Today I welcome Tom Adair to Terry’s Place. Tom is a retired forensics expert (and you may have seen my posts about his workshops on fingerprinting and what forensics was like in 1875. Welcome, Tom.
Writing a novel is not unlike trying to solve a complex crime like homicide. I actually have experience with both so I feel qualified to make such a comparison. Both endeavors can be filled with unforeseeable obstacles and potential diversions. These are what I like to refer to as roadblocks. Roadblocks can derail the best of plans, even destroy them. An essential skill for authors (and detectives) is an ability to navigate around them.
When I sat down to write The Scent of Fear I had no idea what lay ahead. I had read a little about the business of writing but I had no experience as a fiction writer. All of my experience was with technical/scientific writing for text books and peer-reviewed journals. I talked to other fiction writers and attended conferences but, like a lot of new authors, I was excited to get started; maybe too excited! I laid out my “path forward” in a very linear manner. Step 1, write the book. Step 2, get an agent. Step 3, sign a lucrative contract. Easy, right? Looking back, my naiveté was both funny and sad. Three years later I have a completely different perspective. No agent, no lucrative contract, yet my new career is indeed moving forward. It’s just on a different path than the one I originally envisioned.
My process was littered with roadblocks. The first and most significant was my inexperience. I sent my editor a 200K word manuscript. I can hear you sigh but deep down she loved it. I think I helped buy her a new car. It cost me dearly in time and fortune, but the learning process was invaluable. It took several months and numerous revisions to get it down to 120K words. So, slight delay, but step one completed.
Then I shopped around for an agent. I had absolutely no idea (and still don’t) how to catch their eye. I read up on how to write a “killer” query letter and all the common mistakes to avoid. I discovered a lot of agents won’t even take unsolicited submissions, some never even responded to my inquiries, even after requesting a full manuscript. I was left hanging with no inkling if I should just keep going or wait. But instead of wallowing in pessimism and uncertainty I just circumvented the obstacle and decided to self-publish.
I’m not suggesting that success is inevitable if you’re simply willing to navigate roadblocks. There is a major issue of talent, platform, and a little bit of luck. What I’m saying is that the current publishing environment is the friendliest ever for Indie authors. My “success” in publishing a novel is the result of adopting the same mindset I did in forensics. That is, never give up until you exhaust all options. Can’t find a fingerprint, try looking for DNA. Can’t find any DNA, look for a shoe print; and so on. If the suspects painted over the bloodstained walls, figure out how to look “under” the paint. One of the worst things you can do during a crime investigation is committing yourself to only one path forward. There is a saying in forensics. “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” You have to go where the evidence takes you. This mindset requires one to shed paradigms and abandon established “systems”. The same attitude is needed in writing.
Whether you’re facing writer’s block along a certain story thread, or looking at yet another rejection letter, you stand a much better chance of attaining your end goal if you remain persistent and positive. Someone puts a roadblock in your way, figure out a way around it. In other words, take a detour or go off road completely. Harry Truman once said “a pessimist makes difficulties of his opportunities while an optimist makes opportunities of his difficulties”.
People sometimes have a hard time envisioning another path, I get that. We see that in traffic jams every day. Cars are backed up for miles and yet people will continue to plod along at 2mph instead of getting off the highway. Most people stay on the main road because they don’t know any other path. We are conditioned to follow “systems”. Like a train on a set of tracks, we feel committed to only one way forward. Taking the road less traveled can be scary, but it is sometimes the only way forward. The path to publishing is not found upon a set of train tracks. There is plenty of room for maneuverability if you are willing to view the world three dimensionally. Whether you get there by plane, train, or automobile is completely up to you.
Tom Adair is a retired forensic scientist and author of the 2012 Susspense/Thriller The Scent of Fear inspired by the cases of his career. Tom also blogs at forensics4ficiton; a site for authors to learn more about forensics.