Overcoming Roadblocks

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.