I had the privilege of meeting Jeff Gerke at the 2014 Realm Makers’ writers’ conference. He’s an experienced writer, no matter the perspective in question, and a gifted speaker. In fact, rather than trumpeting a prolonged intro here (which he’s certainly worthy of!), I’ll let him do that part too. Because, all this AND he loves dragons AND he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan!!!!? Most perfect interviewee ever.
SPECIAL PRIZE, ELIGIBILITY TODAY ONLY! I will select a name at random from this post’s comments; the comments must be made between 7:30am Tuesday and 7:30am Wednesday, Washington DC time, to be eligible. Flash! Friday is sponsoring one winner to receive a critique by Jeff of a 1-2 page manuscript excerpt or query letter.
UPDATE: The winner is Lelia Foreman!! Congratulations, Lelia! Please contact me here and I’ll connect the two of you for your prize critique.
You’ve done it all, starting in film school and seminary, writing six fiction books before switching sides to edit/manage at various publishing houses in both fic & nonfic, then launching your own speculative fiction publishing house, and now working as a freelance writer and editor with several (fabulously helpful) Writer’s Digest craft books to your name. And that summary leaves a lot of experience out!
Is there any facet of the writing world you haven’t tried yet but would like to?
I can’t think of any. In addition to the novels and nonfiction books, I’ve done short stories, nonfiction articles, poems, plays, songs, and screenplays. It might be fun to have one of my screenplays produced, but writing them has been great. I’ve had some of my work done onstage and recorded for videos, and it’s always amazing to hear professional actors take my words and bring them to life. That’s a thrill.
Do you still dabble in fiction writing?
I do. I’ve done some flash fiction lately, and I’m 50,000 words into a politically incorrect dystopian SF novel, plus I’ve got tons of notes on an epic fantasy I want to do.
But it’s funny: I find myself somewhat stalled with all of these. As most folks reading this interview know, writing a novel is a really long, hard process that pretty much nobody cares if you ever complete. There has to be something firing you off the launching pad and propelling you out of the gravity of inaction. For me, that was a desire to prove some things, a misplaced desire to “arrive,” a desire to write the sort of story I wanted to read (since no one else was, obviously!), and more. For years, that’s what kept me going.
Then at some point a few years back, I kind of rounded a corner on all that. I’ve proven what needed to be proven. I’ve gained a confidence in who I am and what I can do as a writer. The things that launched me out of the tendency to remain at rest—some of which were not necessarily healthy—are mostly gone now. Which means I find myself staring at the towering amount of work it takes to write a novel and feeling like a preschooler looking at a climbing wall. “How could I ever…?”
A year or so back, I got alarmed by an article I read describing a trend that concerned me, and that successfully lifted me off the launch pad on that dystopian novel. But then I learned more about some of the issues and met some of the people on “the other side,” and suddenly the wind went out of my sails. So I’m stuck at 50,000 words, though I know exactly where the story goes.
I want to get to the place where I’m writing fiction out of the fun of it again. In the meantime, I’m enjoying doing some digital paintings, plus short fiction pieces now and then.
You still love dragons, right?
Your first novel, Virtually Eliminated, came out in 1995, exactly twenty years ago. What was the process like for you with your first novel? Were you agented? How did you find your publisher?
My situation was so unusual that I almost don’t want to tell it, because 1) it sounds like I’m bragging and 2) it might set wrong expectations for other writers, since this sort of thing kind of doesn’t happen. But here goes.
I was 24 and thought I knew everything. Except I didn’t know publishing — but I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I was not agented. I started a novel and thought it was good, so I decided it was time to secure a publishing deal. [pause for laughter] The little research I did do said that if I sent out a query letter and a publisher liked it, they’d ask to see a proposal, which required 3 sample chapters. (This was 1994, you remember, when everything was still printed out and mailed.) So I was smart (har-har) and made sure I had those three chapters ready to go — the whole proposal was ready, actually — before I even mailed out queries to the 16 publishers I’d targeted.
Lo, and behold, 8 of those publishers wrote back in the positive. I didn’t know enough to realize how rare it was to get a 50% positive response rate (okay, please don’t hear me as bragging, because I’m not). But to my great surprise, none of the 8 wanted that shiny proposal I’d prepared. All of them wanted the full manuscript. Now, what I should’ve done was rejoiced to be asked for the full. But instead it terrorized me. Because I didn’t have the book done yet! I had those 3 chapters, and that was it. So in despair mixed with joy, I sent off the proposal to all 8 publishers, hoping for them to…I don’t know what. Hoping for a miracle.
Amazingly, 4 of the 8 wrote back again saying, “That’s great. We still like it. But we need to see the full ms.” I wrote back to all 4, explaining that it would take me like 9 months to finish the book. Because by that point I had a full-time job that was over an hour away from my home and we had a baby on the way.
