Hollie Overton is a Chicago-born, Texas-raised writer who has worked on a number of television series including Cold Case, The Client List and Shadowhunters, the series based on Cassandra Clare’s international bestseller The Mortal Instruments.
Hollie’s debut novel, Baby Doll, is out this month. We contacted her to find out more about her experience writing both scripts and books.
You didn’t study creative writing or English Literature at college, but instead acting. Do you think this background as a performer impacts your approach to storytelling?
Acting was my first love and those skills I learned have been invaluable as both as a TV writer and now a novelist. I fell in love with performing in middle school and high school. I learned how to tell stories by analyzing plays, breaking down characters and studying structure. I spent years studying acting and all that knowledge informs everything I write. I visual things that I’m writing, how will it look, is it authentic. The same goes for dialogue. How would it sound if an actor were saying those words? Even though I didn’t continue my acting pursuits, I’m so grateful for the training and that it led me down this career path.
In 2008 you were selected for the highly competitive Warner Brother Writers Workshop. What was this experience like? How did it help your writing?
I still remember getting the call that I’d been selected to interview for the WB Writers Workshop. At the time, I was still trying to make it as an actress. I had bombed an audition for the TV show “House.” I went to the gym to shake off my disappointment. There’s always that little voice in your head, saying, “Maybe you didn’t bomb it.” When I got back to my car and checked my phone, there was a missed call. I held my breath, thinking maybe I’d gotten a callback. Instead it was the execs at WB telling me I’d made it to the next round. I really credit Warner Brothers with giving me my start. The program was amazing, teaching you the ins and outs of TV writing. It’s incredibly demanding, what I like to call TV writer boot camp but the knowledge you gain is priceless.
Readers may know you as a television writer, most recently for the series Shadowhunters. Why did you want to write this story as a novel, as opposed to as a film or TV script?
It’s getting better but I still feel like there’s a void out there for strong female character driven stories. Those are the stories I really wanted to tell but the TV scripts I was writing weren’t selling or getting me meetings. I was unemployed and trying to land a new TV gig and I felt lost as a storyteller. I had no plan whatsoever when I sat down to write Baby Doll. I was just trying to find joy again as a writer. Once I started writing, I loved the freedom that a novel brings. TV and film have very specific structures and you have to stay within that framework. But a novel provides you with the freedom to get inside a character’s head. You have the time to take an audience on a different kind of journey. It was such a different experience as a writer and I enjoy stretching those different kind of muscles.
Baby Doll focuses on Lily, a person who was held captive for eight years who then escapes. What role did real events play in inspiring you to write this novel? What research did you do?
The Ariel Castro story, the Cleveland man who held three women captive for over ten years was the jumping off point for writing Baby Doll. But I really wanted to tell a survivor story. As an identical twin, I kept putting myself inside the shoes of those girls and thinking about my sister. I kept wondering how we would survive something like that. I read a lot about captivity and the psychology of the victims. Giselle Jones, one of my best friends is also a therapist. She read several drafts of my manuscript, offering her own insights on how the characters would respond and react to the events that unfold in Baby Doll. I also consulted with Special Agent Shanna G. Daniels of the FBI’s Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit. She was instrumental in helping guide me through the logistics of what occurs after a kidnapping. I did some research while I was writing but most of it, I incorporated after I’d written the first draft of the manuscript. I didn’t want to get bogged down in facts and lose sight of the story I wanted to tell.
Your book is written with multiple points of view. Was this your intention from the beginning or something you decided upon after your first draft?
Multiple POV’s is very popular in fiction right now. But it wasn’t calculated. I think that’s just one of those weird timing things. Like I said I didn’t have much of a game plan (not something I’d recommend) and I didn’t decide on how many character’s perspectives I wanted to focus on until I’d written fifty or sixty pages of my first draft. I wrote the chapters with Lily and her mother, Eve first. Then I wrote Abby, Lily’s twin sister. Writing the antagonist Rick Hanson came much later. It took me awhile to wrap my head around him because I found him so despicable. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a character like that. Would it feel too lurid or tawdry to be inside Rick’s head throughout the book? But he created a much more exciting narrative and I’ve always had a strange obsession with sociopaths. In the end, I realized that he was important because he added tension and stakes to the story. There was a fifth character, the Sheriff, that appeared in earlier drafts, but he ended up slowing down the narrative, so he got cut.
Did you have a completed manuscript when you first approached your publisher Redhook Books? How has the story changed this then?
I definitely had a completed manuscript when we first approached publishers. Once I’d finished writing the manuscript, my TV agents at WME connected me with Eve Atterman, an agent in their New York office. After reading the first three chapters, she loved it and requested the whole book. She thought it had potential but she had very specific notes, all of which I thought were fantastic. That revision process took about four months because I was planning my wedding and working on TV projects. Once I completed her notes, the manuscript went out and we sold to Red Hook in the USA, Random House in the UK as well as eleven other countries. It was like one of those dreams where you think it can’t get better and then it does.
As far as editing and revisions, my editors, Selina Walker at Penguin Random House, and Devi Pillai at Red Hook are amazing. Their notes were about expanding in specific places, giving the reader more. They kept saying “We love these characters and want more of them.” Those are the best kind of notes because it’s not about restructuring or building anything from scratch. It’s simply about going deeper within the current framework.
What did the editing and publishing process teach you about writing?
It’s daunting to look at a to stare back at 300+ pages and ask yourself, what isn’t working. But that’s what you have to do. I’ve really learned how to analyze my own work. How to say “Okay, this works and this is crap” but it’s a painstaking process. I also learned that as much as you think getting published life will change your life, it really doesn’t. There’s definitely a confidence that comes from selling your book, the satisfaction at doing something so many people only dream about. But you still have to keep writing. Unless your goal is to simply write one book (mine isn’t) you have to start all over again. And now you have the added pressure of hoping that your first book sells and that your publishers are happy with the sales and that you can live up to everyone’s expectations, including your own. Early on, these thoughts drove me crazy but now I’m just enjoying the ride. At the end of the day, even if no one paid me to tell stories, I’d do it for free. But of course, I hope people love Baby Doll and that I can continue writing book and telling stories that matter to me.
What advice would you give to new writers working on their debut manuscript?
It’s corny and everyone says it but they say it because it’s true. Write the best book you can and then worry about publishing. I knew absolutely nothing about the book world or how it all worked. I wrote a book first and then worried about what to do with it. No one wants a half baked manuscript. Editors want a great book they can get excited about. Getting obsessed with publishing before you’ve finished manuscript is a time suck. So just keep writing.
Also, no matter what anyone says about the marketplace, ignore them. If you want to write sci-fi, write sci-fi. If you love YA, write that. Write what you love. When I was writing and pitching Baby Doll, I heard lots of comparisons to other bestselling books. I knew the subject matter was similar, but the heart of the book was totally different. I wrote the story I wanted to tell. A writer’s greatest asset is their ability to trust their instincts. I’m so glad I trusted mine.