Friday, December 26, 2014

The Road to Published – Part II: How to Survive A Rocket Attack

As I sit and write this, I am seated at the same exact table at my parent’s house where I started Lincoln’s Bodyguard 4 years ago. When I say it out loud, it seems like such a long time ago. But in reality it’s been a whirlwind. Of course, the current novel is the third I’ve written, so I’ve been hacking away at this writing gig for a lot longer than 4-years…a lot longer!

A Russian 107mm Rocket with the optional launching kit!

So where to begin? How about with a rocket, one of the lethal variety? The picture above is of a 107mm rocket, a nasty little bugger that wakes you up in the middle of the night with sirens scratching and makes you leave the comfort of a nice warm bed to find a concrete bunker.  You may be asking: what the hell does that have to do with writing, or even getting published? Well, it has everything and nothing to do with my writing—at the same time. After Nancy taunted me to start my first novel, I was in the enviable position of receiving orders for the first of my taxpayer-funded vacations to Afghanistan. It was on that very first tour that I finished that manuscript. And in typical rookie writer fashion, I expected the literary world would soon come crashing my door to see the masterpiece. I had no idea how the publishing world worked. I couldn’t even spell literary agent, let alone know what use I might have for one. In short, I had no idea how to get published. And that was where Nancy kicked again. She discovered that I needed a publisher (I told you I was publishing stupid), and that there was this intermediate broker who facilitated finding publishers, called a literary agent! I didn’t quite know what one was, but I knew I wanted one (in the end I got the best literary agent in the whole world, but that’s a whole different story). 

So back to the rocket… Since I had no idea what to do after finishing my first novel, but suspecting that I had made the magical first and second steps in both STARTING and FINISHING a manuscript, I knew I needed to show it to someone who didn’t love me. That’s actually a great THIRD step along the publishing lines…seek out honest feedback. And once again Nancy, ever so more in-tune with the literary world than I, realized that the Antioch Writer’s Workshop took place right in our hometown of Yellow Springs. As luck would have it, they had scholarships available through a competitive process. And that is where the confidence drained…I would have to send a sample of my glorious writing (trust me, I use the term in mocking derision to the work I pecked out at the time—maybe even now!) I must have filled out that application twenty times, writing and re-writing to get it just perfect. Each time I re-read what I had written, it some how devolved and became even more amateurish in my mind. In fact, I had just given up my literary aspirations (not for the last time, I might add) and thrown the application in the burn bin when the first rocket struck.

I'm super biased as this is where I started...but I love this workshop!

A 107mm rocket attack is an interesting thing. And by interesting, that’s a relative term depending on how far away you happen to be standing when it lands. Sometimes you can hear them launch, and then if the night is just right (they almost always come at night), you can hear the whistling as they pass overhead. We used to say, if you hear the boom on landing, then you’re going to be okay! But that night was my very first rocket attack. Back then I was still naïve enough to run to the bunkers—now I’m more resigned that if it’s my time to go then it’s just my time. But run I did, just about the same time as the alarms sounded and more booms echoed across base. I made it into the bunker, and as luck would have it, I was the only one who reached that particular concrete monstrosity. Everyone else was smarter and chose the bunker across the camp, which did not have six inches of standing water. To understand what happened next, you have to realize that the bunkers are inverted concrete forms in the shape of a “U”, which we then cover in sand bags for extra protection. But they’re only about four feet tall. So in my enthusiasm to get inside, I forgot to duck. Yep, I clear knocked myself flat on my back, staring up at a dull concrete ceiling, laying in stale muddy water. And that was when I thought:

“Fuck it, I’m turning that application in!”

Make sure to DUCK! Or wear your helmet...or both!

Although I didn’t know for months that I had landed one of those scholarships to the very best writer’s workshop I have ever attended, I credit that rocket attack with yet another kick in the ass that will shortly land Lincoln’s Bodyguard on bookshelves in real live book stores.  

To be continued…

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Road to Published – Part I: A Swift Kick in the Ass

Over the past few weeks I’ve been so busy tackling edits on my current manuscript, researching the next one, and even trying to sneak in writing time, that I’ve completely abandoned trying to keep up with the blog posts. Life is a circus, and I have no idea where all my monkeys are—literally. 

