Friday, May 12, 2017

AN ACCIDENTAL NOVELIST – Richard S. Wheeler

       It ain't the steak, it's the sizzle. I first read this sentiment decades ago as an insider's tip on how to pitch a book idea or even a completed manuscript to an agent or publishing house. It made sense at the time, cynical as I'd become with a file folder bulging with rejection slips. Thus, this sage advice prompted me to spend perhaps more creative energy than I had to spare coming up with clever titles and blurbs for my queries and cover letters.

    Amid a newspaper reporting career at the time, I'd gotten fairly good at snagging a reader's interest with the first sentence. And I knew a catchy headline when I saw one. Yet, despite my best efforts pimping my fiction with carnival come-ons, that folder of rejection slips kept getting fatter. My sizzle failed to entice anyone to try my steaks. Why? Well, to dance around the probable truth, the last thing a writer wants to admit is that he's fooling himself and that his steaks are merely gristle.

    Richard Wheeler had entered the writing game a few years before I did. We share some common ground. Both are Wisconsin boys (or were) and both were floundering in sputtering newspaper careers. We each ended up writing fiction, but Wheeler had more guts. He jumped off the creaking boxcar and headed for Fiction Junction without a map, while I rattled along to the end of the line. Today he has more than 60 published novels and a bunch of awards under his belt. Me? five books, self-published.
 
    I hadn't heard of Wheeler until recently. My favorite mystery writer, Ed Gorman, recommended his friend's literary memoir, An Accidental Novelist, which I immediately acquired. I read it raptly. Wheeler taught me a lot in this book besides introducing me to a man so much like myself it's scary--a distinct difference being his having more guts.
   Perhaps his most important lesson, which I happily share with all other aspiring novelists, is the secret of the other "Z" word. As I consider suspense a form of torture, I'll give you the word right now: Buzz.

   Buzz is the hipper version of the traditional "word of mouth." It's more effective for selling books than big-budget publicity by a big-name publisher that takes out full-page ads in literary magazines and sends an author on big-time promotional tours. Wheeler speaks from experience here, having enjoyed the luxury of big-time tours that stroked his ego, got him TV interviews and audiences with important literary lights, book-signings galore and nights in the best hotels. Despite all this, the expensive tours did little to stimulate sales of the touted books, he says.

   What did work, he claims, was the reaction of readers. If they like a book and recommend it to their friends, the sales will take off. How to get the buzz started, especially for an unknown author? Free books:

   "I believe that publishers should simply give away half of an obscure author's first printing at free bookstore signings, book festivals and other venues, and that this sort of pump-priming is the only type of promotion of obscure authors that will ultimately pay off."

   There's plenty more of value in this book for the aspiring novelist who's heading toward Fiction Junction without a map.

   I've since read several of his novels—historical fiction, under his own name, and the mysteries he publishes as Axel Brand. I've enjoyed them all. Richard S. Wheeler is a winner. 
 
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


 


12 comments:

  1. Love Richard Wheeler but did not know this book existed. Thanks. You are both winners to me.

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  2. Richard Wheeler and his work are treasures. I interviewed him at Gravetapping a few years ago and I think it turned out very well. One of the thing I learned during the interview is that Richard is one of the most polite men I have ever corresponded with. A true gentleman.

    His memoir is pretty darn good, too. So unassuming, at times lonely, but always with an upbeat nature about everything. Thanks for posting this and reminding me I should take another look at this book, Matt.

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    1. i need to read it again, too, Ben. It's been awhile (I pulled this review from my archives--and I still missed my FFB deadline, thinking yesterday was Thursday. Oy vey.

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  3. Matthew, thanks for the kind words about the memoir. I hope you are doing well. Tell me what you are up to these days.
    Regards,
    R

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    1. My pleasure, Richard. Ben's right, you are a true gentleman. I've missed your blog, sir. Wish you'd bring it back!

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  4. It's an excellent memoir and a fascinating glimpse at how publishing used to be like until fairly recently. I've read it twice and even though it's a perfectly well-rounded book, I would love to see an updated edition with new chapters with insights on Mr. Wheeler's recent novels, the end of the Skye saga, the Axel Brand books, and his life as a writer in Montana.

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    1. I agree. An update would be terrific.

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  5. Interesting post, Mathew. I would say this author is new to me but his face is very familiar. I will look into his books under both names. Especially Axel Brand, since you know I love mysteries.

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    1. I would compare the Axel Brand's "Lt. Joe Sonntag" series, which is set in Milwaukee, to McBain's 87th Precinct, Tracy.

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  6. I do like books in which writers give sensible advice (and even not-so-sensible) since years ago I thought I wanted to be a mystery writer myself, until I realized I didn't have the type of brain that the really good mystery writers have. So I console myself by reading writing advice and actual mysteries. :)

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    1. Don't sell yourself short, Yvette. One of these days, that perfect mystery that's been percolating in your subconscious will go ding ding, and it will be ready to write!

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