One of our most treasured friends in Montana is Richard S. Wheeler, an author of impeccable grace and almost unbelievable output. Over a 40-plus year career as a novelist, he's published more than 80 titles.
In recent months, he has re-released his memoir, An Accidental Novelist, which we find to be a most remarkable book. In it, Richard writes vividly and honestly and lovingly about the writing life, including his marriage to Sue Hart, a longtime professor at Montana State University Billings who had a profound influence on Craig. (Click here for the remarks Craig gave at her memorial service in 2014.)
Richard is a wonderful writer. More important, he's a stellar human being. We're thrilled to share this Q&A that Craig conducted with him.
You recently released a new edition of your memoir, AN ACCIDENTAL NOVELIST. Did you do any revising/updating from the version that was originally published 10 years ago?
Only a new dedication to my late wife, Sue, including her birth and death dates, but I didn't make any text changes about our late-life marriage.
You write vividly of past professional lives—journalist, book editor, ranch hand, etc. How did those things prepare you for the writer's life?
Hemingway considered journalism a form of literary apprenticeship, and so do I. Book editing gave me critical insights into the art of writing. But most importantly, my forays into other occupations, such as wrangling horses, opened the real world to me. The worst thing a future writer can do is hang around literary circles. Go spend a day witching water in drylands, and write about it.
In your experience, how much do nature and nurturing come to bear in the development of a writer? Do you consider yourself innately talented or did you become what you are?
I have few natural skills as a storyteller and had to learn all that from the roots up. Attending genre fiction conventions helped. My mother had been an English teacher, and I did absorb some grammar. There's no one route to success. Each person needs to cobble together the gifts and habits that will help conquer a difficult and competitive field. I consider Jack London's life an example of shaping a career out of what you're born with.
One of my favorite parts of the book delves into how you and your late, deeply loved wife, Sue Hart, came to the decision to marry and how to live as married people. How did the two of you make that work?
Distance and sovereignty. We had separate homes, careers and incomes, but in common a love of writing, literature, and tastes. We'd known each other for decades, but by the time we talked of marriage we were old and didn't want to build anew, like young couples. So we lived separate lives, and each meeting was a honeymoon.
You're an astute commentator on how publishing used to be vs. what it is now. What's your advice to a nascent writer?
Go with the new. I can offer nothing of value to aspiring writers. My world is now history. Five minutes with you would help an aspiring writer more than an entire book from me. I do have one prejudice, though: steer clear of all master of fine arts education. And in particular, avoid all MFA orthodoxy.
You made your reputation and your living as a writer of genre fiction, which is a world apart from the literary-fiction sensibility that dominates most university settings. Have you made peace with that lack of critical recognition, and if so, how?
I used to grumble at academics. I was ready to show them genre novels that contained every quality ascribed to literary fiction. But recently I've concluded that literary and popular fiction are two different worlds. They appeal to different types of readers, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Where did that lead me? I quit being embarrassed about being an author of popular fiction, and I no longer cared whether critics and academics consigned my writing to oblivion. I reach people who are bored by literary novels. That's a happy place to be at the end of my life.
You read widely. What do you make of today's fiction?
I can't generalize here. I'm seeing some of the best fiction I've read in years, and the best of it doesn't pigeonhole as literary or popular. Someone's written a compelling story. And yes, I'm talking about your work.
What's your own assessment of the career you've had?
I earned a living in a field where almost no one does.
Read more about Richard at his Wikipedia entry.
His considerable backlist can be found here.
The following is an excerpt from Elisa's upcoming book, The Writer's Habit. Here she discusses the importance of rhetorical purpose as applied to novel writing.
Your awareness about what and why you are writing—that is, your rhetorical purpose—will assist you in how well and/or for whom you write. Remember what I said earlier: writing is a series of choices and decisions.
For example, I have an idea for a novel: What if a woman walks into a coffee shop and sees a man who was her next-door neighbor when they were children? What if she hasn’t seen him in thirty years, when he and his family left town mysteriously in the middle of the night? What if, in present day, this man and woman are instantly attracted to each other? What if the man is keeping a secret connected to that move?
Sounds like I’ve got the makings of a Mystery/Romance. So now I have to make some choices. For instance, I know that it’s not good to reveal too much information too soon in a mystery; otherwise, I’ll lose my readers’ interest. And readers of romance don’t like when the hero and heroine get together too soon. So I need to make good decisions about creating suspense, like the heroine putting the puzzle together one piece at a time, or the mystery man showing up unexpectedly at her home or workplace.
I also know conflict is important in stories, so I need to think about what kinds of scenes will create conflict, or how to capture conflict on every page, be it through dialogue, description, or putting my characters somewhere they don’t want to be.
