When I first decided to write a novel, my children were pre-teens and John Grisham was cornering the fiction market. Grisham was also from Mississippi and selling millions of books so I reasoned that I could do the same, or at least come close. For much too long, I had talked about writing a novel, and by that time I was finally ready to do it. Besides, after 24 years of formal education followed by a decade of private medical practice, I had been exposed to a smorgasbord of colorful folks--and I’m not referring to the patients. In fact, for my first novel, I had the major characters clearly in mind before the plot even developed. That developmental process was to take another decade, culminating in the arrival of my premiere work, HOUSE CALL, on bookstore shelves in October of 2005.
HOUSE CALL enjoyed a limited first edition printing and sale of 5000 copies, followed a year or so later by a second printing of just over 1000. Not bad, if one considers that the average book published in the United States sells no more than 2000 copies, or so I’m told. (As I begin this article, I’m sitting in a booth surrounded by other merchants at an extremely slow spring market festival where I am selling and signing my novels. Glancing up from my laptop, I stare at a few remaining unsold first edition copies of HOUSE CALL. Surely someone will be wise enough to purchase one for investment, if for no other reason.)
My goal in this article is to offer advice or tips to the beginning writer, better known as someone on the brink of plunging into a glorious world of creativity or perhaps better defined as a poor soul preparing to jump off a cliff. Whatever the definition or outcome, I am as qualified as anyone else to offer advice, particularly free advice. The slice of wisdom that immediately comes to mind is this: set one’s expectations of success at the lowest possible level and then prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Gaining worldwide notoriety as an author is overwhelmingly unlikely (a universal assumption unless the author is already a celebrity of sorts). No one could be so naïve to suggest that at début an author could be catapulted into bestselling status--barring the luck of having one’s manuscript snapped up and transformed into a successful movie script, even before the novel itself is published. And, yes, that has indeed happened--see the idealist comparison referenced in the first paragraph.
Although the advice still stands to enter a literary career with great humility, particularly when writing fiction, I must admit that from the outset I set my sights high. Nearing completion of that first manuscript, I followed a friend’s suggestion and innocently sought the advice of a local published author. My zealous objective in talking with her was not to have my work critiqued, but instead to garner the attention of a “real” writer, all part of one giant leap toward publication of my first novel. Just having her return the phone call which led to scheduling our first meeting was exciting enough for me. At the local novelist’s suggestion, we met at a sandwich shop in Jackson, Mississippi, where I handed over the first few pages of my manuscript for her critique. At the follow-up meeting, she returned the portion of the previously unedited manuscript, now read and butchered, and inquired, “Darden, what is it that you are trying to do?” I’m sure that I looked perplexed, maybe surprised, and she explained that she always asked that of any unpublished writer. “One must have a goal,” she expounded, “when deciding to write a book.”
My take on her query was: (1) Is the objective in writing a book to leave an interesting (that is, hopefully interesting) dusty narrative in one’s attic for the grandchildren to discover postmortem? (2) Is this a pursuit to satisfy some narcissistic goal? (3) Is it, perhaps, a quest to win the Pulitzer Prize in literature? or (4) Is this just maybe an effort to garner a couple of lucrative movie deals and retire a few years earlier? My rambling answer to her more direct question was that I hoped and planned to produce a piece of commercial fiction that was good enough for the bookseller’s shelf and that after spending 10 or so years talking about and writing a novel, I wanted people to read it, a lot of people, although I never expected my career as an author to replace my hard-earned, satisfying career in medicine.
After a couple of more phone conversations and emails, I began to feel that my more politically liberal author friend had determined that my medical career as an obstetrician/gynecologist was in no danger; it would never be usurped by one as a notable novelist. From that moment, I began to prove her wrong. My conviction was to write and publish contemporary mystery and suspense novels that would definitely be purchased, read, and enjoyed. And now after the publication of three novels, HOUSE CALL, POINTS OF ORIGIN, and FRESH FROZEN, and the sale of over 15,000 books, I feel I am moving toward fulfillment. Whether or not I have, or ever will, prove incorrect that writer and critic from the sandwich shop is a matter of conjecture.
My advice to any person planning to write for publication is to muster every ounce of self-confidence and hang on to it, not with a Teflon coating, but with resolve. Naturally, there will be readers who will love and appreciate one’s work, and, believe it or not, there will be a few ignorant, unfortunate souls who will trash it. (Incidentally, be careful when submitting your book for a formal review. Do a little research to make sure that the reviewer is someone who writes in your genre or at least reads a lot of work in your genre.) Anyone entering the field of entertainment (and writing novels certainly qualifies as entertainment--at least let’s hope so) must realize that assembling a permanent record of one’s thoughts for posterity is indeed a brave act, whether or not those thoughts are a twist on history or a product springing from a zealous imagination. As the local writer was trying to explain when she met with me at the sandwich shop early in my career as a writer, one should choose his/her writing goal and remain true.
Then, as that writing career is pursued, there will be days when the author is trapped indoors during the first glorious day of a new spring (as was my case this past weekend), manning a book signing table at a tediously slow market festival or at a bookstore. At those moments when the brain questions the soul’s decision to attend the event, one must remember that each book sold likely will be read by a minimum of four people. Most people genuinely admire writers, particularly authors of books, respecting the diligence and imagination required to pull the piece together. Sitting under the artificial lights at that slow convention center market or in that bookstore while one’s friends are out on the golf course or out by the pool or working in the yard or getting some other physical exercise, one must remember that the golf score or the suntan will fade. In marked contrast, a novel with one’s name printed on the front and spine will last much past the author’s own lifetime, leaving a piece of art to be shared. No one can argue that anything considered creative, imaginative, or positive is ever a waste of time. I guess the one truly useful piece of advice that I can share with the beginning writer, particularly the ambitious one interested in fiction, is to abandon the thin shin and the faint heart. Seeing one’s own words filling lots of pages is indeed a release for the imagination and the soul. As for attracting readers to become fans of that work, count on nothing, and then become pleasantly surprised.
Darden North, MD, is the author of three mystery and suspense novels and lives with his family in Jackson, MS. Please visit his website at www.dardennorth.com .