Kari Wolfe interviewed me back in April for her blog and has reposted it today. I thought I'd posted it here as well, but in searching don't think that I did. So... thought you might be interested in it.
Interview with LES EDGERTON of “Hooked” and “Finding Your Voice”Today’s interview is with Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go and Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing as well as several other nonfiction and fiction titles.
Les’s background is a colorful one–the Navy, a stint in prison for burglary, past Writer-in-Residence at two universities, and presently he teaches writers’ workshops for Writer’s Digest. I still stop at the “stint in prison” bit for a moment. Not because I think badly of him–far from it!–but because he learned from his mistakes and moved on. It’s that “moving on” part that I think is highly admirable.
He is working on his memoir, tentatively titled “Adrenaline Junkie.”
Both of Les’s writing books are on my writing desk for future reference.
From rock-bottom in prison to published writer and college instructor… that’s quite an amazing work. Can you give me (and my readers) an idea of how bad it got and then how you picked yourself up and decided to change your life?
Well, prison’s pretty bad, all right! Nothing fun about it that I can remember. I came from a dysfunctional childhood (who hasn’t, right?), and went into the Navy for four years. When I was discharged, I came back to Indiana (from Bermuda and San Salvador in the Bahamas) and was bored out of my skull. I got into crime for one reason—it was exciting. Didn’t need the money or anything like that. It just fed my adrenaline jones. Prison woke me up. It wasn’t a place I ever wanted to go back to. Fortunately, I met a woman who helped change my life, my third wife Sheila. With her encouragement, I began college. It was a bit tough. Shortly after I began, she became pregnant with our first daughter, Britney, and I was the sole breadwinner. I went to college full-time, worked full-time (cut hair—I’d gone to barber school in the joint), and also held down a part-time job as a sports reporter (weekends) for The South Bend Tribune. I was also involved in campus activities, being elected, in successive years as student body senator, vice-president, and in my senior year, student body president. I was also the sports editor of the campus newspaper. Was involved in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and College Republicans. That ‘s a bit incongruous, but I didn’t join either of them for political reasons, but mostly for the girls. (I hadn’t quit being a bad boy entirely—was doing a ton of womanizing. Also, gambling.) Got about four hours sleep a night. I hear this lame ad on the radio about this girl going on about her “heavy” school schedule where she names her classes and how she has go trek across campus to each one and at the end, thanks the people who paid her way. Must be nice! I had to pay my own way, plus work full time, plus support a family, and do those other things. Her deal sounds kind of cushy, to be honest. She doesn’t even have to work a part-time job! And, I ended up with a 3.64 GPA and graduated with Honors of Distinction. I’m kind of proud of doing that after being in prison just months before I began. I still had my adrenaline jones, but was doing things society approved of instead.
I’ve always been a writer and always saw that as my life’s work, from the age of five, so I was writing also. While in school, I finished my first novel and eventually had it published (The Death of Tarpons, University of North Texas Press). I just wrote in my “spare” time. The fact that I got published made me feel validated as a writer, so I applied to and got accepted into the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College.
Your book, “Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go,” is a great source for writers who aren’t sure where to start their story or who have had feedback from either editors or other readers that their story is hard to “get involved in.” What is your favorite beginning line from any book and how important is that first line to the reader, really?
Extremely important. As is the second line. And the third. And so on. But, it’s the first line that the agent and editor and eventually, the reader read. It better be good enough that they’ll want to read the next line. Here’s what people sometimes don’t understand. When you’re beginning and aren’t yet published, you’re really writing for one person only. An agent. Not even an editor at this point. If you’re sending to editors who accept unagented submissions, they’re most likely not at the kind of publishing house that’s going to give you much of a career if they take your stuff. You really need an agent. And, if you understand how agents work, you’ll see how important that first line is. Agents get queries and manuscripts sent to them by the ton. They know that the vast majority of what is sent to them isn’t publishable. They also know that somewhere in that vast pile on their desk (and on the floor, and in the room down the hall, and coming at them daily in the mail and over the internet) might be a book they can actually get published and make some money from. If they actually read every manuscript that came their way (or even the first 5-10 pages), they’d never get anything done. In self-defense, they read about the first few paragraphs. There might be a brilliant book that starts on page ten or page two, but they’ll usually never get that far if the first line—the first paragraph or two at most—doesn’t grab them. So, yes, it’s very important. Writers may not like this, and think it’s unfair, but fair or not, it’s the way it is.
I recently met a young man at Bouchercon who had his first book taken by an uber-agent a few hours before we met (he was on Cloud Nine), and he told me how he’d snagged this agent. He wrote his book for her. He read every single book she’d represented and figured out what she liked. He didn’t think for a second about other readers—only her. And she jumped on it. It began exactly the way she liked and it was a novel written with everything he’d figured out she liked, from reading the books she repped, paying attention to her blog and website, etc. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but it worked for this guy. The thing is—and what he realized—is that you don’t have to get yeses from dozens of people. You only need one yes. And, if that person is well-respected in the literary community, they’ll buy the book on her recommendation. This isn’t information you’ll probably get from the average workshop, believe me.