But as of today, my final edits for Lincoln’s Bodyguard are in. They’re actually incorporated into the final manuscript! That’s an awesome feeling, but it also leaves me uneasy, knowing all the other things that I have to get back to while I no longer have the pending publication as an excuse. So I figured I would start by writing some posts answering the most common question I get when people find out I write, and that my first novel is due out in April. After I get past the standard questions about my manuscript, it seems most folks want to know how I got to this point—how did I get a book in front of a publisher?

Out in April 2015 from Oceanview Publishing! 

There are two types of people asking this question. First, there are those who are genuinely curious and appear to believe that getting published is impossible. Then there are those who have their own book idea brewing (which they may or may not have started) and think that getting published is umpossible. Notice the trend here, besides my inability to spell? Well, as that old annoying saying goes, I have good news and bad. 

First the good: If I can get published, ANYONE can! And I truly mean that. I never trained as a writer—I’m an engineer (see the note above about my spelling). And engineers are notoriously poor writers, maybe only worse than cops. Then to pile it on and make things worse, I’m also a federal agent. So now I’ve got two strikes against me. But here’s what I’ve learned: The most important thing to getting published is to START. The second most important thing is to FINISH! I know that’s not much advice, no epiphany to lead you to the publishing gods.  But it’s true. And an important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to know the ending in order to start, you just have to be curious enough to start the story (Authentic Curiosity). In fact, Lincoln’s Bodyguard started with nothing more than a title, something I heard Terry Gross say on NPR’s Fresh Air. The inspiration can come from anywhere.

Now the bad: I have no idea how to get published. I know, that sounds umpossible. I have a book about to be launched, so I should know how to get it done. Here’s the catch. I know how I got published (or will be shortly), but in general I still have no idea how it all works. Everyone’s path from story inception to seeing the book on the shelf is just so different. I love asking my author friends how it happened for them. Each has different twists along the way—different choices they made to land on Amazon or the shelves of their favorite local independent bookstore. And most of us have at least one book in the bottom of a desk drawer (or on an encrypted hard drive), which will never see the light of day. That was our first book (or the first and second in my case), which taught us that we could start AND finish a novel. 

So what’s the takeaway from my good and bad news? Easy—anyone can do it and we all do it differently! (I may have to caveat that more carefully or you’ll start to think this isn’t a blog about writing). Getting back to the original question then—how I came upon publishing a novel—the only thing I can do is to share my story. Hopefully that will be enough to fulfill most people’s questions on the subject, and if I’m really lucky, push one or two of you over to edge to actually starting on your own publishing journey. 

In the beginning…there was a sharp kick from my wife, Nancy. It wasn’t so much a kick as it was a taunting. Actually, it may not have even been a taunting, it was more like a minor dismissive statement in passing that made me start this crazy writing business. You see, after finishing up grad school and writing a 300+ page dissertation on Surface Roughening in AA7050 T7451 Thick Rolled Aluminum Plate, I felt out of balance. It was pure technical writing, devoid of any creative flourish. When I tried to put in some creativity, my academic advisor quickly tore it from the pages and stomped on it with the vigor that only comes from one trained as an NFL lineman (he actually played 6 years in the NFL…no joke!) So I had been thinking up this crazy idea, and even contemplating the start of a novel when I casually floated the idea to Nancy. I think I may have done it in a subtle manner, not because I was trying to slip it past her, but because I wanted an out if she laughed at me. I was looking for her reaction, and what I got was not quite what I hoped for, or feared. 

“Can you pass the ketchup? I’m thinking of writing a novel.”

“We’re out of ketchup. We only have mustard. You can’t write a novel. That’s hard.”

That was it. No laughing on her part, which may have actually dissuaded me through sheer embarrassment. I don’t even recall her changing her tone of voice. She just dismissed the suggestion casually and left no room for re-attack—nothing I could grab hold of to further float my crazy notion of becoming a writer. If she had ignored the statement and not addressed it, I might have been too embarrassed to ever put it out there again. Maybe she had heard and chose to ignore it? But this was the worst, and most beautiful, response I could ever imagine, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. It fueled me forward like nothing else. I was going to write a novel, and I was going to show her that I could do it. What other option did I have in order to preserve my manly dignity? After all, we were out of ketchup. 

To think what would have been if we only had ketchup...
And now twelve years after that first conversation I’m left wondering…did she do it on purpose? Occasionally she drops a hint like she tells me that I can’t do something just to modify my behavior (though she still won’t let me do the wash). Maybe she did, and her genius was in the perfect response at the right time, landing directly in my derrière. Whatever the truth is, sometimes a kick in the ass is a step forward!

To be continued…