A couple of years ago Jake Hinkson was just one of thousands of online short-story writers, quietly working away on novels in his spare time. I knew Jake was supremely talented and a great observer of the human condition, so it was a very pleasant surprise/thrill/validation when he told me he’d signed a deal with New Pulp Press for release of his first novel, Hell on Church Street. I first worked with Jake back in 2008 on his unforgettable short story, “Makers and Coke” for Beat to a Pulp.
ELAINE ASH: Jake this is such terrific news! How did you manage this success without a web site, without a Facebook page, without Twitter and Linked In and all that stuff? You always seemed quiet, and now surprise!
JAKE HINKSON: You know, it’s funny. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I can’t recall ever having any other ambition. So the goal was always pretty simple: publish my writing and have strangers read it for pleasure. Well, these days, that’s extremely easy to accomplish online. You can start a blog. You can send stories or essays to a thousand different web sites and blogs. If your ambition is to have people read your writing, you can accomplish that very, very quickly. You won’t make any money at it at first, but I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about that raw, unreasonable desire to write and be read. That desire can be met online.
For instance, the first story I had published on the web was over at A Twist of Noir. I’ll forever be grateful to the editor Christopher Grant. He was so encouraging. But what’s really amazing is how quickly it happened: I emailed him a story. He emailed me back the same day saying he liked it and it was already up. Just like that. It took one day to get published online—one day and I had a story on the internet. Complete strangers commented on it, and since we linked to my blog people started checking out my essays on film. Image below: One of Jake’s first influences…
Speaking of the blog, one of the smartest things I did in the past few years was to start a blog (http://thenighteditor.blogspot.com) where I could post some essays on film or books or link to my stories once they started getting published. It’s wonderful because it’s given me a forum for my work and a central headquarters on the internet. Of course, I don’t get a huge amount of traffic—although I get more than I would have ever guessed—but here’s the point: I can write things and people will read them. The old paradigm of writing a story, printing it out, mailing it off, and waiting for three/four/six months (or more) to get a form-letter rejection is antiquated.
Take my experience with Beat To A Pulp. I found the web site, liked it, sent in a story and heard back within a few days. That experience led to me being in the anthology and has also led to other opportunities. It gave a cool line to put in my bio “His story ‘Maker’s and Coke’ appeared in the anthology Beat To A Pulp: Round One.” So now I have a story online, a story in print, and I can find people online talking about it. That’s an amazing thing. So even with all the uncertainty that comes with being a writer (not everyone writes you back to tell you they love you, of course) the opportunities to disseminate your writing has never been greater.
One last word on this: I’ve sent many prospective novels to many prospective agents and/or publishers over the last six or seven years. I did the whole deal—printed out the three chapters and cover letter and synopsis and all that—and plopped down the five or six or seven bucks to mail it off. Waited six months to be told no (or sometimes to give up hope of hearing any reply).
With New Pulp Press, I was forwarded a link by someone on Facebook who was showing me the cool books that this publisher put out. I checked out the site, liked the look of it, and noticed that they accepted submissions. I polished my letter and first three chapters and emailed it in. I heard back the next day. They asked to see more. I sent them the rest of the book. They loved it and asked for some rewrites (the ideas for which were all smart and helpful, I might add). They liked the rewrites and now the book’s going into print.
Now did this happen so quickly because I’ve grown as a writer and this is a good book? Yes and yes. But did it also happen so quickly because the internet allowed me to easily put my work into the hands of someone who understood and liked it? Yes.
EA: What about changes? Has the editor asked you for any?
JH: I imagine that there will be line edits and the like down the line. We’re still early on in this process, so we’ll see what happens. What I can speak to is the initial submission/acceptance period.
After he read the first draft, the editor Jon Bassoff made some specific suggestions regarding the story. I think there were about six big suggestions. Jon’s a fine writer himself and his comments were spot on, yet even so I was a little apprehensive at first. That’s because I would never send someone something until I thought it was as good as I could make it.
But the fact of the matter is that all the suggestions were rock solid. I gave myself a few days and went back to the book with his comments in mind. And every suggestion was smart. Every change made the book stronger. For instance, there were two scenes in the book that had the same basic feel (someone marches someone else out into the woods to die). Jon rightly pointed out that this felt redundant. Now, these scenes didn’t feel redundant to me (if they had I’d have cut one before I ever showed it to him), but on some level I knew he was right. Even though my first impulse was to say “but-but-but” and point out the differences in the two scenes, at the end of the day they was repetitive. And you can’t tell your reader, “Hey remember that cool scene fifty pages ago? Here it is again!”
Writers fall in love with their words. That’s as it should be, I think. But sometimes you have to kill something you love in order to make the whole thing stronger. A good editor has a merciless focus on making the thing better. It’s similar to the job that a director does with an actor or a trainer does with an athlete. It’s the job of being the first viewer of something, the first pair of dispassionate eyeballs. It requires honesty and good taste. Ultimately, a writer has to trust his or her own sense of what the story is doing, where it needs to go, and what it will be. In the end, it’s my name on the cover, so I’ll take all the blame if it sucks. But you write in order to be read, so it seems to me that you should find a reader you can trust and listen to what they have to say about the piece of writing.
EA: I can’t remember if I asked for any changes on “Makers and Coke.”
JH: On a personal level, I wanted to thank you for your encouragement when we worked together on “Maker’s and Coke.” It meant a lot to me at the time and helped push me to do more work on my fiction. Seems like it’s paid off, too. Oh, there were absolutely changes on M&C. I called you and we talked about them on the phone. I don’t recall big changes in terms of character or plot or anything like that. The biggest change you wanted was the first line. I can’t even remember what it was—something that announced the story like “It had been a terrible winter” or something like that. You told me to start with the second line “I sat up with a start and stared at Ellie’s side of the bed.” Smart suggestion. Got us into the story with an action rather than exposition.
EA: Do you struggle with changes?
JH: Well, the worst thing is when an editor points out the problem that you’ve long since convinced yourself isn’t a problem. In my case, the big one was the ending. I don’t want to give away any details, but I had a version where a character dies—a death that I had to move heaven and earth to get to happen. Jon pointed out, rightly, that it was forced.
Like I say, on some level I knew it didn’t work. That’s an example of liking the idea of a scene so much that you essentially talk yourself into believing that the scene itself works. Once he said it didn’t, I knew he was right.
So, as you say, I walked away and figured it out. It’s a matter of playing ‘what if’ with the characters—what if he did this rather than that? What if he reacted with bemusement instead of anger? And so on.
I rewrote those final scenes over and over, just playing what if. And then one clicked. Again, I don’t want to be specific about plot points, but basically I hit upon actions that felt natural for the characters instead of wheels in a plot. The conversation sounds natural, not like the author marching the characters to their deaths like some kind of executioner.
EA: Want to tell us a little about your background?
JH: I’ve worked a wide variety of jobs: carpenter’s apprentice, machine operator in a factory, cart pusher at Wal-Mart, bank teller, and pre-school teacher. I started writing when I was young, gravitating early to hardboiled writers like Hammet, Chandler, and Parker. In college, I discovered Flannery O’Connor and Jim Thompson. I received an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 2006. Since then, I’ve been teaching writing and literature at different colleges and universities, mostly recently at Monmouth University in New Jersey. In addition to writing fiction, I write about classic film for the Film Noir Foundation, and I’m about to start a regular stint as a contributor to a new crime fiction/film website that’s about to launch (more details on that to come).
Jake, thanks so much for spending time at Ashedit. I know you’re going to slay us with Hell on Church Street. —Elaine Ash
Next post: Monday, April 18th