In October of this year, I participated in a month-long The 2015 October Platform Challenge with Robert Lee Brewer, Senior Content Editor, Writer’s Digest Community, as part of the There Are No Rules Blog.
I met James Stack as part of the #platchal and I’ve had the chance to get to know him a little, as well as read some of his work. I’m currently half-way through his memoir, World’s Fair, his brave and compelling story. I highly recommend it.
Here is my interview with the gifted writer who has become one of my heroes as well as a dear friend.
- Please tell our readers who are you as a writer, and did you always want to be a writer, or did your passion for writing evolve over time?
While back in high school I took a creative writing course, which was the beginning of my attempt at writing. However, I didn’t become serious about putting pen to paper until much later in life. I see myself as a literary writer with stories bubbling up inside of me all the time. I have to be selective and hope that I can do justice to the ones I choose to present to the world.
- What is your take on writing contests, free and otherwise, and do they help a writer get noticed?
I’m a firm believer in all types of writing contests and enter them frequently. Being one of thousands who has submitted work to be judged lends itself to lots of rejections, but that is to be expected. You can’t let the fear of rejection stop you from participating. I used to tell people when I was racing in triathlons that you are a winner simply by making it to the starting line; and submitting to these publications is having made it to the starting line. If the fee is what is stopping you from submitting, search for free ones, as there are many out there. The more well known the journal or magazine, the more likely a writer is to become noticed. However, building one’s bio is important when querying agents, so I would recommend getting your work in front of as many publications as you possibly can. Even if you don’t win a contest, many editors may remember your work and want to publish it. Most publications have an open submission period that does not include a contest. This is yet another way to get your work in front of both editors and, hopefully, readers.
- Your poems have appeared in Ash & Bones and as part of the 22nd Annual Artists Embassy International’s Dancing Poetry Festival. Do writers need to be more cognizant about submissions to lit or e-magazines? Will this help with their platform?
I don’t draw a distinction between print or online submissions. I want my stories and poems to be read and heard by as many people as possible. As referenced above, building your bio as part of your platform, if you will, is critical for getting noticed by an agent. In a query letter, once you’ve gotten an agent interested in your story, if your bio isn’t strong they may pass on your novel. So do what you can to strengthen your presentation, as it is both the book and the author being marketed.
- You have self-published two books on Amazon, a memoir titled World’s Fair, and a collection of poetry titled, Pleasures and Seasons of Vermont. There is some controversy in the publishing world over whether self-publishing can help or hinder an author’s efforts to be traditionally published. What is your take on this?
I learned the hard way. Years before World’s Fair was finalized, I sent it to one agent who, understandably, rejected it. I was afraid to even think of sending it to anyone else. Then, after multiple revisions and editorial comments from several readers, I got it to a place where I thought it was truly ready to be published. Instead of seeking out an agent, I serialized it on The Huffington Post. I assumed that a traditional publishing route was unavailable to me for that memoir after it had been published in segments online. As such, I self-published it. Since I found it so easy to do, I also self-published the collection of poetry you reference. I would have preferred going the traditional route, at least I think I would have, and hope to with my next novel. Authors are having success and failure when traveling down both avenues. I’m a firm believer in marketing, but your story also has to be something your audience wants to read. Word-of-mouth is the most powerful marketing tool, and as writers we have no control over that aspect of the journey other than to have written the best story we possibly can and getting it in the hands of readers, whether through traditional methods or by self-publishing.
Specifically, I don’t believe self-publishing harms the opportunity to publish traditionally. I’ve heard of self-published books being picked up by a publishing house, but only after they have published (or shown interest in) another novel by the same author. However, this is not something on which a writer should depend. But it has happened. What an agent or publisher will want to know is how many of the self-published books were sold. They will then use this information in guiding their decision.
- How do you handle the blowback from family and friends when you write a blog, memoir, personal essay, or creative non-fiction work that exposes not only your more personal issues, but theirs?
