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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Author Interview ~ Jack Cavanaugh, Part II

Acclaimed by critics and readers alike as a master storyteller, Jack Cavanaugh has been entertaining and inspiring his readers with a mixture of drama, humor, and biblical insight for over ten years. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Marni.

Gina Holmes: You write about four books a year, is that right?

Jack Cavanaugh: Yes, I try.

Gina: How long does each book take approximately to write?

Jack: It all depends. I’m hoping I can go a little faster now writing contemporaries because I don’t have to stop and wonder whether the character looked at his watch on his wrist or pulled it from his pocket.

I just had to go back and find out if matches were invented in the time period I’m writing my book in which is 1825-1826. I found out that matches were first sold in 1827 so I just missed it. Well then how did Jefferson light a candle and that sort of thing.

I really like the idea of contemporaries because if I want my guy to Velcro his shoes, he can Velcro his shoes or pop something in the microwave.

I’m hoping some of that will translate into faster production for me. Three months is a tight schedule for me. I really wish I had two or three years to work on a given book. I think I’d be able to do something that is really good in that time period. Unfortunately our market wouldn’t allow that.

Gina: What does a typical work day look like for you?

Jack: 7:30 I’m at my desk. I write until 5:30 until my wife calls me for supper. I have lunch here at my desk and am here all the time in between. I take about an hour and a half to eat and spend time with my wife. I have grown children now so it’s just me and her and my mother whom we’re caring for.

While they’re watching TV, I do research for the next day.

Gina: So, basically you take an hour off a day?

Jack: That’s about it.

Gina: And your wife is okay with that?

Jack: [laughs] She likes what I’m doing. She’s pretty content as long as I’m in the room with her. Basically that’s my work day.

Gina: You have experience working with several publishers. If you had the same book coming out with four different publishers, the same exact book, would the sales be significantly different?

Jack: Interesting question. Probably but I don’t think you could predict it ahead of time. Would Prayer of Jabez done better had it been with a larger publishing company? I don’t know. For some reason the Prayer of Jabez and that publisher clicked and it ran like crazy.

Would Left Behind sell more if Thomas Nelson had published it? It’s an unknown. That’s the crazy thing about our business. We can look back and analyze something but we can’t recreate it. There’s no formula.

No publisher sits down and says we’re going to put out three best-sellers, ten mid-list books and two stinkers.

They think most of their books are going to sell well in their given genre.

Some of the books they think are going to take off like crazy fall on their faces, and then we have the surprises like, This Present Darkness, Left Behind and Prayer of Jabez. There’s just no telling.

Gina: I read it took ten years from when you said, 'I’m going to start writing' to where you received your first publishing contract.

Jack: About thirteen.

Gina: You said when you got your first contract you had never written a novel. What were you doing during those thirteen years?

Jack: A complete novel. During those years I was studying fiction and writing fiction. I had written some short stories that had gotten published. Just a couple. One of the things I realized though is that if you want to write novels you have to write novels. Short stories may teach you some techniques but short story writers are not necessarily good novelists and vice versa. The only way to write a novel is to study on writing a novel and to write a novel. That’s basically what I was doing during those thirteen years.

I was continually reading, continually writing and studying. Also going to the writer’s conferences I kept hearing, “Sell it, and then write it.” That’s where the proposal comes in. I chaffed at that for a long time and thought that’s easy for them to say because they’re published authors.

When things weren’t working for me, I thought well I keep hearing this over and over again; there must be some truth to it.

I actually took a hiatus from learning how to write novels to learn how to write proposals. The business side of writing. I concentrated very much on how to write a good proposal. For example, I listened to an audio tape on how to get your idea across in thirty seconds or less. It was fantastic to be able to sit down at a writer’s conference across from an editor and be able to answer when they asked what the story was about. You have thirty seconds or less to get your idea across. It’s done on the television all the time. It’s done on the radio all the time. So, it’s a technique we can learn to sell our ideas to the publishers.

I knew I was making progress when I started getting very good reviews on my rejection letters. One letter said, “Wow, what a great proposal, unfortunately...”
At least I knew I was doing something right and writing a good proposal.

I put together a killer proposal. They liked it. The sample chapters were the proof in the pudding that I could write. Based upon that I was given a four book contract.

Gina: Would your advice to aspiring novelists today trying to break in be to sell it then write it? Aren’t things different today?

Jack: It has changed somewhat. A lot of different writer’s conferences are teaching to write the book first. Some publishers have gotten burned on contracting an author off a good proposal to discover the author couldn’t deliver on the whole book. They have found some people can write a good proposal and good sample chapters but they can’t write a good middle of the book or a good ending.

Every writer has to decide for themselves. Unfortunately at writer’s conferences, some publishers have a hard time saying no to someone face to face. It’s easy for them to say, “Send me a complete manuscript.” It’s just five words. But how long is it going to take an author to do that? Usually when they’re first starting out, about a year.

