Writing a novel and building a house are pretty similar when you think about it.
Always an avid reader, I really enjoyed the horror genre. I especially loved the books written by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul. Those folks were my idols. I’m sure I’ve read THE STAND, PHANTOMS, and CREATURE three or four times each. Probably even more.
The idea of writing a novel had been in my thoughts for years, so one day, I sat down at my computer and began writing the great American novel. Two years – and 165,000 words later – I’d done it. I’d written a horror novel called THE PASSIN — a story about an ancient, evil entity that transferred itself from one human to another throughout the ages, from caveman to present day. I was so proud of myself. Andrew Peterson, the author! It was time to share THE PASSING with the world. Right? Isn’t that what authors are supposed to do? So I queried Stephen King’s former editor, Bill Thompson, and described my newly completed manuscript. He agreed to take a look. Wow, I thought, I’m on my way to the New York Times bestseller list.
Simply put: The book was hideous. Burning it would’ve been insulting to fire. And that’s what Bill Thompson politely told me. When I look back on that episode, it’s a wonder Bill ever spoke to me again. He did, however, offer some words of encouragement. He assured me that all was not lost, and said I’d handled both the characters and dialogue pretty darned well. A glimmer of hope? Perhaps. The true lesson of this experience: it’s not easy to write both a compelling and commercial novel that is sellable. The keyword being: sellable.
During the next fourteen years, I wrote as a hobbyist and completed five additional novels, a screenplay, and several short stories. In 1995, I even dabbled in science fiction and undertook the writing of a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel. Halfway through that project, I changed direction entirely – I began to focus on thrillers.
In 1998, after completing my fourth novel, a serial killer thriller, I felt truly committed to the craft of writing. Bill Thompson helped me edit DEIFIED, and we both considered it a pretty good story. I began to query literary agents in 1999. After receiving my sixth, “Dear Author … We’re sorry to inform you…” letter of rejection from New York literary agents, my confidence took a major hit. One agency actually returned my query letter to me with a rubber-stamped rejection across the top of the page that read: “THIS IS NOT RIGHT FOR US, BEST OF LUCK IN THE FUTURE.”
Needless to say, I was floored when New York literary agent George Wieser asked to see the entire manuscript. (Remember this name — it will come up later; fate truly works in mysterious ways!) George Wieser read the manuscript, liked it, and offered to represent me. Move over Cinderella! I’d been writing for nearly a decade without success, so the news of getting an agent thrilled me. I knew George was ill, I just didn’t know how ill. I soon found out. One month after signing me as a client, George Wieser died from complications related to throat cancer.
Depression hit me hard when George died. Although I hadn’t known him long, I considered him a friend and ally in my writing journey. I recall sitting in the dark one night, feeling pretty low. I’d lost a friend who believed in me. This particular time in my writing career can only be described as bleak, and I found my enthusiasm for writing dashed against the rocks. I took a two-year break to clear my head and re-evaluate if I had the will to keep writing. A future as a published author seemed hopeless. A few days later – although I have no memory of the conversation – my wife said I asked her, “How does it feel to be married to a failure?” Carla answered me with the reminder, “Andy, you’re only a failure if you quit.”
WHAM! It hit me like a proverbial brick. Enough already! And to hell with this self-loathing, feel-sorry-for-myself crap! Yes, I’d lost my agent, but George Wieser lost his life! What Andrew Peterson needed was a good, swift, steel-toed kick in the butt, which Carla happily delivered in order to put an end to my funk. And yes, it left a mark.
Okay, I decided, time to get serious. Since I didn’t want to be a hobby writer for the rest of my life, I started to write again. The result? I dedicated the next two years to my fifth novel, entitled HIGH POWER, a thriller involving my current continuing character, Nathan McBride, a former Marine Corps sniper and ex-CIA operative. I also signed up for my first writers’ retreat – an Alaskan cruise offered by the Maui Writers Conference in May 2005, where I met its director, John Tullius.
The Alaskan cruise set the stage for a major turning point in my career because I met two of my favorite writers – John Saul and Ridley Pearson. I didn’t know a soul at the retreat, but I did know what John Saul looked like. Walking into the retreat’s opening cocktail party, I took a deep breath and approached him. Now keep in mind, John Saul has managed to get every novel he’s ever written onto the New York Times bestseller list. Suddenly, everything shifts into slow motion. I introduce myself, and we shake hands. John Saul smiles and says something like, “Welcome aboard.” I’m trying to form words, but nothing’s coming out. Sensing my unease, John puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me to relax, we’re all friends here. After hearing those words, my anxiety and tension drained away. We spoke for ten minutes about writing commercial fiction. Much as I’d hoped and expected, John Saul was, and still is, an amazing and inspiring man, and he remains a hugely positive influence on my writing career.
