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On Writing and Publishing circa 2011

  • How did you get into writing? At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer from about the time I got my first library card and began going to the public library in Berkeley by myself when I was nine, although the desire to write grew more imperative in my teens. I wrote a novel when I was nineteen and watched it get rejected by forty-three publishers while writing a second one. That one was rejected by forty-four publishers. I continued in this vein for almost fifteen years and finally sold my first book, The Rainy City, in 1983. It wasn’t an easy journey and was made more difficult by the fact that I was an incredibly immature young man at nineteen when all this began. I did, however, establish good work habits right off the bat and they carried me through. There were a lot of discouraging times, but I knew each book was significantly better than the last, so I figured if I kept writing and I lived long enough, I would eventually get published.  Had I begun writing later, say when I was in my thirties, I suspect the learning curve would have been a lot easier. But by then my life would most likely have    been headed in other directions.

2. What was your first book or story that you completed? Did you ever get it published?

My first completed novel was a sci-fi titled Sucked Up, and believe me, it didn’t deserve to get published. The writing was amateurish, the characters juvenile, and the theme almost nonexistent. I once had a guy give me his manuscript to critique, anything I could tell him, he said. I couldn’t think of anything positive to say about his dreadful book. My wife, Sandy, said she could find something nice to say about anything, so I turned it over to her. She read it, or part of it, and her first comment was, “Well, it’s about as good as your first book.” Naturally I knew that couldn’t possibly be true and in a funk went out to the garage to find Sucked Up in the bottom of a trunk. I was in shock reading it. I hadn’t read it in sixteen or seventeen years at that point. The manuscript I’d been given to critique was considerably better than my first.

3. How did you finally get published? When were you able to write on a full time basis? Please explain your success story?

For me it was a long, slow process, one unpublished book after another. A lot of that was because I started so young. I was also intransigent in many ways and refused to listen to good advice. In the end, I found an editor at Avon — not the editor who eventually bought my first book — who gave me encouragement and asked for a mystery. At the time I was writing comic novels. I knew I had the skill sets to write good sentences, to create a scene, move people around in a story, and just generally use the English language to the benefit of the reader. What I didn’t know how to do was plot. I had been writing without an outline. In school I always hated outlines. But I had read a lot of mysteries and knew in order to write one successfully, I would need a strong plot. I went to the Seattle Public Library main branch and spent two weeks researching plot and story structure. I read magazine articles, combed through how-to writing textbooks and eventually wrote myself a prescription for how to plot a mystery. I gave myself a check off list, the same as a pilot might use before take-off, and adhered to the rules I’d created for myself religiously. It worked. My next book was The Rainy City and it sold to Avon as a paperback original. My fourth book went into hardcover and I’ve never looked back. Every book since has been rigorously plotted in advance.

Ironically I wrote full time only as an unpublished author, my wife supporting the family. After ten years I joined the Seattle Fire Department, and my first published book came out a couple of years later. After thirty-two years as a firefighter, I still depend on my day job for material and a change of pace.  We work eight twenty-four hour shifts a month. Most of the twenty-two off days will find me sitting at the keyboard working on my next novel.

4. How do you stay motivated to finish a novel? How do you stay focused?

I’m not good at keeping my focus. I’m still working in the fire department so I’m either at work twice a week or recovering from work. That’s four days a week I’m either unavailable to write or kind of groggy while doing so. My primary technique for staying focused is to find a topic and a set of characters I’m really excited about. If the original concept thrills me, I can usually ride that thrill for the year or so it takes me to finish a book.

5. What is your writing schedule like? Do you write in the mornings, evenings, and for how long?

In the beginning I followed Hemingway’s schedule, two to two-and-a-half hours every morning. That seemed to work. When computers came into the picture, I began spending more time at the keyboard. Now, I like to write for a couple of hours in the mornings, then take a break for a workout, lunch, and a nap, then another couple of hours in the late afternoon. I usually total three to five hours of writing a day. Other days I will write in the morning, have a quick lunch and a nap, then write a couple more hours in the early afternoon, do my workout late in the day. I virtually am never able to complete the second half of my writing day without first taking a short nap.

