I was probably 15 when I churned out my first tale. It was a horrible story with a nonsensical twist, but my parents—God bless ‘em—said they loved it. After that I was hooked. From there came more stories, each slightly better than the last. I didn’t attempt my first novel until I was in college, and even that was pretty bad.
Do you have a favorite author that inspires your writing?
I often comment I learned to write by “reading Stephen King,” which is ironic, because none of my novels are horror. Mortom definitely has “elements” of it, but for the most part, it’s a straightforward mystery. Outside of King, two of my current favorite authors are Alden Bell (The Reapers are the Angels) and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone). I wish I could write half as well as those gentleman.
Did something in particular inspire you to write Mortom?
I’ve always been intrigued by small towns. It has to be incredibly difficult to hide anything within a tiny population, but at the same time, small towns seem to hold the most secrets. It’s a fascinating dynamic. The town of Mortom is modeled after Farmington, Iowa, where my father grew up. Many of the landmarks in the book—like the cemeteries—are true to the landscape.
How much rewriting is involved in the writing process?
Endless. Writing is 10% writing and 90% rewriting. I barely show my work to anyone—my wife, included—before the 3rd draft. It can also be a challenge to know when to stop rewriting, as the work never “truly” feels finished. I can still pick up Mortom and point out 50 tiny things I’m unhappy with. At some point you just have to say “enough is enough” and let it go. Otherwise it can drive you insane.
Has it been hard to promote the book?
Yes and no. You do all the promotion when you’re an unknown author, but Facebook and word-of-mouth have been a huge help. I’ve done everything from hang flyers to advertise on craigslist. A key component has been availability: In addition to Amazon, the book is also available at multiple libraries, and a sample is downloadable on Goodreads.
How did you arrive where you are today?
When I put the finishing touches on my novel last year, I was beyond excited. Everyone was going to want this thing. After all, I had just completed the most original, clever, thought-provoking piece of fiction ever molded. Agents were going to HOUND me day and night, and my boss at the ‘day job’ was going to freak when I tossed my keys on her desk and quit on the spot.
As you probably guessed, Reality quickly reared its ugly head.
“Not at this time…” “Work has potential, but…” “Not the right agent for this project…”
That only made me more determined.
I reworked my query and tightened the first chapter. Needless words like ‘that’ and ‘very’ were eradicated from each page. Commas were added, deleted, then added again. My wife quietly set tea outside my office door, afraid to knock. I was a madman on a mad mission.
The rejections continued … but this time with sporadic bites. Whenever I saw “Send the first chapter” or “Shoot me 10 pages” I felt like I had won the lottery. NOW I was on my way. And if my boss was lucky, maybe I’d give her two weeks instead of just bailing. Maybe.
A month later I was still at the ‘day job’, more depressed than ever. I SO wanted to give up and abandon the dream.
Instead, I chose to fight harder.
Query, rewritten from scratch. Did I really need so much exposition in the first chapter? Nope. Was chapter two even necessary? Delete. Now we were cooking.
Emails and stamps at the ready, I again joined the fray…
And everything changed.
David Baldacci’s agency was interested. “This has potential, but it starts too slowly. Speed it up, and make sure something big happens in the beginning.”
I tore into that first chapter as if my life depended on it. This time my wife knew better than to try and bring tea—she avoided my office all together. I barely left my computer over the next 12 hours.
Everything was in place. It was brilliant. Magical. I anxiously returned her email and waited for a response.
A few days later I received these bittersweet words: “This works, but I’ve taken on a new project since we last corresponded, so I have to pass, as I don’t have time for two new clients.”
I had no idea if she was being honest or just polite, but I didn’t care. I already had a bite from another agent. This one wanted the first 50 pages AND a synopsis, so I knew they meant business.
Fingers crossed, I dropped it in the mail and held my breath.
The rejection arrived a week later. “I read the novel with interest and was hoping to love it, but I’m afraid it didn’t fully resonate with me. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, but it’s a good example of a great plot and terrific character development.”
Crappers. But hey—they took the time to write a personal response, so that was pretty cool.
So did I run out and get a copy of Gone Girl? As a matter of fact, I was halfway out the door … until I got an email from Gillian Flynn’s agency, requesting the entire manuscript.
The last agent told me write MORE like Gillian Flynn … and now her agency wants to see the whole thing? I didn’t even realize I had queried Gillian Flynn’s agency. (Good research on my part, eh?)
Regardless, I was beside myself. They liked the query! They liked the first 50 pages enough to want the whole thing! I allowed myself to take a breath, because surely THIS was it.
My fate was decided two weeks later with two sentences: “Thanks for querying us. Several of us took a look, but in the end, we felt it wasn’t the right fit.”
—Cut to present—
So did I score a killer agent, who sold the book to a major publisher, where it went on to sell a zillion copies?
Mortom is now a proud member of the Kindle, CreateSpace, and SmashWords family, and I couldn’t be happier. Mortom will never be on a bestseller list, and few outside Iowa will probably read it, but every day I get messages from people saying how much they like it. How they can’t wait for the next one.
And in the end, isn’t that what really matters? To be read?
I was SO determined to go the traditional route that I lost sight of that. I wanted an agent. I wanted a big advance. I wanted to see my work in major bookstores. Securing an agent became the goal, instead of a means to an end. I was prepared to let Mortom languish on my hard drive … simply because a few agents said it wasn’t good enough for them. But I didn’t write it for them; I wrote it for me.
Never give up and do whatever it takes to get your writing into the world. It’s your life, your dream, and sometimes you have to make your own luck.
Releasing Mortom has been one of the most amazing, bizarre journeys of my life—one that will stay with me long after sales have dropped and my book has slipped into obscurity. I truly feel blessed, and I hope everyone ends up with their own success to share.
Any advice for other writers?
Never give up. Ever. It’s your life and your dream. I wish I could say good writing is most of the battle, but it’s not. Timing, chance, and luck play a huge factor. I’ve witnessed excellent authors languish in sales, while horrible writers excel. All you can do is believe in yourself, do the work, and try to make as much luck as you can.
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