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Before you were published, what were you doing to scratch the writing itch?
For more than a decade, I’d been tinkering with stories and jotting down ideas for a novel. I had the passion, but not the maturity, to understand that talking about something isn’t the same as doing it. Although I’d always had a way with words, I was paralyzed by the fear that I wouldn’t be able to produce anything of quality.
Eventually, I came to the realization that writing is more about discipline and diligence than natural talent. I reached a point where I decided to stop making excuses and actually commit myself to set aside an hour every morning to write. As a lawyer, I function best when a project has clear guidelines. Instead of continually evaluated and critiquing my writing, I stayed focus on a simple mantra: a thousand words a day, for a hundred days, equals a novel. It was painful at first, but before long I had a working draft of a manuscript.
I never understand when friends complain about how they can never find any time to pursue a creative interest. While I’m thankful to have been published and to have my book out in the world, it’s my daily commitment to the work, not the finished product that gives me the right to call myself a writer.
How did you end up getting your first book published?
I spent a lot of time and energy fantasizing about my dream publisher and crafting a terribly crafty cover letter. Despite my non-literary background, I was naïve enough to believe the quality of my work would be enough to catch the attention of some swanky press in New York City. Unfortunately, the hundreds of manuscripts submitted to those kinds of places almost always end up buried at the bottom of “slush pile.” To add insult to injury, I had to wait 12-16 weeks for a form letter rejecting my novel. After several failed attempts, I went back and took a serious look at some smaller, boutique publishers. Dreamspinner Press responded promptly to my submission and offered me a contract. Seven short months later, my first novel, Favorite Son, was in print.
Was the process anything like you imagined? What fit the dream? What was different/surprised you?
The pre-publication process was memorable, but uneventful. When I found out there’d be three rounds of edits with three different editors, I imagined fierce battles over demands for me to change to my characters and rewrite of the story. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was truly a pleasure to work with the creative team at Dreamspinner Press. Together, we polished my manuscript and selected a cover that magically captured the spirit of my novel.
Honestly, it was what came after publication that took me by surprise. Although I’m a voracious reader, I was unprepared for the positive and negative reactions to my own writing. I love hearing from readers, but get a bad review definitely hurts. Still, I’ve developed a thicker skin and a deeper appreciation for how much work goes into writing a book. I’ve also loved meeting other writers and giving/receiving creative support.
How long did it take you to write your first published book?
When people ask me how long it took to write “Favorite Son,” I smile and say, “About forty years.” In truth, the genesis of Favorite Son can be traced back to an ordinary morning in 2001. I was riding the DC metro to work, struggling to process the very painful end of a thirteen-year relationship, when a good-looking guy glanced my way and smiled. A brief conversation on the train platform quickly led to a date and an intense, but ill-fated, romance. Although the relationship didn’t last, the experience inspired me to write a short story to process what I was feeling. I took a long break and didn’t really start writing my “novel” until 2009. I finished the first draft in about six months, but spent another three years revising and editing.
What’s your advice to unpublished authors trying to get their work read?
Be very careful about when and how you share draft work. Early on, a fellow author told me to keep editing and re-reediting my manuscript until I literally couldn’t stand to look at it any more. There’s always a temptation to send out a working draft, but I know from experience that’s a mistake. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
If you decide to invest in professional editing services (and I strongly suggest you do), make sure to note that in your cover letter. Unless you’ve got a stellar writing resume, first novels usually end up in a “slush pile.” Don’t be discouraged or deterred. There are a bunch of literary contests that are open to new writers and you should look for calls for submission. There are also a growing number of boutique publishers who will actually read your work. Take your time, do your research, and be patient.
Is writing not as fun/as fun/more fun once you have your first book published?
Getting published is a little bit like having a baby. You struggle to give birth to your story and characters, only to experience a form of post-partum depression when it’s done. I mentioned this analogy to a friend who is also a writer. He empathized with my plight and told me that the only way to process what I was feeling was to go out and get knocked up again. So, that’s exactly what I did.
Having my first book published gave me a fair amount of confidence; it I could do it once, than I could do it again. Even so, my modest literary success brought with it a massive amount of pressure to produce something equal to or better than Favorite Son. I quickly laid out plans for two new projects and dove right in. Before long, I realized that I’d stopped thinking of writing as fun and started referring to it as work.
Luckily, I knew enough to put on the brakes and take a step back. I’m still passionately devoted to the stories that are swirling around in my head, but I’ve consciously decided to forget about producing a second novel and focus my attention on getting the most I can out of the creative process.
What’s next up for you?
I’m a little schizophrenic when I write, so I’m working on two novels at once. I started writing The Plumb Line a couple years ago. I was walking my dog late at night and noticed the way a bunch of gray moss was hanging from an old southern oak tree. Something about the image got me thinking about mortality and my father’s struggle with ALS. By the time I got home, I had the idea to write a novel about Travis, a young musician who comes home to Charleston to spend time with his dying father. Although Travis thinks he knows everything about the old man, he quickly comes to realize that his father sacrificed everything, including the great love of his life, for the sake of his son’s happiness.
I got a little emotionally overwhelmed by the story, so I put it aside and started working on Indian Summer, a prequel to Favorite Son. Set ten years earlier in Provincetown, it’s the story of the unlikely friendship between Max Balais (the swarthy guy from Spiritus Pizza who puts the moves on Peter) and Danny Cavanaugh. I had initially planned to take a little time off between projects, but it feels great to have the opportunity to develop the back story of these dear characters. I love them all so much.
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