Richard’s debut novel of medical suspense, Code Blue, was released last week by Abingdon Press. Need a refresher as to the plot summary of the book? Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the first book of the Prescription for Trouble series, “Code Blue” means more to Dr. Cathy Sewell than the cardiac emergency she has to face. It describes her mental state as she finds that coming back to her hometown hasn’t brought her the peace she so desperately needs. Instead, it’s clear that someone there wants her gone…or dead.
Cathy returns to her hometown seeking healing after a broken relationship, but discovers that among her friends and acquaintances is someone who wants her out of town…or dead. Lawyer Will Kennedy, her high school sweetheart, offers help, but does it carry a price tag? Is hospital chief of staff Dr. Marcus Bell really on her side in her fight to get hospital privileges? Is Will’s father, Pastor Matthew Kennedy, interested in advising her or just trying to get her back to the church she left years ago? When one of Cathy’s prescriptions almost kills the town banker, it sets the stage for a malpractice suit that could end her time in town, if not her career. It’s soon clear that this return home was a prescription for trouble.
Today, we’ll learn more about Abingdon Press, Richard’s experience with an agent and editor, his three-book deal, the best writerly advice he’s ever received, and how he almost pushed his wife off of an elephant. (Yes, you read that right.) Enjoy!
Interview with Richard Mabry, MD, part 2
Q: How did you go about finding an agent?
A: The first thing you have to do is quit writing. I’d done what I initially set out to do, with the publication of my non-fiction book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse, so I figured that those “excellent writing, but not right for our house” rejections for my novels were as far as I was going to go with my fiction. My agent and I agreed we seemed to be butting our heads against a stone wall, so I dissolved our relationship and decided to stop writing.
I’d met Rachelle Gardner when she was an editor, and even though she didn’t accept my submissions, we sort of clicked. She left publishing for a while before joining WordServe Literary agency. I kept up with her through her blog, and her contest for the best first line of a story piqued my interest, so I decided to enter. Imagine my surprise when I won first prize with “Things were going along just fine until the miracle fouled up everything.” (That story’s still on my hard drive, by the way). Anyway, the prize was an edit of a first chapter. I submitted the first chapter of my most recent novel—one that had been turned down several times—and I’ll never forget Rachelle’s reply: “Send me something that needs editing.”
That was all the encouragement I needed. I submitted a query to Rachelle about representation, hoping to get a request to send a proposal or even a full manuscript. Instead, I got a reply offering representation.
Q: I know your “quit writing” advice was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I had a similar dark moment before landing my agent. I sometimes think these things are meant to test our resolve, just how bad we want it. And it looks like you tried to quit but the bug didn’t quit you, as you maintained contact with fiction blogs, etc… That may be some of the best advice around: If you can quit, go ahead. If you’re a real writer, and try to quit, you’ll find yourself back in the game again. Somehow. Was this your experience? You just couldn’t quit?
A: I’ve heard it so many times I can’t recall who first said it, but it’s true: “Writers write because we can’t not write.” The death of my first wife came at about the time I was ready to retire from medicine. I stayed on in my position of professor at Southwestern Medical Center while I worked on putting together the material that eventually became The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse. While I was trying to learn the craft, some authors and editors encouraged me to try my hand at fiction, so that when I finally did retire, I transitioned seamlessly into writing full-time. My retirement isn’t what I had pictured, but I’m content with the direction it’s taken. I can hardly wait to see what God has in store for me next.
Q: Let’s talk about your publisher—Abingdon Press. Abingdon is a Christian Press, something we’ve never really discussed here at Writer Unboxed. How do you think working with Abingdon might differ from working with another Press?
A: The primary difference I see is that novels published by Christian publishers (by and large, all members of the Christian Booksellers Association, or CBA) don’t have cursing or explicit sex, and portray a Christian worldview. Abingdon is among the CBA publishers moving away from novels that sometimes hit the reader over the head with Christianity. Rather, the books portray characters that are flawed, as we all are, and who struggle with their relationships, both with God and their fellow man. Abingdon has published novels dealing with alcoholism, the fall-out from infidelity, and many other problems that you might not think you’d find in a “Christian” novel. What I’ve frequently said is that the only difference I really see is that these novels are written from a Christian worldview and don’t contain anything I’d hesitate for my mother, wife, or daughter to read.
Most CBA publishers have a mission statement or code of conduct that embodies Christian principles. I’ve encountered similar codes of ethics elsewhere in the business world, and I’m delighted to see those wherever I find them.
Q: Once Abingdon had picked up your book, did you have to make extensive revisions? What was the editorial process like for you?
Since I’m working under a three-book contract, with a release ever six months, I’ve been through the edits of two novels with Abingdon. Your readers probably know that the editing process involves first a macro edit, where changes are suggested in character development, story arc, and other major factors. That’s followed by a line edit, dealing primarily with the way things are said, as well as corrections in punctuation and syntax.
