In this candid interview, the author of Write to Publish talks about his latest book, about the basics of story and structure, the modern writers’ market, memoir writing, about his decision to leave the corporate world, about writing with young children at home, about the dying art of editing, about growing up dyslexic, his mentorship program, his new fiction, the companion handbook to Write to Publish, and lots more.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: What inspired Write to Publish?
Christopher: While on tour with Jesus Lives in Trenton, I gave publishing/writing seminars and spoke at conferences and libraries. I also teach and mentor writers. There’s a practical need to learn the tools of the writing craft. Too many workshops and books are filled with fluff and cliches, like ‘finding your voice’ and ‘write what you know.’ Serious students arrive in my classes with some of the tools, never having been introduced to them all. Write to Publish outlines the tools of our craft – openings, characters, settings, plots, point of view, and structure. With a handle on those, writers begin to form cogent stories.
One reviewer noted that serious writers “should already know these things,” and my publisher – a woman who reads through piles of manuscripts – responded by saying, “yes, writers should, but why is it that so few do?”
Magdalena: What differentiates it from other writing books?
Christopher: I lay out the entire tool set for the writing craft. I don’t pretend to say that I can instill you with talent. The latter claim is both arrogant and impossible. We all have talent in some special area. If you think that it’s the written word, you must read voraciously, write every day, and become a student of the craft by learning the basics of story and structure. Write to Publish introduces you the tools of our art form and lays out the groundwork for classic story structure. I relate the lessons that I wish I had learned a decade earlier.
Magdalena: You specifically talk about the “modern” fiction and memoir market. Is the modern market different from say, the market of 20+ years ago?
Christopher: Definitely. Perhaps television or the accelerated pace of the world has trained us to be impatient with stories, even though we crave them nearly every day. If the writer doesn’t establish his/her story framework in the first scene, most readers trail off. Today, new writers you live and die on the first page. Never overlook the power of a story opening.
Magdalena: Why memoir? Does it go hand in hand with fiction?
Christopher: Absolutely. Compelling memoir is structured exactly like fiction. Take three of the best memoirs written in the last decade: Angela’s Ashes, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Autobiography of a Face. These books could have existed on the fiction bestseller list. Great stories! Memoirists admit to rearranging facts and time lines to better suit the story structure. They even manufacture events to fill holes. As long as they stay true to the times and characters, there’s no harm done. Their family members might complain, but people often find their perception of
past events to be askew from reality. So keeping memoir exact is darn near impossible. If you’re writing a family history to pass through the generations, that’s one thing. If you’re writing a book to entertain a wide audience, you better get the story in shape first. Readers care about the story, not the facts.
Magdalena: You’ve done a lot of teaching since Write to Publish came out. Is it a challenge to balance the writing with other, perhaps more immediately lucrative, activities?
Christopher: Writing, especially fiction, is not lucrative. There’s a few authors making millions, while most writers are like me. We publish to feed our souls and hope for movie deals, however we do something else to feed our families. If we’re lucky, it still involves our craft – teaching, journalism, professional writing, etc. Often it doesn’t. Right now, I’m staying as close to writing as I can, but between book promoting and teaching, it’s hard to maintain a regular schedule. I’ll get back there again.
Magdalena: What about the kids? Were they the impetus for starting a writing career, or has it always been a dream for you ? You do mention “stealing writing time” while in the corporate world? Tell me more about your decision to give up the corporate world.
Christopher: I knew that I wanted to write fiction since I was 7 years old. It was my calling. I was a shy kid who couldn’t put together an understandable spoken or written sentence. I scribbled illegible stories in my composition books. My teachers believed I was dumb. So I was routed into a more practical career. I learned as an adult that I was dyslexic and dysgraphic. I was always dreaming incredible stories, mimicking things I saw on television or imagining the world and myself as I wanted it to be. I started writing seriously at age 27. Many of my early short stories were ideas that I’d carried for two decades. When my first child was born, my wife and I didn’t want strangers raising our kids. I seized the opportunity to pursue my writing career full time. I left a great job and benefits to work longer and harder hours as a parent and writer. Friends and family told be that I was “nuts.” On my last day of work, my boss said, “You’ve just put a bullet through the head of a brilliant career.” For certain, I’d stepped off a cliff.
There are few immediate rewards with parenting and authorship. I learned to see the long view. It taught me patience with myself and other people. There’s not a minute of the day that I’m not working. I sleep 5 hours at night or less. Until my first novel was published, the typical comment that I received was “so what do you do all day?”
Magdalena: Are the children still preschool aged, and if so, can you share a few of your best tips for combining writing with parenting.
Christopher: Working at home with one child is easy. You can work around their schedule. With two or more, all bets are off. They each have an agenda and don’t care about yours. You learn to work late at night or early in the morning, before the noise and activity accelerates. Every child is different. Some will sit by my feet with a coloring book while I work. Others need to be entertained every second. As my grandmother used to say, “you get what you get, and you deal with it.” With high maintenance little kids, I demanded nap time in the afternoon, when they must lie down. They didn’t have to sleep, they had to at least try and be quiet or play with a toy. I stole that time for myself.
