I was excited last year when I dropped the kids off for the first day of school. I had recently terminated my contract with my agent and couldn’t wait to find out what the future would hold. It was a scary thing — going agent-free after two years, especially since my former agent is such a good guy — but I knew instantly I’d made the right decision. We were not a good match. Sometimes, that happens. I was careful when I started firing off queries to new agents. I didn’t want to go through that again. Some rejected me instantly. Others asked for full manuscripts and have yet to respond. Others read partials or fulls and decided against representation, or were interested in only one of my two completed novels. The latter were the agents I chose not to pursue. I want an agent who will stick with me throughout my career, regardless of what genre I write. I’d hate to shelve a novel simply because it’s not a particular agent’s “thing.” Then came the response from Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli of JET Literary. She’d found flaws in my mystery/suspense novel that no other reader had, and offered to reconsider after revisions. She opened my eyes to those logical errors and immediately inspired confidence. In her emails and on the phone, she struck me as sharp, honest, and experienced. But it was that confidence that impressed me most. She knew what both novels needed and she knew how to express that. She had plans. She offered strategies, visions and direction. She knows the industry and knows it well. She is the kind of agent who can sell my novels and steer my career in the right direction. I like her but, more important, I trust her. So here we go. It’s that time of the year again. All four kids will be in school full-time for the first time ever. I will have time to write and, as much as I will miss them, I am excited. But this is a fresh kind of excitement. This year, I get to write — just write — without worrying about the business side of things. I feel focused. I feel encouraged. I feel, once again, like I made a wise decision. Two more days and I’m off.
I’ve yet to publish a book, so I can’t say what a negative book review feels like. I’ve had only one review on my published short stories and that got five stars, so I’m in la-la land over that. But my journalism days … oh, my journalism days! You’d think those experiences would have hardened me, but newspaper articles don’t really get reviewed. They get reactions. In the best cases, I received loads of phone calls, interest from the national media, thank-you notes and teary-eyed visitors offering hugs, cookies and flowers. Those reactions made me feel good about my career choice, like my stories made peoples lives just a little bit better even for only a day. In the worst cases, I was lunged at by prisoners; yanked into a mob angry relatives (It wasn’t even my story! I was just returning the photo.); stalked by a man who was grateful I had made public his illegal incarceration, but who was also mentally ill and untreated (He later proposed to the female deputy who told him to leave me alone!); stolen from; cursed at; and wished an early death for myself and my future children. But even such negative reactions to news stories can be, in a sense, a good thing. Bad people don’t like it when their wrongs or their weaknesses are revealed, especially to the general public. They get mad. That’s okay by me. So even 11 years of journalism has not prepared me for the inevitable — for my first negative novel review, the day when someone takes my heart right out of my chest and stomps on it, ripping my work to shreds. That must be what it feels like, right? I think about this whenever I read a novel that, for whatever reason, rubs me wrong. How would I react if my work were publicly bashed? Could I stand it? I found comfort recently in a post by author/blogger Beth Revis. She has a good point. I don’t like beef. Why? I just don’t like it, so I’ll never give a steak or a burger or a pot roast a good review. Yuck! That poor chef will just never win over a non-beef lover like me. That’s what I need to remember. I have to think beef.
My 10-year-old son is an avid reader and a tough critic. So when I received a copy of Wildfire Run, a debut middle-grade novel by Dee Garretson, in the mail I went to him first. I’d barely gotten through the first chapter when he ripped it from my hands and said, “Leave me.” I had to slip the book out of his room when he wasn’t home to finish it on my own. Even I had trouble putting it down. Wildfire Run is the story of Luke Brockett, the President’s son. Just once, Luke would like to be normal, to hang out with his friends at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, and maybe even do something slightly dangerous. But Luke can’t do that. Not with Secret Service agents watching his every move. Then an earthquake hits, triggering wildfires and other disastrous chain reactions that injure and possibly kill several adults, including those assigned to protect him. Luke and his friends, Theo and Callie, are on their own, trapped in Camp David while wildfires roll in from every direction. They must escape a place designed to keep the worst of terrorists out while also saving those who were supposed to save them. The result is a novel packed with suspense, but still grounded in the normal struggles among tweens and their friends. Somehow Dee Garretson manages to create a main character who, despite his high-brow status, is no different from any other kid. And while doing all that, she offers a book that is “teachable.” It is filled with historical references and other information about the presidency that makes Wildfire Run appealing as classroom literature. As a writer, the novel left me wanting to know more about Dee, her writing and Wildfire Run. So I asked and here is the result:
Originally from Iowa, Dee lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She has a bachelor’s in international relations from Tufts University and an associate’s in landscape horticulture from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Until she decided to commit to writing full time, she worked as a landscape designer and taught landscape horticulture.
