My first novel (My Name Is Russell Fink, Zondervan) is set to release in February of 2008. Russell is a guy who’s a little lost. He somehow gets it in his head that he gave his twin sister cancer when they were nine and he never really recovers from it.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
About five years ago I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing. My lovely wife said I should. I think we were in the van at the time. I wrote a few stories and devoured dozens of books on writing. I attended the FL Christian Writer’s Conference where at least two very cool things happened—Gayle Roper and Steve Laube (an editor at the time) said some nice things about my writing.
I completed a really super lame suspense novel. Or it might have been romantic suspense. Now I refer to it as ‘practice.’ My first agent shopped it all over and it was rejected by everyone. Some rejected it twice!
I quit writing for ‘the market’ and started writing to amuse myself. That’s when the light went on, so to speak. I attended the ACFW Conference in Nashville because that’s where I live. Since my story was so goofy and didn’t fit into any fixed categories, my brilliant strategy was just to hang out for a few days and make nice with people.
Then I realized how stupid it was to spend all that time rubbing elbows with basically the entire industry and not even try! So I dreamed up my pitch (and the rest of the story…I only had three chapters) on the way home that night. The next day I set about bothering all the nice editor and agent people with my oddball ‘pitch’. Gayle was there and said a few more nice things. Steve Laube (now an agent, my agent in fact) asked me to send him my stuff…but only after interrupting my pitch over dinner and basically making fun of me!
Let’s see…I kept writing the story, met more nice people at Mount Hermon, then started collecting more rejections. My strategy for my second ACFW Conference was worse than the first (we had an offer already), but I made a rather unorthodox pitch to Andy Meisenheimer at Zondervan anyhow.
I “got the call” on my oldest son’s birthday. We were all back in the van. I don’t remember much running through my head other than just being grateful…and maybe waiting on my agent to say, “Just kidding.”
Andy and Becky (and everyone else at Zondervan) have been amazing to work with.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Daily. (That was to make up for that long-winded answer above!)
The only way I know to overcome the frustration and doubt is to just keep reading really great books and keep trying to write my own. Eventually I find the groove again and stop worrying so much about the results.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I’m sure I made a ton of mistakes. Thankfully I have a finely honed sense of oblivion.
I can say without any hesitation that two of my ‘mistakes’ paid off big time.
1) I began writing what I wanted to write without regard for categories and genres and stuff…even went so far as to tell CBA editors I was writing ‘Neurotica.’
2) My ‘loose’ attitude when pitching helped as well. I get as nervous as the next guy. But I was able to trick myself into thinking that it was an exercise in futility, that I had no viable chance at getting a deal cuz I was selling apples when they were only in the market for oranges.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
Best? Write what you love and make no apologies for it, no matter what it is. I also think writing every day (within reason) is a great idea. Oh…and read, read, read…
Worst? Anything that starts with the word “Don’t.” You have to pick your battles, of course. But if you have an idea you love and can’t stop thinking about, sit down and write it. Then pitch it and see what happens.
Your passion can sustain your story through writer’s block and rejections and all that. And you might be surprised—a unique twist on a recognized genre is okay, but passion is contagious. Publishers all agree that they are looking for ‘fresh’ manuscripts and voices. In my humble opinion, fresh equals enthusiasm and passion. If you think about it, craft is what it is. Everyone has equal access to it. It can be learned, maybe even faked. But your unique story, fueled by your own brand of zeal is yours alone.
(Sorry…didn’t mean to get all Dr. Phil on you…)
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
My ‘source’ for ideas is just life. Just walking around and observing things. Eventually some outside stimuli dips its ladel into my own vat of neuroses and scoops out an idea.
My current novel grew out of two distinct ideas that occurred to me many months apart:
1) A character musing, “Dead people really annoy me,” and
2) What if a guy wanted to give his salvation back? As far as I can tell, neither of those original thoughts play a very prominent role in the story any more. But they did provide the initial fodder to get my behind in the chair.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
Yes, but thankfully it was thwarted before it got really bad. My first novel was a suspense story that involved drugs and bad guys and such. After attending a local writer’s conference I learned where to get my hands on some black market books. So for the sake of authenticity I ordered a few off the internet. I decided to use my down time on a business trip doing research, so I crammed all these new goodies into my briefcase and headed off to the airport. Only then did it dawn on me that it was probably not a great idea to board a post-9/11 flight with…The Pleasures of Cocaine, How to Disappear and Never be Found Again, and/or The James Bond Handbook (which includes, among other things, recipes for making bombs).
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
Not really, but not because it’s all been easy or because things have turned out just like I planned them. I’ve had a ton of rejections, but I never really lost sleep over them. My expectations have always been reasonable. Statistically speaking, I knew a publishing deal would never happen. That took some of the pressure off.
There’s an interesting balance I’ve always tried to maintain—the dual (and equally sincere) beliefs that I would a) eventually get a publishing deal, and that b) there’s was no way I was ever going to get a publishing deal. That contradiction really can keep you humble and determined to do the work.