Magdalena: Can you share a few of your favourite anecdotes?
Christopher: Without telling me, my 3 year old daughter marked up one of the final production manuscripts for Jesus Lives in Trenton and stuck the pages back in the stack. My editor called and asked what all the red crayon marks and pictures meant, wondering if there was a secret code to be deciphered. He must have thought the author had lost his mind. He faxed back a few elaborately detailed pages, and I recognized my daughter’s trademark flower scratches.
Magdalena: You no longer work on the space program, but are you tempted to make writerly use of that time and your insider’s knowledge? Or even explore the romantic, evocative side of space exploration and the big life questions it raises?
Christopher: Recently, I am thinking about it again. The Columbia disaster brought back the old feelings. I was in the space program during the Challenger disaster. My colleague went up on the last successful flight. I was planning on going up in the future, but the schedules fell into disarray, and very dark days followed, from both a professional and personal perspective. Eventually, I left the space program. Coincidentally, that’s the moment I started writing fiction again.
If my Iroquois grandmother was still alive, she’d love that story. She’d nod her head. Her stubborn grandson needed to be forced out of the space program and get on with his writing career … already.
Magdalena: Do you think that the continually growing world of self-publishing is overloading the market with poorly edited books, and perhaps devaluing literature as a whole?
Christopher: The art of editing is dying, and it’s not just with self-published books. Even the big presses have their problems. A friend of mine counted three dozen errors in a recent big name release. Publishers seem to expect books to show up finished, pushing the task of editing down to the agents who supply their authors. In the Write to Publish galley proof that went out to reviewers, the copy editor hought that Michelangelo should be reworded to Michael Angelo, and it slipped past everyone. I laugh about it now, but at the moment of discovery, I wanted to assemble a firing squad.
Magdalena: Tell me more about your mentorship program.
Christopher: Like many writers, my mentor helped put me over the top. Many experiencedwriters mentor emerging writers en route to publishing. A good mentor does content editing. He guides you in the learning of story craft. He tells you
what you do well, which you need to know, and he shows you where you need work, which you also need to know. Editors and agents don’t have time for this, and they might not be able to articulate this, even if they had time. The mentoring process is a true one-on-one teacher/student relationship. It establishes an open dialogue for development and defense of your story ideas. In large part, the creation of a story is a proof of your basic idea.
Students often think they need copy editing, when they really need content editing. Copy editing provides the finishing touches to a fully formed
story. It concentrates on details – line by line, word by word. Content editing, as provided by a mentor, provides a learning forum for writers to focus their stories and elevate their craft and prose. Each student arrives at a different level and with unique storytelling strengths and weaknesses. I point these out, and then it’s a matter of backing away from their stories as a whole, until they reach a comfortable level of talent and strength. You can’t walk the tightrope, until you learn to walk in a straight line. Eventually, I kick them out, like a bird from a nest. Many have gone off to be published or win awards. I’m proud of each success. Students always feel like they are better writers.
Magdalena: Do you feel you have more to say about the craft (and perhaps art) of writing (in other words will you write more non-fiction?)
Christopher: First I’m going to publish another work of fiction. I have a few projects in the works. I’m not sure if it’ll be another Boot Means story or a stand alone work.
As far as writing craft goes, I’ve planned a companion handbook to Write to Publish. I’ll demonstrate many of the tools in the first book by taking a short story from concept through completion, including revisions and analysis. Other writers think I’m crazy. “Never release your draft work,” they say. When I’m dead, someone will dig it up anyway. It helps to know that all authors are the same. Writing is trial and error. I’m not ashamed of that. Published authors are those who revised until they hated their prose and then revised even more. Any author who claims they craft clean
stories in one pass is full of … But then in Write to Publish, I mention what a pretentious lot we can be.
Magdalena: Tell me about Idiot! And other potential future work.
Christopher: Idiot! is me, if you haven’t guessed. Although the story is vastly different, the situation is the same. I failed my way through school with dyslexia, until high school where I taught myself tricks to read and do math. I drilled myself over and over, because I was made to feel that I was stupid. I ended college with advanced degrees in physics and computer science, worked in the space program, and now I’m a published author and teacher. I have confidence, so I no longer mumble to hide my words. Dyslexic’s see the world differently. What is normal to me often makes people laugh. I show the world from a different angle. They call it having a sense of humor or a notion of the absurd. People from my childhood cannot recognize me. They can’t put the two people together.
In Idiot!, I pour all of this into a forest ranger who has been ostracized by a failing agricultural community. He’s brilliant but doesn’t know it. He never discovered his problem and accepts his reputation as the village idiot. Against the odds, he sees a way to remake himself and save the town.
Many of my stories are about redemption – that moment when you realize that you can change, as opposed to being forced to change by external pressures. That’s a hallmark of the human spirit – the capacity to accept circumstances and use it as a mirror to your soul. In life, we’re given rare reflections of ourselves, and we’re never the same thereafter.