This is a wonderful question. Thank you for asking it. After about the fifth draft of World’s Fair I felt the story was falling short, so I asked my siblings to provide me with their memories, which I then incorporated into the book. They knew I was writing it, so it being published should not have come as a surprise. What is usually unexpected are when my, the writer’s, memories are not the same as others’ memories. Pinter wrote Old Times about three people who have different memories of, perhaps or perhaps not, the same time and events. It is common that two or more people in the same place at the same time will have radically different memories of the same experience. Two of us remember the ending of my memoir and two don’t, and the two that remember the ending remember the physical acts differently. Also, with time, memories of events change or may be suppressed, which is what the two who don’t remember the ending have done, suppressed why the trip was cut short.
As a writer, when telling the truth, you are bound to ruffle some feathers. It’s either that or not publishing.
- What is the average length of time it takes from first draft to publication, and what is your advice about revision?
For World’s Fair, I began writing it in high school as it was so fresh in my mind. I became more serious about completing it roughly 15 years ago (13 years before publishing it). I usually start with an outline. I then get the story out of my head and onto paper. With World’s Fair, I originally wasn’t going to publish it as there are things in it I had thought I would never want anyone to know. But after completing it, I shared it with close friends who told me it should be put out into the world.
For my collection of poems, Pleasures & Seasons of Vermont, it wasn’t until I realized I had more than a dozen that were following the same theme that I began to think of publishing them. I read several of them to fellow poets and at a local church as part of the service. The positive feedback I received was encouraging. I would say the collection took me about eight years to put together since the “Seasons of Vermont” poem is so long and went through more than 50 iterations. The other poems averaged about ten drafts, with some being as many as twenty plus, while a few others were maybe only two or three versions.
In terms of edits, that is when I believe the real writing takes place. To me a first or second draft is skeletal. It’s during the editing phase where the body takes shape and then is appropriately clothed and manicured so that we see the story or poem instead of being told it. The novel on which I’m currently working began taking shape nearly ten years ago. It is based on a true story, but only for the underlying premise. The bulk of the novel is from my creative mind, yet some things that happened are included since the truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. I am hoping to begin sending out query letters to agents early next year as I have some changes to make based on comments from an editing friend who recently read it. The official draft number currently is nine, which is misleading as I only number the drafts after going through all chapters multiple times, so it is more likely draft twenty or thirty.
- What is your advice to writers who are getting started, young or old or in-between?
It is never too late or too early to begin keeping a journal, which is one way to ensure that you write everyday, my first piece of advice. One winter when I was learning to ski I was told I skied like the mountain scared me. The steeper the ski run, the harder it was for me to be able to see myself having a good time while traveling down it. Fear is the major reason most of us don’t do the things we think we would like to do. And for those who can’t seem to put the first word on the blank, white page, fear is what holds them back. You must conquer your fear. Don’t be afraid to put on paper what you are thinking – you can always edit it out later if you so desire.
The other piece of advice I would give is to read as much as you can. Whenever you aren’t writing, read. Look up the winners of the Pulitzer and read all of their books, the Man Booker Prize winners and shortlisted authors, and the journals and magazines in which you’d like to be published. Read, read, read. It can only help your writing to be well read, especially in the genre in which you want to write or are writing.
- How has being a writer changed your life?
I have to laugh because that’s what it has done, brought joy into my days and nights. I love what I’m doing, be it writing a new poem or editing one I wrote years ago, plotting out a short story while staring out the window or walking my dog, or laughing hysterically at an inappropriate use of, or a misspelled, word. I’ve never been happier. I don’t think of it as work since it brings me so much pleasure. I also find that I want to write to the exclusion of everything else, which I do have to watch. There are times I feel as if I have morphed into the words on the page and we are one.
James Stack’s memoir, WORLD’S FAIR, was serialized on The Huffington Post in 2012. His blog, Postcards From Lebanon, about his experience with chemotherapy, appeared on The Huffington Post during 2013/2014.
James Stack’s poems have appeared in the Maine Review (Grand Prize winner), Ash & Bones and as part of the 22nd Annual Artists Embassy International’s Dancing Poetry Festival.
One of his short stories was a semifinalist in the New Millennium Writings.