With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer and blogger Katie Flanagan present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
Interview with Author Les Edgerton
Les Edgerton is an ex-con, matriculating at Pendleton Reformatory for a couple of years in the sixties for burglary (plea-bargained down from multiple counts of burglary, armed robbery, strong-armed robbery and possession with intent). He’s since taken a vow of poverty (became a writer) with 14 books in print. 2011 was a good year for him as he published two novels with StoneGate Ink—Just Like That and The Perfect Crime, along with noir novel The Bitch from Bare Knuckles Press, as well as a new short story collection, Gumbo Ya-Ya, from Snubnose Press. He just sold his existential novella, The Rapist to New Pulp Press, which will be released in 2013. He is also editor-at-large for Noir Nation International Crime Magazine. Work of his has been nominated for or won: the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), PEN/Faulkner Award, Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Book Award, the Violet Crown Book Award, and others. He holds the MFA in Writing degree from Vermont College and a Certificate in Barbering from Pendleton Reformatory. He writes because he hates… a lot… and hard. Injustice and bullying are what he hates the most.
1. As a prolific author with 14 books in print so far, can you elaborate on how the publishing process has changed since your first book?
It’s changed tremendously in some ways and barely at all in others. I’m old-school, so I don’t count self-publishing as publishing. A horse by any other name is still a horse. In my opinion, it’s just another name for vanity publishing, which is not publishing but… printing (abeit in electronic form). I’m not including in that assessment legitimate publishers who publish ebooks, but I am including those who simply publish the work themselves. I have friends who’ve chosen to self-publish and while they’re still my friends, I’m not going to purchase their books any more than I would the person who has stacks of their vanity or subsidy-published books in their garage. Just want to define the terms. And, there are degrees and shadings within even the self-published category. For instance, I’m getting ready to self-publish a book… but it’s a book that has been published and done well. It just never came out in ebook form, so my agent got the ebook rights from the publisher and we’re going to put it out. That, to me, isn’t the kind of self-published “vanity” book I’m referring to.
Definitions provided, to answer your question, let me address what’s changed first. The biggest changes have come about because of the advent of ebooks.
What’s changed is that if there was any doubt that mid-list authors have disappeared, now there’s no doubt. At one time, legacy publishers would publish a writer’s books knowing that they probably wouldn’t make any money on that particular book, but they saw something in the writer that made them think that eventually an audience would build for that author and down the road, they’d all make money on his or her novels. As Roberto Durante said, in another context: “No mas.”
The Big Six, in particular, are almost exclusively interested in brand names. Proven winners who have a sizeable audience already in place. Here’s a prime example. A few months ago, I was told in confidence by someone who is in the “know,” that a top editor for a major publisher, who has his own imprint, was told by his boss (yes, even top editors have bosses), that if he signed any novel that didn’t earn at least $30,000 he’d be fired. Not chastised, not given a talking to, or a slap on the wrist, but… fired. Think this guy is going to want to sign the brilliant novel by the unknown author or do you supposed he might opt instead for the same-as-the-last book by Mr. Brand Name? Fugedaboutit. That’s one change.
The second change I’ve observed is that so-called “literary novels” are just about over. Remember: I’m just the messenger. Don’t kill the messenger! Here’s how I know this. For almost thirty years, my wife and I and our son until he moved out of the house, visited a local bookstore every single week. Never missed a week. Our favorite was Borders and our second favorite was one of the two B&N outlets. One Saturday, we walked into Borders and stood in shock at the change. The biggest single area the week before was the space devoted to what was labeled “Mainstream fiction.” Mainstream encompasses literary fiction in bookstore terminology. They’d reduced that space fully by three-fourths. The area that used to house literary fiction and other fiction that didn’t fit a particular genre was reassigned. To two areas. Genre fiction was one. The other was greeting cards, wrapping paper, novelty items. Cute little stuffed animals. I talked to the manager and she said she hated to do it, but all the Borders stores were under corporate mandate to do the same. Literary and mainstream fiction just weren’t selling. They couldn’t justify the space devoted to it, so they reassigned it to genre fiction which was selling and significantly. It’s a cold, hard fact, but the marketplace is what determines what’s selling to publishers. Literary novels today are infinitely tougher to sell than ever before and that market is shrinking monthly. If you want to know what the literary tastes of a nation are, simply gaze about at a national chain’s brick and mortar outlet and see what’s on the shelves. The category area that has the most shelf space is the area that’s selling.