As fate would have it, I ended up in Ridley Pearson’s workshop, and I spent the next six days learning about the art and craft of writing fiction from a master. I remember posing for a photograph with Ridley, holding his latest thriller, CUT AND RUN. Ridley is a firm believer in Christopher Vogler’s book, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to earn a living as a fiction author. (Remember the name Chris Vogler; it will surface again.)
So there I was, in Ridley’s workshop, and it was my turn to have a sample of my material read aloud in class. Not just read aloud, but read aloud by Ridley Pearson! I cringed at the prospect. To my surprise, Ridley stopped reading halfway through my prologue and stage-whispered, “This is the way I write.” My jaw dropped into my lap. Ridley took me aside after class and suggested that I contact his freelance editor, Ed Stackler. Ridley urged me to query Ed, whom he described as “a really busy freelance editor who doesn’t take on too many new clients.” I said, “Okay, I can do that.” I consider this advice from Ridley Pearson as the pivotal moment in my writing career – a New York Times bestselling author offers me, Andrew Peterson, his personal editor’s contact information. At the end of the cruise, we agreed to stay in touch, and we’ve done just that during the intervening years. Ridley Pearson is a gem of a person, and I feel fortunate to know him.
The following month, I attended the Southern California Writers Conference in Palm Springs. There, I experienced another important turning point in my career. I met Laura Taylor, a conference workshop leader, author, and editor. We hit it off immediately. After ten minutes, I felt as though I’d known her my entire life. It’s rare to encounter that kind of connection to a complete stranger. We talked for nearly an hour, exchanging information and sharing our perspectives about writing. I retained Laura (on the spot) as a freelance editor, but I hadn’t forgotten about Ed Stackler.
I queried Ed with a pitch, synopsis, and some sample chapters. He liked the submission and agreed to read the entire manuscript. Four weeks later we talked on the phone. He said, “Andy, I’ve got good news and bad news.” I asked for the good news first. Ed told me that I had one hell of a voice as an author. So far, so good. Okay, now Ed’s bad news: my plot resembled Swiss cheese. Ouch! I asked if he thought the manuscript could be salvaged. Ed replied, “No, I don’t think so, although your main character, Nathan McBride, is a fantastic hero who’d be ideal for a different and improved plot.” Laura Taylor, following her review of the manuscript, agreed with Ed. Neither one of them sugar-coated the truth: HIGH POWER was not sellable, and likely never would be.
The news really stung – I’d spent two years writing and editing HIGH POWER. Should I abandon it, just like that? I had a decision to make. Should I ignore my editors and try to salvage the novel, or should I bite the bullet and begin anew? It was a no-brainer. I said goodbye to HIGH POWER, and began writing my sixth novel. This time, however, I changed my approach. I spent four months plotting the new book with Ed and Laura. When we finished assembling the key components of the story, I possessed a clear understanding of the chain of scenes and the events in FIRST TO KILL. Don’t get me wrong, FIRST TO KILL evolved further (and dramatically!) during the actual process of writing the novel. But before I began, I knew the beginning, the middle, and the end as well as, if not better, than my own name. It was tremendously helpful to work from an outline. When I went back to my calendar and counted up the number of days I’d spent writing raw, unedited manuscript, I discovered it had taken 137 days. I had averaged around 1,000 words per day (about four pages.) Some days, I wrote 3,000 words. Other days, I wrote hardly anything.
Some advice to aspiring authors: Start with an outline! It doesn’t have to be super detailed, just a sentence or two on 3×5 cards about what happens in the scenes you intend to write. Once you’ve got your cards, you can rearrange them, move them around, change the order, etc. Many new writers fail to begin their books with the kind of scene needed to hook an agent. The cards will help you do that. I can’t stress this enough: Using an outline will save you gobs of time.
Fate works in strange ways. Later that same year in August, I’m sitting on a shuttle bus that had just left the Kahului Airport in Maui. It’s destination: the Wailea Marriott, the host hotel of the Maui Writers Conference. I strike up a conversation with a gentleman seated across from me. We talk for a few minutes, and he mentions he’s on his way to the Wailea Marriott. “No kidding,” I say, “so am I . . . I’m attending the Maui Writers Conference.” I introduce myself, we shake hands, and he says, “I’m Chris Vogler.”
Chris Vogler? THE Christopher Vogler, author of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY? I ask. He smiles. “Yes, that’s me.” I couldn’t believe it. At this point, I’m really beginning to believe in cosmic synchronicity. What were the odds? We spent the next thirty minutes talking about his book and the vital role it played in plotting FIRST TO KILL. To this day, I still use Chris Vogler’s book as the last word on building story structure.
As always, the Maui Writers Conference was time well spent. I enjoyed conversations with John Saul, Gary Braver, Mike Sack, Susan Wiggs, Bob Mayer, Katherine Ramsland, John Tullius, and the rest of the wonderful staff. I even went golfing with Jay Wiggs and Elizabeth George’s husband, Tom McCabe. (Yes, I ditched class to play golf. Hey, it was Maui!)
