David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: Novels

Michael Vance Gurley, author

Michael Vance Gurley on Publishing His Historical Gay Hockey Novel

We first met Michael Vance Gurley when he won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Anderson’s Bookshop (one of our favorite bookstores) in Naperville, IL. When he pitched us a book about Chicago, The Roaring Twenties, and a gay hockey player with a deep, dark secret, we were hooked. We were sure it was a book. And now, lo and behold, his book The Long Season is out. So we thought we’d pick Michael’s brain about his road to publication.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?

Michael Vance Gurley: I remember specifically wanting to be a writer in the 7th grade, giving horror movie fan fiction to kids, who loved it and wanted more, meaning it was either good or twisted enough for the junior high mind. Creative writing classes helped add depth and purpose to characters and plots that didn’t have a machete in them. I wrote comic books, and learned the value of research, plot design, and character development. After taking a break to work around the clock for years, I decided it was time to stop working so hard at not writing and started a novel. I didn’t know how to structure it. For comics, there were templates online, so I looked there because the Internet has all the answers! Well, maybe not all, but I did some research into writing strategies for novels, like the snowflake method, which was helpful to construct an outline and character sheets. Really, the idea to write about a hockey player from the Roaring Twenties struggling to be his true self, while surrounded by all the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age and the excitement of the sports world, was so strong in my head it was like I was writing it even when I wasn’t. The simple answer is I haven’t learned to be a writer yet, as much as I continually learn to be one. My editor would agree!

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?

MG: I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and wanted to be him, seemingly able to control minds. My dad’s family is from Mississippi, and after school let out, I spent summers in the South. It was like I hung up my shoes and had a Huck Finn life every summer, so I related to those guys and their wild adventuring. Horror grabbed my attention at a far too early age. I remember reading Stephen King’s Misery and It all night long. I couldn’t put them down. What I read most were comic books. I devoured old Batman, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. My cousins and uncles gave me boxes of books to read. I vividly remember spreading them out, that wonderful four color processing smell of old comics filling the room, and reading them over and over.

TBD: What are you reading right now?

MG: I love to read and am always reading two or three things at once. I am into classics, sci-fi, YA, steampunk, and pretty much anything. Right now, I’m reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a deep look at the underground gay life of Paris in the 1950s. It was so courageously written, and even though it might draw harsh criticism about demonizing gay life today, it broke ground. I’m also reading Star Trek: Sight Unseen, which follows Riker after the Next Generation movies. He’s such a powerful character, and he inspires me when I need to think of something commanding for a character to say. There’s also an incredibly diverse cast with ridiculous tongue-twister names, which help me free my mind when world building, like I’m doing with my next book. I like to alternate classics or serious novels with fun reads, or just do both at the same time while grabbing a comic book in between.

TBD: Your novel has such a cool and unusual story; how did you come up with the idea for your book?

MG: The 1907 Kenora Thistles gave me the idea. They were a ragtag, underdog hockey team who won the Stanley Cup, back when you could just challenge the champs for a shot at the Cup without having a whole season. One of the boys, Art Ross, grew up to have the leading scorer trophy with his name on it. I was looking at a hockey history book and passed a lot of old team photos until I flipped the page to this one. Back then color photography was more rare than now, a little costly, and exposure times were longer, so people were more conscientious about their poses. They were more intentional in a portrait sense of photography, and less selfie. Their team photo displays these macho iron man athletes, some with their legs curled and draped over each other in what today would be considered an effeminate manner. One of them was not looking straight at the camera, but at another player. In a flash, I thought, what if those two players had a secret? I had to write that story. I changed the time period and location because my story had to take place on my favorite team in my city! But that photo moment is in the book. Sometimes you walk through a museum and pass a hundred paintings and barely glimpse them until you get to the one, and you just know. It was too powerful an image for me to leave uncaptioned.

TBD: What were some of the joys and pitfalls of writing your first novel?

MG: Since The Long Season is a period piece, I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history buff, which meant digging into the cost of a cab ride in the 1920s or what gay life had been like in Chicago was exciting. It actually took up quite a bit of writing time because the net is an infinite suck hole if you let it be, or a fount of information if you take the time to cross-reference. It took me six months of actual writing to get to the final moment in my book, but I feel like I had been writing it in my head for a long time before that. It would fill my mind as I did other things, thinking about what would happen if I tweaked one thing or another. Writing the outline and being able to create whatever I wanted was thrilling. I don’t recall worrying too much about what to do next with a character, or having writer’s block often, since I wrote such extensive outlines. I felt amazing as I wrote the last line, knowing in my soul I accomplished what I wanted with these people.

Then editing woke me back up. Most of the pitfalls happened after the first draft, with learning to let go of bad ideas or weak paragraphs when an editor or trusted friend reviewed it. It brings the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ to a whole new level when they are your darlings what need killing. The art of creating is great. The art of destroying so you can create anew is terrifying.

