Friday, October 5, 2007

The (Published) Novelist Next Door

On the coasts, maybe you can't sling a dead cat without hitting someone who's published a novel. But 'round these here parts, it's a mighty rare occurrence. So maybe that's why we're all so excited that our co-worker, John David Anderson (aka "Dave"), is about to publish his first novel. Standard Hero Behavior will be released by Clarion Books on November 19. And it's already been singled out for a starred review in Booklist magazine (but it's not posted yet).

So Dave has the unique experience of being a fiction author and a nonfiction editor at the same time. We chatted a little about the book and his experiences in publishing it:
From the review, your book sounds like a cross between Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Monty Python, and Not Another Teen Movie. What genre would you classify it as?

It's your typical pseudo-fantasy-satire-mystery-road-buddy novel. With singing. And a werewolf.
Set the scene and give us a rundown of the plot.
Mason Quayle is a bard. Bards sing about heroes. But Mason's not a very good bard because there are no heroes to sing about. Well. Not entirely true. There's one, but he's a total jerk. So life is pretty crappy until a couple of orcs sneak into town with a giant battle ax and an ultimatum. What ensues is a sometimes less-than-heroic quest to find real heroes (whatever that means). And Hilarity also ensues. And a swordfight or two. Am I being too secretive? Oh. And somebody swallows a pixie...but that's all I'm gonna' say.

Lots of people write novels, but very few actually get them published. Tell us about the process you went through to find a publisher for your novel.

Hard to believe, but I actually went through the painful "send out query letters to the names in the book" process. I understand it helps to have connections or an agent. I had neither. Thankfully I got some good feedback from editors who took enough pity on me to read the manuscript. About one out of every five queries landed me a manuscript request. Then one day I got a phone call from Clarion Books asking me if the book was still available. I tried to play it cool, but I'm sure she could hear me screaming even through the fist I had crammed in my mouth. It doesn't hurt that there is a strong market for middle grade and young adult fantasy fiction right now. Thanks J.K.

What are the most rewarding things about writing a novel? What are the most excruciating?

The most rewarding thing for me is unpacking the mystery. I'm not the kind of storyteller who plans it all out in advance. I start with a character with a problem (or several) and see how he or she tries to wiggle out of it. The narrative often unfolds in surprising ways (surprising even to me), so the endings are always satisfying. Of course I also like the blank page when I'm about to start something new. That pulsating "I" of a cursor just begging for a first sentence. There's so much potential in that white space. The most excruciating is the copy editing process, at least for me. By that time I've been through it at least seven times. I'm tired of tinkering. It's finished. Set it free. But then along comes some brilliant copy editor who finds all of the times I used the same word twice in a paragraph, and the book is back in front of me again. Don't get me wrong, I would die of shame if anything I wrote was published without the keen eye and ear of a good copy editor, but I'd rather be churning out fresh sentences full of errors than deliberating over an adjective for an hour.

You have the unique experience of seeing publishing from the inside, as an editor, and from the outside, as an author. What insights can you offer from your experience that will help authors and editors understand one another better?

I think editors and authors "get" each other for the most part. Sure it's a delicate dance, and power struggles ensue, but once the writer realizes that the editor only wants what's best for the book, I think it can click along smoothly. I think authors need to trust their editors--after all, these people earn their paycheck making an author's work better. Their (the editor's) livelihood is at stake. At the same time, I think editors need to let authors feel like they are an integral part of the process. As much as I complained about having to okay every change in my novel, deep down I always appreciated the opportunity. After all, you should at least ask me before you trim a bush or cut down a tree on my intellectual property. It also helps when an editor stays in touch, even after the book goes to the printer. I know as an editor I have a tendency to disappear into the next project when the last one is out the door, but for the author, that journey might just be getting started.

What differences have you noted between nonfiction publishing and fiction publishing?

Author credibility. You don't need a Ph.D. to write a work of fiction. If your story, your talent, and your commitment are strong enough, you can see it through. Fiction publishers acquire stories, and then the marketing departments hope the authors will go out and promote them. In the nonfiction world, who you are matters almost as much as what you've written. There are exceptions, of course, but I think a lot more rides on an author's credentials and connections when the decision to publish a nonfiction work is made. I don't think that makes it harder to publish nonfiction--in some ways I think it's easier, provided you know your stuff and show what you can do to help sell the book. Though to be honest, getting published is a chore no matter what you write. Sometimes I think I'd have more impact as an author scrawling limericks on bathroom stalls--at least then you're ensured a semi-captive audience.

So you spend a weekend immersed in a world of fantasy and creativity as you write your novel. How do you keep from gouging you eyes out when you have to go back to psychometrics on Monday morning?

I keep my nails trimmed so that gouging out my eyes ultimately is just more effort than it's worth. I also keep phone cords and sharp objects more than an arm's length away. Truthfully I think Monday morning is why I write. I won't lie. I often use fiction, whether reading it or writing it, to escape. I believe that quality fiction has a didactic role to play--it can help us to ask questions and envision innovative answers; it can help us to grow as human beings and make the world a better place, and all of that good stuff. But it's also nice to lose yourself in another universe, or at least another part of the world, and see how it operates. Then, when you come back to yours, you often have a slightly different perspective on it all. Then Tuesday comes and you clip your nails again, just to be safe.

I hear your publisher wants to see your next novel. What obstacles will make that difficult?

Twins. They're two and a half and they happily consume most of my non-work hours. There's never a shortage of ideas, only a limited number of hours in the day. I think the vast majority of published authors out there aren't making a living from their writing. The key is to try and find a balance. You eke out your time when you can. Get up early (or in my case, go to bed late). Pick one evening a week that you will devote to your craft. Keep a notebook handy so that you can jot down good ideas at work. Or you could always marry someone with a great job and convince them that you are some kind of brilliant artist ready to shed your cocoon and let them be your patron.

Will you remember us when you're famous?

Oh. No worries there...

P.S.: Dave announced earlier this week that he is leaving JIST to be a stay-at-home dad and start work on the next book. So now he's going to be living the dream, and we are so happy for him!

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