmet opens on the beach at St. John, US Virgin Islands, where we have a home. We just love it there. It's not called "Love City" for nothing!

And thank you Mark for the comments on Torpedo Junction. That was my first book after more than a decade of research. I'm glad you noticed it is really about the people involved, rather than a dissertation of events. Somewhere in the process of writing it, I realized I was writing the entire book to reach the last scene. That was where the crew of the battered coast guard cutter held up bread as an offering to the gulls who had finally returned to a sea of peace after so much pain and blood. I frankly wept when I wrote it. I still have trouble reading it without feeling emotional, the same, I guess, as the feeling I get when I allow myself to reread the last pages of Rocket Boys. I like to say I got a million dollars of psychotherapy when I wrote that one even though I didn't know I needed it!


Kate said...

It sounds to me like your characters come first and then you have to work out a plot around them. Have you ever had a character who appeared in your mind, but you couldn't figure out what his/her story was? I have this guy who was a high school geek but has undergone a transformation over the years. I just don't know what happens with him.

Oh my god at the verification word I got: ppywzwie

rebekah said...

It must be an amazing feeling to have you book made into a film. The new books sould really good. Sorry to hear about the tornado warning everyone, but thank goodness y'all are okay.

hhickam said...

Kate - you're right. My characters come first because I believe what people are really interested in when they read a novel are the people in it, not the situation. That said, sometimes they tell me they're not who I think they are. In Red Helmet, Song kept telling me who she was and I finally listened after I was some chapters in. So I started over. In The Far Reaches, I had a character I loved, a Japanese lieutenant. I was three quarters through the novel before one day I raised my eyes from the computer and realized he was telling me he did not belong. In fact, he wanted out of the novel so I obliged with a complete rewrite, killing him off in the first chapter.


Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Good morning, Homer!

Super congrats on your success. RED HELMET sounds intriguing. And Marilyn has a great eye. :D

What impresses me about you besides your talent is your openness to embrace life. I can't wait to hear what adventure you're on next!!!

Hugs, JJ/Nancy

JOYE said...

I enjoyed your comments, Homer. And I thought i had recognized your name and it hit me-yes, I have read your book Rocket Boys which I really enjoyed. The Red Helmet one sounds interesting to me since I know next to nothing about coal mining. Here in Arizona, we have open-pit mining.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Finally dragging in this morning too. It's so great to see you here, Homer! And I love hearing about your process. I have to read Red Helmet! I've had you on my TBR list since seeing October Sky, but alas haven't actually read you yet. :( Something I will rectify right away!

Your comment about having trouble going back to sleep because of characters and plotting hit home with me. I've been on a serious writing jag lately, and I have trouble getting to sleep. So, last night, when my mind finally quieted down enough, I drifted off--only to be awakened by that tornado siren! So, much trouble going back to sleep after it was over. Coffee is starting to kick in, but whoa, I feel like I've been drinking heavily. :)

Beautiful cover, btw. Just draws the eye and makes you want to read. My family roots are in VA and WVA, and I believe there may have been a miner or two, but I haven't been there since I was about 4. My ancestors traveled to VA before the Revolution, and were there when WVA split off. The family tree is full of Clines and Cains. :)

hhickam said...

Joye - thank you for your comment. When I returned from Vietnam in 1968, I felt a great urge to return to my roots but couldn't quite bring myself to go home to West Virginia. Instead, I traveled to Globe, Arizona, and interviewed with the mine superintendent there. It was Coalwood in the desert! I came close to taking the job but then, out of nowhere, was offered a job in Utah as a rocket engineer for Thiokol. Although I attempted to find out how Thiokol even knew who I was, I never did find out. The personnel director was forever evasive. "Why do you want to know?" he asked. "You DO want the job, right?" I did and that, after lots of gyrations, ultimately led me to work for NASA which gave me a nice ending to Rocket Boys. I have often wondered what my life would have been like had I taken that job in Arizona and fate hadn't somehow stepped in to send me off to accomplish the dreams of that Coalwood boy. Probably I wouldn't have written Rocket Boys but maybe I would have written Red Helmet a lot earlier, only set in Arizona!


catslady said...

I just saw your book on a couple of other sites and was drawn to it from the cover - very compelling. I've enjoyed hearing more about it and you. I live in Western PA so coal mining is almost in my back yard.

Way back when, it seemed the first romance books were written mostly by men until Kathleen Woodiweiss came around and to be honest I've shyed away from male authors (discrimination I know lol). But after reading this post I think I'm changing my mind. It sounds like a wonderful book!

catslady said...

Oh and I meant to say I'm glad to hear everyone made it through the storms okay - or at least I hope everyone has. I've never known such extremely weird weather. We are getting thunder storms and lots of rain and flooding in some areas but nothing like what some people are getting. It should be snowing but I won't complain about that.

Dejah said...

A reader posted about this, quoting the part where Homer sent his MS back to a publisher who had rejected it. The response was generally, "how dare he humor himself like that, editors know what they want and how to find it in short order." Seems like the person posting left out a really key fact: the person who rejected the book didn't actually READ IT.

This explains why I'm so darned disgruntled with the industry. The reject stuff out of hand without farging reading it. Wish I had the balls you did, Homer.

hhickam said...

Thank you, Lynn Rae. I too have been dragging all day after not getting enough sleep last night. I had a radio interview with a station in Grand Rapids this afternoon about Red Helmet and rose to the occasion - literally. I find standing during a radio interview works best. Your voice sounds better and you breathe better, too. I needed to at least sound awake!

On your family history, I can relate. The Hickams came to the colonies pre-Revolutionary War, too. I'm pretty sure they were indentured servants who escaped into the hills. They next turn up on both sides of the Civil War as good soldiers and deserters (somebody had to go tend the crops), then seem to hide out before popping up again in the coalfields as miners around the early 1900's. On Mom's side, the Lavenders pretty much followed the same scenario except they came through Ireland on the way here.

Thank you Vanessa, Catslady, Rebekah, Nature Nut, Dejah, and all commenters today. I really appreciate hearing from folks who love reading and books as much as I do. Dejah - I sent my manuscript back to the publisher because I guess I didn't know any better. I was just POSITIVE it was good and perfect for them. In this case, ignorance indeed proved to be bliss. Also, Mom always said God looks after fools, drunks, the United States of America, and my little Sonny boy. And I guess she was right.


petite said...

Congratulations on this wonderful novel! It sounds compelling and unique. What a great accomplishment to create a movie from your book. It all sounds amazing. Best wishes.

hhickam said...

Thanks, everyone. Please feel free to contact me if you think I can help with a writing problem or anything else you'd like to send along.

You can get hold of me over at Just check the Contact Us page and the latest e-mail addresses will be there.

My best to all and, no matter what, KEEP READING and KEEP WRITING!


Wendy said...

Hi, Homer! The Ret Helmet sounds like a wonderful story and I look forward to reading it. :)

Carol said...

Hi Homer,

I'm also looking forward to reading Red Helmet and I love the cover! Your mom sounds like a very wise woman! :)

tetewa said...

Looking forward to your latest release!

Lori said...

Homer, I can't wait to read your new novel. I am so proud to say that you are from my hometown!

hhickam said...

Thanks Lori and Tetewa! Hope you enjoy Red Helmet! Let me know...