I set goals during the first-draft phase. Normally, the goal is to write a thousand new words a day, about four pages. I spend the rest of the time rewriting what I wrote the day before. After the first draft is finished, I rewrite and rewrite, usually between six and ten complete drafts. I polish and then the last phase is cutting. I try to cut out every irrelevant word, scene, or sentence, always tightening. Frequently a first version before the cutting will run 200k words, but will usually be trimmed down to 110k for a thriller and around 80k for a mystery. That’s a lot of cutting. One of my friends once said, “Oh, so you overwrite the first drafts?” I don’t think I’m overwriting while I’m doing it, but I must be. I’m good at cutting. Sandy reads the manuscript, makes comments and suggestions, and generally takes me to task for certain foibles that seem to crop up in every manuscript of mine, and then I go over the manuscript one last time and send it to my agent who then sells it.

6.      How do you get your ideas? What is your method for remembering them?

I’m an idea guy. My brain never stops buzzing. My problem is selecting out the best ideas and formulating them into a story people will be compelled to read. I imagine  myself as the typical reader. It seems to work. For some authors, it doesn’t work. They write what they would like to read, and nobody else likes it. You have to have a plebian taste to write popular fiction.

When I get an idea I think is fit for a story, I usually try to scribble it down on whatever scrap of paper is handy, usually the back of a computer printout, then I tack it to a corkboard over my desk. I still have stuff up there from five years ago.

7.      If you get writer’s block, how do you get over it?

I don’t usually get writer’s block, so I’m not the person to ask. When things get sticky in a piece I’m working on, it’s usually because of two things. Either there’s something fundamentally wrong with the work and something in the back of my mind is trying to tell me, or there are things going on in my life that are interfering with my concentration. Ideally, a writer lives a dull and rather humdrum life. That way, the life of the mind and the work are uninterrupted.

8.      What are your thoughts on self publishing?

The publishing world has been turned upside down by big business and the new economy, which is basically a lesser economy and which I believe will be with us for a long time. The music industry has undergone an incredible revolution because of the Internet. Individual artists are making a lot less money and the big corporations are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant. I expect the publishing industry to follow suit, although it is being pokey about it. Still, the days of all important publishing originating in New York City and big name publishers ruling the landscape are gone. I’m not sure what the new models will be, but I’m reasonably sure electronic publishing will play a huge part. One thing people have to realize is that fewer and fewer people are reading fiction. I work with young people in the fire department who have never read a work of fiction since their school days, others who’ve read maybe three or four books in their entire adult life. My driver on Ladder 3 has only read two books, Vertical Burn and Vertical Burn. He liked it so much he read it again. The level of illiteracy out there is positively scary.

9.        What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a writer? What is a good starting point for them?

The hardest part of writing is the part where the seat of the pants stay on the chair for a couple of hours. Putting in the time on a regular basis is the key. If you can establish good work habits and keep at it, everything else will fall into place. Somebody once said it wasn’t that hard to write a novel. Three hundred pages may seem daunting, but if you write five pages a day, you’ll have a three hundred-page novel in sixty days. Of course, then you have to make it publishable. Ha, ha. No. just kidding. You have to like the work. Make it fun.

3 Thoughts on “On Writing and Publishing circa 2011

  1. joanne cartwright on 2 July, 2012 at 9:51 pm said:

    I love your books! I have read all of them ,at least 15 times and then some… are there any
    More Thomas black coming out ( he’s my fav )

    • admin on 2 July, 2012 at 10:08 pm said:

      Thanks for the kind words. I have a finished Thomas Black at a publishing house right now. It’s called Monica’s Sister. I’m about half finished with another Thomas Black. My plan is to do three in a row, or until I’m sick of them. I don’t have any idea when the first will be published. As soon as I know, I’ll post it here.

  2. Peggy Franz on 3 April, 2013 at 3:17 pm said:

    When is your next book? I’ve readthem all and they’re great!
    Thanks, Peggy Franz

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