So far in my Author Up Close series, you’ve met Fiona Zedde, an author whose hybrid approach to publishing has allowed her to live and work anywhere in the world and Linda Seed, a self-publishing success story who made more from a single ad placement than many authors make in their entire careers.
Today I’m sharing my Q&A with Roger Johns, whose debut novel, Dark River Rising, was eleven years in the making and who is one of the smartest and hardest working authors I know. Roger received an offer from a publisher before he even had an agent, and today he shares wonderful insights into balancing the craft and business sides of writing, the importance of being honest with yourself about your work, and the five things he did that helped his manuscript—and that may help yours—stand out among hundreds of others.
GW: I’m a fan of origin stories, and though the term is usually only used to describe superheroes, I love to use the term with published authors. What’s your writer-to-published-author origin story for your debut novel, Dark River Rising?
RJ: The idea for my first book came to me, out of the blue, in the spring of 2006. Even though I was focused on other matters back then, I toyed with the idea, made occasional notes, and periodically announced to my wife that I was writing a novel. But, it wasn’t until I realized that an idea for a book was not the same as a plot that writing the book seemed possible. This was the first of several critical realizations.
In the fall of 2008, I met Atlanta author, David Fulmer. With some elbowing from my wife, I let it slip that I had this idea for a book but I didn’t know what to do with it. The winter iteration of David’s writing workshop for beginners was starting soon, so I signed up. I learned a lot, but I still had problems.
Not until I realized the book should be about how a person experienced a world shaped by my idea, and not about the idea itself, did the path forward open up. This was the critical turning point. Still, I never got past page seventy-five or eighty.
In desperation, I changed my male main character’s age, job, history, and mission, but nothing worked. Then, some of that little-voice-in-the-back-of-my-head magic told me to audition a woman for the lead role. Immediately, I realized: (1) I should do this, and (2) I have no idea how to do this.
In the fall of 2013, I joined my first critique group. Over the next eighteen months, I joined and left four groups, learning from each how to solve a specific problem. I also completed a first draft, finished several rewrites, made my original idea the fundamental driver of the story, and learned to write a female character with a degree of authenticity.
All the while, I was cold-querying agents and attending conferences, trying to sell the book. In May 2015, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, who had critiqued my first 20 pages at a conference, asked to see the whole book. In June, after using her feedback as a guide for a final edit, I sent her the manuscript. In October, St. Martin’s made an offer. In November the contract was signed, and in August 2017, eleven years after my original idea, the book came out.
GW: What do you think was the key(s) to getting that publisher to express interest in your manuscript—in other words, what made your manuscript stand out among hundreds of others?
RJ: Several factors contributed to this: (1) the opening paragraph of my first book was definitely a real grabber, (2) my main character was a high-agency woman working in what was, for a long time, a male-dominated profession, (3) I paid close attention to the feedback I got from industry professionals (editors and agents) who looked at and rejected my work, (4) I worked with highly skilled critique partners/groups, and, as a consequence of these last two factors, (5) the sentence quality in my manuscript was high. This last factor turned out to be enormously important.
In today’s publishing world, editors have huge workloads. For each book they work on (and they typically work on several at a time), they have to be an editor, a project manager, a psychologist, and an author advocate. This imposes tremendous time demands on them, so, to keep their workflow manageable, they look for manuscripts that already possess certain characteristics, and sentence quality is a big one. If a manuscript looks like it’s going to need a lot of technical editing (as opposed to story editing), because it has low sentence quality, it’s going to be a tough sell, even if the story is excellent.
Story-level editing, on the other hand, is where an editor’s contributions can have the biggest impact. They know what stories the reading public will buy, they are trained to spot the differences between your story and a marketable story, and they are experts at showing authors how to bridge that gap. Story-level revisions are also time-consuming but most of that time is spent by the author, not the editor. The best place to find examples of high sentence quality (i.e. commercial-grade prose) is in the pages of book written by authors whose works were already being published in the genre/by the publisher you aspire to.