All that led me to the biggest joy: winning The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza, a pitch contest where you get 60 seconds to win them over, in front of a crowd. Your presentation needs to be tight and powerful. They helped connect me to a great editor who shared my vision. I looked for an agent and publisher for about a year, getting rejection letters with great notes in them, while working a time-consuming job. Marketing takes so much effort. It was heartbreaking, but I believe working with my editor, Jerry Wheeler, made my novel ready to compete. The Book Doctors made an introduction to the right publisher, who has loved my work and ideas. Like my favorite band sings, “I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

TBD: How did you go about selling your book?

MG: That’s the difficult thing! I thought painting the idea into the written book was so hard I had to make a life goal about it. The real work is struggling to learn the process of finding an agent or publisher, turning hundreds of pages into punchy one-liners and two-page synopses. I entered the Pitchapalooza contest at Anderson’s Bookshop and won, which provided me with insight about what to do next. I also took a seminar on marketing yourself in publishing. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I sent pages to countless places before someone said yes to me. Then the contract came! Although I was so excited and ready, I heeded advice and had an entertainment lawyer help out. It doesn’t become smooth sailing after you get a publisher. They will market, and so will you.

I started simple by establishing a base of potential fans on Facebook by finding authors like me and groups that share my genre, and friending/joining them. I made some great connections by liking author book pages and having them like mine. I contacted many of them directly and just asked. Now my posts reach hundreds of people. I did research about blogs and review sites that would take small press books to review, and I started contacting them. I am scheduling interviews for a blog tour with some giveaways. I arranged a book release party at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL for June 15th at 7 p.m. Anderson’s is the bookstore where it all started for me. I’m on the board at Youth Outlook, which runs drop-in locations and education programs for LGBT youth, and I am donating the event proceeds to them, to hopefully turn my potential success into something that benefits what I believe in. There will be press coverage. You have to have faith that the grass roots efforts will pay off in great reviews, which will drive sales.

TBD: Are you working on a new project?

MG: One of my writing goals is to challenge myself by working on vastly different projects each time. A sequel might be wonderful and would be easier to do. I even have a name for it–The Long Season: Overtime! Maybe later. My current novel is a steampunk, young adult, planned trilogy featuring LGBT main characters. I wrote some of it in comic book form back when I was self-publishing, and the interconnected world I built never left my mind. It is a much more complex plot than The Long Season and goes back further in time to the Victorian age. The research is intense, and of course, a wonderful distraction since I love history. The nice thing in speculative fiction is it is all right if I twist history to my needs even more than I deviated from known facts in The Long Season. Then I plan to swing wide to edit a first draft I’ve written for a children’s picture book, and then I plan a coming of age novel set in private school. I want to keep writing things I want to read. I want the next box of new books I open from the publisher to fill me with the same joy The Long Season did. It might be smarter to stick to a genre and make a name like James Patterson did in crime, but even he branched out into YA and other things, and that’s what I feel my path to be. Turn and face the strange! Changes.

TBD: How did working with special-needs kids influence your writing your book?

MG: The funniest work connection was when I let our COO know my novel had been signed. One of the first things he asked was whether it was about our school. I laughed because even though confidentiality is a large issue in special education, it would make an excellent book. He then reminded me in a half joking manner, that if I did, I’d be sued! I think writers put some of themselves into their work; my knowledge of how children relate to each other in times of stress, how they feel about adults in power, or when they are in need influenced how my characters relate to their worlds. Being a clinician and an educator helps me get into that headspace. The main protagonist, Brett, suffers from terrible obsessive compulsions, decades before anyone knew what OCD was or what to do about it. That came from my life of seeing so many struggle, desperate for help and a place to fit in. I want to make sure that my characters feel real to me. People that may seem unlikeable to others, or that have different methods of engaging in their environments than the norm, are what I am used to, so that’s what I write. The more someone has it figured out, the less intriguing they are to me. It’s all about the process of exploring problem solving, relationships, and responsibility in a world that is collapsing around you in a real way. And I think those things must come somewhat from my work, or maybe from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.

TBD: What were some things you learned from working with your editor?

