I never wanted to be a writer. As a kid, if I’d made a list of the top 100 things I wanted to do when I grew up, writing would not have made the list. I was a math and science guy in school, and writing was something done by those liberal arts types – the folks hanging out in the common area of school, wearing tie-dyed T-shirts, playing the guitar. I also thought writing was an innate talent – one I didn’t have, which was made clear to me during ninth grade English class with Mrs. Mayo.
So how did I end up as a writer? I had a story rolling around in my head for twenty years, but I hadn’t written it because I didn’t think it had any chance of being published. I have no background in writing – I have an engineering degree and I hadn’t even written a short story. However, when I was at my twentieth high school reunion, our class counselor took the microphone at the end of the evening and gave us one piece of advice: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I felt like he was talking to me, because that’s why I hadn’t written the book – I was afraid of failing. Afraid of investing over a thousand hours writing a novel that had a snowball’s chance in Hell of being published. That night, however, I resolved to write the book.
It took me a few years, but I finally wrote it. I knew nothing about the publishing industry and learned that I needed a literary agent, whatever that was. My first thought was, where do I hire one? I soon figured out what a query letter was, and I contacted forty agents who would no doubt be clamoring to represent me by the next morning. Not one agent replied.
However, I decided to give it one more try, and there’s an adage in writing that says, “Either write what you love or write what you know.” I’d written what I loved (sci-fi) and no one else loved it, so for my second attempt I wrote what I know – submarines.
That was the start of a grueling process my writer friends call exciting, but I think of as a long, sad journey with a happy ending. When I finished my submarine thriller, I still didn’t know how to write well. The problem with literary agents, however, is that they’ll never tell you you’re a bad writer. I think they’re afraid of writers going postal on them. You always get a soft let-down: “The book isn’t what I’m looking for right now,” or “You’re not right for my client list,” etc. Fortunately, I ran across an unusual agent with an eclectic client list – a lot of romance and young adult, but with one thriller writer. The thriller writer happened to have died the year before, so I figured there was an opening. This agent still required snail-mail queries, and after debating the cost of the stamp, I sent it in.
I received an email from the agent a few days later, requesting the full manuscript. I was very excited, but very disappointed a week later when she declined. However, she did what no other agent did – she told it like it was. She said, “Dynamite plot, memorable characters, and an outcome almost too horrifying to contemplate. However, you don’t have the writing skills to pull off such a complex mix of action and emotion.”
I finally had an answer and now knew I had to improve my writing. Easier said than done, though. However, a few days later, the agent emailed me again, offering to mail me a few books and give me a reading list. Thus began an 18-month relationship where I learned how to write. After each book, I’d email the agent, letting her know what I’d learned and what I needed to do to improve my writing.
At the end of the process and two grueling revisions, I sent my novel in again, but to my surprise, the agent passed. She didn’t explain, other than say, “Put it down and write book two – it will be better.” (I’d sent her an outline for book two in the process.) I was incredibly disappointed, as I was sure the agent would take me on. However, I thought book one was a decent novel at this point, so I decided to query agents again. You’re supposed to query in small batches, but I was so fed up with the publishing process that I queried over 200 agents in two weeks. I got an offer from my current agent a week later.
I’ll always owe my almost-agent a debt of gratitude for teaching me how to write, my current agent for taking me on, and my editor for believing in book one. Things worked out well in the end, as I was offered a two-book deal by a Big-5 publisher, making me a lead title as well. I’m under contract for six books so far, and hopefully many more.
Rick Campbell, a retired Navy Commander, served on four nuclear-powered submarines, finishing his career with tours in the Pentagon and the Washington Navy Yard. On his last submarine, he was one of the two men whose permission is required to launch the submarine’s nuclear warhead-tipped missiles. Upon retirement from the Navy, Rick was signed by Macmillan / St. Martin’s Press for his novel – The Trident Deception, which was hailed by Booklist as “The best submarine novel since Tom Clancy’s classic – The Hunt for Red October”. Rick lives with his wife and three children in the greater Washington, D.C. area, and is under contract for the fifth and sixth books in this series, sequels to The Trident Deception, Empire Rising, Ice Station Nautilus, and Blackmail. To learn more, visit Rick Campbell’s website and his “Submarine 101” page at www.rickcampbellauthor.com.
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