So I went to this writers’ conference called “Western Writers of America” in 1996. To tell the truth I was feeling a bit out of place, but I was actually NOT the only black person there. A black woman attended also. More about her in a moment…

Well, I’m a networking kinda guy, so I went around the main rooms and introduced myself to maybe half of the 300+ attendees, including two elder authors named Norman Zollinger and Elmer Kelton – who just happened to be the biggest Western writers in the universe at the time.

So let’s go back to that woman. She was the only other black person in the whole conference and she was just standing there sipping orange juice, so – you know me – I went over there and introduced myself. It went something like this:

“Hi, I’m Jeffrey and I’m an author.”

“I’m Jacqueline Johnson with Walker and Company.”

“You’re a publisher?” I said. “Wow! I have a book I’m trying to get published.”

“What’s it about?”

Well, I floundered for a while (because I didn’t have a 30-second pitch ready) until she finally gave me a business card and told me to send her my manuscript.

And… BLAM! Just like that I got my second book published by the first and only publisher I pitched. In hardcover. By a New York publisher. By a black author. Featuring a black hero. To my knowledge that has never happened before or since in the history of the galaxy.

By the way, I later wrote to those world-renowned authors, Zollinger and Kelton, to ask them to blurb my new book. At first they didn’t remember me, but when I described myself – brown skin, no hair, big smile (this became my marketing tagline over the years) – they both remembered me instantly out of the hundreds of conference attendees. Both graciously agreed to help an aspiring author get on the charts.

If you think this was a crazy get-published story, wait until you hear how I got my third and fourth books published. And if you have a story on how you “accidentally” got published, send me 300 words and your byline and let’s tell aspiring writers there are many paths to the goal line.

People always ask: “How do you [write a book, find an agent, get published].” But they really want to know is, “How DID you…” People want a recipe that they can replicate. In 1991 I followed such a recipe (that still can work today) and I found an opportunity to get published quite literally by accident.

I grabbed a copy of “Writer’s Market” and made a list of 100 publishers and 100 agents that handled my genre of westerns. I know, a black man writing westerns… Crazy, huh? More on that in another blog post.

At the top of each of my lists were the big prestigious firms. Then came the mid-size publishers and agencies. Finally, small or boutique firms rounded out the rest of the “Top 100.”

I actually was accepted by Agent #33 on the list. He was an elder Jewish fellow who’s goal in life was to get a black author published. He said it was about the similarities between his ethnic history and mine. Well, he couldn’t find me a publisher so I went back to mailing queries to more agents and publishers. Then on a Wednesday morning Publisher #65 called me – and I remember the conversation clearly.

“Hey, Jeffrey,” Chris said. “I received your query letter this morning. I have an author who is going to miss his submission deadline on Friday. Can you FedEx your manuscript to me by tomorrow? If so, I can get your book in paperback.”

And… BLAM! Just like that I was a published author! But if you think this was crazy, wait till I’ll tell you how I got my second book published… by pitching to ONE publisher.

If you have a bizarre story on how you got published, send me 300 words and your byline and let’s tell aspiring writers there are many paths to the goal line.

hat n saddleIt has taken me 24 years to figure out why my first western wasn’t any good (I know, a black man who writes westerns… go figure… but more on that in a later post), but I got published that first time by pure blind luck, no two ways about it.

I just happened to send my query letter (this was in 1991 when we still mailed stuff) to an editor from a mid-size publisher in Los Angeles who had an author that was going to miss his delivery deadline. The editor called me Wednesday and asked me if I could overnight my manuscript to be prepped for his Friday deadline.

Well, I had just bought a cutting-edge new computer so I overnighted a high-tech 3.5″ floppy disk and… BLAM! I was published a month later in paperback.

Two things were missing, though: copy editing and proofreading. The editor was in such a hurry to make his deadline that he sent my manuscript into the publishing process without those key tasks.

Looking back over my 24-year writing career, every time I reread my first book I have to laugh at how amateurish it is. There were a few spelling errors that would have been picked up by even a cursory proofread, but there were glaring character and plot discrepancies that should have been corrected, too. In fact, a local newspaper had a well known western author review my book and, well, I was crushed… but I didn’t know why!

I read a lot of fiction from new authors, and I can always tell those that skipped professional copy editing and proofreading. If there are two things I recommend paying for, it is those (also a third would be a professional book cover). If you can’t afford these expenses, then either trade or barter or delay publishing your book. It’s hard to overcome a first impression in the media of producing slack work.

Make your hero "real" and believable.

To make your audience really like and identify with your main character, you must make your readers journey emotionally with your main character as he or she tries to overcome a life-altering event. Your readers must feel what your hero feels and then truly believe the change process that the hero undergoes is realistic and reasonable as he or she goes on to save the day. If you can pull that off, then you have a first-rate hero.

Of course, anybody can kill off a minor character or an “assistant-hero.” However, in my upcoming book American Terrorist I really wanted to move my readers. I wanted to manipulate their emotions and make them sit up and say, “What the hell?”

So I killed my son… in the book. What I did not anticipate, though, was how deeply it would affect me, the writer.

Now, you have to understand that my adult son and I are very close in real life, so I gave my hero that kind of relationship. And when I wrote the scene of the death of the hero’s son, I put my heart and soul into that scene. I literally cried. In fact, I cry every time I edit that scene or even just read it or think about it.

I figure if my audience has even a fraction of the emotional reaction that I have had, then I have succeeded in creating a hero my readers can bond with, no matter what good or bad deeds he does throughout the rest of the book.

So… share with us what you have done to create a memorable hero or heroine?