Project Publication: Who is Harrison Sawyer

Project Publication: Who is Harrison Sawyer


Thanks to for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: What are five flaws that will keep an agent or editor from considering your manuscript? Jacqueline Patterson

AARON: I think, if you asked five different authors or editors or publishers this question, each would have a different answer for you. However, I think there are some pretty standard reasons for rejection. For me, these five really stand out when I’m reading for publication purposes:

  1. Cliche descriptions and story set ups. If I feel like I’ve already read a hundred stories like this one, I’m not interested.
  2. Melodramatic writing. I’m not a fan of “tears running like rivers.” Overwriting is a sign of a lack of confidence on the writer’s part.
  3. Too much telling. These novels read more like summaries. I want to experience the action, not be told about it.
  4. Lack of careful proofreading. When I see all sorts of errors, it makes the author seem careless, and I’m dubious about working with them. Also, I wouldn’t want to do that to my editor friends. 🙂
  5. Boring dialog and character interaction. If the dialog doesn’t pop, and the characters are stock, I’m not interested. I want to know immediately that the characters are real and unique and speak in a way that is consistent with who they are.

AL: There are many reasons a manuscript may be rejected. Here are a few of the biggies:

  1. Your story starts off slow then bogs down from there.
  2. Sloppy point of view.
  3. Unrealistic behavior of characters.
  4. Confusing action.
  5. The story has little or no conflict/urgency.
  6. (Bonus) Lack of an original idea.

MOLLY: I have minimal experience with this so far. I agree with what’s already been said, and I would like to add presentation. I think if your approach is less than professional or substandard, if your query is out of the norm, that may blow you out of the water right away and then won’t matter how good your manuscript is. You have to bring not only a great manuscript, but great skills and etiquette to the table. That’s how you get people’s attention.

Firsts in Fiction

Project Publication: Who is Harrison Sawyer?

Al: I’ve commandeered the podcast tonight so I can play the role of interviewer, and our illustrious host Aaron Gansky, is going to be our guest. That’s right. Aaron is a guest on his own program.

Why do this? Well, here at Firsts in Fiction we talk not only about technique and the art of fiction, but we talk about the world of publishing. So, since Aaron has a book that hits the market today, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the birth of a novel. So Molly and I are going to interview him about the behind the scenes work that went into making Who is Harrison Sawyer.

So, Aaron, I welcome you to your own show. Kinda weird, huh?

Aaron: Strange, indeed, but fun. I’ll try not to sink the quality of such a prestigious program.

Al: Who is Harrison Sawyer is your latest novel but it is not your first book. If my count is right, you’ve published 6 books–4 novels and co-authored 2 nonfiction works about writing. Do I have that right?

Aaron: 4 novels, yes, and two books on the craft of writing, but only one of those was co-authored. I co-wrote Write to Be Heard with Diane Sherlock, a friend of mine from Antioch University where I got my MFA.

Al: This podcast is about a book’s journey to publication. Tell our listeners a little about the book itself. Give us an elevator pitch.

Aaron: So here’s an abbreviated version of the back cover copy: Desperate to rediscover his estranged son, Marshall Sawyer agrees to finish the autobiography Harrison began before his untimely death. But the passages described in the book do not match the life Marshall remembers with his son. As he begins to investigate, he soon discovers a dangerous plot — one that puts his life in danger and the future of America at risk.

Al: How long had you been living with the story before getting a publisher for it?

Aaron: I began the book while I was at Antioch University in Los Angeles working on MFA. Steve Heller (the chair of the MFA program) was my mentor. He rarely took more than two or three students each semester, and he got first pick. So for him to choose me was a big deal and I really wanted to impress him.

I gave him the first chapter of Harrison Sawyer, and he wasn’t impressed. He had some notes. A lot of notes. I essentially rewrote the whole thing.

MJ: Just for grins and giggles, Aaron, because we’ve had this discussion a few times, I’d like to ask: How many rewrites did Harrison Sawyer go through?

Aaron: Oh man. I didn’t count. I’d estimate, on the conservative side, that I did about five drafts of early chapters at Antioch. Once I got the contract from my publisher, which we will talk about later, I’m sure, I didn’t have a lot of time. The deadline put me on a clock. So I did two good drafts, and then began the editing process. Of course, if you think about it, I had five or six false starts (maybe more) years earlier.

Anyway, Steve didn’t like the second draft any better. He said the voice was wrong (this was after the “Voice Whisperer” had told me I’d found my voice–of course this project was vastly different than the story I’d turned into her).

Al: Tell us again about the “voice whisperer.”

Aaron: So we talked about this last week. At Antioch, we worked in a type of a mentorship model. Each of the faculty would take on a number of students and mentor them in their writing throughout the semester. One was famed as being “the voice whisperer.” She’d developed a reputation as being a hard-nosed but caring mentor who helped new writers find their own voice. I’d taken a workshop with her, and she approved of my piece. She was very impressed with the voice in the submission.