What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Douglas Coupland books…Hey Nostradamus, Life After God, and Eleanor Rigby
About A Boy by Nick Hornby
A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
And the short stories of Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Erika Krouse, Graham Greene, and Brad Barkley.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m very fickle about my own writing. I’ve been known to love and hate the same passages within the same twenty-four hour period. However, one of my biggest deficiencies is also one of my greatest assets—my horrible memory. There have been countless times I’ve read my own work with ‘fresh eyes’, almost like I’m experiencing it for the first time, just like a reader. When the writing is good, that can be an exhilarating experience.
I think I still like Russell Fink pretty well but I haven’t read it in a while. And I did have the very good fortune of having Relief Journal publish a story of mine. It’s called All Healed Up and I’m still pretty fond of that one too.
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”
Telling the truth in our writing. It doesn’t have to be universal truth, or even actual truth. But it must be the absolute truth of the point-of-view character. I think some folks in the CBA worry that that will somehow tarnish their reputation or testimony if they cede the literary bullhorn to an irresponsible or seedy POV character. But I think we need to have the courage to stand back and let the characters speak their truth, while having the faith to realize that our (the author’s) world view will still permeate the work. This is especially true in a first draft, where you can write with abandon and know that no one will ever really see it. Then if you’re so inclined, you can tweak those same truths into something ‘less offensive’ on subsequent drafts.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Yeah, I guess. It’s all those darn rules and the fretting over markets and genres and stuff. I would love to walk around writer’s conferences with a magic wand. And every time I see someone in a tizzy over ‘showing vs. telling’ or making a frowny face while deliberating about whether to crack the market with this genre first or that one, I would tap them on the forehead and try to zap all the joy back into their writing life.
I wrote one novel (and a few short stories) with an eye toward the market. And just like learning all those rules, it was an invaluable experience. But...really big BUT…the real joy comes from writing exactly what you love because you love it. Creativity is a gift from God. And I just can’t imagine Him bestowing it on us to frustrate us or make us miserable. Genre distinctions are great. Rules are great. But they need to know their place in the process—either the basement, the attic, or chained to a post in the back yard.
To put it another way…you’d never catch Miles Davis in the middle of a solo, wondering, Gee, I hope this sounds jazz enough…or Michael Jordan on his way to the rim thinking, Okay, I know I’m only allowed a step-and-a-half between dribbles and I’m afraid I just took two! And the reason we all recognize their names is because they broke with convention.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
Hokey as it may sound, I just want to keep writing and hope that a few people like it. (It wouldn’t break my heart if those few people told me they liked it at some point either.)
As far as concrete goals that I could (but probably won’t) put on paper? I have a decent idea for a children’s book. I’d love to see one of my novels be made into a (really good!) movie. But mostly to just keep on writing and enjoying the process.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
I just love it when it works. That means different things on different days, of course. But I just love it when I’m surprised or when something funny comes spilling out or some deeper truth blindsides me and makes me stop and stare at the ceiling. I love the wonder of it all. I even love how hard it is sometimes. That just makes the payoff that much sweeter.
I really thought I would like ‘being a writer’ more. But even that gets awkward. I so don’t want to be that guy that’s always talking about my work in social settings, you know?
The least favorite? I don’t like it when I feel frustrated or pressed. But when that happens, it’s usually my fault anyway for having written myself into a corner.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Treat it like a short story instead. Or two or three loosely connected short stories.
This allows me to deal with a particular issue or two, and seems less daunting than staring down 300 pages. Besides, if it’s not working, it’s much easier to quit or change directions if you’re ontly committed to 20 pages.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Definitley seat of the pants. That said, my esteemed (and oh so cool) editor did impress upon me just how helpful a good synopsis can be. To borrow the jazz metaphor again, it’s nice to have a chord chart of the basic arrangement. But the writing itself is improvised. And if the band is really cooking, we just ignore the chart for a while. Someone will eventually cue the ending.
But then my metaphor gets mixed…cuz eventually it all needs to go to the film editing booth. So maybe I write like a documentary movie of a guy playing a jazz standard?
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
Most of my problems stem from my acute inability to see the big picture. I’m incapable of seeing the forest. In fact, I pretty much get lost in the forest every day. But I do see the trees. And on a good day, I can see the leaves and the bark and the roots poking up out of the ground. So when theings get saggy, soggy, or soupy, it’s usually because I’m myopic or I’m lost or some of both.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
Someone once said my writing made him laugh and cry on the same page. That was really nice.
This was fun too…apparently one of my editor’s faithful readers wrote him back after only a few chapters of Russell Fink and (paraphrasing here) said she pretty much hated the guy (Russell, not the editor) and that the only reason she was finishing the novel was as a personal favor to him (the editor, not Russell). Turns out, she ended up ‘falling in like’ with Russell (not the editor) by the end.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I need to figure that part out.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
…to the nice folks at Novel Journey that invited me to come out and play. To anyone out there willing to invest the time to read something I wrote, including my ramblings here today.
And to anyone out there on his/her own novel journey, remember to read a lot, write a lot, pray a lot, and don’t forget to live your actual life.
(Here's Michael's newest release 2011)