Thursday, May 17, 2012

Interview with...Jeffrey Overstreet (Part 2)

Thanks for joining me for part two of my interview with Jeffrey Overstreet. He has a lot to share so let's get started.

4. What advice can you offer beginning writers to improve their chances of

That’s a difficult question to answer. Frankly, I would rather offer advice about how to become a better writer, not advice on how to get published.

See, here’s the problem: The industry publishes what will make money. And what makes money is, most of the time, the literary equivalent of junk food. Great writers rarely sell a lot of books. So, the questions about “How do I become a better writer?” are very different than questions about “How do I improve my chances of publication?”

My life is much richer because I decided fairly early in my writing life not to spend too much time and effort on trying to get published. It has been more rewarding to focus on the writing, and to focus on developing relationships with other writers, than to focus on finding a publisher. While I was busy working, revising, editing, and posting my work online, the work attracted readers, and eventually one of those readers introduced me to a publisher.

I also highly recommend that writers learn to love rigorous criticism. Share your work with people who will tear it to pieces. I’m serious. It will help you make the writing better. It’s best if the people who tear it to pieces are also people who love you. But get used to hearing the hard stuff. And get used to revising and rewriting. I was on my tenth version of Auralia’s Colors — ten years of writing — when a publisher first looked at it. And there were a few more drafts to come. If we aren’t willing to let people who are smarter than us expose our weaknesses, we’ll never grow.

Don’t worry much about getting paid for your work. Pay your bills some other way. Very few people pay bills with money made from creative writing. Focus on achieving excellence and getting your work in front of as many readers as possible. If your work is good, somebody will like it and share it with others, and opportunities may arise.

I don’t write to get published. I never have. I write because there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Most people who tell me they want to be writers are doomed, because they’re not writing yet. When they find out that writers spend most of their time writing — on lunch breaks, in the evenings, and all weekend long — they’re miserable. The writers who make a life of it are usually writers who write constantly, irrepressibly, and compulsively.

5. How important is prior publication (of some kind) or relationship with an
editor/agent to landing a book deal?

Almost all of the writers I know who have won book deals found them through personal relationships. Very, very few of them got book deals by packaging up their writing and mailing it off to a publisher.

But those relationships develop because the writer is writing. I was writing movie reviews and posting them online when Christianity Today called and said they wanted to hire me as a film columnist. They wouldn’t have called if I hadn’t spent several hours on each film review, and if I hadn’t shown that I could do this regularly for years and years.

Relationships with editors and agents often come through community. I have been blessed through relationships with a lot of writers. So I tell aspiring writers to join writers’ groups — committed, disciplined, rigorous writer’s groups. Get into a good MFA in Creative Writing program, like the one at Seattle Pacific University. (I’ve seen several friends go through that program and find life-changing opportunities.) Spend a lot of time meeting people at conferences and workshops, like The Glen Workshop, which is hosted twice a year by IMAGE.

The industry is changing all the time, but I’ve seen very few writers earn good book contracts without the help of a good agent.

6. For writers attending the conference, what preparation would you
recommend? What expectations should they bring with them?

In my presentation, I’ll be focusing more on the elements of great storytelling than the secrets to getting published. I hope they’re interested in exploring the idea of inspiration — where it comes from, what it produces. I hope they’re interested in the mysterious process of discovering truth through exploration, through writing ourselves into unfamiliar places. In order to revitalize our imaginations, and recapture an openness to great ideas, we may have to help each other forget about publishers and audiences for a while.

7. Who is your favorite fictional character and why?

The one I’m writing about right now. Two years ago, I was writing about villains and monsters, and I found them all wonderful; I couldn’t stop writing about them. Today, I’m writing about an awkward 17-year-old librarian with a speech impediment who has never been off of the island where he was born. If I don’t love the character I’m writing about — hero or villain, expert or fool — if I don’t find him or her to be the most fascinating character I’ve ever met, than my readers will probably lose interest.

Oh, I’m also a big fan of Kermit the Frog.

Thanks, Jeffrey, for such an insightful and thorough interview!


  1. You don't hear this advice often. Too many writers want to take shortcuts. Thank you, Jeffrey.

  2. Thanks for these great interviews, Kirk.

    1. My pleasure, Lydia. I was blessed with some fantastic guests and answers!