How It Happened by John Connell

It all started with jumping off a cliff.

No, I didn’t crash into the rocks below. I landed in Paris. I know, poor me, moving to Paris. But hear me out: I left a lucrative job on a hit TV show and walked away from our dream house—not to mention I couldn’t speak a word of French.

I gambled without knowing the stakes, without knowing the rules. I gambled that I could write novels worthy of readers’ interest without any idea if I was capable. Other than a couple of weekend workshops on screenwriting, I knew nothing about writing a novel, and knew nothing about the publishing business. I had only basic typing skills, and no idea how to use Word, let alone format a manuscript. I didn’t even know that’s what you called it.

Hardly a day went by when I didn’t consider having my head examined. Still, I wrote my little heart out.

I don’t really count my first novel. I adapted a screenplay I’d written years before, while taking film jobs back in the States. All I can say about that is I learned, “Hey, writing novels is really hard!”

A year later, I finished number two. Promising. At least my family and friends all said it was really good (insert wink here). I queried and waited. A number of partials and fulls were requested. In the end, all rejections. Some praising the writing, some encouraging me to keep going. Close but no cookie.

I decided I needed an expert who could see what was wrong that I could not, plus I could learn from the professional feedback. After receiving several sample edits, I decided on an independent editor and got the developmental notes. And while I didn’t agree with many of the things the editor said, I did have to admit the novel was a total mess. I decided to put it on life support and move on.

A year later, novel number three and a new query-thon. More positive feedback than for number two. Complements on the writing. More close-but-no-cookie rejections. More independent editors. More words of praise. More rewrites. More queries. Some of my dream agents even took the time to tell me what was wrong: I needed to toughen my weak protagonist. But strengthening the protagonist caused the entire story to collapse like a house of cards.

Once more unto the breach. Number four took me two years, as I took several film jobs back in the States. Queries, rewrites, rejections. This time, not one single agent requested a partial or full. I had to know what I was doing wrong. By luck, I found an independent editor with great credentials who didn’t charge the equivalent of a new car. He loved the writing. Yes? He loved the opening. Yes, yes? He was fascinated by many aspects of the story. Yes, yes, yes? Then he trashed the premise. I was devastated, but his insights and the way he presented his arguments impressed me so much that I knew I would turn to him again…if I ever recovered.

After some time to think and recuperate, I went back to book number three, and during that desperate salvage operation I realized that my mind’s eye was always drawn to the antagonist. He demanded my attention. HE had the power to carry a story on his shoulders.

So, I made the bad guy, Mason Collins, my protagonist. I already had his backstory. I kept some of the events in his life that caused him to have a dark side, a side that constantly threatens to come to the surface. Only his strict moral code keeps that dark side in check. It worked!

Once I finished RUINS OF WAR, I held my breath and sent it to the same independent editor who had trashed book number four. He loved it, and along with his praise he sent twenty single-spaced pages of notes. I rewrote it. Re-sent it. He loved it more, and offered to alert some of his literary agent friends. But even with his endorsement, the first handful of agents rejected it, albeit with lengthy praise. I tweaked and re-tweaked it. We sent it out to another half-dozen agents.

And finally, I got THAT call. An offer of representation! Matt Bialer was one of those agents I’d kept my eye on throughout those years of querying. I’d been dreaming of “the call” for so long, that I couldn’t remember what was said. But I will always remember the exhilaration.

My agent submitted the manuscript to ten editors, all with Big Five houses. Six passes came in. I fretted. Was I in for another close-but-no-cookie reality check? That’s when my agent told me, “It’s a numbers game.” He was so right: Three months later we landed a two-book deal with Berkley.

Would I have jumped off that cliff if I knew I was playing a very long numbers game? Let’s put it this way: If it hadn’t been that cliff, it would have been another, whatever it took to dive headlong into writing novels.

John Connell and his three brothers were the result of the unlikely union of a Wisconsin Catholic and Georgian Baptist. Though born in Atlanta, John and his family immediately moved to Ohio, then New York and Virginia before finally returning to Atlanta at the age of 13. The winds of fate or simply the currents of life led John to choose what would seem the prerequisite path for a writer: earning degrees in Anthropology and Psychology, working as a soda jerk, a stock boy in a brassiere factory, a machinist, repairer of newspaper racks, courier for Georgia State Health Department delivering gonorrhea and syphilis cultures from OB/GYN clinics, and a printing-press operator. He then moved to Los Angeles to work in the film business and became a motion picture camera operator for both film and television.

Moving to Paris could be added to that writerly resume, which is what he did despite a thriving career in the movie business, the purchase of a dream house and an infantile command of the French language. He now speaks French moderately well, though hardly a day goes by when his wife doesn’t roll on the floor with laughter at his attempts. In late 2015, he and his wife moved to Madrid. Laughter continues as John attempts to learn Spanish.

To learn more about John Connell’s most recent novel, click on the cover below: