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Two Decades of Fiction Writing

By Irv Sternberg

Twenty years ago this month marks the official opening of the English Channel tunnel, known as the “Chunnel.” An engineering marvel at the close of the last century, the project linked England with France and all of Europe. Not coincidentally, June also marks the twentieth anniversary of my first published novel, “Deadly Passage,” about a terrorist plot to commit mayhem in the tunnel on its opening day. Release of the book was timed to coincide with the tunnel opening.

I thought I would use the occasion to recount some experiences I’ve had since launching my fiction writing career and to summarize a few lessons I’ve learned during two decades of dealing with agents, editors, booksellers and readers. I hope this will help others as they pursue their publishing careers.

The “Chunnel” has been a financial success for investors and a popular and convenient adventure for travelers who can breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and, if they wish, go on to Madrid for dinner on the same day. My novel, too, fared reasonably well, beginning with a well-attended signing at the Tattered Cover. Seated at the same ancient desk previously occupied by dozens of acclaimed authors, I was awestruck. A regional best-seller, “Deadly Passage” sold out its first edition, quickly earning back the publisher’s advance. A large-print edition, a contract with a Tokyo publisher and an option for a film solidified its success, although no movie was ever produced. Hollywood interest died, I was told, when a Manhattan-set movie with a similar plot device began production.

Nevertheless, that year, 1994, was an exciting year for me and one that left me enthused about my future as a published novelist. It was, after all, a dream come true. After thirty-three years in journalism, public relations and free-lance article writing, I had published my first novel on only my second try. (My first effort was an exercise on how to write a nonpublishable novel.) Not too shabby, I thought. Although I was sixty-six, I still had good years ahead of me, and a book-a-year for the rest of my life seemed entirely realistic.

Not exactly.

Things didn’t go as well I had hoped. After my agent declined to represent my next two books, I worked, unsuccessfully, with several other agents, finally concluding that, at my age, I couldn’t afford to spend time waiting for agents to find a publisher. I decided to publish the books myself. I established my own company, StarMount Press, and set out to write and publish more books.

But life intervened. My wife fought and defeated breast cancer. I defeated prostate cancer.   In 1999, I finally launched my career as an independent publisher with another well-attended signing at the Tattered Cover upon the release of another geopolitical thriller. But later that year I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Again, I underwent successful surgery. After a long recovery period, I returned to my goal of independent publishing.

In February 2003, I was writing a cozy when my family received devastating news: my wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I stopped working and watched her fight bravely for eight months. Her death one month after our forty-seventh anniversary left me in total despair and without any desire to continue writing.

For several years I ignored the manuscripts gathering dust in boxes near my desk. Finally, after remarrying, I returned to the unfinished cozy, “No Laughing Matter,” and published it in 2007. Two more books followed in 2008 and 2010, “Neptune’s Chariot” and “The Persian Project.” All three were Denver Post bestsellers. Two won the Colorado Authors League’s Top Hand award and one was a Colorado Book Awards finalist. A sequel to the cozy is underway. The geopolitical thrillers, featuring Clint Jagger, were published under a pen name, Mark Irving. The last three books are available on Kindle.

It’s been a long and sometimes crooked road, but I have few regrets about the path I took.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

Start early. I waited until I retired from my day job to begin writing fiction. I wish I had started earlier. Agents and publishers look for younger writers with whom they can establish long term relationships. Nevertheless, it’s never too late to start. Many published writers began their careers late in life.

Relationships don’t last forever. Don’t assume you have an agent or publisher for life. Reality intervenes and the values that originally brought you together may change eventually.

Know your agent. Before committing to an agent, research his/her background. Speak to their clients. I once engaged an agent, only to learn later she was a well-known alcoholic who withheld royalty checks. She never sold my manuscript.

Know your publisher. Only after my first book was published in Great Britain (where the novel was set), did I learn the publisher sold only to the library market and did little, if any, marketing. I had to scramble to get the book into the U.S., especially for signings I had scheduled at the Tattered Cover and other book stores on the Front Range. I’ve often speculated about what sales might have been had the publisher sold to conventional markets.

Signings can be fun—or a disaster. Nothing is more pleasurable than speaking to a filled room about your writing and chatting briefly with eager readers who’ve waited in long lines to obtain a personal message. But nothing is more miserable than sitting at a makeshift table in an almost deserted book store, waiting for someone to stop by and timidly ask you to sign. Those times don’t happen often but when they do they hurt.

Master social media. Be prepared to spend a vast amount of time doing your own marketing. Even best-selling authors devote multiple hours daily. With publishers doing less marketing and e-books on the rise, it’s in your own self-interest to utilize every tool available—Facebook, Twitter, texting, websites, blogs, e-mail, even old-fashioned telephone calls to help create the buzz that sells books.

Looking back at the age of 85, I’m glad I turned to fiction writing when I retired from my last career. I think of my novels as a legacy I’ll leave for my two children, four grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren, not to mention my two step-sons and three step-grandchildren. I hope that it may inspire someone to take the literary road.

And, I’m grateful for the doors that opened to me and the opportunity to meet other writers and share their disappointments and successes.


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