What new book or project would you like to tell us about?
I just finished my fourth novel, a story about a reluctant stay-at-home dad who gets educated by his kids, his neighbors, and the Man With No Hands. The title is Summer of Light, and it’s due out next spring from Bethany House. Early readers are saying it’s a feel-good book— honest, engaging, and funny. I drew heavily on things I learned while staying home with my own kids.
Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?
I started writing short stories in ’96, began a novel in ‘97 and got a contract in early 2002, so about five years. I spent three years writing my first novel, learning by doing— a novel is a very different animal from a short story. I spent a year finding an agent and rewriting, and another year marketing before getting a contract. That was an instructive year.
We gave an exclusive to an editor at a major publishing house (who shall remain nameless), who sat on the manuscript for six months without reading it. After that, my agent proposed the manuscript to three publishers at the CBA conference and all three expressed an interest. But the capriciousness of the business reared its head when the full novel landed on their desks the week after 9/11. Two of them stopped all acquisitions pending a rethinking of policy based on current events, and the third held onto it for several months.
Right before Christmas 2001 they rejected it in committee, deciding to put their money into their existing stable of authors. My agent sent out another round of proposals in January ’02, and Bethany offered me a contract almost immediately. But between concept and contract was an endless series of small steps punctuated by setbacks and promising rumors, a slow and incremental process. Becoming a published author just sort of crept up on me. There was never any one great blinding moment, but it always seemed to me that the biggest hurdle was getting an agent. After that it just felt like a matter of time.
You're a Christy Award finalist. How was that process? How did you find out about being a finalist?
It’s all fairly low-key. The publisher submits the book; I don’t really have anything to do with it. The first I heard about being a finalist was when I got an email from Bethany House. The Christy people keep it under their hat until they’re ready for everybody to know, then they send out emails notifying the publishers, who notify their authors.
Do you still have self-doubts about your writing?
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
What mistakes did you make while seeking an editor or agent?
I honestly don’t think I made any mistakes there. Everywhere else, but not there. I thoroughly studied the market as I neared completion of my first novel, and I trusted my instincts. All the how-to books said not to bother with an agent in the CBA, but certain indicators in the market guides led me to believe publishers were getting flooded with manuscripts at an unprecedented rate.
The problem was slush piles. It seemed reasonable to assume that the same amount of effort it would take to get the attention of one editor could net an agent, who could pick up a phone and bypass half the slush piles in the country. I researched agents, made a list, sent out seven proposals, and ended up with an excellent, well-respected agent, Janet Kobobel Grant. Not only does she find a home for my books, but I trust her with all the business/career decisions, all of which helps me concentrate on writing. She’s also a very astute editor.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?
Diana Gabaldon, when asked by an aspiring writer what was the best way to get published, said, “Write a good book.” Actually, that was the best publishing advice I ever heard. The best writing advice was, “Study writers you admire and take their work apart to see how they do it.” My real breakthrough as a writer came from studying Steinbeck.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
I never really faced a lot of frustration or rejection, I think mainly because I took it very seriously from the beginning. I read a lot about what makes writing good and focused almost entirely on craft rather than marketing.
Was there ever a difficult set back that you went through in your writing career?
I wouldn’t call it a setback, but when I wrote my first book I failed to grasp the importance of Point of View. I think POV is one place where novice writers would do well to pay closer attention. It’s a red flag to an editor. The wake-up call came when Janet read the manuscript and wrote back saying she would consider representing me if I could straighten out the POV issues. I bought several books on the subject, gave myself a crash course, and spent six weeks in intensive rewrite. Apparently, I got it right the second time.
What are a few of your favorite books?
Cannery Row, East of Eden (anything Steinbeck), Jayber Crow, The Memory of Old Jack (anything Wendell Berry), Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird (my son thought it was a how-to book), Silent Victory. I really liked Life of Pi, but wasn’t crazy about Lovely Bones or Secret Life of Bees. I’ve read a lot of classics and bestsellers and a little of everything else, both fiction and nonfiction.
What work have you done that you’re especially proud of and why?
I’m proud of Levi’s Will for a couple reasons. First, I think it’s my best work from a literary standpoint. It’s loosely based on my father’s life, and when you do something like that you tend to put a little more shine on it. Second, I’m astonished at the impact the book has had within the family.
My father was actually banned by the Amish. For as long as I can remember, many of his family refused to eat with him, ride in his car, or accept any gift from him, but when they read Levi’s Will it opened up a lot of new discussion. In the end, as a direct result of the book, the ban was lifted. I was with my father last fall when he sat down for Thanksgiving dinner at his only sister’s table for the first time in sixty years. Sometimes, when you see what God does with the work of your hands, it makes you proud and humble at the same time.
Do you have a scripture or quote that has spoken to you lately in regards to your writing?
Proverbs 16:9— The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. Most of my daily angst comes from the tension between those two things.
Can you give us a look into a typical day for you?
I get up at 6:30, put on coffee and oatmeal, wake up the wife and kids. After they’re gone off to school and work (on the rare occasions when I don’t have to go do something else) I get down to writing. I work until about two in the afternoon, when I break away and start doing chores.
Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?
Not really, but I consider it a decent day if I get 1500 words or more. That may seem a low total for some, but I spend a lot of time going over it. At the end of the day it doesn’t usually require a lot of rewriting.
Are you an SOTP writer or a plotter?
Seat of the pants, unfortunately. I wish I could plot. I wish I could sit down and write out an outline and paint by the numbers, but I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you what a character will do until I get to know him, and even then I mostly know what he won’t do. I’m never quite sure where a book is going until I get there, which in the end I believe produces a less predictable experience for the reader.
What author do you especially admire and why?
I’ve always admired Steinbeck’s economy. He can pack more image and experience in a sentence than most people can in a page. When I focused on that economy I found a couple of his secrets, and it vastly improved my work.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
My favorite part is the commute. I walk into the living room and I’m at work. There’s very little traffic. My least favorite part is deadlines. Taking your own experience and shaping it into (hopefully) meaningful and vibrant stories is hard work. I know of nothing that requires more faith than sitting down in front of a blank page with the intention of producing something good and true. A deadline, at least for me, can sometimes hang like a Damocletian sword over the whole process.
How much marketing do you do? What's your favorite part of marketing?
I really don’t do much marketing. I enjoy meeting with groups like book clubs, and I do the occasional signing, but for the most part marketing has been unproductive and discouraging for me. I’m no salesman. I have always believed word of mouth is a writer’s best marketing tool, and word of mouth advertising is a byproduct of the quality of a book. Consequently, I feel my energies are far better spent making sure I produce a book readers will recommend to their friends.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
For new writers? Read. Study.
Who is your favorite writer, and why? What is it they do that makes them stand out?
If you’ve found a writer who captivates you and pulls you immediately into her world, take her apart and see how she does it. It’s like listening to a great pianist: while the effect may be magical, producing it is a discipline.
Ane: Blogger is being blogger and won't upload photos this morning. I'll keep trying throughout the day until I can get Dale's photo and his book up. Sorry!