Sunday, October 07, 2012
Les Edgerton
By OFW Editor: Veronica Sicoe
Published: August 27, 2012

Accomplishment: Author of fourteen books, writing coach and editor.

Which author makes you jealous and why?

Actually, I can’t think of any. I’ve always felt there was plenty of room for all of us on the bookstore shelves. And, although life is often unfair and certainly so to many of us who write, it’s also often “over” fair. I have a philosophy of life that’s kind of simple. It’s expressed by a single sentence. DON’T LET ANYONE RENT SPACE IN YOUR HEAD. If I were to fret over another writer’s success, I’d be letting him/her rent space in my head and I don’t have that much space left up there anyway, to use it up that way.

 At what point of your writing process do you consider the reader? Is it while plotting or while editing?

In a way, I consider the reader throughout every step of the process. I say “in a way” because I only write for one reader and that’s me. Every time I write a book or story, I write the story I wish someone else would have written but hadn’t, so I have to write it so I can get to read it. I figure there are enough people who like what I like that I’m the only reader I have to worry about and others will share my tastes.

I’ve never written for “a market” whatever that is. Who the hell knows what the market is? I sure don’t. And, that mindset has cost me, monetarily, but that’s no big deal. What I mean by that is that I was told by one of the best literary agents around that he’d love to represent me and that I could make a lot of money if I’d just allow him to create a “brand” for me. Which meant I’d have to write mostly a certain kind of book, i.e., a “series.” Or, at least books which fit within defined parameters and within one genre. I told him I appreciated what he was saying and knew he was right insofar as sales went, but could never do that. I have too many things I want to write about to ever get labeled with such a brand. I realize it’s cost me sales and readers and moolah, but those things just aren’t my buttons. That doesn’t mean I don’t like sales and readers and folding green, but not at the expense of doing what I love to do and that’s to write a whole lot of different and varied stuff. That’s just a lot more important.

This is what I do for my life’s work and it’s important to me to love my job. If I had to keep cranking out the same kind of novel over and over, there’s not enough money or awards available to make my job fun. I wake up each day excited about what I’m going to put on paper. I’m not beholden on an “audience” or a “market.” To be honest, I kind of feel sorry for such a writer. I can usually sense in most of those series that become bestsellers that either the guy writing them is about to scream with boredom or enjoys the material fruits of his labor more than the labor itself. To me, it’s always been about the writing. It’s always the journey that’s important much more than the destination. If I’m with a group of writers and one begins talking about his or her “sales” I’m off to find other company who wants to talk about story.

Do you really feel you write well or did you just get lucky?

I’ve always written well and knew I did. I’ve always been a cocky s.o.b. as far as writing goes. You either know you have it or you… have doubts. If you have doubts, my advice is to work hard at it because your doubts are probably well-founded and based in reality. It’s not always just talent. Often, the person with less talent and more work ends up doing better. As for luck, much of mine has been bad and much has been good. It’s just the way life is. And, that’s fine. I’m proud of everything I’ve ever written and I know people who’ve been luckier in terms of money and those things, but I’m pretty sure I’m happier about going to work each day.
As far as “luck” goes, luck only works if you’re ready for it when it comes.

To agent or not to agent? Why or why not? 

Without a doubt—agent. I’ve got 14 books in print and sold all of ‘em myself, but I’d still have an agent. I need to clarify that—for two of my books, my agent made the sale, technically, but it was through a fellow author I’d referred to him and I would have sold those two myself. But, I’m glad to give him the credit. But, even though I’ve sold just about all of my books myself, my agents (and there have been several…) have all been helpful.

For example, I sold my first writer’s how-to to Writer’s Digest myself—my agent at the time wouldn’t mess with ‘em as they didn’t pay very good advances and they weren’t worth his time, but once I made the sale, I asked him if he’d handle it from there and he was glad to. More than paid for his services as he got my advance raised from their normal $2500 to $8,000. More than paid for his 15%. From there, I went to advances of $10,000 from them. And, he got a novel of mine into auction where it came down to between Random House and St. Martin’s that resulted in a top offer of $50,000, and that would never have happened without an agent.

