WD Author Interview: Jeff Gerke

Plot Versus Character author Jeff Gerke discusses writing and publishing advice, how movies can help you understand storytelling structure, and more in this interview.
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What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Just because some famous novelists break the rules of good fiction and have terrific sales doesn’t mean you should. Their books succeed in spite of their low craftsmanship, not because of it. Think how much better their fiction would be if they applied an elevated skill-set. And think how great it will be when yours is better written than theirs!

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

That there are seasons in a writer’s life. Sometimes you can write all the time. In other seasons you’re not able to write because of schedule and other responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer anymore. The saying “A writer writes” is true, but sometimes a writer has to wait to write. That season will come around again in time.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Getting published too easily and too early. In our day of self-publishing and micro-publishing, it’s sometimes easy to get a book published before the novelist has gone through the hard knocks that make her have to really sit down and learn her craft. Now, with no hurdles to overcome and no panel of editors to vet manuscripts, people are getting published before they’re truly ready. And then they tend to get stiff-necked about improving. Why should they? They’re already published.

You use a lot of movies as examples when you teach. In your opinion, why are movies such good tools for examining story structure?

Movies are terrific teaching tools for fiction because of their visual nature. So much of my fiction teaching has more to do with cinema than the fiction of generations gone by that examples from movies are a natural. Screenwriters (the good ones) understand modern storytelling in its purest and most effective form. Why not employ those practices in our fiction? Also, references to popular movies are often more likely to be known by a larger percentage of listeners than the typical novel. Nothing beats an example from Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark to communicate quickly.

What’s one thing in your writing life that you can’t live without?

A fast Internet connection.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I make my living as a freelance editor and book doctor—plus I run a small publishing company in my margin time [ahem]. So I’m at the computer (in my basement) by 6:30 doing the morning e-mail work and checking sales, filling orders, etc. Then it’s worky-work-work until dinner, and usually more after that. I watch our toddler during the day, so I’m often trying to type while she’s in my lap “helping.” (Like right now, for instance.)


In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

I wrote my most recent novel in 2002. Since then it’s been all editing and working on and off staff of various publishing companies. I launched my small publishing house in 2008, so now I do all the publishing things—acquisitions, contracts, editing, cover design, typesetting, marketing, bookkeeping, etc.—alongside the normal work of meeting freelance deadlines and generating new work. But the publishing venture has been fairly successful and we’ve won some major awards in our industry, so I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be able to do less freelancing work and concentrate on expanding Marcher Lord Press.

Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?

Marketing fiction is a huge mystery. Unless you’re the marketing person assigned to promote a Tom Clancy or an Anne Rice, you’re going to have trouble knowing how to reach the people who would love this novel.

I adhere to what I call the 30:1 rule. If you do 30 things to promote your novel and build your audience, 1 of them will be successful. But you never know which one it will be and it will never be the same one twice. So you have to do all 30—or some new 30—to get the 1 that hits. Just keep at it. Every day try to do one thing to increase your readership. These things accumulate.

Also, consider entering contests. You never know what will happen if you win an award. We’d been trying to get Marcher Lord Press novels in at a major online bookstore, but they wouldn’t return our calls. Then when one of our books was named a finalist for a national award, suddenly this bookstore was calling us asking to carry our books. LOL.

What about advice for writers seeking agents?

Be sure you check out any agent on Preditors and Editors before signing. And if an agent ever tries to charge you anything up front (copying fees, reading fees, etc.), run.

Also keep in mind that the agent works for you. That’s not how it’s presented, I know. An author feels privileged if a noted agent is interested in signing her. But if the agent isn’t doing what the author wants or just doesn’t mesh well with her, she ought to fire her and look for another. Try not to burn any bridges in publishing, of course, but if you sign with an agent it’s not necessarily a permanent relationship.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

This year I was one of three finalists for Fiction Editor of the Year in my industry. If I’d won, I probably would’ve named that, though it is huge just to be a finalist. Novels I’ve published have won major awards, so I’m very proud of that. And I’ve “discovered” some wonderful novelists. But I think the thing I’m proudest of is the creation of my publishing company. Because I publish in a niche almost no one else is publishing in, I give hope to a ton of writers out there who thought there would be no home for their novels.

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