Q&A With James V. Smith, Jr.

Read an interview with James V. Smith, Jr., author of You Can Write a Novel, 2nd Edition
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What piece of advice has had the biggest impact on me?

Finish the book.

I was young – okay, younger. Even so, I knew it was a mistake to call an agent and pitch a novel. I told the nice lady I wanted to send a synopsis and a writing sample. And she asked, "Is it done?"

I made one talking point after another, and each time, as if she didn't hear me, she said, "Is it done?"

In an act of effervescent brilliance, I said, "Is what done?"

"Have you finished writing your novel?"

In two or three awkward seconds I processed half a dozen good lies, but but was left with, "No."

"Finish the book. And then we'll look at it."

What a lesson. Generally, every best-selling author has to finish a book a year. Why shouldn't a first novelist have to finish a first novel? Prove to yourself that you can write a novel before you start pitching it to anybody.

What message do I repeat to writers?

It ain't art, it's bidness.

Forget the mythology, the muse, the poetry, the literary affectations. To do well, approach it with a passion like any job you love. Study the work of others and dissect your own writing. Most of all, practice constantly. Read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. The part about 10,000 hours of practice. As in any other business, everybody in publishing has, at bottom, and abiding self interest. They want to make more money. They want to move up the corporate ladder. They want to land the most successful writer. Help make them successes in their departments, and you will be a success.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-intellectual, certainly not anti-art nor dismissive of literature. I'm just saying treat your work like work. In other words, act like a small business business. The art will come, if it's in you.

What's the worst mistake of a new novelist?

Misapplying the notion of self-interest I just mentioned. The new novelist who expects the publishing world to drop dead – or worse, return her incessant phone calls has it backward. New writers are not at the top of the publishing food chain. That spot is reserved for people who buy books. Then established celebrity writers. And publishers. Then marketers. Then booksellers. Then editors. All the way down to… Well, let's just say that new writers are not at the top of the food chain.

Most enduring writers hit the big time with their later books as a develop the readership or a distinctive voice or both.

What is the one thing you can't live without?

Voice-to-text software.

I'm a magazine editor in Montana (and the sole writer, photographer, designer, circulation manager and trash taker-outer). My daily round-trip commute is just a sigh under 200 miles. I often spend those three hours of my life writing while driving. I talk to a tape recorder that will transcribe audio files into text on my computer. Using templates, I've developed a system for writing magazine stories and Incidents – you call them scenes – in my fiction.

I am writing these responses by talking to my computer. I seldom use the keyboard, even to edit my writing. The next generation of iPad-like devices will be true productivity tools for writers.

But possibly even more important than productivity is creativity. Voice-to-text has led me to some surprising discoveries in tapping into personal creativity. Someday will talk more about those.

What is a typical day look like for me?

I'm a working stiff. Still. Any writing I get done is on my commute. Or between 4:30 AM and 6:30 AM when I have to splash off in the shower and slide behind the wheel. Often on weekends before my wife gets up and put me to work on my third job, renovating our house. I do an awful lot of writing every day. I admit, I sometimes get resentful and blame others for my inability to find time to write my own novel. Nobody takes me seriously on that point. Including me.

If I could change one thing about publishing, I wouldn't.

You waste your time thinking about changing such a huge, evolving industry. Better to spend that time learning how the system works. Keep up with the changes. Then learn to game the system and make it work for you.

How has my writing and publishing life changed in the past five years?

As editor of Rural Montana magazine (www.mtco-ops.com), I've learned how to satisfy other people's self-interest. It's a writing and editing laboratory. I get the benefit of instant feedback. I understand the tendencies of readers and how to reach them much better than I might have otherwise. And no matter what else I have to do – and even if I can't work on my novel or nonfiction books – my job requires me to write. Every day. So that when I writing e-mail to my agent, I really do know how to get him to respond. When I'm pitching a proposal to an editor, I understand how to get to yes. Right now as I'm maturing (finally) I'm beginning to think I understand how to reach large numbers of fiction readers as well. We'll see.

My advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

Meet all your deadlines. When you know you can't meet your deadlines, get in touch with your editor and say so before the deadline clock strikes 12. When you get in touch, offer a new deadline that works for you and the editor. Finally, when nobody else in publishing meets their deadlines to you, be patient and forgiving. It makes you look good, and besides, beyond patience and forgiveness, you have nothing anyhow.

My biggest publishing accomplishment?

In the course of writing several writer how-to books I invented two tools for writers. They're both in the second edition of YCWAN. The first is the Reading Ease Ideal. You can use the REI to model your writing style to the techniques of best-selling authors. It's also a tool that lets you adjust the pace within an Incident (scene). Finally, you can adapt it to adjust the pace of an entire novel so you can build to the climax in one complication after another until the ultimate climactic moment in the story. It's really quite cool, with graphs and everything so you can literally see how the pace rises and falls.

The second is my concept of Participation, connecting with readers on a variety of levels to get them to participate in your story rather than simply read it. If you think about it, you can find dozens of bestsellers that are poorly written. I love good writing, but I understand that good writing alone doesn't engage readers.

So I use these 16 principles in everything I write now. Soon I'll be marketing a new first novel, first in the sense that it will be my first time using both of these tools to the max. If it sells well, that will be my biggest publishing accomplishment. If it doesn't, then my next novel will have to be my biggest publishing accomplishment. Meanwhile I have to . . . 

Finish the book.

About the Book

For more about crafting a compelling, salable novel, check out You Can Write a Novel, 2nd Edition by James V. Smith, Jr.

Read an Excerpt!

Find out how to organize your story in incidents rather than scenes and craft the three most critical incidents in your novel.

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