Does this mean so-called “literary” novels are impossible to get published? No; it just means it’s much harder. They’ll continue to get published because legacy publishers in this instance are the same as major film studios. Major film studios will put out 85 movies that appeal to the biggest audience demographic—teenaged boys—and the remaining 15 movies will be devoted to a mix of other kinds of films. Among those will be a couple of “artsy” movies. The ones that will be nominated for Golden Globes and Oscars. Most of which they know they’ll lose money on. Then why make em? Because, studios want to be thought of as intellectual, “arty” enterprises. Kind of an ego thing. They know most of what they produce is mindless schlock, but if they get an Oscar winner or even a nominee, they feel justified that they produce “art.” And, for the one movie that does get nominated or win, they’ll actually make money on it because of the publicity. It’s mostly a way for studio execs to feel good about themselves and be able to delude themselves into thinking that they’re actually engaged in quality work. Makes ‘em walk tall when they walk into Spagos.
Well, publishers do the same thing. For all the vampire novels selling in the bazillions, all the formulaic cartoonish novels about bigger-than-life vigilante superheroes, that maintain a healthy bottom line, they’ll all put out a few literary books that are published mostly because they’ll be up for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, even the Nobel. For the same motivation as the film studios. So they can feel like they’re “literary” and providing “good literature.” Makes ‘em feel proud when they walk into the Russian Tea Room or Elaine’s or wherever they gather these days.
Am I cynical? You bet.
What are the things that have remained the same? Well, the legacy publishers still employ the best gatekeepers in the business. If you get published by a legacy publisher, you’ve achieved something. You’re truly validated by people who actually know something about quality in writing. If you self-publish, your validation is going to come from your relatives, friends, and how effective you are at marketing, for the most part. Sales seem to be the biggest factor in ebook publishing and sales are a poor barometer of quality. For example, there is an author who was, at best, a mid-list author when he was being published by legacy publishers—his work is truly mediocre, at best—who has become a huge marketing success since he opted for self-publishing. He’s making lots of money—and that’s fine—but his work is still godawful. If sales are your measure of success, he’s a good model to emulate. If being regarded as a good writer is your measure, he’s probably not the guy whose bust you want gracing your mantel. There’s a reason he went to self-publishing and it has to do with writing ability. His sales ability is off the charts. His writing ability is… what’s the word?… oh, yeah… pure do-do.
There are other changes and other things that remain the same, but those are some of the biggest.
2. You write novels, short fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. What is your favorite genre to work in and why?
Novels, by far. They require the most creativity and the most ability. Short fiction would be second. Nonfiction for the money. Screenplays are last. The reason is, screenplays aren’t about writing. No one picks up a screenplay to go sit in the hammock for a lazy-crazy afternoon of losing themselves in a fictional world. And, screenplays are ridiculously easy to write. I wrote my first screenplay literally in two days. Took seven hours the first day, put it aside for two weeks, and then finished it in a nine-hour day when I picked it back up. Now, it’s easy to write a bad screenplay in two days, so that doesn’t mean much. However, this particular screenplay placed as a semifinalist in the Nicholl’s competition and Greg Beals, the director of the foundation told me it would have won if I’d sent it in the year before, but the previous year’s winner was remarkably close to mine and he said they never picked two screenplays in a row that were this much alike. But, it placed in the top 100 out of 4,500 entries. So, I take that as validation that it was a good screenplay. Written in two days. Don’t think I could write a novel like that. And, I’d just learned formatting the week before and had read my first screenplay ever that same week. As Gore Vidal said about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” I don’t write them anymore because I’m too old. After the age of 35, it’s virtually impossible to sell a screenplay to Hollywood. Notice I didn’t say “impossible.” I said “virtually” impossible. And, it is. Hollywood is clearly an ageist society in every segment of the business except for producing.