Agents do much more than just sell books and I personally wouldn’t be without one. If nothing else—even  if the writer makes the initial sale themselves—a good agent will more than pay for their percentage by getting them out of that boilerplate contract all publishers want you to sign—that contract that totally favors the publisher and not the writer. A writer who sells a book to a publisher him or herself and then doesn’t hire an agent to negotiate the contract has a fool for an agent…

What do you think about self-publishing?

About true self-publishing? I think it sucks. As a rule, it’s not writing; it’s typing. It’s vanity publishing, whatever new thing you want to call it. Mostly. Notice I said “as a rule.” There are some instances where it’s legitimate, but not for the reasons most ascribe to.
The thing is, nobody’s entitled to being published. And, everybody’s entitled to being printed, either via print or in ebook format. When everybody can do something, it’s axiomatic that the product, overall, will be of poor quality overall. And so it is with self-publishing. For the most part, most self-published books reveal why it wasn’t taken by legacy publishers. It’s mostly crap. A lot of white noise.
Take a close look at the “success” stories. For instance, there’s a writer who bloviates about his huge “successes” as a self-published writer all over the place. Won’t name him, but look at his history. First, he was at best, a mid-list author who never broke out. The reason was, his books never got any better. Publishers took a chance on him as they did in yesteryear, believing that eventually he’d write better and better books and justify them taking a loss on his early work. Only… he never got any better. Most of his books were for folks who move their lips when reading. Actually, he got worse. So, they dropped him. And, he began self-publishing. However, as crappy as his novels were, he did have somewhat of an audience in place. It was that audience that immediately put him out in front of other self-publishers. If he’d begun his career by self-publishing, I daresay he would have sunk quickly. But, once you hit the top of “sales” in Amazon, life begins to imitate art. Buyers see his name at the top of a list and voila, they assume it’s good and then they buy it. 
The truth is, Americans don’t have a lot of faith in their acumen to recognize quality. Many assume that if something sells well it must be good. It’s why Michael Jordan makes millions advertising cereal and shoes and underwear. CEO’s don’t pay Mikey all those greenbacks because they like him—they paid him because they understood that the average citizen doesn’t have a clue how to determine the quality of their boxer shorts or briefs. But, if someone who was an “authority figure” said it was good, that was good enough for them. A large number of people need someone they admire or whatever to tell them what to buy.
It’s the reason bestseller lists exist. Those lists have little to do with sales—they’re primarily a marketing tool for publishers. They depend more on copies printed than copies sold. If you don’t believe that, try a little test. Watch a well-known bestseller list—the Times  or Post—until you’re familiar with the titles on it. When a new title appears for the first time, call your local Barnes and Noble to buy a copy. Chances are, they’ll tell you it won’t be available for 4-6 weeks. Why is that? Well, it’s because they’re not printed yet.

Publishers know that the average citizen doesn’t have a clue what good writing is. They also know that the average citizen is a bit sheep-like in their makeup. They know that if Joe Blow in Des Moines or Yonkers sees that a book is #3 on the bestseller lists, he’ll assume it’s a good book and glom onto it. Eventually, life imitates art and that book does sell a lot of copies. Usually. Not always. Sometimes it backfires and word-of-mouth kills the sales. There are more than several “bestsellers” that never reached 5,000 in sales. I’d like to see the explanation for how that book was listed as a bestseller and… didn’t sell any copies… Actually, bestseller lists are horrible gauges of sales to begin with and outright lies. A true bestseller list would always list the Bible as the #1 seller. Every single week of every single year, the Bible is #1 in sales. Second place would belong to whatever computer book is hot that week. And, you never see those books on the “bestseller” lists…
Sorry to digress… The aforementioned “author” did well not because his novels were any good, but because he got a head start in the race and then he made it work by hard work in selling himself. His talent doesn’t lie in writing—it lies in sales ability.
The reason stories like this appear isn’t because they’re normal—it’s because they’re extremely rare. And yet, for some reason, wannabe writers continue to think that they’re some kind of models to emulate and that the same thing will happen to them.
That said, there do exist sound reasons to self-publish. Just a lot fewer than many will admit.

Do you think writers have sell-by dates?

