Yesterday I had the rare chance to meet one of my favorite authors, Steve Berry (The Venetian Betrayal, The Paris Vendetta, The Jefferson Key), at a program at the county library. He was there as the national spokesperson for Preservation Week, since he and his wife do a lot of fundraising for historical preservation work, but he also took some time to tell us about his upcoming novel and answer our questions about his writing process.
When I finally worked up the nerve to ask how he started writing, he said he ignored the writing impulse for years, until he finally started writing at age 35. He said his first novel was dreadful, but is still the most precious thing in the world to him because he finished it, and 99 percent of writers never finish what they start. (This sounded familiar.) He then started going to writers’ workshops to hone his craft. It took 12 years and 85 rejections before he was published. Since then, he has published 11 international thrillers. For each novel, he researches about 400 books on the topic he has chosen, and he makes at least two journeys to the countries that are featured to vet sites and look for extra information. At any given time, he is working on three novels: the one he is currently writing, one for which the concept is being fleshed out, and one that is in the conceptual stage. Sometimes the last completed novel makes a fourth in the mix if it is still in the editing stages. (An interesting statistic/sign of the times: Steve said 70 percent (!) of his sales come from e-books.)
With age 35 looming in the windshield, some of what he said about getting started hit a little close to home. As far as fiction goes, I have not written so much as a short story since I was a senior in college. When I was a kid, I loved to spend hours writing. I was constantly beginning grandiose novels full of good, beautiful (boring) heroines in times gone by who wore a dazzling array of costumes and were loved by good, handsome (boring) men. Later I experimented with some poetry (which was awful, and I am sorry if I forced you to read it). There was no doubt in my mind that I would be an author. My inner would-be novelist was scared off in 1998 by a creative writing class with the typical quota of know-it-alls. I had outgrown the beautiful, boring heroines and had no idea what I wanted to write about now, really, and it was probably a combination of lack of life experience and being scared to really write what I felt that led it to be a lackluster experience for me.
Even so, writing a novel has always been on the bucket list. I planned to force myself to sit down and do it, NaNoWriMo style, last October, but then was cast in “A Christmas Story” at the community theater, so that was put on hold. I had high hopes for June, but am now torn between that and auditioning for a musical this summer. I have to admit I am scared of beginning the process and finding out that my ideas — or my ability to communicate them — are no good, or that I lack imagination to come up with something I will be proud of and actually show to someone else. Fear of failure is a dangerous enemy for a wannabe creative who is also a perfectionist.
I told Steve Berry I took what he said to heart, since I would be 35 soon. “The same age as me when I started,” he said. “What have you written?”
Hmmm -do I answer with theatre blog, personal blog, or the real answer, “not the novel(s) I should have written by now”? I think I responded with something close to (quoting J.K. Rowling) “Mimble wimble.” It’s not fun to have to admit you’re scared to start to someone you admire, folks.
It’s hard to remember sometimes that my writing style is much different at age 35 than it was at age 21, and my outlook on the world is wildly different. A lot has happened in 14 years. I think just getting started at all will be a huge step in the right direction. Advice from other writers (or anyone else!) is certainly welcome! How did you get started and/or overcome insecurities?