Today I welcome author Dayton Ward here for a lengthy chat. Dayton is a prolific science-fiction and media tie-in author who has dabbled in Star Trek, 24, Planet of the Apes, The 4400, and other properties. Author Kevin Dilmore is a frequent collaborator (and partner in crime). Dayton is also a regular contributor to StarTrek.com, and has previously written content for Tor.com, Star Trek Magazine, and the blog Novel Spaces. You’ve probably read his Ten For Ward articles on StarTrek.com over the years. I know I have.
“Punch as hard as you can. Drive them into the corner and don’t let up.” IN DISCUSSION WITH… BERNARD SCHAFFER
Today I’m in discussion with Bernard Schaffer. I’ve known Bernard for a long time, and we’ve collaborated with each other, and edited each other’s work for years. Not only is Bernard an author, he is a full-time police detective, and father of two kids.
A career spanning twenty years has seen him become a decorated criminal investigator, narcotics expert and child forensic interviewer. Since I have known him, Bernard has been a formidable champion of independent publishing. His experience working the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA is present in much of his work.
It’s that real-life experience that makes his novel, The Thief Of All Light, so vivid and realistic (it’s released by Kensington Publications in Summer 2018). I was fortunate enough to be a beta (and early editor) on that book, and can tell you that it’s no surprise to me that Kensington wanted to publish it. Not only that, but they signed Bernard for a sequel, too. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but The Thief Of All Light is truly his best yet.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with author Harry Hunsicker! I met Harry briefly last year in LA, while we were both filming our Kindle Most Wanted segments. Harry is the former executive vice-president of the Mystery Writers of America. His work has been short-listed for both the Shamus and Thriller Awards and his story “West of Nowhere,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. His latest novel is THE DEVIL’S COUNTRY, and it’s one helluva book.
First let’s begin with this official announcement in Publishers Marketplace regarding my two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer:
In case you can’t read that, it says:
Tony Healey’s HOPE’S PEAK, first in the Harper & Ida series, featuring a gutsy female detective who only trusts the facts and a survivor who gets psychic visions when she is near a serial killer’s victims, to Jacque Ben-Zekry at Thomas & Mercer, in a two-book deal, by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (World).
I am so excited to have Hope’s Peak picked up by Thomas & Mercer. Of all the publishers who could’ve took the book on, none of them are better placed to get it in front of customers. Self-publishing for years, as I have done, I’ve seen my fair share of projects that haven’t found readers. I know that with Thomas & Mercer – with the power of Amazon behind them – that won’t be a problem. Readers will find Hope’s Peak and Hope’s Peak with find readers.
But it’s not only their ability to sell a product. Amazon understands the new age of publishing in ways that the traditional publishers don’t. They know that readers want to read page-turners that are properly edited and formatted. They know that readers don’t want to pay over the hilt for them either – though, that being said, they also understand that readers of a series will happily pay $4/5 for the next book. They understand value for money and customer retention.
More importantly, Amazon know that digital publishing is something to be embraced, not feared, and that’s most important of all.
For writers out there who might be reading this, wondering how I got such a deal, let me lay it all out for you. Hopefully my transparency about the process will give you some insight – and a taste of what to expect should you attempt the same thing.
A few years ago I had an idea for a story about a woman whose psychic abilities manifest themselves upon contact. For one reason or another, I couldn’t quite get the story to work so I abandoned it.
I tend to write my ideas in a notebook and I’ll go through several a year – filling them up, regurgitating some of the same ideas over and over until they start to gel. One of those ideas was a female cop chasing a serial killer. I’ve long been a fan of Thomas Harris and his complex villain, Hannibal Lecter. But what sticks in my mind the most from “The Silence Of The Lambs” and “Hannibal”, is Clarice. She’s the wholesome hero. I’ve got nothing against multi-faceted heroes who are borderline anti-hero’s. But there’s something to be said about a character like Clarice – who is good all the way through. Incorruptible and pure. I knew that if I wrote a novel featuring a tough female cop, she’d have to have those same qualities. Sure, she might have a few skeletons in the closet, but “Bad Lieutenant” she ain’t.
I also knew that the villain would have to standout, too. Writing Hope’s Peak, I left all of the serial killer’s scenes until the end. Meaning I finished the book before bringing him to life. I did this because I really wanted him to have his own arc, his own plot, running concurrently to the novel itself. In that way, he wouldn’t feel shoehorned in, but just another character. The bogey man thing has been done to death. Serial killers are characters in their own right, and as a writer you have to treat them with the same respect that you would your heroes.