Do you mean a book needs to have sold after a certain number of rejections or else put in the drawer and go on to a new novel? If so, then it would depend on the novel and the circumstances. For instance, my first novel, THE DEATH OF TARPONS, garnered 85 rejections. And, this was in the days before the Internet. When we had to print up copies, send ‘em via snail mail and pay postage both ways. Wait weeks and months before hearing back from the agent or publisher. Eighty-five rejections… If I subscribed to a “sell-by” date it would never have gotten published. But, I knew it was a good book. What I didn’t know was that I hadn’t learned my craft well enough to sell it at the time. But, I suspected that was the case. And, by “craft” I mean not only in writing but in understanding how publishing worked.
What happened was the same manuscript was selected for a workshop conducted by literary agent Mary Evans. At a break in the workshop, Mary took me aside and said, “You’re having trouble selling this, aren’t you, Les?” I nodded. She told me that her client, Michael Chabron had had the same trouble with his first novel, THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURG. The problem with both his and my novel was that the protagonist was a teenaged boy and that publishers saw both as YA’s. And, that teenaged boys represents the single-worst demographic in publishing. Teenaged boys simply don’t read much as a group. They’re the single-best demographic for movies, but the worst for literature. But, I protested; I don’t see this as a YA at all. Never once thought of it that way! I saw it the same as John Knowles A SEPARATE PEACE. About a teenaged boy but an adult novel.
She agreed. She saw it as an adult novel also, but she also understood editors and publishers. They have to put books into categories, she said, and because of the age of the protagonist the cubbyhole instantly becomes young adult. You have a brilliant book, she said, but there’s a reason it isn’t selling.
And then, she furthered my writing education. Do what she had Chabron do, she advised. Turn it into a frame story. Add a new beginning chapter with the narrator/protagonist as an adult looking back on his childhood and then add a new ending chapter with him coming back to his adulthood and affirming what he’d learned during that childhood. Then, editors will see it as an adult novel. Exactly what she said Chabron had done and the next place she submitted it to, took it.
I went home that night and wrote two new chapters in the next day and a half and sent it off for the 86th time. And, they took it.
I had to learn another lesson of writing. Took 86 tries but it was worth it. If I’d self-published it, it would have sold maybe 20-30 copies. As it was, it earned great reviews, was awarded a Special Citation by the Violet Crown Book Awards (given to me by Laura Bush at the awards ceremony at the First Annual Texas Book Festival) and has pretty much sold out.
It’s called paying your dues and learning your craft. Not something that happens much with self-published writers, I’m afraid.
So, no, I don’t think it this is what you meant that there are “sell by” dates.
But, as Paul Harvey would have said: The other part of the story is… even though I was sending out TARPONS all along, I was also at work writing other novels. I had two others completed by the time it sold and was writing a fourth.
If you know your novel is good, by all means don’t give up on it. But, you have to know it’s good, not just hope or think it is.

Which writing rule or piece of advice would you add to Elmore Leonard's list, and which would you break?

Well, nothing against Elmore Leonard—I’ve been a huge, huge fan of most of his work for decades and decades, but I don’t remember what his list consisted of. I have a copy of that book but can’t locate it, but do remember it as mostly a recitation of the same rules writers have been using for years and years and years and have all been previously published in other writer’s craft books.

In fact, I remember when it came out and the big flap was that it cost so much and was a little book. Had to laugh at that—far as I know, no one ever twisted a buyer’s arm to make them buy it, and it reminded me of the days when I owned a bookstore and observed people buying their reading by the pound. Honest to God—folks would pick up two paperbacks and heft them in either hand and then usually take the heavier one. More paper for their buck, I guess. That’s a reader who will opt for Danielle Steel over Albert Camus, which says a lot about their literary acumen…

But, there wasn’t anything groundbreaking or new info in Leonard’s book and that’s fine. As for rules, the problem I see is there’s a newer breed of writer who seems to gravitate toward what I call “bumper sticker” rules of writing. No rule paid attention to unless it could fit on a bumper sticker. For instance, that “write what you know” which is total b.s., but the whole rule wouldn’t fit well on a bumper sticker. The whole rule is “write what you can convince the reader you know.” If you “wrote what you knew,” it would probably prevent you from writing a murder mystery unless you’d killed a few citizens. Or, write a sci fi cast in the future (unless you own a time travel machine in working order), or a historical novel set in the Civil War (unless you were way old and were alive then). Or keep you from writing from a woman’s pov if you were a guy and vice versa. And so on.