When it comes to characters, I need to determine their likability. If a protagonist is too unlikable, will readers be willing to invest in her? What do they look like? Is the mystery man handsome or creepy-looking? What are their flaws? Is the heroine nosy or afraid of confrontation? Are they attracted to each other despite being married to others, or are they each single?
I also need to choose appropriate names for my characters. Do I want popular, general names like Michael, John, or Heather, or do I want unusual names like Severen, Ravelle, or Marika? How will the name reflect the identity of the character? Perhaps I want a name that connotes some kind of symbolism, like Reade for a librarian, or Faith for a woman who is overly trusting.
And let us not forget how important a title is in terms of persuading an audience to pick up a book. Childhood Neighbors doesn’t really hook a reader, or hint that the story is a mystery. However, The Boy in the Basement might pique our curiosity.
Writing is about decision-making as much as it’s about language and expression and persuasion and communication. Good writers make good decisions. Bad writers make bad decisions. And sometimes, good writers make bad decisions. I think the cause for some bad writing is fear. When the writing is bad, it signifies that we’re afraid of doing it wrong, or getting the bad grade or the one-star review. We’re afraid that people aren’t going to get it. Worse, we’re afraid that they’re not going to like it. Hell, we’re afraid they’re not going to like us. We’re afraid of being no good.
Fortunately, we can fix that. And we will.
Craig's seventh novel, Julep Street, came out today. To mark its release, he writes below about its journey from concept to manuscript to honest-to-goodness book, and some of the issues an author must think through on the way to publication:
By a happy accident of the calendar, I've had several opportunities to speak to students and civic groups in recent weeks, and during the Q&A portions of the talks, I've fielded some variation on these two questions:
1. How long does it take to write a book?
2. How do you know when you're done with one?
Each is answered with two simple words—"it depends"—and a cavalcade of anecdotes. Do I tell them about my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, which was drafted in a feverish 24 days? Or my second, The Summer Son, which needed a year to cook and a half-dozen significant rewrites? Or any of the others, all of which came with their own distinct challenges, and all of which announced their readiness in different ways.
With the release of Julep Street, I can speak in specifics, because this book's journey through the manuscript phase and, ultimately, publication was unlike any other I've written.
I started writing Julep Street in 2012, at a leisurely pace (for me). It got interrupted late in the year as Edward Adrift, the follow-up to 600 Hours, pushed insistently at my brain and demanded a quick gestation. In 2013, I finished Julep Street's first pass and a couple of rewrites, and I sent the manuscript on to my then-agent and my then-editor at Lake Union Publishing.
Responses were slow in coming. And when they arrived, they weren't what I was hoping to hear. My agent found the protagonist, Carson McCullough, unlikable, and the book wasn't the high-concept project she'd been hoping to see. (Spoiler alert: One of the freeing discoveries I've made about myself is that "high concept" isn't really my strength. I'm OK with this.) My editor found Carson's dog annoying and suggested that the manuscript wasn't quite there. The problem, for me, is that "there" was a squishy concept; I didn't know what it was or how to reach it. So I put Julep Street away and moved on to the next few books.
Here, I have to give credit and appreciation to my literary wingman, Jim Thomsen, who loved Julep Street from the start and would gently inquire from time to time about it. That kept the manuscript in my thoughts and was a crucial factor in my picking it up late last year and seeing its possibilities with fresh eyes. Thank you, Jim. I owe you. Again.
Upon re-reading the manuscript, I saw my way through. I found deeper empathy with Carson and wrote a more fulsome version of him. Hector, the dog, became a crucial character unto himself. The thematic aspects of the story, lurking beneath the prose I'd squeezed out in 2012 and 2013, became more pronounced in 2016. At long last, I had a manuscript I was ready to prepare for publication. The resulting book is out now, and I couldn't be more proud of it. And I'm pleased to have received validation in the form of strong reviews. (Here, too!)
So what made the difference for Julep Street? Time and perspective, I'd say. The well-grounded criticisms of my former agent and editor were given a chance to seep into my brain and come out through my fingertips in needed revisions. In waiting more than two years between setting it down and picking it up again, I gave my writing and my sense of story time to develop. Reading it fresh, I saw its flaws, its successes, and its possibilities. I acted on all of those, and then I released the manuscript into the editing and publication process.
Here at Lancarello Enterprises, we can't tell you when it's time to bring others into your story. That's your journey, and it's personal and unique. Our best advice is to write as well as you can, develop a strong relationship with your manuscript, rewrite until you've done all you think you can do, and then put some faith in professionals to help you realize its potential. When you've reached that point—when you're ready for developmental editing, copy editing, or publication design—we'll be ready to talk. Always.
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