If you don’t, the whole thing falls apart.
So I had my cop, I had my villain, I had the setting of Hope’s Peak. There was a third element missing and that’s when I remembered the story I’d tried to write all that time before. A psychic who could tell a lot about people just by touching them. What if she could touch the victims of the serial killer and, in doing so, give the cop new insight into her case? As I began to explore that idea, jotting down different versions, I realised that the psychic character should be personally connected to the killer himself. Once that notion occured to me, all the pieces started to fall into place.
Director Nicholas Meyer says, “Art doesn’t just happen by accident. It is about pulling out new tricks and trying new things”. It took me a while to figure out how Hope’s Peak was going to work, but with some perseverence, work it did. I had it all outlined. And it was at that stage, looking at my outline of what would happen chapter by chapter, that I knew I should write the killer’s scenes last.
There are writers out there who don’t plot. Everyone has their own process of doing these things, and there’s no wrong or right answer. Personally I find plotting essential. You can’t put together a flatpack wardrobe without instructions. You can’t make a complicated cake without a recipe.
I begin with a spine. That spine has the acts of the story, the rise and fall of action, the turning points and reversals. It allows me to pace the story correctly. Where will that scene take place? How long after that will everything take a turn for the worst? How will I build tension in this scene, so that it pays off in the next? I look at how I can apply the timeless lessons of the Hero’s Journey. I incorporate the genius advice of McKeen. If you write books and you don’t own a copy of “STORY” I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.
I iron all of these pacing issues out before I work out how the chapters will play out. All of that comes next. So if the mechanics of the plot form the spine, then the chapters and story details are the ribs. The plot is made to conform to that initial spine, and while some may argue that is limiting for a writer, I say it is the opposite. Too much freedom and you end up with a Stephen King epic that could do with losing a few pounds. By having to hit the key points on that basic framework, you’re working on a budget. It makes you more creative, it makes you work harder to get everything to work. No writer should be given free licence to do as they please. The best art – the art that everyone remembers – was created with limitations. The Wrath of Khan wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is if they hadn’t been working with a limited budget.
It took me about two months to write the first draft of Hope’s Peak. I then spent a few weeks doing a rewrite, and a hard copy edit. Then I gave it to two friends to read – David K. Hulegaard and Sandie Slavin. Interestingly, they both came back with different issues with the plot. They were easy to address. Once I’d done that, I handed the book over to Bernard Schaffer, my mentor, for him to have a read and give me his thoughts. Bernard did more than that – he did a full edit of the entire manuscript, and helped iron out a lot of the wrinkles in both the plot and the characters personalities. Following that I had the novel proofread, and then it was ready to send to Sharon, my agent.
“Hold it!” I hear you saying. “How did you get an agent?”
Well let me rewind a little. Many months before, Bernard and I co-wrote a few things together (Confederation Reborn), and that we self-published with the assistance of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Bernard went through Sharon, one of the agents there, and made the introduction between us. A while later, I asked Sharon if she might be interested in what I was working on. I described it, and she seemed excited to read it. Now fast forward a couple of months, and I have the book ready to read.
Our fourth daughter, Lola, was about to be born so I sent the manuscript off to Sharon and hoped for the best. I’m pretty pessimistic about everything.
I thought, “She won’t like it.”
She liked it.
I thought, “She won’t be able to find a home for it. No-one will want it.”
Well, you know the answer to that one.
Once she’d read Hope’s Peak, Sharon told me she’d like to take me on as her client and try to put the novel with a publisher. I said “Great!” and signed on the dotted line. Sharon did her own edits, little things here and there she’d noticed as she read the book through for the second time. Then she sent it out to a small group of publishers to gauge their reaction.
A few months went by, then word came back that they’d passed. A lot of them had positive things to say about the novel, and about my writing, but they weren’t taken by the story.
It’s natural to feel disappointed when this happens, but to be honest I wasn’t bothered. If there’s one thing that self-publishing does, it’s give you a thick skin. I didn’t take their reaction to the novel as a knock. Instead I looked at what they liked about it. Here’s some examples of the feedback we recieved:
“. . . let me say I liked the writing and I also enjoyed the small town setting.”
“The writing is nicely done and the plot is intriguing.”
“Clearly there is significant talent here. Healey is able to capture the Southern setting quite well.”