Write what you know belongs on a bumper sticker and on the kind of vehicle that people who buy bumper stickers drive. There’s probably going to be a gun rack on such a vehicle and a cooler of beer on the passenger seat… I had a person who was planning to become a literary agent once parroted to me one of those other bumper sticker rules of writing: “Show, don’t tell.” It was clear she was parroting some piece of ‘wisdom” she’d made note of in a writing class and had drunk the entire glass of Kool-Aid without thinking it through. Well, I’ve got a news flash for her. There are many legitimate places in every story where the writer not only can but should tell. The complete version of that “rule” is “Show the truly important parts of a novel that you intend to affect the reader’s emotion by writing a scene (showing).” But, that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker easily. If you wrote an entire novel following that dictum, “show, don’t tell,” you wouldn’t end up with a novel. You’d end up with a screenplay. And not a particularly good one.

Back to your original question—my advice is to know clearly what all the “rules” are and then break any and all of them if it serves the story better. Just keep in mind that the rules are there because there’s some truth and value in them. Don’t just break them because you fancy yourself some kind of literary “rebel.” What you’ll end up being, most likely, is an unpublished rebel. Not much good in that… When I see a writer obviously breaking rules to prove he’s a rebel, I’m mostly reminded of the comedian who told the kid whose pants were hanging down to his knees: “Get your drawers up, kid. You’re not a gangsta if your mom still drives you to school. And, nobody wants to see your crack.” Same kind of individual…

Is your work original or another version of a tired old story?

Well, of course it’s original! If it wasn’t, do you think I’d admit it? Actually, that’s a good question. It depends on your version of story. If story means plot to you, then yes, it’s probably old news. After all, there are only 6-8 plots that account for all stories. But, fortunately while plot is important, that’s not story. It’s how the writer uses that plot for his characters that make stories. Also, most writers, including me, tell pretty much the same story over and over. It’s usually largely autobiographical, no matter where it’s set or what the plot is, or the time period or any of that stuff. But, it’s all original. No one else can write the story I write. I think you meant by this do I ever try to copy a successful novel—if so, no way, Jose. Again, I always try to write the story I wish someone else had but they hadn’t so I have to write it to get to read it.

Should writers strive for literary merit?

Writers should… and will. Typists won’t.

One of the reasons self-publishing is full of crap—most of those “typists” are more interested in “sales” and “numbers of readers” than they are in creating the best story they’re capable of. Or, if they’re not yet capable of it, they’re not striving to continue to learn how to be a good writer. Self-publishing allows a beginning writer to avoid that learning curve most good writers go through. After all, he or she can get their ”book” out there without having to go through the struggle writers throughout history have in the past. What they don’t realize is, is that rejection slips are important. They’re the report cards that tell the fledgling writer that what they’re doing now is C or D or even F work and that to obtain an A, they’ve got to get better.

Look at blogs and a lot of the writing texts these days. It used to be about how to write well almost entirely. Today, those books are still out there, but there are appearing more and more books and blogs and articles that aren’t about writing, but about marketing. That should tell folks what a lot of wannabe writers deem important these days…

Has a book ever made you cry, and if so, which one?

Lots and lots of books have made me cry. The first I remember was OLD YELLER. Also, SHANE got the waterworks going pretty good, too—both the book and the movie. My own first novel, THE DEATH OF TARPONS, made me cry both while writing it and later while reading it. It should have—it was about my own sorry-ass childhood…

"Alright. I give up. Nothing's gonna break this man, nothing that I can think of at least. Maybe next time I'll get some Russian torturing devices, those are said to be a lot more potent." 

"Come on, Sherie. He gave up all we needed and then some." I hit the lights, and pulled off my gloves. "Thank you very much for your time, Les. It's been very... educational."

Login/Register to leave a comment, or Login using or
Post Comments
No Comment Found.