What I’ve seen is the publisher is just putting the writer off. They’re really not interested in the MS. But they’re sending that writer off with the impression they are. That publisher is giving absolutely no commitment to the year you’re giving. Within that year who knows if that editor is even going to stay there or if the publisher will be doing that kind of book later.

While I would encourage writers to think seriously about that, investing an entire year in a manuscript, I would think long and hard without some kind of commitment from the publisher.

Now the positive part about it is with a proposal. If the publisher likes it they can come back and say, “While we like the proposal but can you make the protagonist a male instead of a female.” With a proposal, no problem, but if it’s written that’s a serious rewrite. Now, if they say, “These are the things we’d like to see in this book and then make some kind of a commitment to you, then you can work together and that’s worked well with me.

I encourage writers to submit proposals to agents and publishers and if the publisher asks to be sent the full ms, I’d think hard about whether you want to give that kind of commitment. It’s decision time.

Gina: What’s something about this business you wished you’d learned early on that could have saved you some aggravation?

Jack: How long things would take to get done. I gave God three years when I started the journey and He took thirteen. It was, “Jack you’ve got a lot further to go then you think you do.”

Also sometimes I’ve written a book in the time it’s taken a publisher to get a contract together. I write a book in three months and the publisher insists they need a year to print it. At the same time I’ve seen publishers who are really interested in a project turn out a book in a couple of months if they want to.

For me to take three months to write it and then have it take a year to produce it can be frustrating at times. By the time it comes out I’ve written two or three more books and I’ve almost forgotten who my characters are.

Gina: And then you have to give interviews on them?

Jack: Exactly, then I have to go back and refresh my memory on what the book was all about.

Gina: Is it difficult to remain humble when you’re a best-selling author?

Jack: [Laughs boisterously] That’s funny. No, not at all. We have built in humblers in the industry. Usually authors have just the opposite problem. There is something about negative comments, I learned this as a pastor standing by the door and greeting people as they leave, you can have twenty people go by and say, “You touched me with that sermon,” and one person say something negative, all you think about all week long is the one negative comment.

The same is true of writing. You get a negative review or letter. And there are people in the industry who are just anti-fiction. Unfortunately we have people who are looking to attack Christian fiction, because they’re philosophically opposed to it because they think fiction is telling lies. We’re not going to convince them otherwise so there is no use in trying. We just have to believe that God has called us to do what we’re doing and that He has given us the gifts to do what we’re doing, and realize we’re making a difference and continue on.

The money that’s involved and some of the other things involved keeps you humble. No problem at all with that.

Gina: During those thirteen years you were learning how to write, were you getting a lot of rejection letters?

Jack: At first I did, but I stopped writing articles. I was writing a newspaper column at the time. I stopped doing that. I stopped writing short stories. I wanted to write a novel. It’s such a large canvas. I’ve been writing full-time for ten years and supporting myself by writing fiction in the Christian market. Even still, I don’t feel like I’m reaching my potential.

Some of the greats write their best stuff in their sixties and seventies. There’s a reason for that. A lifetime of experience and a lifetime of crafting fiction are finally paying off.
I feel like I’ll be writing something halfway good in about ten/fifteen years when I’m in my mid sixties.

Gina: Advice for a novelist whose first book is coming out, marketing wise?

Jack: You speaking of yourself?

Gina: Negatory.

Jack: I thought maybe I had some news. Keep at it. I guess the advice would be don’t rest on your laurels. I hope you’re working hard on your next book.

Gina: So your marketing advice is to simply write a great book?

Jack: Exactly. I’ve gone over some of your interviews online and you ask what kind of marketing the authors do and for me it’s less and less. One of the things I learned from Death Watch, one of the things I learned from writing with Jerry Kuiper (co-authored Death Watch) was that he had a great idea that he couldn’t write.

He’s a salesman and has been to about fifty different signings all generated on his own. He sent out press releases. He’s a great salesman. He had been all over the place and this was just a blip on sales. He’s a publisher’s dream author, he gives everything they ask for and more and it’s just a blip.

Then I read a book on how to become a best-selling author by Donald Maass. He talks about the reality of book signings and radio and that kind of thing. That basically has reinforced my experience over the last ten years and what I’ve come to realize and now I firmly believe is the very best thing a novelist can do to generate sales and sell the next book is to write the next story even better than the last one.

Gina: Great advice. Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

Jack: I got this one from tennis. Andre Agassi, he’s considered an old man in tennis. He made it to the finals. Somebody asked him how he keeps going. “It’s harder for you than a younger man.”
He said, “I just keep hitting the ball and hope that something good happens.”

I have this little thing here I stuck in front of me that says, “Just keep writing and maybe something good will happen.”

That’s the best we can do and put things in God’s hands.

If you stop writing there’s no possibility that anything will happen.

Gina: From what I’ve read you’re pro-critique groups?

Jack: I cut my teeth on a critique group. That’s what got me started.

Gina: So, you would recommend critique groups for aspiring writers?