Sharon sent the book out again, this time to a second larger group of publishers. I knew that it would only take one publisher to take a liking to the book. Thomas & Mercer were the first to get back. I won’t divulge what the book deal means for me in terms of monetary value, but suffice to say that Sharon got me a very good advance for both Hope’s Peak and its sequel. It was only a matter of a few months waiting, from sending the novel to Sharon, to getting a book deal. But no matter how short the wait, it is agonising. You can’t help but email every now and then.
“Have we heard anything about the book?”
To Sharon’s credit, she’s very patient. She’s knows how to handle writers who are in limbo, and that’s part of what makes her a good agent, in my opinion. It doesn’t matter what question I fire her way, she’s always there with a response. That’s what you need when you’re biting your fingernails, waiting for something to happen – someone who will be honest with you, but understanding.
I’ve been very lucky. This is my first submission to an agent, and my first book on submission to publishers. I hit it on the first try, which is pretty good. But how many great novels bounce from one publisher to another, never finding any joy? How many J.K. Rowling’s are out there?
At the time of this writing, I have whatever edits are required on Hope’s Peak, and I have to write the sequel. I’ve got that plotted out already, and some of it written in bits and pieces. I have to deliver Book 2 by October, which is totally doable. To say I’m excited is an understatement. I can’t wait to get rolling with this series and just run with it. There are a lot of stories I want to tell with these two characters.
So, how can I help you get a book deal? Well, here are my tips. You can take them or leave them. They’re just what worked for me. As I think I’ve made pretty clear, there was a degree of luck in all of this. I think that’s true of anything in life. Without knowing Bernard, I wouldn’t have been introduced to Sharon. Without Sharon liking what I told her about the novel-in-progress, I wouldn’t be a client of Dystel & Goderich.
And remember, not all editors loved it. Jacque Ben-Zekry at Thomas & Mercer took a shine to the book and wanted to take it on – that’s one publisher out of many. There were many months of waiting, and asking, and wondering, before there was any kind of news.
I joined D&G as Sharon’s client in August 2015. I got my book deal in February 2016. So my first tip is:
- Be patient. That book deal isn’t going to happen over night. The best thing you can do, is leave your agent to work his or her magic, and keep on writing. It’s hard to put the fact you have a book out on submission to the back of your mind, but please try. In my case, I didn’t get a lot of writing done the latter half of last year, as we had our fourth child and my routine was thrown out of whack. That’s back to normal now, but I was thrown for a bit there leading up to Christmas. But my advice stands – sign that contract between yourself and your agent, and let them do their thing. Just check in every now and then to see how things are going.
- Let’s circle back. Before even sending your manuscript out, you need to ensure it’s been edited by another living being. Preferably proofed, too. That means another human being has read the book and picked up on any embarrassing errors. This book needs to be your best fucking work. I’m deadly serious. The best thing you’ve ever written. EVER. Pour your heart and soul into it. The prose needs to be tight, and flow, and above all it needs to be active. I can guarantee you that your passive-voiced, purple-prosed think piece is gonna get rejected straight away. Think of it like this – you’re selling your book to your agent, so that they can sell your book to a publisher, so that they can sell your book to a customer. If you don’t get that first sale, the game’s over. So you need to bring your A game. Eliminate weak words or turns of phrase. Cut back on the filtering. Get to the point and present the STORY, not your writing ability. That’s the key here. You’re selling your book, not YOU.
- Get into a solid routine with your writing. This means writing X amount of words a day, preferably 2,000. I do this five days a week, giving myself the weekends off. Do this for six weeks, you’ve got a 60,000 word novel. You need to be able to say to your agent, or a publisher, that you can get a project completed within a certain amount of time. The only way to do that is give yourself enough time to write each day. This is harder than it sounds – believe me, as the father of four little girls, I know this all too well – but you must do it anyway. And don’t be afraid to give yourself a break. Daydream. Lay in the bath and mull over the details of the plot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been soaking in the tub and had that “Eureka!” moment. If you’re approaching an agent with your work, or thinking about it, then you’d better start treating your writing as a second job.
In short, GET SERIOUS about writing. PRESENT YOUR BEST WORK. Make that prose as solid as you can. Nobody is perfect, but there’s a lot you can do to make a good book even better, purely by tightening the prose. And BE PATIENT. This all takes time. Trust your agent to do what they do best, while you do what you do best – write.