Friday, May 25, 2018

Interview with Chris Jones--Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication

I'm always fascinated with how debut authors make it into print.  And I know and respect Chris Mackenzie Jones from my years of teaching for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he works.  So when his new book came out last month, I was keen to find out how he did it.  Below is an interview with Chris which explains his idea for the book, how he found an agent and publisher, and what happened during the editing process.

Tell us how you came to write this book.  Did you see a need for it? Was it a subject that fascinated you?  
In my almost nine years at the Loft Literary Center, I've run into hundreds-maybe thousands-of aspiring writers. I've listened to their ideas, questions, confusions, and doubts. And one of the things that became apparent to me over these years is that there are blind spots for most writers as they try to publish a first book.
I want to emphasize that I have tremendous respect for the books and resources already out there on craft, creativity, and the business side of publishing. But I've noticed those excellent books tend to focus on one issue: either issues of craft, or creativity and motivation, or publishing and marketing.
My book doesn't attempt to improve on those already excellent resources.Instead I tried to extend a broader lens by showing the complete paths to publication.I did this by interviewing a wide array of modern authors and weaving together their stories. 
I tend to learn best through example, so I felt that portraying the stories of diverse debut authors would be the best way to demonstrate potential paths. My goal was not to depict a replicable path, but instead to share and illuminate the major decisions a modern author needs to consider, so that aspiring authors could better prepare themselves for the process.   
Share your publication process, if you can (many of my readers are nonfiction authors).  Did you submit a proposal? Why did you choose this press?
I came up with the idea for this book several years ago. I had never seen a book like it, but I didn't really know if something else like it existed, or if it was even a book that would be marketable. So I contacted Dawn Frederick. Dawn is the owner of Red Sofa Literary agency and also teaches several classes at the Loft. Over a cup of coffee, I explained my idea to her. She said it sounded intriguing, so we talked a lot more.
This led to me developing a book proposal and eventually a sample chapter, and then signing on with Dawn to represent me. She began pitching the book to several publishers, and I was so excited when the University of Chicago Press indicated an interest because their series of books on writing and editing are such valuable resources. I met with editor Mary Laur, and she told me two things.
First, she was very interested in my book. Second, she thought I should change the entire structure of the book, which I admit was daunting. I had initially envisioned having each author interview-and the story of that book's publication-appear as a standalone chapter. But Mary challenged me to instead think about the steps in the publication path, and to weave the stories together within that framework. This made the book a much more challenging project, but I'm so grateful because it also made it much stronger. By focusing the chapters on topics like support networks, setbacks, various craft issues, etc., it allowed me to cut out repetitive stories and get to the meat of the issues. It also meant the book was better organized, and easier for aspiring writers to browse for ideas on specific challenges or questions they have.

How is this book different from other books on writing?  What does it offer readers?
I may have already answered this a bit in the first question, but basically, it attempts to paint with a broader brush the complete story of modern authors bringing their first book into the world. The chapters are broken down by topic: idea generation, developing a writing process, finding support, dealing with craft issues, developing authenticity and depth in the work, approaching revision, navigating potential publishing paths, dealing with setback, preparing to publish, promoting the book in the world, and then lessons learned.
So while there are already excellent resources out there that cover these topics, there are few that cover them all at once.My hope is that this format can better help an aspiring writer envision their own unique path.
How did you find your debut authors?  What was it like interviewing them?
I started by developing a master list of potential people to invite. My initial criteria were three-fold: 1) they needed to be a debut author, ideally within the last five years, but certainly within the last ten; 2) they needed to be diverse in their backgrounds, genres, approaches, and stories; and finally, 3) the authors needed to have found some level of success.
This last criteria was the most vague for me. I didn't just mean runaway bestseller, because that is not the only kind of publishing experience. In fact, it's the exception for a debut author. So instead, I wanted to find authors who would label their first book, in one way or another, a success for them. Maybe it won an award, maybe it gave them the credibility to move onto an even more successful project, maybe it sold way more than they thought it would. But in one way or another, these books could all be called successful.
Oh, and of course, there was a fourth criteria: were they willing to do it? This wasn't just a run-of-the-mill interview process. I asked a lot out of these authors. I conducted two- to three-hour initial interviews  with them and had several email follow-up exchanges. They were each so generous with their stories and their time. This project could have died on the vine if the authors weren't open and generous, and to a person, they surpassed my expectations.
What were the biggest challenges in crafting the structure of the book?
It was definitely changing the structure-from profiling each author chapter by chapter to breaking it down by subject matter instead. This also meant I needed to wait until all the interviews were scheduled and completed before I could start to write much. Then I needed to comb through the transcripts of the long interviews and look for themes and commonalities, so I could create a structure, then go back again and categorize their comments into the planned structure.
Finally, I needed to bring their thoughts together, and describe their stories in ways I hoped would be engaging or thought-provoking for others. When I read interviews with multiple people, one of my favorite things is when it feels like people that weren't in the room with each other are talking back and forth. I don't know if I've achieved that here, but I hope I have, because that was one of my goals.  
Anything special or unique that you learned along the way?
Yes! When I set out to write this book, I never intended to find a single path that others could follow. There is no one path, and it would be silly to try to suggest otherwise.
But I think I was surprised by something on this matter. There is something related and shared between all the stories in my book, and I think it might be the biggest lesson an aspiring writer can learn.
Every writer I interviewed faced a big moment of setback or doubt-big enough that they thought about quitting. That includes me, by the way.
What I learned in writing this book is that the most important trait an aspiring writing can develop has nothing to do with writing chops, insider connections, or strong branding and marketing plans.It has to do with finding the will to carry on. Faced with personal and professional doubts and setbacks, these writers kept writing and kept trying to improve. They persevered.
For more information or to order Chris's book, click here.