I figured that was the end of it, that my ignorance had caused me to pull the trigger too early on trying to find a publisher, and now I was doomed to being a middle manager at a widget factory for the rest of my life.
Then a few months later, I received a phone call from the senior fiction editor at one of the 4 houses that had been interested. He told me he really, really wanted the book and what could we do to make it happen, and when? At that point, I had all of six chapters done, so I sent those off to him. After reading them, he called back and said he was going to take my book to the publishing committee. Again, I was so naïve about the publishing world then that I didn’t know what that meant or what a big deal it was. I figured this sort of thing happened all the time.
I think it finally began to hit home how unusual this was when he called back a week later and told me he’d managed to secure for me a three-book publishing contract. On the strength of 6 chapters from an unfinished ms.
Once again feeling the mix of joy and panic, I set about to write that first book. Even quit my day job (don’t do that!) to meet the deadline.
A few years later, I ended up getting a staff job at that same publishing house — and the senior fiction editor was instrumental in helping me land the position. That began my dual professional path as novelist and editor. It’s not a stretch to say I owe my career to Rod Morris, to whom I dedicated my Writers Digest book The First 50 Pages.
What surprised you most about the publishing process for that novel? What do you wish you’d known? What did you love about the process?
As much as Rod loved my writing, he still sent me a 14-page editorial letter and sent me off to do revisions. It wasn’t until I was an editor myself that I realized how much an act of caring and support that letter was. At first, being young and dumb, I thought it was a 14-page insult to my baby. But as I did each item on the list and I saw my book getting stronger and stronger, I realized that maybe he was trying to help me.
I think the greatest thrill was seeing the very first copy of the book in my hands. Suddenly, it was real. The next best was seeing it on the shelf for the first time. Though somehow it had accidentally gotten shelved spine out [wink], so I took the opportunity to help the bookstore staff by putting it face out, and possibly putting a copy or two on their front table. Before scurrying out the nearest exit.
Have you reread your novel? What are your thoughts, looking back on your early writing? How have you changed/grown as a writer?
I’m afraid to reread it! I’ve grown and improved so much since then. Now I write for Writers Digest and travel the country teaching at writers conferences on how to write good fiction, and I’m sure that early work violates most of the principles I now advocate. But the core story is still awesome, I think.
And I’d done one thing right before approaching publishers in the first place, and that was to read and apply nearly everything I found in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. That was probably the thing that elevated my craft to the publishable level. Much of my teaching is still consistent with that book, though I’ve mellowed quite a bit.
My forthcoming book from Writers Digest, The Irresistible Novel, kind of comes full circle and gives novelists permission to ignore most of the fiction writing “rules” we learn about in this industry and instead concentrate on securing and maintaining reader engagement. So maybe my first novel will look okay to me again now!
What advice would you give aspiring novelists given today’s rapidly changing publishing climate?
I’m a huge fan of the indie publishing revolution we’re in right now. Of course a new writer would like an established publishing house to 1) validate her by publishing her book, 2) pay her (instead of her having to pay), and 3) take care of everything and produce a terrific package that 4) gets on bookstore shelves.
That should be Plan A for most new writers, I think.
But if that doesn’t work out, don’t despair. Plan B — publishing it yourself — can be fabulous and, depending on your temperament, you might like it a whole lot more.
There are a ton of advantages of indie publishing over traditional publishing, and this isn’t the place for them. But I would just encourage the writer to keep her eyes on that market and not rule it out one bit. The chances are very good that, even if she prefers to go traditional, she’ll end up doing indie or hybrid publishing in the near future. I think that’s a very good thing.
Among other jobs, you currently run a freelance editing business. What are the most common problems you see in people’s writing these days? Do writers still make the same mistakes they did in the 90s?
I think the mistakes are the same. But so are the strengths. I spent a large portion of my career trying to educate novelists to write with better craft. I still do that — every day, in fact. But now I concentrate much more on reader engagement.
What I could never figure out for decades was why books that had terrible fiction craftsmanship, that violated every principle I held dear, could become runaway bestsellers, while books with fantastic craftsmanship would often completely tank in sales.
Think about it in terms of baseball: If a pitcher has terrible form and doesn’t study or practice or learn from coaches, you don’t expect him to make even the minor leagues. And yet what if you saw a pitcher like that pitching the World Series? It wouldn’t make sense. Nor would it make sense to see the pitcher who has perfected his form after years of studying and learning and being coached but who can nevertheless not break in to even the bush leagues. You’d be very confused.
I struggled with that for years. I mean, if novelists who do all the craft stuff wrong can become bestsellers, and if novelists who do all the craft stuff right usually don’t become bestsellers, what in the world am I doing, you know? Why am I spending all my time and energy in this training if it apparently doesn’t amount to a more successful novel or novelist? It couldn’t be that readers just prefer bad craftsmanship. It had to be something else.
