Today’s interview is with John Lawson, the co-founder of Raw Dog Screaming Press. RDSP has been in the publishing for a decade and has released works from no less than 38 authors. They’re here today to share their insight on the publishing business.
He2etic: I usually start with a qualifier. Can you tell us how many years experience you’ve had, what you’ve published and what publishing companies/free lance work you’ve done?
John: Our publishing company, Raw Dog Screaming Press, is celebrating its tenth year in business. During that time we’ve published over a hundred titles ranging from paperbacks and hardcovers to limited editions, along with numerous chapbooks.
The company’s focus has been to release work that other publishers won’t handle because it is difficult to categorize and market, so we’ve handled collections and novels in a wide range of genres, be it from mass market authors or first-timers.
“…in recent years marketing departments are starting to decide what books get signed, as opposed to experienced editors being able to choose what material to work with.”
I have edited six anthologies for a number of companies, in addition to doing freelance editing for the National Lampoon book line and sports biographies. Jennifer has edited two anthologies, and together they ran a literary journal called The Dream People for four years.
Additionally, Jennifer and myself are authors in their own right working in fiction, poetry, and freelance articles.
He2etic: Do you face a lot of story ideas that are just too common? Stuff that, even if well written, is pending rejecting just because it’s overdone?
John: The most common stories we receive–either in short fiction or novel format–involve an author losing their mind, or a serial killer story. And while some of them are original and compelling… there’s just too much of it already.
For some reason we don’t receive zombie fiction, but judging from what the other publishers are putting out it seems that is reaching the point of being overdone as well. Somewhere out there somebody is reading this and thinking, “I’ll write a story that combines zombies, a writer losing their mind, and a serial killer!”
And hey, it might be great. Who knows.
Usually it’s more in the telling of the story than the story itself. We’ve taken plots that, in less capable hands, would certainly have just turned out to be “the same old thing.” We’re lucky to work with very skilled authors.
He2etic: What’s your opinion on the value of literary cliches versus something that’s too original (ie, kind of out there)? Any advice on striking a balance?
John: Well, a reader generally seems to need “the familiar” as a point of reference. And when it comes to advertising departments the more familiar the better–in recent years marketing departments are starting to decide what books get signed, as opposed to experienced editors being able to choose what material to work with.
“Here’s a secret: publishing is a battle of attrition. The people who are around in ten years become “the people”–know what I mean?”
Anyway. The main thing is that a story should be grounded in some kind of internal logic, which is generally borrowed from familiar situations such as cliches. We work with a lot of surrealism and absurdism, and when you dissect it that work all maintains an internal logic.
Otherwise it just becomes exhibitionism and you lose the reader because they feel you’re either making fun of them or telling your parents off in the form of a novel. So, there’s a fine line. You can pretty much get away with anything and make people love it if they feel as though there’s a “reason” for why things happen, even if the reason isn’t immediately clear.
He2etic: What’s the single biggest mistake most budding authors make in your opinion?
John: They give up.
Now, there are many varieties of giving up. They stop writing, they stop pushing themselves to increase their abilities, they stop listening to their own voice and chase after imitating others, they stop listening to others and get lost chasing the sound of their own voice.
In other words, things get out of balance. There’s no clock to punch, there’s no job full of workmates and supervisors structuring your time, providing guideposts.
Figuring out what your next move is can be confusing, and it becomes easy to lose your way. Most people who make a splash in the writing scene disappear after two years.
All that momentum, lost, presumably because they don’t achieve Stephen King’s wealth in that amount of time and lose hope.
“You have that exact moment… when you realize you’re no longer reading as work but have engaged in leisure reading.”
Now consider all the people who don’t even reach the point of “making a splash” in the scene (getting published in the independent magazines, anthologies, and so forth). Here’s a secret: publishing is a battle of attrition. The people who are around in ten years become “the people”–know what I mean?
Stick with it while all the others fall away, and soon you’re considered an old pro with everybody looking to see what your next story is.
He2etic: Do you ever have that golden moment while reading a manuscript or draft that just screams, “I have to have this”? Any patterns in it?
John: Yes, that has happened before! When Jeremy C. Shipp sent me his debut novel Vacation hoping for a blurb. Sitting there reading the manuscript it became clear we couldn’t permit anyone else to get their hands on it.
You have that exact moment described in the question above, this epiphany as your are judging a contest or reading submissions or evaluating the work of an associate, when you realize you’re no longer reading as work but have engaged in leisure reading.
The manuscript is advanced enough that you’re not stumbling over things to edit/fact check/rewrite/etc. The reading has become a matter of fun, the way it’s supposed to be as a reader! Which is often rare while on the job as an editor.
Is there still editing work to be done? Sure, there always is, usually minor stuff, but you tend to be seeing characters and situations that feel entirely real, and the plot moves quickly enough to be entertaining regardless of genre.
He2etic: A number of authors are working on their first novel. Any advice?
John: Finish it!
Not turning out how you intended? Doesn’t matter if it’s not finished! Not fun anymore? How much fun is looking back on it years later only to say you invested time in writing a book, but stopped with nothing to show for it.
And writing the novel doesn’t mean that you finished it. Fixing all the sentences, ensuring scenes make sense to readers who don’t see what you conceived first in your head, eliminating or adding bits to improve the flow or compensate for other issues…essentially, going through revisions, no matter how heavy. That is seeing things through to the end.
Getting opinions from readers and writers about how it reads (without flipping out on them!), and reaching a point where you can let it sit without doing more editing… that’s finishing it.
I’ve watched authors waste years over-editing their first novel. That’s no good. It’s safe to stop, to let go, to begin the process with another project.
That’s all the time we have for today. Special thanks go out to John Lawson and Jennifer Barnes of Raw Dog Screaming Press for their great advice! We’d also like to give a very big thanks to freelance editor Hanna Gribble (@HannaEdits, and on Facebook).
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