My agent, Rachelle Gardner, has extensive editing experience, and she always does a macro edit on my work. I respond to her suggestions before we send the finished product to Abingdon for their input. My editor, Barbara Scott, then adds her own touches, all of which have seemed reasonable so far. I won’t say it isn’t difficult for me, or any writer, to change something we’ve written, but it always seems to make the finished product better.
Q: What stumbling blocks (if any) have you had along the way?
A: Speaking of edits, it was difficult for me to get used to the fact that I needed the input of other people to produce a final manuscript. Then, as I spoke to other author friends, I discovered that rarely if ever is a novel produced without edits and more edits. I have heard rumors that a certain novelist who writes of war and political intrigue has a clause in his contract that his work will be published without edits, but then again I’ve stopped reading his work, although some of his later books make good door stops because of their size.
My other frustration was how sloooooow the publishing process can be. From acceptance of my submission to publication of Code Blue took about 18 months. And if there are several books in the series, it’s a matter of juggling all the balls and keeping them in the air: writing one book, editing another, preparing for the launch of a third. But it’s a good problem.
Q: As a debut novelist, have you learned anything about the publishing industry that has surprised you?
A: I’ve been writing for about seven years now, and have watched the industry change. Going in, I was pretty naïve. I’d never thought much about how much work it takes to put a book on a shelf (or on an e-reader). The main thing I’ve learned is that publishers are profit-motivated. I mean, they undoubtedly enjoy putting out a product that people enjoy reading, but if no one buys the books, the publishing house goes under, taking authors and employees with it.
The major change I’ve seen recently is the emphasis on author participation in book promotion. I had this idealistic vision that I’d write a book, the publisher would see to sales. That just isn’t the case any more. “Platform” is a dirty word to some authors, because it requires work to secure name recognition and acquaint people with our work, but it’s a real necessity nowadays.
Q: What efforts are you taking to promote your work? Can you share any promotional tips and/or advice with us?
A: Actually, Teri, I took careful notes of what you did to promote The Last Will of Moira Leahy, and tried to steal as many ideas from you as possible. Of course, the best way to promote is to produce a great book, and you’ve done that. I just hope my work is as well received.[Therese/Teri jumps in to say, “Aww, thanks, Richard!”]
As a debut author, I feel very much like the Western hero who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions. I have a blog and a website, I participate in social networks, and I’ve tried to personally meet the manager and staff of as many local bookstores as possible. Despite all this, I remain convinced that the best marketing is done via word-of-mouth. I’ve tried to get some advance copies of Code Blue to people who could help spread the word if they like the book. I’m encouraging friends and acquaintances to post reviews on bookseller sites (assuming they like the book—if not, I ask them to tell me what they didn’t like so I can correct it in the next one). And in the final analysis, it’s my firm opinion that no one has a foolproof method to promote a book.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
A: Read extensively. Read good work, so you’ll know what it is. Read bad work, so you’ll know how to avoid it. Then write, write, write. WU contributor Ray Rhamey told me it’s the consensus among his editor friends that it takes writing three books before an author begins to “get it.” I tend to agree.
Q: Which authors inspire you? What are your favorite craft books (if any)?
A: I am a big fan of the late Robert B. Parker, because of his easy style. I’m inspired by how John Grisham struggled before getting his first big break. I love it that so many authors have kept on plugging, piling up rejection after rejection, before getting that first contract.
I have a three-foot shelf of craft books, and I refer to all of them from time to time. I especially enjoy Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies For Fun And Profit. I received a solid base for writing from James Scott Bell’s Plot And Structure and learned more from his The Art Of War For Writers. Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey showed me that plots are derived from a basic formulA: Noah Lukeman’s A Dash Of Style helped me make sense of punctuation.
Q: Name one thing people would be surprised to learn about you.
A: Just one? I’ve played semi-pro baseball, served as an interim minister of music, and almost pushed my wife off an elephant on our honeymoon in Thailand.
Q: That sounds like a story!
A: Almost two years after Cynthia’s death, I was blessed once more with the love of a wonderful woman. Kay and I were married just before I was to leave for speaking engagements in Singapore and Thailand. We were riding an elephant there, and I had my arm around her to hold an umbrella over her head to protect her from the sun. She finally had to point out that I was pushing her forward, and she wasn’t sure she could grab the elephant’s ear quickly enough to keep from falling to the ground!
Q: What are you working on next? Can you provide us with any juicy hints?
A: The second and third books in the Prescription For Trouble series are already complete. Medical Error deals with identity theft that results in the death of a patient and the compromise of a surgeon’s reputation. Diagnosis Death follows a surgeon who’s accused of the mercy killing of her husband, but isn’t sure if she’s guilty. I’m just starting the fourth book, working title Strong Medicine, about the fatal consequences of a cover-up in the pharmaceutical industry.
Thanks so much, Richard, for a fantastic interview, and best of luck with your debut! Readers, you can learn more about Richard and his work on his website.