3. How did you go about mastering the craft of writing?
That’s easy! By reading. That’s the only way to learn how to write. There are no “secrets” in learning how to write. The “secrets” are right out in the open. They’re on the page of the book you have open before you. All you have to do is see how the author accomplished what they did and you’re learning to write. I regularly get writers in my classes who haven’t read a book in months or even years and I know there’s no way they’ll ever be a writer. But, I’ll also encounter a student who has read voraciously from the age of five or six and never stopped, and I know that person has a chance at becoming a writer.
4. How important do you think it is for fiction writers to obtain an MFA?
Again, an easy question. I think it’s totally unimportant. In fact, I think most programs destroy more writers than help them. I kind of agree with Flannery O’Connor who, when asked if writing programs discouraged writers, said: “Not enough of them.” And I have one. I have two degrees—(well, three—I also have a B.A.)—an MFA and a Certificate in Barbering from Pendleton Reformatory. Of the two, I value my barbering certificate much, much more. I’ve made far more money, enjoyed far more success with that one.
First, take a look at who the teachers and professors are in most programs. What have they done and what have they sold? If Stephen King ever showed up in an MFA program it would only be because he was slumming and bored and wanted a change. Most of the folks (not all!) teaching in many such programs are writing the kind of books Kurt Vonnegut was referring to when he said, “Literature is in danger of disappearing up its own asshole.”
And, most MFA programs are dedicated to teaching “literary” fiction. I don’t know about you, but do I want to spend thousands of dollars and use up a couple years of my life to learn to write something that’s basically dying? I don’t know what your I.Q. is but mine’s over 160 and I try to put it to use, especially for questions like this.
Years ago, an Ivy League college performed a study in which they looked at a random group of a hundred professional writers. They identified them as “professional” by the only legitimate definition of the term—writers who earned their entire income from writing. They discovered that almost exactly half of these writers had a high school diploma or less… and the other half had a college bachelor’s degree or higher. There’s really no correlation between writing education and writing success. What an MFA degree does do is give the student access to decision-makers. Lots of publishers and editors visit these campuses and lots of editor’s eyes light up when they see “MFA” in the writer’s query letter. However, most of these editors are the ones who are still looking for literary novels and believe there’s a decent market for such. A shrinking number…
These programs used to have more value even a few years ago than they do today. These days, they’re seen by many universities and colleges as “cash cows” and they’re springing up everywhere. And, like anything that gets bigger like this, the quality goes down, commensurately. At one time, there were perhaps five-six pretty good programs. Now there are hundreds. If anyone thinks they’re as good and as beneficial for writers as they used to be, well I’d like their phone number because I have this terrific bridge in Brooklyn I’m trying to move…
That said, there is one program I think is a great one and one I wish had been around when I got mine. Seton Hill focuses on genre writing (about time somebody did!), and everything I hear about it is positive. They appear to be a program that’s aware that it’s now 2012.
5. As a creative writing teacher, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see beginning writers making in both fiction and nonfiction?
Not following the two elements that are always present in good writing. Be interesting and be clear. Of the two, being interesting is the most important. After that, there are structural problems that are very common. Most writers have never been taught story structure, or if they have, often it’s an archaic structure. Most English classes, most college writing classes, many MFA programs are focused on “parts” or writing. All these “exercises” on description, or characterization or dialog or whatever. Yuch! Listen, one doesn’t get to Carnegie Hall by practicing the scales. They get there by understanding what a symphony is and how to write a complete symphony. I hate it when writers refer to what they’re writing as the “piece” they’re working on. What in the hell is a “piece” of writing? Dude! Dudette! Write something that’s complete and entire. A short story. A novel. Talk about your novel, not the “piece” you’re working on.
The two biggest mistakes beginning writers make are not using their own, particular, unique voice, and not beginning the story of nonfiction article or book in the right place. After that, the next biggest problem is not striving for and achieving what Flannery O’Connor said about the best of novels (badly paraphrased) that they be: “All of a piece; all of a unified effect.” So many novels end up episodic with no through-line. In other words, a mish-mash of scenes and quirky characters. That’s a novel of which the author can say, truthfully, that it’s “only available in my room.”
6. One of your well-known writing books is Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs the Reader at Page One and Never Lets Them Go. What are the important elements in hooking a reader early?