MG: I learned not to fear the red pen or track changes in a Word document. Feedback is your friend and lots of it does not mean there is a lack of talent. I came to grips with my story being the art form, and the grammar being the frame that holds it all together. With the grammar, I needed help. My editor is very good with not only the structure, but I learned to trust in his instincts to chop when needed. A writer writes and wants there to be a lot of it. An editor doesn’t rewrite or try to change your ideas, but helps you cull what doesn’t need to be there or may be detracting. My editor did research into the time period I was using to convey my story and became an expert on the anachronistic issues of writing historical fiction of the Jazz Age. My favorite note was when I tried to write the phrase, “Rain on my parade,” into it and he reminded me that I was using a Streisand song from 1964. I laughed out loud and left him a comment when I sent it back saying I thought it qualified as the gayest correction in the whole book! So we had some fun with it.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

MG: Learn to write. It may sound flippant, but it is so true. I think after a few rounds of editing, we got down to the writing errors of the meat, and I grew frustrated seeing hundreds of instances of ‘that’ deleted. I protested, until I read the sentences out loud, hung my head, and started reading grammar guides. It sounds strange, but Mark Twain said something about replacing all the instances of ‘very’ with ‘damn’ so the editor could do with them what should be done!

It is equally as useful to point out how patience and politeness pay off. When sending your work to an agent or publisher, there is a long period of waiting afterward. When you get a contract, there’s more waiting for editing windows and print dates. When I was shopping around, I received great advice from agents, and even other authors. When they came in the form of a rejection letter, the instinctive response can be one of anger and denial, but I thanked them with openness and gratitude for taking time to write anything at all. It’s a small world. I can draw lines between people who have helped me and some who rejected me. I was polite in my responses and patient in my timing, and I feel that it paid off in having none of those connections snap like a twig. I wrote back and forth to some authors, asking for advice. Bart Yates and Jay Bell are two of my favorite authors and they answered a lot of questions in emails. I have more stories like that than stories when someone treated me poorly.

Michael Vance Gurley was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveler, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.

Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever traveling abroad.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Author Alice Carbone

Alice Carbone on Building Community, Writing, Sex, and Getting a Book Deal

I first met Alice Carbone when we connected about sex and addiction. I spent a lot of my life being addicted and having sex. Then trying to not be addicted and not have sex. We soon found out that we were cut from the same cloth, in many ways. She told me she was working on a novel. But then, everyone tells me they’re working on a novel. Approximately 0.1% of the people who tell me they’re working on a novel actually write the novel and get it published. But that’s the kind of person Alice is. Not only did she tell me she was going to write a novel, she wrote the novel and got published by a fantastic publisher. Now that her book is out, I thought I’d pick her brain to see how she’s doing with books and sex and addiction.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

 Author Alice CarboneBook cover of The Sex Girl by Alice Carbone

David Henry Sterry: This is your first novel. How exciting was it when the box of books showed up?

Alice Carbone: It’s funny that you ask that, because due to uncontrollable circumstances, I still haven’t received the ‘famous box.’ But I did hold the actual book in my hands during the book launch at Book Soup in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. In fact, during the event I talked about learning how to accept life obstacles as part of our path, and I guess the box is one such obstacle. I can’t wait to open it.

[Aside from interviewer. This came in a couple of days ago from Alice: “I just wanted to tell you that I have just received THE BOX and I am beyond excited. I cried. It finally feels real and makes me feel very proud and hopeful for the future — something that doesn’t necessarily come easy, natural to me. There is a book on my lap as I’m writing this, and a smile on my face.”]

DHS: How did you go about getting your first novel published?

AC: After an endless number of rejections and almost giving up, my publisher, Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books, took the time to read it and shortly after emailed me back; he wanted to publish The Sex Girl. And the most interesting part of the publishing process was working with an editor for the first time. I looked forward to it for a long time, to learning more about language structure and writing; English not being my native language. My editor, Julia Callahan, and I had a very productive dialogue that helped shape the novel.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but did you draw a lot from your own life when writing about difficult subjects like sex and addiction?

AC: I understand why people ask. At the end of the book, I wrote a personal message to my readers where I say that I have myself suffered from alcoholism, depression, addiction and eating disorders; as a consequence, my sexual life wasn’t idyllic. What a portrait, huh? However, the story is fictional; the main character, K, is fictional. What is not fictional are the feelings in the book. They are very personal and — hopefully — at once universal. I always felt voiceless growing up. So with this novel, I took my voice back and tried — at the same time — to give a voice to all those women I met along the way, women who have not been blessed, like me, with recovery, tools and some serenity. It was a healing process, too. I am very different from the Alice who wrote it five years ago.

DHS: Your book was the number one novel at one of Los Angeles’s most influential bookstores, Book Soup. How did you go about building community, arriving as you did a few years ago in such a strange place from another country, another world?

AC: When I moved to Los Angeles in 2010, I started a blog called WonderlandMag. The publication then became Coffee with Alice, but the purpose of what I was doing has never changed, which is to communicate with my readers with honesty. I’ve never been afraid to show my vulnerability when it came to the written word. At times I wish I were, because looking back to the essays I wrote over the years, I often feel somewhat naked.