GW: I often say you’re the hardest working author I know. Will you share a bit about how you divide your time between writing and publicizing your work and how your career has benefited from that schedule?
RJ: I devote my time to three endeavors: (1) writing the next book, (2) editing the one in publication, and (3) promoting the ones that are already out. The precise amount of time I spend with each one varies, depending on the demands of the calendar, but I treat writing as a job, a career, and a business, and I invest all the time I can into it.
On the promotion side, I do guest blog posts, write byline articles about writing and the writing life, give print, live, and online interviews, teach classes on craft and career management, appear on panels at conferences and festivals, and do book talks/signings at bookstores, libraries, and other venues.
During the 22 months between August 2017, when my first book came out, and mid-May 2019, I’ve made 92 personal appearances, which averages out to a little over 4 appearances a month. My appearance schedule, which I put together almost entirely myself, has taken me across the country at least two times where I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting hundreds of readers, authors, bookstore owners and managers, and festival/conference organizers. All of these events have contributed to the development of my reputation or my readership, or both. And both are important.
I’ve had some humbling moments along the way (events where nobody came), and some amazing peak experiences, as well. Every bit of it has been a learning experience, and I’ve kept pretty good notes on what works and what doesn’t and try not to repeat mistakes.
I think the most important thing I’ve done is to stay in front of my existing readers and do whatever I can to get in front of potential new readers. It’s a lot of very hard work, but it’s also a great deal of fun.
GW: What advice would you give a newbie writer who someday wants to be doing what you’re doing?
RJ: Hold your story loosely. You may believe you know where it’s going, but novel-length narratives have a way of taking off in unanticipated directions, and it may be that one of those unanticipated directions is better than your original conception, so be open to this.
Referencing my answer to Question 2, above, and this can’t be said often enough: commit to achieving high sentence quality throughout your manuscript. Every sentence counts.
Read heavily in the genre in which you wish to publish and absorb the stylistic elements that seem common to published authors in that genre.
Work really hard at developing your craft.
Be kind and generous to your fellow writers.
Listen carefully to criticism, and remember: when you’re getting criticism, it’s okay to ask for clarification but it’s not okay to push back. However, if your instincts (as opposed to your ego) tell you the criticism isn’t valid, feel free to ignore it.
Pay attention to how and when your mind and body best serve your writing. I think it was Hemingway who said something to the effect: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Well, I don’t drink, but I do have my own version of that. I write tired and edit rested. For some reason, the creative side of my mind is more productive when I’m tired. More interesting things just seem to pop out of my head, probably because I’m too tired to try and make anything happen. I’m not recommending that anyone else try this, but I am recommending that you pay attention to how your physical and mental state correspond to your ability to do the things that need to get done and act accordingly.
Form very precise goals. Be honest and exact in your assessments of the difference between where your writing is and where it needs to be to reach those goals. Invest your writing time/career effort into things that advance you toward your goals. Recognize when something you’re trying isn’t working, that it’s time to make a change, and then make the change.
Understand that, even though you’re a good writer, sometimes progress will depend on luck, so be willing to go where luck can find you on a regular basis: writers groups, critique groups, professional associations, writers’ conferences, book events for authors. But, keep in mind that without a lot of doggedness, planning, writing and rewriting, trusting your instincts, and respecting your ambitions, all the luck in the world won’t do you any good because you won’t be in a position to see it or make sense of it.
And, perhaps most importantly: Find your path and stay on it. Your path will be defined by the problems you experience and the help you get to solve those problems. Stay committed to figuring out exactly what problems you’re experiencing, get the best help you can to addresses those exact problems.
Many thanks to Roger for allowing me to interview him for the piece. You can learn more about Roger and his novels Dark River Rising and River of Secrets on his website.
Over to you: which part of Roger’s advice resonates with you the most? What is some of the best advice you’ve received from your successful author friends?