At this point, I really needed to finish FIRST TO KILL. I wasn’t bogged down per se, but I wasn’t making the kind of progress I wanted. Laura Taylor and Ed Stackler kept encouraging me and in 2006, I pushed hard and finished the manuscript. It was now time to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more. I went through the manuscript at least fifteen times! By the time I finished rewriting and polishing FIRST TO KILL, I was sick to death of the thing. I wanted to drop-kick it across the room and watch all 553 sheets of paper flutter through the air. Ed Stackler took a close look at the manuscript, and said, “Andy, it is solid gold, but it’s too long.” Laura Taylor concurred. Okay, I could deal with that. So, I went to work and trimmed 20,000 words. In the end, I agreed with Ed and Laura – the book was tighter, faster-paced, and overall, a much better read.
Now comes the “A” word. I needed an agent to represent me. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against agents; it’s the damned process of getting one I find distasteful. I’d experienced rejection before landing George Wieser, and I wasn’t looking forward to going through the “gauntlet of grief” again. I’m the guy who, when he sees an agent coming down the sidewalk, crosses the street. But there was no avoiding it – I needed a literary agent.
Ed Stackler had someone in mind from a well-known agency in New York City. We sent the manuscript and received an offer of representation five weeks later. Was I dreaming? All of a sudden, I had an agent and, as fate would have it, the first one we’d queried. My agent made multiple submissions to all of the major publishing houses, but rejections began to filter back. I received the entire gamut of comments, but there wasn’t a common thread among them. Some of the rejections are paraphrased below:
”I loved the plot, but your characters didn’t sell me.”
“I loved your characters, but your plot didn’t engage me.”
“Your action is top notch, but the suspense isn’t where it needs to be.”
“The suspense is masterful, but the action unfolded without much fanfare.”
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera . . . . .
Six months passed without an effective offer on the table. I felt pretty low – low enough to hang up the towel and consider calling it quits for good. My agent urged me to write another novel. Don’t get me wrong – ‘write another novel’ is an encouraging comment. I simply didn’t have the energy or the desire to shelve another novel and start over. In my heart, I truly believed FIRST TO KILL was a sellable commercial story. And I certainly didn’t want to go through the arduous process all over again, only to end up in the same situation a year or two or three later. I asked the agent to submit FIRST TO KILL to some of the smaller publishing houses, but he wasn’t enthusiastic for the idea. I remember thinking to myself: This can’t be happening, can it? Is FIRST TO KILL really dead in the water? It seemed incredible, but there I was, facing the ugly fact that my novel hadn’t sold.
I talked it over with Ed, who recalled a colleague from his New York publishing days. Ed thought the director of sales and marketing at Dorchester Publishing, Tim DeYoung, might be willing to forward the manuscript on to their thriller editor — assuming he liked it of course. What could it hurt, especially since my agent had no other submission plans for FIRST TO KILL. I went online and researched Dorchester Publishing. I liked what I saw, although Dorchester required 4-6 months to review a submission. I decided I could live with that. So I sent FIRST TO KILL to Tim DeYoung with a pleasant query letter and pitch.
Four to six months sounded like an eternity. As it turned out, I only waited eight days. As I stood in my kitchen, warming a coffee in the microwave, the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the 212 area code number, but I answered it anyway. “Hello, Andy, this is Don D’Auria, Executive Editor from Dorchester Publishing.” I stopped breathing. “Hello?” Don said, “Are you still there?” My voice cracked. “Yes, I’m here.” I literally dropped onto the sofa when he said he wanted to buy FIRST TO KILL. Let me repeat that: Dorchester Publishing, the oldest independent publisher of mass market paperbacks in America, wanted to purchase my book. Keep in mind, this was my 17th year as a “writer.” A calmness washed over me like a warm wind. I’d done it. I, Andrew Peterson, would become a published author.
I think I exceeded my allowable minutes on my cell phone that month. I contacted my agent to share the good news but I wasn’t prepared for the response – my agent wasn’t willing to represent the sale. Don’t get me wrong; I have the utmost respect for this agent, and I fully understand his decision. He didn’t feel right about negotiating a deal he hadn’t initiated or an offer he hadn’t accepted. And the money, admittedly, was modest compared to his usual deals. But to a struggling writer like me, it was, at long last, something real, a tangible contract that would result in my novel being published. The agent and I mutually agreed to go our separate ways. Although we parted company, I still consider this agent to be a friend.
