The Sixth Fleet (Berkley, June), by David E. Meadows, is the first of a four-book military thriller series focused on a “downsized United States military trying to do its job overseas in the face of a changing geopolitical environment.” The rest of the series will be released this year. Meadows is a captain in the U.S. Navy. He is the division chief for information assurance on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For more on Meadows and The Sixth Fleet, visit www.geocities.com/igor1610.
Writer’s Digest: How long did it take you to write each of the books in the series?
David E. Meadows: Oh, about a year for the first one. The others went pretty fast. I’d say the second one took about nine months, and the last two took about six months each. I just finished the first draft of my first novel, and it took about four months to do that. I just think I’m learning.
WD: How long have you been writing?
DM: I guess I really started in 1990 I think, so took about nine years before I finally sold one. I think I started out thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to do this, and it’ll be great,” so I wrote three novels, and they were so horrible … they’re still under that proverbial bed.
WD: Have your books always been about the military?
DM: The first ones were historical fiction about places I’d grown up in in Georgia, but my wife eventually said, “Why do you write those? Why don’t you write something that you know about?” And at the time, we were really being downsized in the military, and our operations were being increased, and we just didn’t have the people or the manpower—I felt anyway—to do it. So out of that came what I initially called Blood Across the Med, which became The Sixth Fleet.
WD: How did you approach the submissions process?
DM: Well, in one of the articles in Writer’s Digest, you recommended that when finding an agent, it was best to send out query letters one at a time and to tell the agent that it wasn’t a multiple submission. And I was surprised. I was getting responses back within 30 days, and a lot of them had some really good comments, but it all boiled down to they didn’t feel they were right for it.
When I got orders to come back here (to the United States from living in London), I realized that in six months I didn’t have enough time to keep up with the agent thing, so I sent out a multiple submission letter to five publishers. And I used another Writer’s Digest tip and looked in the front of all the books that were kind of my genre area, and I found the names of agents and publishers and editors who they acknowledged.
WD: And how did the book wind up with Tom Colgan at Berkley?
DM: Well, I sent one to this guy at Penguin Books, and he lateraled it over to Tom. I submitted it in January of 1999, and I didn’t hear from Tom for six months. And at the time, I had no agent, so it kind of went on the slush pile—but it was a slush pile where Tom found it.
In May of 2000, after we’d already signed a contract, I actually went out to lunch with Tom and (agent Nancy Coffey), and he told me that in June or July of ’99 he came in one day and said, “I’m going to go through the slush pile here and read about five pages and send them all back with a nice little letter.” And he said he picked mine up, and he read the first five, and he then read the second five, and the next thing he know he had it tucked under his arm taking it home.
It wasn’t until after Tom and I started talking that I realized he handled Tom Clancy and all that bunch, so I was really impressed. I felt like maybe I was his charity case.
WD: Did you always see The Sixth Fleet as a four-part series?
DM: I figured there could be a sequel to the first one, because I’d left hooks—I thought—in the last chapter just in the event that a sequel was offered. But the idea of doing three really surprised me.
WD: Writing four books like this back-to-back, where you able to see changes or improvements in your style?
DM: They’ve improved tremendously. But it’s like I said earlier, I wrote three that I know will never, ever be published unless we’re really hurting for books in a few years.
WD: Can you tell me about the rewriting process you went through after selling the book?
DM: First of all, Tom sent me what he says are editorial comments. He sent back a page, and it was basically, “I don’t understand some of the technical terms.” So that wasn’t bad. The next thing I got was a copy editor chop through the manuscript. And I approved some of those, and we discussed some of the others, and I sent it back. Then the last one was the galley proof unbound, and I went through there and caught some typos and caught a half a paragraph that was missing from the typesetter and sent it back.
WD: With a full-time job, how do you find the time to write?
DM: Well, I’ve blocked off times. I get up early on the weekends. Saturdays and Sundays I usually write the fresh chapters, and I write as many pages as I can. Now, I live 50 miles from Washington and the Pentagon. My parking spot is 48.1 miles from my house. So, I get up about 3:30 a.m. during the week, and I edit and play with those chapters from the weekend, and then I drive in. And I write better in the mornings than I do in the evenings—I just seem fresher. Maybe I’m taking all my dreams and putting them on paper. But in the evenings, I’m just kind of winding down.
WD: How was it decided that the books would first be released in paperback?
DM: What Nancy Coffey told me is that Penguin has a history of building novelists. And if they start out with a new author, and they sell a hardback, they’re lucky to sell 12,500 copies—that’s the figure she quoted. But if they start out in paperback, you could sell 100,000 in the first printing. So by the time you do four, you’ve built a reader pool, and then you go to hardback.
WD: I understand that the Pentagon had to review your books before they could be published. Did this result in any major changes in context?
DM: If you’re on active duty, and you write something that has to do with the military, they like to look at it to make sure you’re not inadvertently putting classified material out there—things you may know that you inadvertently put out into public domain, or you may just accidentally hit on something that is going on, and because you’re in the military, people may think you know something that you don’t know.
WD: What would you say was your biggest challenge?
DM: The biggest challenge was finding an agent and a publisher. But the other challenge I think was actually writing as a novel should be written—going back through and cutting out parts. The first time I did that, oh, it was horrible. I’ll give you a good example, when I was writing this last one, I wrote 16 pages, and then realized I didn’t like it, so I put them aside, and I rewrote it. Now, two years ago when I was writing all this I would have agonized over throwing away 16 pages. So I think the biggest challenge in writing is the editing process of discarding superfluous stuff, focusing the story line to where it moves the reader forward.
WD: Did you ever find it difficult to keep writing in the face of rejection?
DM: I really feel that the only way you can sell something is to keep it out there. Every time I sent something out, when it came back rejected, I’d immediately send it again. I think of it like I do war ships—if you keep a war ship in port, you’re not improving it. It needs to be out at sea doing its mission. It’s the same with a good manuscript. If you’re not improving it when you’ve got it, then it needs to be in the mail looking for a home.
WD: You’ve done quite a bit of self-promotion—puttling together your own press kit and creating a Web site for the series—how valuable do you believe self-promotion is for a first-time author?
DM: Well, I started the Web page myself, and I got Penguin to look at it. Now you’re the first person I sent my promotional package to. I put that together myself. I think as a writer, you’ve got to market yourself.
WD: Do you have any advice for writers who are still dreaming of publication?
DM: Just keep writing. And write what you know about. And keep submitting. They can’t tell you no if don’t submit. And not to get disappointed from rejection slips. Collect them, and take the information—a lot of the agents I got things back from gave me advice, and I kept all that because I felt like I was getting advice from people who know the publishing industry.