The trailer for Wildfire Run.
Me:At what point in your life did you discover that writing fiction was your passion, something you wanted to pursue as a career?
Dee: I have to say I don’t think of writing as a passion for me. Reading is, but not writing. Writing is more like an intriguing puzzle to me, something I have to solve. I love to make up stories in my head, but the writing down of them is hard work. I wrote stories as a child and a teenager, stopped in college, then started again when my now fifteen year old son was a baby. I was at home with him in a town where I didn’t know many people, and I needed a way to keep my brain occupied. I can’t pinpoint when I decided I wanted to write as a career, but it was about five years ago that I decided I was going to pursue it with all the energy I could spare. That was also at the time when my daughter started first grade and I had bigger blocks of time to write.
Me:Why middle-grade fiction?
Dee: I had spent years working on mysteries and was very discouraged that I wasn’t getting enough interest in my work. My son was at the age where he was reading middle grade and he was so excited about some of his books that he wanted me to read them. I did read some of them, and really enjoyed the mix of adventure and humor I found in them. I like to write in a lighter style, more plot than character driven, and that’s another aspect of middle grade that appealed to me.
Me:What was the inspiration for Wildfire Run?
Dee: Way back when Jimmie Carter was president, I remember hearing all the criticism of his daughter, Amy, for reading a book during a state dinner. All I could think of at the time was that would have been me. It made me aware of the strange lives presidential children lead. I didn’t think much about it again until the presidential primary races in 2008. There were several candidates with younger children or grandchildren, and it led me to again wonder what life would be like for children in that situation.
Me:You have this amazing combination of traits. You are artistic, yet you also seem to be methodical and practical. You wrote this wonderfully creative book with a suspenseful plot, well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions, yet you also know your audience well, researched the details thoroughly and acquainted yourself with the ins and outs of the publishing world, particularly in your genre, before you even sent out your first query letter. Is this approach learned from experience or is this just the way you do things?
Dee: I have you fooled! It is true that I had come to understand the publishing business before I sent out the first query for Wildfire Run, but that is only because I spent all those years before that attempting to get other works published. I learned so much during that time, especially the importance of studying successful popular books to understand why they appeal to readers.
Me: Among the most notable techniques you apply in Wildfire Run is the use of minute detail to advance the plot and build suspense. How did that develop? How did it become part of your writing? Was it conscious or did it just make sense to you and start flowing?
Dee: I’m a big fan of thrillers (those written for adults), and when I decided to write this story, I knew I would need to use those techniques to give the reader the sense of foreboding that the main characters only gradually come to feel. It’s a fun technique to work with, because it gives more options in terms of imparting information to the reader.
Me: Where did Luke come from, his character? Did he change from the beginning of the writing process to the end? Are there any characters who changed dramatically from start to finish or who shifted in importance as you wrote?
Dee: Being the child of a president or any extremely successful person has to be incredibly difficult. I’ve known a few people whose childhoods were overshadowed by their parents’ wealth and power, and it seemed to make it more difficult for them to find their way in the world. My initial concept of Luke did not change much throughout the writing process, but once I had written the external adventure, I went back and strengthened his internal journey. I’ve very concerned about pacing, so getting the storytelling right was important to do first. My philosophy for this kind of story is that if you can’t get the reader pulled into turning the page to find out what happens next, they won’t care about the characters’ internal struggles. The character of Callie, Luke’s friend, did not change so much as have her story trimmed. I’m very attached to the character and I wrote some chapters focused more on her. Unfortunately, those had to be cut to keep the story moving forward.
Me:How difficult was it to research Camp David; the social and emotional struggles of a First Child and the Secret Service? How close to reality did you feel you had to come in Wildfire Run?
Dee: Researching Camp David and the Secret Service was extremely difficult because I wanted an accurate feel to the book, yet, of course, for security reasons there is not much factual information available. I read every nonfiction book I could find that had mentions of the place and of the Secret Service. I purposely stayed away from any fiction, because I didn’t want to be influenced by other writers’ imaginations. I admire anyone who chooses to be part of the Secret Service for their level of dedication to their jobs, without letting their own political beliefs interfere with the way they carry out their responsibilities, and I hope the respect I have for them shows in the book. I’ve always followed politics and the people involved, so the issues facing different first families were something I felt like I already understood.
Me: Do you intend to stick with middle-grade fiction or do you plan to experiment with other genres?
Dee: I will stick with middle grade fiction for the moment, but I also want to go back to my historical mysteries, and someday I’d like to tackle an epic fantasy.
