A few years ago, Kirkus Reviews, commissioned me to write an article on how I found success in publishing doing it “my way.” It’s worth reprinting here for the larger font. (You can see it at their website by clicking here, even if it now mistakenly says I’m “Malcom Gladwell, interviewed by Christopher Meeks.)
To paraphrase President Bill Clinton, how I did it depends on the definition of “it.” I’m a writer first, and an accidental publisher second. What drove me to do either is that I wanted meaning in my life.
The other night, my wife Ann and I zipped over to the Hollywood Bowl, invited at the last minute by a friend with extra tickets. It felt like destiny. I witnessed for my first time cellist Yo-Yo Ma play and Gustavo Dudamel conduct—both brilliant, both passionate, both having me ponder what it took for them and any one of the orchestra members to get there.
A sell-out crowd of 17,000 was focused on classical music. Yo-Yo Ma played often with his eyes closed, his face incredibly expressive as if the music were telling a story and he was finding surprise and amazement in every twist and turn. He seemed near tears in delicate parts, his lone cello a voice in the woods.
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel looked like a young man surprised at a treasure he stumbled upon. He was ecstatic to unleash the kettle drums, the trumpets, and the full orchestra as a signal call to a final offensive stand, his baton and hair leaping in the air.
There are times when I write that I feel the same way. I‘m emotionally wrought at sad parts, laughing at funny parts, on the edge when danger flings itself at my protagonist. What it took me to get there were the hundreds of stories that I wrote when I was younger that just didn’t work, but each story brought me closer to writing a better one. I took writing classes in college and beyond, and I was pushed.
Reading great works such as Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried showed me what could be. I never thought of what I did as “work.” As Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers reveals, you have to put in the hours.
I value what I do. That’s the first place that counts. Sometimes people who discover one of my short story collections or novels write me out of the blue to say how much they loved it. These I treasure as much as the brightest critics finding joy in my work.
To get where I am took more than reading, practice, and classes. I also looked for ways to immerse myself in story. I became a book reviewer in grad school for two Los Angeles newspapers before reviewing live theatre for Daily Variety for eight years.
At the time, I was also writing plays. Theatre demonstrated how to reveal character through action and dialogue, and the constant critiquing led me to question why certain scenes or plays worked or not. I’d ask the same questions of my own stories. I wrote on tight deadlines, which whipped away any idea of writer’s block. Later when I started teaching creative writing and English, I could critique student work too, remaining sensitive to not blow out any flames of creativity.
For my first job out of grad school, I was the senior editor for a small publisher in Los Angeles, and I experienced first-hand the obsessive nature it takes to create a finely crafted book, starting with the text but also following through in book design, publicity, and marketing. Thus when my first agent in 2005 did not want to represent my collection of previously published short fiction, I started my own imprint, White Whisker Books. I knew what to do.
When my very first review for my first book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, appeared in the Los Angeles Times in January 2006, I spit the cereal I was eating out all over the table. My heart began racing. I assumed I’d be excoriated in front of millions of people as had happened with my first produced play, Suburban Anger. But no, the reviewer gave clear specific insights, and she celebrated the book.
I don’t write for the reviewers, but good reviews help in being discovered in a crowded marketplace. Sending your books out for review is critical. This I learned when I worked for a publisher.
I call myself the accidental publisher because White Whisker Books was conceived simply for my short fiction. Later, I published my novels when my enthusiastic new agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich, found roadblocks. For Love At Absolute Zero, he landed three interested editors whose marketing departments then vetoed the book. Apparently love and quantum physics was a leap. Undeterred, I published it through White Whisker, and it landed on a critic’s Top Ten Best Novels list of 2011, and it earned three awards including being a ForeWord Reviews Best Book Finalist. Small victories like these help.
White Whisker Books has grown as I can fit in time for it. I’m publishing three other authors now whom I know and respect. I hire editors, proofreaders, and book designers. I make advance reader’s copies for reviewers as I did recently for The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by Shelly Lowenkopf. I create flawless eBook versions of the books in multiple formats. I use social media, write emails and blogs, speak at conferences and colleges, and, if I’m lucky, I write articles such as this for Kirkus.
Those people who want to know, “How do I do it so I can get rich?” all I know is you don’t get any success if your heart isn’t in the work. In the arts, you compete with people who have passion for what they do, the Dudamels and Mas.
Much of success is persistence. That’s not everything, though. It’s not like the Hollywood movies where if you’re dogged and passionate, you’ll win. There are plenty of conductors, cellists, and writers who are extraordinarily talented, but they are not recognized.
Look at this another way. Art schools and creative writing programs pour out hundreds of extremely talented graduates each year to a society that doesn’t value the arts, per se. Only a few of these graduates will make a name. Are you still willing to push ahead if fame or fortune is not guaranteed? If so, the arts may be for you. “How to make it?” That’s something you might learn along the way.
Update: The front page article in today’s Los Angeles Times covers what it takes to be a musician in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which underscores much of what I wrote here. Click here and scroll down for the story. I’ve since published two well-reviewed crime novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas. I’m now at work on a novel based in the Iraq War. As you see, I go where my interests take me.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.