People often wonder how a book they think is bad gets published. Many times, it’s published because it got a yes from the right person—a gatekeeper such as a top agent. It may have been rejected by 100 others. Doesn’t matter. All it takes is one yes. Hopefully, by the right person.
There’s a myth going around that began with screenplays. That if the work is good enough, eventually someone will buy it. The same myth goes around nowadays with novel manuscripts. The truth is, there are literally thousands of good, solid, even brilliant books… that will never get published. The “good stuff” didn’t begin until page seven. It’s too late for that book. It better be good on page one. It better be good with paragraph one. It better be good with sentence one.
To all this, I know someone is going to say, “But, wait. What about (name a book on the shelves).?” Well, first ask yourself if the book you’re thinking of isn’t by a brand name? If so, then all the “rules” are off. A person who already has books in print and an audience in place doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates can send in their grocery lists and probably get them published. I don’t think the rest of us can…
My own favorite beginning line is from one of my own short stories. “The Bad Part of Town” included in my short story collection, Monday’s Meal. It begins: He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town. A person reviewing this book on Amazon, hated it, but I could care less. He wasn’t a real reviewer to begin with—just some guy with a computer, which is mostly what Amazon reviewers are. Another favorite is: Tucker Case awoke to find himself hanging from a breadfruit tree by a coconut fiber rope. That’s from one of my favorite writers, Christopher Moore in his hysterically funny black comedy novel, Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Another is from suspense master Linwood Barclay in his can’t-put-it-down novel, Fear the Worst, which begins: The morning of the day I lost her, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs.
In “Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your WritingFinding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing,” you talk about how the rules of grammar and the styles of your favorite authors may be stifling the author’s own unique voice. Isn’t it good sometimes to imitate your favorite author or to take bits and pieces of his/her style and incorporate them in to your own?
I would without qualification say a very loud, NO! I wouldn’t copy anyone’s style. We already have a Hemingway. Nobody needs or wants a second-rate or derived Hemingway. Now, I do advise stealing techniques. If someone writes something that affects you emotionally, study how he or she did it and employ the same technique. When I’m writing a novel, I usually have open about thirty other novels and go to them often to see how they did something I’m trying to do in my own. I look at Elmore Leonard, for instance, to see how he writes dialog. He’s one of the best. I don’t copy his dialog—I see how he achieves the effect he does and I use the same technique myself. Like someone said a long time ago, “Bad writers borrow; good writers steal.”
Writing is kind of like music. Who do you think is going to make it big? The garage band that plays all the Rolling Stones songs to perfection? Or the garage band that writes their own, original music and plays like no other band? The Rolling Stone cover band is only ever going to play at Holiday Inns. The original music band may not make it, but they have a much better chance than the one who imitates another.
In great novels, the author’s voice blends into the story and, well, kinda disappears because you have the action going on in your head. Ultimately, how do you separate point of view and voice? If I have an “over-the-shoulder” 3rd person narrator, should that be written in the character’s voice or the author’s?
Good question, Kari. The answer is, the character should be written in the character’s voice. As a college teacher, at the beginning of each semester, I always get a young man or woman who wants me to read their opus. So many times, I get a mss that’s 400 pages of mostly the character’s thoughts. Joe Blow wrote it via a character he’s named Blow Joe, who is really the author, regurgitating his thoughts via this character, almost always some kind of polemic about some political system he’s just discovered and is nuts about. The reason they coined the term “sophomoric.” No market for that kind of drivel.
But… that character’s voice is also the writer’s. As Walt Whitman said, “We contain multitudes.” And we do. The example I use in Finding Your Voice is that of a person who feels comfortable both in a biker bar and at the governor’s ball. If he’s sitting with a rappy at the biker bar and someone comes in and his rappy introduces him, he might reply, “Whas’ up, bro?” The same guy, at the receiving line at the governor’s mansion, meeting the governor and his wife, would probably say, “How do you do, Governor and Mrs. Brown. I’m very pleased to meet you.” Same guy, different voice for the occasion. We do the same thing with our characters.
Also, you said “the author’s voice blends into the story” and that’s as it should be. We shouldn’t be aware someone is writing the story. When we do, that’s not the writer’s natural voice. It’s an affected voice, a “writerly” voice. The voice should be invisible and not get in the way of the story. This, I think, is why we get so many writers who probably shouldn’t be writing. They read a story, written in clear English, and think, “This is easy! I could write a story.” What they don’t realize is that to achieve that kind of voice takes many, many rewrites. They think: I can read, therefore I can write. It’s like if I saw a brain operation on TV, it looks easy, and I think: I can do that. I just hope that person performs his first operation on someone else…
As far as third, first, or second person, there’s no difference. Each should sound like the character.