It finally occurred to me that what the bestsellers were doing—even if they did it with poor craft—and what the non-bestsellers weren’t doing—even if they did it with great craft—was snaring the reader and not letting go.
So now all my teaching has shifted. Now I’m all about what will engage the reader. In my new flurry of research, I found a neuroscientist studying the brain chemistry of reader engagement, and I got him to instruct me. (That material is in The Irresistible Novel, by the way—shameless plug! Releases in June or July.)
When I’m teaching or working with my editing clients, of course I still talk about what I feel are practices or disciplines that will make the ms. stronger. I’m still trying to raise their craftsmanship. But now I couch it all in terms of how the typical reader probably won’t notice or care one way or another, and I instead emphasize what it will take to gain and maintain the reader’s buy-in.
I ditched all the rules of fiction (in a sense) and have instead embraced what I call the Great Commandment of Fiction: You must keep your reader engaged from beginning to end. Do that, and everything else (even bad craft) will not matter. Fail to do that, and the best craft in the world won’t save you.
What kinds of questions should a writer ask when looking for an editor?
This is a very important question these days. Anyone can say, “Hey, I’m a freelance editor! Send me your book and your money! Yippee!” It’s very hard for someone not deep in the industry to know enough people in publishing to have a sense for which freelancers are good and which aren’t. Who is truly a professional—and I don’t mean just in the sense of having received money for doing an edit? Who is reputable? Who knows what they’re talking about?
I don’t know how aspiring writers figure this out, actually.
Some editors will offer you a free sample edit on a page or two of your ms. That might be a good way to see if you like that person’s style and comments, but sometimes what he or she does in a sample is better or fuller than what he or she would do on the whole ms. And just because someone doesn’t offer a free sample edit doesn’t mean he or she is no good. I’m years beyond the point where I offer free sample edits, and I think I’m pretty good [grin].
You can ask for references and you can find out who else he or she has worked with. You can check Predators & Editors (though I wouldn’t take that site as gospel, as I’ve heard it’s quite easy to get put on that site as a predator and quite hard to get off, even if it’s not true).
Keep in mind too that even a terrific, experienced, fair, and professional editor can sometimes not be a good personality match for you or just not “get” your book.
In the end, I think the only sure way to know if someone is going to be a good fit for you is to have that person do some work on your writing. Have him or her do a short editing or critiquing job for a couple hundred bucks, maybe, before committing to a job that could cost thousands. See if you’re compatible and if s/he is giving you the sort of feedback you were looking to get.
There’s nothing I can do about the freelance editors out there who are offering to do full edits on 100,000-word novels for $100. It’s like selling a Camaro for a five-spot. Maybe you get what you pay for, but maybe you get a great edit. Either way, I can’t and won’t lower my prices to adjust for people like that, even if they’re setting the expectation among indie authors that you shouldn’t pay more than $250 for a full edit. Look, a full edit takes me upwards of a month to perform, working full time. If I could get only $100-250 per month, my family would starve.
Maybe the mood will so turn against the “set” of professional editors I’m part of that many will be forced to drop their prices. But so long as customers keep coming, willing to pay for a world-class edit from a WD author/editor, I’m sitting tight. If I have to drop my prices that low, I’d get a better return on my labor by working at McDonald’s.
Speaking of editing, we’ve all been warned we as writers need thick skins. How does one find one of those?!
I think the only way to endure an editor’s constructive criticism is to be able to truly believe that this person is trying to help you. If you know the “wounds” are from a friend, you can take them.
Are you taking on new clients?
You betcha! Not only for all sorts of editing (yes, even things beyond speculative fiction!), but also for cover design and typesetting. Your readers can check out all my publishing services at www.jeffgerke.com.
It sure seems like writers today also need to have skills in graphic design, editing, and marketing. Is that true? Is there any hope for writers to get published today!? What would you say to aspiring novelists who are feeling discouraged about the current state of publishing?
Yes, there’s hope. It’s the best time in the history of the world to be a novelist, especially one whose genre isn’t widely considered to be marketable or viable. Today, with indie publishing, you can write the book of your heart — the way you want to write it — get it directly to a worldwide audience, and start making cashola. For free or almost free. When in the history of human civilization has that been true for the common man or woman?
No, I don’t think a novelist needs to be a graphic designer or marketer. Too many self-published books have covers done by the author, and they not only reek they also drive away readers who would otherwise love the books.
It’s a great time to be a freelancer in the publishing world, because so many people are going indie. And they all need covers, edits, e-book conversion, and marketing. Most novelists don’t have all of those skills, so they reach out to these freelancers who do.