To begin where the story begins. It’s that simple. A contemporary story is about one thing and one thing only. Trouble. That means the story should begin—when the trouble begins. Not the week before, not two years before, not even two minutes before. When the trouble begins. Period. And, that seems to be a difficult concept for many to master. Something has to create and/or reveal that trouble to the protagonist. That event is the inciting incident. And, that’s where stories today need to begin.
There was a time in our culture when novels could begin more leisurely. This was a time before television and movies and CNN and iPods and all the other entertainment venues were upon us. Today’s reader doesn’t have the attention span nor the interest in picking up novels with leisurely openings. That doesn’t mean stories should begin with gunfights, stabbings, bombs blowing up, kidnappings, murders, or any of that melodramatic stuff. It means they have to open with conflict—the major conflict that forms the core of the story. It can be a quiet conflict, but what it can’t be is a lengthy account of the protagonist’s bucolic life for the ten years before the trouble began. It has to begin with the trouble. Period.
When movies began, they had no structural models, so they used novels as their models. Today, it’s been reversed. Novels have to imitate film structure. Years ago, screenwriting how-to books insisted the first ten minutes of a screenplay be “devoted to the setup.” No mas, again quoting Roberto Duran. Those days are, in the words of my son, “so five minutes ago.” Films today begin… when the trouble begins. As should novels.
We read a novel for one reason. To see if and how the protagonist is going to resolve the story problem. If there’s no problem on the page, for that novel the reader is going to become… a nonreader. Count on it. Very few (and they don’t count) readers pick up a book just to encounter in the beginning a nifty shooting in an alley. If they don’t know the characters or the protagonist’s story problem, why would they care? There are a million places to see someone get shot. Just click on the nightly news. There has to be a reason to turn to Page 2. That reason is we see a character with a compelling problem—one we can relate to—on Page 1.
7. Beginnings are so important, especially in today’s marketplace. How does a writer determine if they have started their novel in the right place? Do you have an opinion on using prologues?
If they’ve begun with the introduction of the event that created and/or revealed the problem that’s going to occupy the protagonist for the following 349 pages, they’ve begun in the right place. If they’ve begun anywhere else—they haven’t.
Also, that needs to be written in a scene. Everything truly important in a novel needs to be delivered via a scene. Not through the character’s ruminations or thoughts or that kind of thing. A scene. When I pick up a manuscript and it’s the character thinking on the page, my Nexium starts to malfunction and I can feel the bile beginning to rise and voila! I’m throwing up in my mouth.
The reason so many writers fail, is that they don’t write scenes. They write a character’s thoughts and ruminations. They deliver descriptions of emotions based on events the reader hasn’t been witness to, via a scene. Doesn’t work. I see this in high school students beginning to write poetry. They deliver all these descriptions of emotions based on something the reader hasn’t been privy to and think that that’s poetry. It isn’t. The only way the reader is impacted emotionally is by living through the event right along with the character and at the same time. Period.
Prologues? I think the vast majority… what’s the word?… oh, yeah… suck. Most aren’t needed. Now, for those who practice selective reading, I didn’t say “all.” I said “most.” Occasionally, one might work—although I can’t think of any offhand. Most, I suspect, come from a writer who’s been admonished not to begin with setup or backstory and just has to provide that crap… so they create a prologue. I use an example of one in a brilliant book. Larry Watson’s Montana 1948. He uses one in his terrific novel and it won major awards and is one of my favorite books. But, it wasn’t needed. Not at all.
I feel the same about epilogues. Mostly, I think they come from writers who don’t know how to tie up the loose ends with the plot, so they stick ‘em on to accomplish that. I think most would be better served in learning how to plot better…
8. How important do you think it is for authors to maintain a strong social media presence? What tips do you have for keeping a successful writing blog?