Now, to give you an example and possibly explain why The Sex Girl jumped to number one at Book Soup, during the celebratory afternoon I shared with the audience about my recent, severe depression, with humor and yet candid truth. I also told them what I was doing to heal and go back to regular life. I discussed the many obstacles this book has encountered and admitted that seeing obstacles in life is something I unconsciously (or consciously) tend to do. I wrote The Sex Girl in a language, English, that isn’t my native one. But instead of being proud and enjoying the journey of learning, I felt stupid and dragged my self-imposed burden with shame. Some readers have identified with my story since day one; others have grown to appreciate my slow improvement with time. I believe that the key is always speaking with your heart, whether you are writing fiction, interviewing an artist or making music.

The heart never lies; people pick up on truth more than anything else. It may not pay off right away, but it never goes unrewarded.

DHS: How did you learn to become a writer?

AC: Ah! I am still learning and always will be. But I always lived in my own world, in my own head, since I was a kid and did not particularly like the world around me. I used to tell impossible stories. I tried to be a singer; I wrote my own songs, and yet my singing voice isn’t at all extraordinary. But writing has always been healing for me, whether in the form of poetry, short stories or lyrics for a song. The world of the novel opened up a new, fantastic universe of possibilities.

DHS: What are your some of your favorite books and authors, and why?

AC: Joan Didion has been a teacher from a distance since I moved to the United States five years ago. There is something unique about the way she weighs the sentence, the number of words, the paragraph. Her rhythm is what I am after, something I try to learn from every day. And then Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Raymond Chandler, the Italian Italo Svevo — The Zeno’s Conscience is one of my favorite books, Cheryl Strayed… I am currently reading Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless, simply heartbreaking, utterly moving. But the list could continue almost ad infinitum

DHS: You’ve interviewed tons of writers for Coffee with Alice. How has this affected the way you look at writing, books and life?

AC: It has taught me about patience and humility. Every great artist that I have had the honor of interviewing for my podcast, from Janet Fitch to Jerry Stahl and Nayomi Munaweera or Royal Young, just to name a few, has taken me by the hand to show me their journey. You gave me a fantastic interview as well; it was a terrific hour of learning for me. By doing so you all gave me hope. Looking back, I realize that during the writing of The Sex Girl, at times, I aimed for the top of the mountain to such an extent that I forgot about the journey. I am trying to not make the same mistake again the second time around, now that I am writing my second novel.

DHS: How do you get such cool and interesting people to talk with you for your podcast?

AC: I ask the same question of myself! They were all kind and humble enough, from the very beginning of my career, to give me a chance. They liked my writing and believed in me. With time passing by, the podcast has gained more attention, and today I am considered more legit. For the many terrific music guests, I am lucky to have a husband, Benmont Tench, who’s a well-known keyboard player; I get to hang out with many talented artists on a daily basis. I am blessed. However, the rejections I get far outnumber the guests that appear on it. Coffee with Alice is about to go on a hiatus nonetheless; I have two more guests and then I will concentrate on just writing for a while.

DHS: What are some of the joys and difficulties of being a writer for you?

AC: What a terrific question this is! I find many difficulties, especially because my brain still goes through some kind of translation process and because my vocabulary is constantly expanding. Everything is difficult for me, in English. Having discipline is difficult for me. In fact, I try to wake every morning at 7:00 to write, to build a routine. But curiously enough, that’s also where the joy comes from — having a purpose and having written at the end of day — something that has a meaning for me, or that I know will, eventually.

What Joan Didion says in her essay “Why I Write,” “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear,” is something I can very much relate to; the more I write, the more I deepen my relationship with myself, people and this world. When I write I grow as a human being. I don’t know how this happens, but it’s fascinating, and it also helps me hold on during difficult times, when all I want to do is give up.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but what advice you have for drug addicts? Immigrants? Interviewers? Writers?

AC: I don’t like to give advice, because I am still in the process of learning myself. But I would probably tell writers to never stop writing, that the job is difficult, sometimes frustrating, often painful, but if you are a writer it will be worth the journey. Addicts and alcoholics…there is another, beautiful life that I had no idea existed. The perfect life doesn’t exist, but the one I have today is the most beautiful I could have ever wished for. Seek recovery. Immigrants…Good luck, truly, with all my heart!

Alice Carbone Tench is an Italian-born author and journalist based in Los Angeles. Former translator and interpreter from Turin, she moved to Los Angeles in 2010. Her debut novel–The Sex Girl–is out now by Rare Bird Books. She also created the interview podcast Coffee with Alice that airs twice a month on iTunes. In 2014, she was a weekly contributor to Anna David’s recovery website After Party Chat. In October 2014, Alice Carbone was the subject of a documentary aired on the Italian network RAI with Moby and bestselling author Jerry Stahl. When nominating her for the Shorty Awards 2014, radio legend Phil Hendrie defined her literary voice as ‘Columbia’s… in love with America again.’ Alice is currently working on her second novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, keyboard player Benmont Tench.You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

 

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