Al: So what did your professor advise?

He had me do several writing exercises to try to get the project to where it needed to be.

MJ: Can you describe some of these exercises? They may help our listeners with their projects.

Good question. I’d be hard pressed to remember them all. Really, I remember him having me write disconnected scenes of important events in Harrison’s life so that I understood him better. It’s a real challenge to develop a character who is dead. Really, the reader only sees Harrison in the prologue. Everything else about him is unearthed as the story progresses by other characters. He was a mystery to everyone, including me.

Ultimately, Steve told me, in no uncertain terms, “It’s time to kill the project. Move on to something else. This will never be good enough.”

Al: That had to hurt.

Dreams crushed, I put the idea out of mind for years. But when my agent asked what I was working on other than Hand of Adonai, I polished up the idea. It never really stopped bugging me. Maybe the years away from the project were what I needed. But this draft was much stronger.

Al: For years I’ve taught that the best story ideas are those that haunt the writer. Do you find that to be true?

Aaron: I would agree. There are several “old” projects I started and abandoned them. Most of them were quite content to stay abandoned. I think they like the quiet. But this piece kept coming back to me. It was the first one I thought of when my agent asked me to polish of a proposal for something other than a Hand of Adonai novel.

MJ: What was it about this story that kept at you?

I love the core concept: a father rediscovering his estranged son after a two decade silence. Something about it really spoke to me. It’s a set-up rife with grief and hope. I felt like it had the pathos–the appeal to the reader’s emotions–to really be something special.

But, because it’s not in my normal genre (it’s a bit of a political conspiracy thriller), I felt like a fish out of water writing the thing. I knew fans of this type of novel would call me out on it, that they would see me for the sham I am. I couldn’t get Steve’s voice out of my mind. The project wasn’t worthwhile. I actually worried that the publisher would send it back and say, “Never mind. We’re not interested.”

Al: How did you deal with this storm of doubt? And let’s go the next step: What would you say to writers who struggle with the same kind of doubts?

Aaron: I dealt with it the only way I knew how: keep going. That’s what you taught me, Pops. If the going gets tough, roll up your sleeves and keep going. I’d signed a contract, so I had work to do. The way I kept going was to do some research and to continue writing. I had to rework the draft as I went from time to time, but saved major revisions for later (Molly!). Also, I went to my comfort zone: characters. The more I delved into the characters in this story, the more I realized it was about them. The genre didn’t matter as much as they did.

And I’d say the same thing to any other writer struggling with doubt. Doubt will always haunt you. So tell it to shut its face because you’re busy writing. Roll up your sleeves and keep going. Do some research. And then find your comfort zone. What is it about your project that haunted you? Focus on that. Develop that. Stay where you’re strong. The weak parts will rise to the occasion.

Al: Okay, so you decide to go with the project regardless of doubts and what your professor said. What did you do then that you hadn’t done in the book before?

I tried multiple drafts, wrote and rewrote, researched, read, until I found the sweet spot. For me, that meant adding more characters. I brought in the antagonist and gave him his own POV. I gave Harrison’s wife her own POV. Between these three POVs, the book took on a larger scale, but the scope was limited enough to keep the mystery alive. It took me a while to find that formula, and it’s one I was familiar with because of what I’d done with the Hand of Adonai series. This, I think, was also part of my comfort zone.

Al: Did you shop the idea through a proposal? Did you finish the book after or before you had a contract?

Aaron: Because I was neck deep in the next installment of the Hand of Adonai series, I didn’t want to take a break to embark on a new project. I wanted to finish HOA up first. But I figured publication was a long-term game, and I should start now if I wanted to have a contract for it at any point in the future. Then I could finish HOA while I waited. So I put together a proposal. And in the process of doing so, I found the right voice that the novel had been lacking.

I was fortunate enough to land a contract with LPC soon after I sent them the proposal, which meant I did have to put HOA on the shelf for a bit. But, ultimately, I came to love this project.

Al: Tell us about your publisher and the process of acceptance.

Aaron: I was surprised it came so quickly. It was probably a month or less. That’s far from normal. And this was the first time I’d sold a book without having a completed manuscript. The contract they offered was pretty standard. My agent and I looked over it, and because we’d sold so many other books to LPC, we already knew what to expect, and they’re super easy to work with over there.

Al: Can you estimate how much time you spent on this project? I know it sat in a drawer for awhile, but did the whole process take years?

Aaron: I’m not going to count shelf time. It would depress me if I did. I think I began it in 2008. I worked on it for about half a semester, so maybe three months. Then, the process of the proposal took about a week, maybe two. The first draft took me close to three or four months. I’m not the fastest writer, but I’m also not the slowest. Revision took another few weeks, and then we started the editing process, which we recently finished. Of course, that’s not all active editing time. That’s a lot of waiting.

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