Do you have a particular place and time (of day as well as length) where you write in your house? Do you warm-up by journaling, using writing exercises, reading email/news?
These days I have my own room. It’s a mess! Books and papers everywhere. As far as a particular time of day, yes. I write all day long. I get up at five, do my bathroom thing (while reading), and go to my desk at 5:45. I sit there all day, writing. I don’t eat breakfast or lunch (wastes time), and I only stop to go to the bathroom. My wife gets off work about 7 or 8, and she passes by and says hi. Half an hour later, we eat, and I read while I’m eating. Then, I go back to my room and write until about 10 and then go to bed, and read for half an hour, turn on the TV, and fall asleep half an hour later. I do this seven days a week. Occasionally, we’ll have to go to a wedding or funeral or something, and I really resent the time away from my work. If my mother died—and I love my mother—as soon as the funeral was over, I’d be back at my desk, writing. I haven’t taken a vacation in 25 years and don’t want one. I’m obsessed. I don’t recommend my writing style to others, but it’s what I do. One of the reasons I don’t recommend it to others is that I don’t want the competition. Please—write an hour a day! That will make it much easier for me to get my stuff published…
Actually, I didn’t always write this way. Years ago, I wrote when “the muse descended” whatever that means. When I was in “the mood.” But… I wasn’t getting much published. I was just about ready to quit and do something truly mind-numbing like sell insurance, when a good friend gave me the same advice everyone else had which I’d ignored. However, she said it at the right time. She knew I was ready to quit and she knew I didn’t really want to. What she said was the same as everyone always ways, “Write every day.” Only she said it a bit differently. She said, “Do yourself a favor. Write every day for a week. That’s all. Just one week. But, write every single day, no matter what.” She told me it was like jogging. She said if a person jogged every day for a week and then missed a day, it was like they’d missed a meal. They couldn’t go a day without jogging if they only did it for a week. I was desperate, so I did it. That was twenty some years ago and she was right. I can’t not write every day. I’m not a jogger, but she was right. If you write every day for a week, you can’t not write on the eighth day. At least I couldn’t.
I really am the queen of procrastination. I’m trying my damnedest to overcome it, but it just happens sometimes. Do you ever procrastinate? If you do, how do you overcome it?
I guess I could, but I don’t. It’s like that so-called “writer’s block.” I don’t believe in such a thing at all. Writing’s a job, just like any other job. You never hear of “plumber’s block” do you? Well, there are days when the plumber doesn’t want to run that snake down Mrs. Jones’ drainpipe, but he does it anyway. And, the results are the same as those days when he can’t wait to get to work.
Some college did a study years ago where they took of a group of professional writers—they defined “professional writers” by those who made their entire living from writing—and asked them to keep a journal for a year. In the journal, they asked the writer to mark each day’s work with whether he felt “the muse” or had to force himself to write. They also had him or her mark which they thought was the better work—the stuff they wrote when they couldn’t get it down fast enough or the stuff they sat there all day struggling to turn out half a page. To a person, the writers all felt strongly that the stuff they wrote when they were writing as fast as they could was far better than the stuff they struggled with. The college then asked an independent panel of readers to read the writer’s output and judge its quality. (They didn’t know what the writer himself had said about it.) The result? The panel could find no difference whatsoever in the quality of the work. The work the writer struggled with was exactly the same quality as the work he couldn’t get down fast enough.
As far as writer’s block, one of the reasons I don’t experience any at all, is that I work on about 30 things at a time. That includes novels, nonfiction books, articles, essays, nonfiction book proposals, outlines for books, queries, and all kinds of stuff. If I happen to get bored or stuck on anything, I just shut that file, open another one and I’ve wasted no time at all. I’m always interested in what I’m working on. To me, a person who claims “writer’s block” has fallen victim to an excuse not to write. My wife coined the phrase I think is apt here. Speaking of a friend of ours, she said, “Jim creates ceilings to bump his head into.” That’s what I suspect writers who think they have writer’s block are doing. Creating ceilings to bump their heads into.
Last, but never least, what 5 items would you want to have with you in the upcoming zombie apocalypse?
My I.Q. for one. That means I wouldn’t need anything else, because who can believe in zombies to begin with? (This sounds like one of Barbara Wa-Wa’s questions…) If I were on a desert island, however, I’d want paper and something to write with, a never-ending supply of Jack Daniels, a copy of the most perfect book ever written, The Stranger by Camus—that’s three things, right?—my wife and a never-ending supply of crawfish etoufee. Mostly, though, I’d need the paper and writing instrument. I’d never be bored. I’d just do what I do now—write the book I always wanted to read but no one had written, so I have to write it myself.
Thanks, Kari, for this opportunity. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can and that may rub some folks the wrong way. If so, that’s a good thing. It’s like writing—if it pleases everybody it isn’t much good.
Thank you, Les, for answering my questions! And may you have ‘blue skies’ as well!