Tim Applegate on Being an Author
Tim Applegate gives around four poetry readings per year, plus novel presentations, plus speaking engagements at writing groups such as Writers’ Mill. We were delighted to welcome him to our July 2017 meeting, and he assured us that writers’ group engagements were pleasantly lowkey and fun.
Tim started his writing career in high school. He enjoyed the well-known romantic poets (Keats, Wordsworth…) and, encouraged by a friend, sent poems of his own to national literary journals. Two were published, and his career plan was made—poetry, short stories, novels, and then SUCCESS! But it didn’t work out that way. After seven years of writing poetry, short fiction, and even a novel (at age 28), everything had been rejected.
Writing can give us a huge boost, but it can also give us unpleasantly negative exposure. Writers MUST be able to accept constructive criticism. They must move from
- Denial – nobody understands me – to
- Acceptance – Tim says he was teaching himself to write with his early pieces, and they just weren’t very good (perhaps he’s his own worst critic) – to
- Learning to do better.
Tim did this by reading, editing professional poets (and beginners—learning in the process that we all end up writing bad imitations of our favorite authors), and continuing to write. In his 30s he finally wrote a poem that felt like his own voice (not a bad imitation), and told his wife he’d turned a corner (by writing a bad poem!).
Tim’s poetry is published in many journals. He sends poems out in batches of six or seven and feels thrilled if one or two are accepted. An editor who showcased Tim’s poems in our journal encouraged him to look for publishers of his own. Soon he was working with an editor, getting seriously involved with the Oregon poetry community, and lining up readings.
Tim learned from reading that at age 28 he didn’t know how to write a novel. There’s more to it than just setting up a scene and moving on to what happens next. After deciding he would never write a novel again, he got an idea 25 years later that just had to be written. It was much better than his first novel but he still won’t let anyone read it because…
- There are too many characters,
- The writing’s too dense
- It’s too deliberately literary…
So he head it to see what he’d done wrong. Wayne Stafford tells poets they have to write many bad poems before they write a good one. Perhaps the same applies to novels.
It took two years to writer Fever Tree. 30 pages in, Tim knew he’d found his style and knew this one would work. Many revisions later, many rejections later (from the big publishing houses, whose slush piles are so huge the odds are inevitably stacked against you), he searched online for MID-LEVEL PUBLISHERS—ones with real staff and real offices. Amberjack publish young adult, suspense, and genre fiction. He wasn’t sure Fever Tree fit in, but they asked for non-traditional submissions with a personal stamp so he gave it a try. They asked for the first 15 pages. Then they asked for the whole manuscript. Then they offered a contract. So, at age 63, Tim Applegate became a novelist!
He showed the contract to lawyer and expert friends. He panicked about online scams. He asked “What if?”—what if a better contract might come along later—but no, he wouldn’t turn down a real contract (would you?). He did ask for a couple of changes. No problem. He worked with a great editor. The book went into the design stage and was published a year later.
So… if you know you can write, keep writing, keep improving, and never, ever give up!
We asked Tim about marketing
- His publisher helps—the books are distributed by Ingram, Bowker etc, so they can get into libraries and bookstores (distribution by Createspace/Amazon doesn’t get your book into stores, as Jean has learned in researching her blogposts: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/9881421.Jean_Harkin/blog )
- Personal contacts help—he went to local bookstores, Powells etc
- Being part of a group helps—he is able to get readings in places where he’s read poetry before.
What does he do at a reading?
- Poetry is different from novels
- It lends itself better to short readings, and the audience if often made up of interested poets.
- Portland is saturated with readings, so novel readings might be very sparsely attended
- Tours can lead to amazing audiences outside Portland, especially if you’re the only show in town.
- He would read a group of poems at a poetry reading – a group of work poems, or hiking poems, or…
- At a novel reading, e.g. at Annie Blooms’, he would take about prose style, humor, suspense, romance… and pick short passages to illustrate each point.
- Typically a fiction audience wants to know how you write and publish, whereas a poetry audience just wants to listen.
How did he decide that his second novel wasn’t going to be published, or his “bad” poem wouldn’t be sent out?
- He might go back to rework parts, but not the whole.
- He might take pieces from the novel to reuse elsewhere.
- He might write a new poem.
Tim Applegate on Genre
Fever Tree wasn’t initially a mystery. It was a story, that might become a series, chronicling the outsiders of his generation—hippies, artists, Vietnam vets, priests who’ve lost their faith, the woman who leaves a perfect marriage… The idea and the characters came first.
Then came reading. At the start of a writing career, every chapter an author writes might read like a homage to the author they’re currently reading. Eventually you find your own voice. But other author influence, have influenced and will influence you. Sometimes it’s useful to make a list—if half the books on your list are mysteries, you’re probably interested in mystery and might write mysteries. Tim Applegate handed out his list.
Flannery O’Connor’s Wide Blood was on influence—the stranger shows up in town and becomes a mystery character. Okay, may Fever Tree was becoming a mystery.
Location’s important—Tim knows the South and wanted to set his novel there. He knows the town where he imagines is happening, except the town might not be exactly how he remembers, so he imagines a nearby similar fictional town.
So now, with location and character, Tim started writing literary fiction, realized he was heading into mystery, and had a literary mystery on his hands… with room for humor, action, sex, romance and more. Genre shouldn’t bind you; it should free you.
If you read a lot of mystery, you might end up writing mystery. But get the details right. With no background in law enforcement or gun use, Tim needed to ask questions and find out the answers. Also, don’t copy someone else’s mystery style. There are already lots of good books in every genre field; you probably can’t write “better” so write “different.” Tim’s style is literary. Fever Tree is a “non-traditional” mystery: non-traditional because:
- There’s no traditional protagonist—no Miss Marple, no Private Eye.
- There’s no traditional antagonist—no Hannibal Lecter. Even the bad guy has heart.
- Shifting points of view—traditional usually sticks to one or two.
- Shifting time—flashbacks are usually a no-no
- Poetic style—because Tim is a poet.
Of course, there are problems with a non-traditional style:
- The “traditional” segment of the market will reject your novel after the first three pages
- Your story’s not going to be light and fun—the reader has to work at it.
- When people ask “What’s your book like?” there’ll be no simple answers.
Find your own style. Choose your own audience. Don’t try to be all things to everyone. Be yourself and be a writer!
Tim took questions from the audience again:
Is writing hard?
- Going down a mineshaft every day is hard. Getting shot at in Vietnam is hard.
- Writing is meant to be fun. We should be grateful we have time and opportunity.
- Sure we’ll get negative reviews, but be grateful we have a book to be reviewed.
- Don’t dwell on your own success or failure. Want everyone else to succeed.
What are some book tour venues?
- You might travel—he might travel with his next novel (Farewell Angelina)
- Your publisher might have suggestions.
- Get invitations from people who know you
- Visit bookstores, coffee shops, libraries
- Use all your contacts, and enjoy the fact that Oregon is very author-friendly
Does he have an agent?
- There’s no money in poetry so no.
- It’s hard to get one as a novelist unless you’ve already been published
What does he put in a poetry collection?
- About ¾ previously published work, ¼ new poems
- Publishers want you to be previously published – it proves you have a track record.
- A short book might include poetry and short (poetic) fiction.
What is he doing now?
- Researching a third book while the second one “rests.” (Leave the manuscript alone for 3 months before looking at it again.)
- Enjoying his website designed by his daughter.
- Contact him at email@example.com if you want her to design yours!
Thank you so much Tim for a wonderful talk, and for sharing so much of your writing life with us!