Jack: Oh absolutely. I still use one. I can’t always if I’m behind. With my first book, I sent it out to five different readers: one reader who loved historical fiction, three housewives because they were my target audience, and a friend of mine who writes computer books. What I told them was, “Please don’t tell me you liked it. What I want to know is where it gets boring or where does the history professor show up and that sort of thing. So when I started getting comments from women who hated history saying this is good. I knew that was a history section so I knew I was on target.

The best critique group is when you can get feedback from people whose opinion you value. Then that’s gold for you. Gold.

That kind of feedback and to be secure enough in your writing to hear someone I hear what you’re saying but I’ve thought through it and thank you for helping me rethink it but I’m happy the way it is. Or you’re right it would be stronger that way. That’s gold for a writer.
That’s important for a writer who wants to improve in his craft as opposed to a writer who just wants to write something and be put on a pedestal.

Gina: Say a writer belongs to a great critique group and is getting that kind of feedback. Do you see additional benefit from also hiring a freelance editor?

Jack: I need to be honest with you. I have friends in the business but I don’t think so. That’s what the editors in the publishing house are paid to do. What they’re looking for is a great story.

If there’s a great story and all it needs is a good polish, that’s what the publisher provides. I really don’t see a publisher getting a MS and saying this was a blockbuster book but three typos on one page? Send it back!

It’s the story, concept and characters that are going to grab the. Hiring an editor to spruce it up that way? Nah. I’d rather have a book doctor who is also a great storyteller. That’d be worth it more than making sure all the periods are in place.

Gina: Parting words?

Jack: I’ve spent way too much time already. Can you tell I was a Baptist preacher?

Stay tuned tomorrow for a review of Storm and a chance for FIVE lucky influencers to WIN an advanced copy.

(This is one book you'll definitely want to read!)

aCheck out this wonderful Crosswalk article that mentions how Mr. Cavanaugh and other authors are helping homeschoolers. (Written by my critique partner, the super-talented Michelle Griep. )


  1. Dear Jack, can you please speak to my wife about being okay with me writing all day? Terrific words and super-encouraging! Wonderful interview. Gina, can you pull this one out again in six months? Or better yet, do you think JC will agree to be interviewed every quarter?

  2. I enjoyed reading about his journey very much. One comment that stands out is when he said ..."Unfortunately we have people who are looking to attack Christian fiction, because they’re philosophically opposed to it because they think fiction is telling lies...."

    That really surprised me! I'd never heard that before, although I can about imagine the logic there.

    Lots of good nuggets in there.

  3. Jack was one of my initial inspriations for writing.
    He gave a lecture at a conference (one that I couldn't attend, but bought the tape), and his advice was just as sound then as it is now.

    Write well, and everything else will tend to take care of itself.
    Great interview, Gina.

  4. Jack, you rock, man. What a great interview you gave.

    And congrats on comin' over to the dark side. Contemporary suspense is where it's at.

    Lotsa love,

    ~ Brandilyn

  5. What encouragment. Now to apply all of it as I wrap up my WIP. Look forward to more of your contemporary suspense soon!

  6. Thank you Jack (and Gina) for this great interview!

  7. Preach it, Jack. As only a Baptist preacher can : ).

    Not only do you keep writing and good things happen, you keep talking and good things happen.

    This was a stellar interview, thank you so much, both of you!

    And Gina, follow Jack's advice. Keep writing and those negatories will become positories (no - not suppositories).

  8. That's good. I'd rather have a rejection than one of those. :)

  9. Jack Cavanaugh says….

    Thank you, Gina and friends for allowing me to share this space with you.

    As it turned out, the anecdote I mentioned yesterday (prompted by Kelly’s comment) wasn’t part of the interview, so as promised, I’ll relate it now. The topic was Christian Writers Conferences. I was at a secular awards banquet and during the topic of conversation it came out that I taught at writers conferences. The other writers sitting at the table were aghast. They said, “You train your own competition?!” I’d never thought of it that way. But, you know they’re right. There is only so much shelf space in the bookstores. Someone else’s books could knock mine off.

    Two thoughts here: One, it forces me to practice my craft and keep getting better if I’m going to stay on the shelves. Two—and this is the difference between the secular and Christian—if I have even a small part in helping another Christian writer get published, God’s kingdom advances, and for that we all rejoice.

    So, if you have found any helpful instruction or any encouragement these last two days from my comments, it is my prayer God will bless both you and your writing to the furtherance of His kingdom. To God be the glory.

    Blessings on you all.

  10. Thank you Gina and Mr. Cavanaugh! So the secret to writing is grown children, huh? I've got fifteen years to go. No, really what I'll take away from this is 1. My critique partners are gold (but I already knew that) and "keep writing and maybe something good will happen." Thank you.

  11. Well, I'm late tonight, so I can only hope Jack comes back for a peek at later comments. THANK YOU for the interview and the good advice. I'm with you about critique groups, but then I belong to the best one going. Gina and I are crit partners along with a four other dynamite authors!


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