Mostly depends on who you are. If you’re Joyce Carol Oates, it’s probably not important in the least. If you’re Les Edgerton, it might be…
I’m probably the wrong person to ask what it takes for keeping a successful writing blog. I have one and I don’t know if I’d call it successful or not! I mean, I only have 250+ followers. I’ve had more people watch me pull off a crime… If numbers aren’t important, then I feel it’s successful. I’ve made wonderful contacts through it and many that have helped me not only sell my books but even helped me get them published. As to what makes it successful, I think it’s to base it on the same elements I feel important in a good novel. Be interesting and be clear. I don’t know if it’s always clear, but I do try hard to make it interesting. After all, there are about sixteen bazillion blogs out there and if yours ain’t interesting, then who’s going to want to read it? I figure it it’s interesting to me, then it might be interesting to others. Maybe not… I have weird tastes… I also have a mean, contrarian side to me. I don’t believe in telling people necessarily what they want to hear. There are enough people out there in writing telling folks they’re great and that writing’s easy and all that stuff. There are just lots of folks who aren’t great and their writing sucks and somebody maybe ought to tell them that. How else do we get better if we don’t know we’re bad?
9. On your blog, you have posted the first chapter of your new writing book, A Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Bijou. Do you think giving away the first chapter is helpful for building sales?
Good question! And, the answer is—I don’t know. I hope so. If the readers see it as valuable information—and early responses say it is—then I think it’ll prove helpful. Plus, although I plan on self-publishing it, chances are some editor or other gatekeeper will come across it and think: “Hey, I can sell that puppy.” And then ring me up on the telly. Who knows? After all, those folks whose first meeting with Ed McMahon was on their front porches were real people getting those giant checks…
10. Many authors are choosing to self-publish now. Do you see that as a viable option? What are the pros and cons?
Only under very special circumstances would I self-publish. And, I am for two books. One isn’t really self-publishing. We’ve obtained the rights from Writer’s Digest for a very successful book they published of mine—Finding Your Voice—and I’m publishing an ebook version of it since they opted not to. I’m pretty sure there’s a sizeable audience. It earned out its advance of $8,000 within six weeks of its release way back when and every year has paid me excellent royalties. I’m pretty sure there’s an audience for that book, particularly since it hasn’t appeared in ebook format.
The second instance is the Bijou book you referred to above. If I was a beginning writer with no street cred, there’s no way I’d self-publish it. But, I’ve got a pretty decent track record with sales of my other two writer’s how-tos, so I’m fairly confident that will translate into decent sales. Hooked just doesn’t let up in sales, year after year, so that tells me I have an audience. Plus, I’ve delivered and continue to deliver, a four-hour workshop on the film I use as the basis of the book—Thelma & Louise—to writing groups and workshops and draw absolutely rave reviews for the presentation, so I know there’s a significant audience for it and that it fills what I see as a hole in the writing how-to canon. Hope so, anyway!
11. Do you have any upcoming workshops, classes or author services to share with us?
I’ve been invited to appear and do a reading of my work at Noir at the Bar in St. Louis at Subterranean Books on April 28 that I’m pretty jazzed about. Great, famous venue! One of my publishers, Cort McMeel of Bare Knuckles Press got me the gig via the host, Jed Ayres, to help promote my novel, The Bitch. I’m really excited as I’m told folks like Scott Phillips and Nick Arvin will also be there to read and I’m a huge Scott Phillips fan! Details should show up at http://spaceythompson.blogspot.com/ or at http://store.subbooks.com/
I co-teach a class with author Jenny Milchman via Skype for the New York Writer’s Workshop and we’ll be taking applications for the next class shortly. It’s titled: Beginnings: The Start of Your Novel, Your Career, & Your Writing Life.
You can check out the class at http://newyorkwritersworkshop.com/online-course-beginnings-the-start-of-your-novel-your-career-your-writing-life
I also teach a private workshop online on novel writing. The next class will begin in approximately two months. Anyone interested can email me at email@example.com.
Kristen Lamb has asked I join her world-wide network of writing teachers to provide video lessons for writers. Plans are still being formulated, but anyone who might be interested, I’d suggest following her blog at http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/ as she’ll post information once it’s all set up.
And, please visit me at my own blog at www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/
The winner of Susan Wingate’s DROWNING is Carol Anita Ryan! Thanks for reading our blog!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Katie Flanagan is a fiction major at Northwestern University. She is currently an editor with Booktrope Publishing and Pink Fish Press. In the past, she has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her favorite genre is women’s fiction, but she reads any fiction put in front of her. Check out her blog about the writing life at katieflanagan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @K_Flanagan.