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? [Read more…]