Me: Is another novel forthcoming? When can we expect it?
Dee: I just finished a second middle-grade adventure, titled Wolf Storm at the moment. It’s about kid actors on location filming a blockbuster sci-fi movie. They get trapped in a blizzard and have to figure out how to survive all the things I throw at them. Plans are for that book to be released in winter 2011/2012.
Me: Any advice for other unpublished writers?
Dee: I could fill a book with advice for unpublished writers, but I’ll just stick with a few bits here. Read as many books as you can in whatever genre you are writing in. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, you don’t want to spend months accidentally writing something too similar to a popular book that’s already out there. In the last year I’ve read the manuscripts of two unpublished writers with that very problem. Because they hadn’t widely read in their chosen genre, they wrote stories no agent would take on because they couldn’t sell the work.
And that brings me to the second reason. You can’t ever forget publishing is a business, a very competitive one, and there are an amazing number of good books out there. It’s too easy to fall in the trap of being overly pleased with your work just because you’ve managed to finish something. Often a writer doesn’t go into the revision stage with a critically enough. Because you have a vision of the story in your head, it can interfere with your analysis of how the story actually reads. Your readers don’t have your vision, so if you slip up in the storytelling aspect of the story, you’re going to lose them in spite of how well written your work may be.
Me: How does it feel to finally see your novel in print?
Dee: I had a weird, unexpected thought when I unpacked my author copies. I held the book, which is relatively small and lightweight and I thought given all the years of work that went into getting to this point, it should weigh much more. It is a thrill to see it in bookstores and it’s even more of a thrill to see it in libraries. I love libraries and the idea that it’s going to be in some for a long time makes all the work worth it.
An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress. I didn’t know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw. So I decided to tread carefully. I started with all the good stuff. I piled it on. Then, I began to point out sections that confused me. I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I “just didn’t get it.” She would have to move on. I was stunned. She’ll never make it. Not with that attitude. In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we’d have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit. Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled. I doesn’t matter what we intend to say with our words. Readers can’t stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant. The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable. It toughened my skin. The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all. How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others. And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me. I might not always agree, but I’ll take what I can get. When people offer criticism, it’s like they’re giving away money. Some people gives us just a penny or two. Others give us gold. But why would we reject the pennies? We don’t have to spend them, but it doesn’t hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought. But, then again, we need to be careful that we don’t waste too much time gathering pennies. Don’t request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback. It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed. The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective. I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read. She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her. With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid. It’s a waste. But it’s also a choice. A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together. We all have it within us. But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.
Even before I started querying literary agents, the queries came pouring in from friends and family. Why go through all that? Why not self publish? Well, here is my answer: I still have faith in the gatekeepers. Self-publishing has its place. Some people want full control of their written work. They want to retain all rights; They want to retain all profits. Other folks don’t have the time or the patience for agents. They see the flaws in the system and they are discouraged. And who can blame them? Some agents will toss manuscripts in the garbage for reasons as simple as margins that are too big or too small.Then there are the people who write only for limited and personal audiences. They write for themselves, their families and their friends. Retaining agents make no sense for them. It’s not worth the time or the effort. But this is my career, or the career I want. I want to be writing novels and non-fiction books when I am 80 and I want people to be confident when they go to a bookstore and pick up one of my books that it has passed certain tests—the tests of the industry. The industry is not perfect, but agents and publishers do the best they can in a world in which paper prices are rising and the competition from electronic media is ever-increasing. I have read some awesome self-published books and I have been saddened by the knowledge that those books will never reach their sales potential. That saddens me, not because the author is missing out of fame or fortune, but because I know so many others would enjoy reading those books as much as I have. But those books will never get the distribution and exposure of an industry-published book. I have also read some self-published novels that left me embarrassed for the author and wishing for a refund. Not only were they poorly written and poorly plotted, but they were riddled with errors. That’s where the gatekeepers come in. Sure, some lousy books slip through the gate. But 90 percent of the novels and non-fiction books that make it to the presses through non-vanity publishers are pretty darned good. And yes, I’ve encounter some agents who were egotistical jerks. I even hung up on one. But 90 percent of the agents that I’ve queried or spoken with have given good, solid and well-intended advice along with their rejections. Some have rejected me with form letters, but the letters were constructively written and professional. So I will plod on. I will continue taping my favorite rejection letters to the wall above my desk. I will continue honing my novel, my query letter and my non-fiction proposal based on the constructive criticism of those agents who have nothing to gain by spending time addressing me individually, but who do so out of a passion for the industry. I will continue to have faith in the gatekeepers.