To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, how I did it depends on the definition of “it.” I’m a writer first and an accidental publisher second. What drove me to do either is that I wanted meaning in my life.
The other night, my wife, Ann, and I zipped over to the Hollywood Bowl, invited at the last minute by a friend with extra tickets. It felt like destiny. I witnessed for my first time cellist Yo-Yo Ma play and Gustavo Dudamel conduct—both brilliant, both passionate, both leading me to ponder what it took for them and any one of the orchestra members to get there.
A sellout crowd of 17,000 was focused on classical music. Yo-Yo Ma often played with his eyes closed, his face incredibly expressive as if the music were telling a story and he was finding surprise and amazement in every twist and turn. He seemed near tears in delicate parts, his lone cello a voice in the woods.
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel looked like a young man surprised at a treasure he stumbled upon. He was ecstatic to unleash the kettle drums, the trumpets and the full orchestra as a signal call to a final offensive stand, his baton and hair leaping in the air.
There are times when I write that I feel the same way. I‘m emotionally wrought at sad parts, laughing at funny parts, on the edge when danger flings itself at my protagonist. What it took me to get there were the hundreds of stories that I wrote when I was younger that just didn’t work, but each story brought me closer to writing a better one. I took writing classes in college and beyond, and I was pushed.
Reading great works such as Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried showed me what could be. I never thought of what I did as “work.” As Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers reveals, you have to put in the hours.
To get where I am took more than reading, practice and classes. I also looked for ways to immerse myself in story. I became a book reviewer in grad school for two Los Angeles newspapers before reviewing live theater for Daily Variety for eight years.
At the time, I was also writing plays. Theater demonstrated how to reveal character through action and dialogue, and the constant critiquing led me to question why certain scenes or plays worked or not. I’d ask the same questions of my own stories. I wrote on tight deadlines, which whipped away any idea of writer’s block. Later, when I started teaching creative writing and English, I could critique student work too, remaining sensitive to not blow out any flames of creativity.
For my first job out of grad school, I was the senior editor for a small publisher in Los Angeles. There, I experienced firsthand the obsessive nature it takes to create a finely crafted book, starting with the text but also following through in book design, publicity and marketing. When my first agent in 2005 did not want to represent my collection of previously published short fiction, I started my own imprint, White Whisker Books. I knew what to do.
When my very first review for my first book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, appeared in the Los Angeles Times in January 2006, I spit the cereal I was eating all over the table. My heart began racing. I assumed I’d be excoriated in front of millions of people as had happened with my first produced play, Suburban Anger. But no, the reviewer provided clear insights, and she celebrated the book.
I don’t write for the reviewers, but good reviews help in being discovered in a crowded marketplace. Sending your books out for review is critical. This I learned when I worked for a publisher.
I call myself the accidental publisher because White Whisker Books was conceived simply for my short fiction. Later, I published my novels when my enthusiastic agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich, found roadblocks. For Love At Absolute Zero, he landed three interested editors whose marketing departments then vetoed the book. Apparently love and quantum physics was a leap. Undeterred, I published it through White Whisker. It landed on a critic’s Top Ten Best Novels list of 2011, and it earned three awards, including being a ForeWord Reviews Best Book Finalist. Small victories like these help.
White Whisker Books has grown as I can fit in time for it. I’m publishing three other authors now whom I know and respect. I hire editors, proofreaders and book designers. I make advance reader’s copies for reviewers as I did recently for The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by Shelly Lowenkopf. I create flawless e-book versions of the books in multiple formats. I use social media, write emails and blogs, speak at conferences and colleges, and, if I’m lucky, I write articles such as this for Kirkus.
For those people who want to know, “How do I do it so I can get rich?” all I know is you don’t get any success if your heart isn’t in the work. In the arts, you compete with people who have passion for what they do, the Dudamels and Mas.
Much of success is persistence. That’s not everything, though. It’s not like the Hollywood movies where if you’re dogged and passionate, you’ll win. There are plenty of conductors, cellists and writers who are extraordinarily talented, but they are not recognized.
Are you still willing to push ahead if fame or fortune is not guaranteed? If so, the arts may be for you. “How to make it?” That’s something you might learn along the way.
Christopher Meeks began as a playwright and has had three plays produced. His short stories have been published in a number of journals and are available in two collections, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons. During the last five years, he's focused on novels. The Brightest Moon of the Century is a story that Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews describes as “a great and truly humane novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving.” His new comic novel, Love At Absolute Zero, is about a physicist who uses the tools of science to find his soul mate--and he has just three days. Critic Grady Harp calls the book “a gift." He also runs White Whisker Books. Visit him online at Red Room, Facebook, Twitter, and www.chrismeeks.com.