For great but affordable covers, I would direct you to to 99Designs.com. If you know you have no design sense — or if others are telling you you don’t — please don’t do the cover yourself. 99Designs will save your bacon and make sure the book you took so much time to write won’t be immediately dismissed because you have a stinky cover.
Marketing is the big question mark in publishing today. With so many authors publishing independently, and so many books and e-books becoming available every day, how are people going to hear about yours? I don’t have a good answer for that, though I know it’s vital. I do know you can spend a lot of money on marketing and publicity people and sell no more books than you would’ve if you hadn’t hired them. I’m no help here.
You’ve clearly got a passion for speculative fiction which is, as you’ve described it, “anything weird.” Aside from robots and dragons, what does specfic offer readers that other genres can’t/don’t? What might writers of other genres learn from specfic?
Speculative novelists simply have more fun. I know that authors of other genres might disagree, but they’re just wrong. When I go to big banquets at writers conferences and I sit at the spec fic table, I know I’m going to have a blast. The girl next to me has a sword. The guy next to her came as Steve from Minecraft. The girl next to him is currently repairing her chainmail. The guy next to her has a mechanical arm reaching for the ranch dressing. Ah, glory.
I do think speculative novelists and readers are the most imaginative types in the reading, writing, and publishing game. They’re the purest sort of novelist, imo, because they more fully inhabit the realm of imagination.
Besides, you can say things in speculative fiction that you can’t say in contemporary fiction. Because if a dragon lord says it, who can get mad? And you can examine issues of our day in spec fic in ways that are once removed from our world and therefore don’t trigger everyone’s kneejerk responses. Spec lets us look at troubling issues from fresh perspectives.
I also think speculative fiction is the most natural genre for writing about good and evil, which, in the end, is the most important issue of all.
Speaking of speculative fiction, make a prediction for us. What do you think publishing will look like in another five years? Ten?
In 5-10 years, the big publishing houses won’t exist as we know them now. They might not exist at all. Smaller houses will rise up. Indie kings and queens will rule. Houses we’ve not heard of will dominate the market. New alliances of authors, editors, marketers, designers, and sales people will have formed—possibly not realizing that they’ve become de facto publishing houses!
Things will be even more on-demand and consumer-driven than they are now. Authors will write stories (or computers will generate stories) according to reader preferences selected at checkout. Books, if they are printed at all, will be printed and bound in the user’s home. Bookstores may exist, but they’ll be more like local gatherings of like-minded people, and the books (again, if they’re printed at all) will be printed on the machines while the customer sips coffee.
3D printing will be brilliantly evident in publishing by then. The printing blueprints for any item, character, or scene from the story will be available, and the reader can have them sitting around her on the furniture as she reads. Virtual reality environments—perhaps just locations from the book—will be available to be superimposed over the reader’s vision while she’s reading the book or having the computer read it to her (in excellent computer-generated voices, one per character in the novel).
Well, I’m sometimes guilty of predicting things in 5 years that take 50 to manifest (the “future 2004” I depicted in my 1994 first novel still hasn’t come to pass yet!), so maybe many of those things won’t be realities in 5-10 years.
But it will be the speculative fiction folks—including our scientists, futurists, and engineers—who will be making them happen!
Thanks so much, Jeff! What a blast. And now it’s our turn!!! Writers! Jeff covered a lot today. Agree? disagree? Is there anything that surprises you? excites you? worries you? Share! -Remember, one commenter will receive a fancy, la-di-dah editing prize sponsored by Flash! Friday, so don’t be shy. 🙂
Well, I predicted in the original interview that computers would be writing novels for us, but that hasn’t exactly happened yet. Still, check out deepfake AI-generated message texting. It’s spooky. I thought all the big publishers would be gone and new kinds of coalitions would’ve taken their place, but that hasn’t happened. Things stabilized, I suppose, and that’s a good thing. Of course, bookstores are still in decline, not least because of COVID-19.
As far as what I’m up to now… almost no fiction these days. I still love it, but I make my living doing things on the nonfiction side as an editor for David C Cook, headquartered in Colorado Springs (though we’re living in Oregon now and working remotely).
As for new helps for novelists, I hope everyone will check out Hack Your Reader’s Brain, a book I self-published on using neuroscience to make sure your story will engage and captivate your reader.
[Enduring the pandemic] as an introvert, I’ve loved the forced distancing and isolating. I do miss some things about having society as it was (restaurants and movie theaters, mainly!), but on the whole, I’ve not at all minded having to be a homebody. I’d already been working as a remote employee for 6+ months when the pandemic hit, so my work schedule or situation didn’t change much at all. If anything, since everyone else wasn’t able to go to work or school either, I suddenly had more people around during the day. LOL.
I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in the last year, and especially since the pandemic began. I’ve written two full nonfiction mss. just in 2020, for example. Plus at least that much in my own journals. It’s all very conducive to sitting around reflecting, praying, and writing, so that part, I love.