So, there I was — without an agent, but with a pending contract. A contract filled with countless pages of small-font legalese on legal sized sheets of paper. Overwhelmed? An understatement! Although there are lawyers in my family, I’m not one of them. I immediately asked my father’s help. Although my father understood the language, he didn’t know the publishing industry’s standards – what separated a good deal from a fair deal from a poor deal. Once again, I needed an agent, and I needed one fast. Once again, Ed Stackler to the rescue! He provided the name of an agent and friend who just might fit the bill. We sent the manuscript to Jake Elwell of Harold Ober Associates, told him about the pending contract, and asked if he’d be willing to negotiate the deal. Jake read the book, liked it, and offered to represent me. I still owe Jake a debt of gratitude for responding so quickly. He got back to me within six days after receiving the manuscript. Thank you again, Jake. You’re the best!
Now, here’s where that magical synchronicity reappears. Remember George Wieser? My very first agent ever? Back in 1999, when George Wieser first represented me, Jake Elwell had been a new agent in George Wieser’s office! When, out of the blue, Ed Stackler revealed this small detail from Jake’s background, I was (and still am) amazed by the symmetry of the connection. Jake Elwell has since told me that George Wieser taught him everything he knows about being a literary agent. What were the odds? Fate had smiled upon me again. Jake Elwell and I share a common — albeit short — history.
I felt pretty good. Events and people were converging in a positive manner in my life. Oh, I forgot to mention something Don D’Auria said during our initial phone call. FIRST TO KILL was too long. At its current word count, it wouldn’t fit into Dorchester’s standard 400-page mass-market paperback format. I needed to cut an additional sixty pages. Sixty pages! Holy “you know what.” As a metaphor, I held my hands out in front of me, spread my fingers, and tried to decide which finger I could live without. Definitely, the pinky. If I had to lose a finger, it would be my left pinky. Keep in mind, I had already trimmed 80 pages from what had once been the “final draft.” Where in heck was I going to find another 60 pages to delete?
I called Ed and Laura. They advised me not to compromise my narrative voice by deleting a few words here and there, so we decided to go the wholesale route. I would delete entire blocks of text that weren’t 100% germane to the plot. In other words, if the scene didn’t advance the story or enhance key characters, it went onto the chopping block. The problem was, I didn’t think I had any scenes that fit the “expendable” label. I was stuck. I mean, really stuck. Think, Andrew, think. How many of these scenes could I sacrifice for the greater good of my novel? I called Ed Stackler, and our conversation went something like this:
Andy: “I can’t do it. I feel like I’m slaughtering a beloved pet because I can’t afford to feed it any longer.”
Ed: “Do you want me to do it?”
I had a sudden image of Ed wearing a hockey mask, holding a machete. I considered Ed’s offer for a moment. No, I needed to make the cuts myself. Don’t get me wrong, I fully trusted Ed, but it felt cowardly to turn my back on the process. FIRST TO KILL was my creation. I needed to bite the bullet and swing the axe. And swing the axe, I did. Again and again. When I finished, I felt like my novel was hemorrhaging from bloody stumps. Another thing to keep in mind: I undertook this assignment at the worst possible time of year. Christmas. In the publishing world, everything grinds to a proverbial halt during the holidays. To add yet another layer of complication, Tim DeYoung, Dorchester’s marketing and sales guru, reminded Ed that it would be great to have a few cover blurbs for FIRST TO KILL from some of his best selling authors – Ridley Pearson, Greg Iles, David Dun, Ted Dekker, Steve Alten, etcetera. And Tim DeYoung needed them yesterday!
Well, folks, authors don’t like to put their names on books they haven’t read, and understandably so. So Ed and I scrambled into action. We chose to approach two of the kindest pros in the business, Ridley Pearson and David Dun. And they came through! Even though it was Christmas season, and both were buried with their own projects, they found time to read FIRST TO KILL and write fantastic cover blurbs. Ridley and David, you guys are the best! My warmest thanks to both of you. And let’s not forget Laura Taylor, who also wrote a wonderful cover blurb. Thank you, Laura! I feel truly blessed to be associated with such generous people.
Although painful, my wholesale deletions in FIRST TO KILL did the trick. I submitted the trimmed manuscript (107,000 words) to Don D’Auria in mid-January of 2008. He had his production department take a look, and we received a positive nod. We were good to go!
Soon we had cover copy and jacket art. In short, we were hurtling down the road to publication. A new chapter in the FIRST TO KILL journey opens shortly, a journey that is equally as grueling and difficult as writing the novel in the first place. I’m talking about marketing and self-promotion, but that’s another essay to be written another day.
As you read this, you might’ve gotten a sense of how difficult and emotionally draining this career choice can be. Writing is a rollercoaster ride of the wildest kind. My advice to authors who are still struggling: keep going, never give up, and believe in yourself. To the extent you can, surround yourself with trustworthy and supportive people. Be humble, and always remember Shoeless Joe Jackson’s great line in the film, Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come.”
For more information about FIRST TO KILL, please visit www.andrewpeterson.com.