Don’t Underestimate Yourself: Interview with James A. Gordon

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I recently sat down to chat with James A. Gordon, author of Comprehensive Emergency Management for Local Governments: Demystifying Emergency Planning, about the process of writing his first book and getting it published.

Background Image: Wolfram Burner/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Toasted Cheese: Tell us a little about your book.

James A. Gordon: It’s a self-help guide for local governments to undertake emergency planning without the need to hire a consultant. To generalize, smaller local governments assign emergency planning to staff for whom this would be a supplementary responsibility, for instance the fire chief, city planner, or city clerk.

TC: How did the book come about? What made you decide to write it?

JAG: A frustration with competing paradigms on how this is supposed to be done as taught by federal and provincial governments—it seemed unrealistic in its application to local government. A desire to get my vision out to what I assumed were other equally frustrated professionals assigned the task of emergency planning. That’s what motivated me, not money or fame.

TC: What was your writing experience prior to writing it?

JAG: I have three university degrees, two of which required writing theses, so I knew a little bit about writing in general. And I’d written numerous articles on a variety of topics, such as risk management, general management, and local government organization.

TC: Did you need to do any research before you started or along the way? What did this entail?

JAG: Yes. Lots of research. It had to be very current professional practices, so lots of reading of journals and association magazines. I read lots of private-sector trade magazines—risk management profession, insurance, business resumption planning—to see how their practices would apply to local government.

My research was to see how current practices applied to local government, but I also attended lots of courses and programs over the years prior to writing, learning the federal and provincial systems. When I came back to the office, I found that they didn’t work, and that led to the frustration that led to the research that ended up becoming the book.

TC: How long did it take you to write? How did you fit writing into your schedule?

JAG: The actual writing of it took about a year, from about January 2001 to January 2002. I had all the research done when I sat down to write. I was working full time, and training for the Ironman Canada triathlon as well. After that, it was every spare moment in the evenings and on weekends. Upon reflection, I don’t know how I found the time to do it. To sit down and plan it, I don’t know how I could do it. But I had a driving passion to get this thing to print and that’s what propelled me to do it.

TC: Could you describe the process? It’s a non-fiction book. How did you go about structuring it?

JAG: It’s commonly accepted that comprehensive emergency management has four aspects to it: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, and those formed the core chapters of the book. There were additional chapters at the beginning and the end that bound it all together providing the continuity of process such as—at the beginning—who does the planning, and what are the responsibilities and authorities within local government, and at the end, a chapter on putting it all together.

TC: When you finished writing, did you have anyone edit or critique it?

JAG: Segments of the book were published as articles, and editors at the various journals had made suggestions, so parts of it were edited that way. Because it’s of international applicability, I asked six people in various places around the world—internationally recognized emergency management experts—to review it, and I think four of them reviewed the entire manuscript and provided insightful comments.

TC: What about revisions? What was your editing strategy?

JAG: Before I let go of it, I went through the complete manuscript several times for continuity and consistency and flow of the logic and layout as well as grammar and spelling. The strategy was just to go through as a whole to make sure it was all consistent and flowed. That was paramount because it is a book for beginners, so it was important that it not be confusing.

TC: How did you go about looking for publisher? How did you approach publishers?

JAG: I wrote a couple query letters to textbook publishers. I looked in Writer’s Market and it lists the topics they publish, so I selected some that seemed to publish in this area. I heard nothing back initially, but WM tells you to be prepared to wait six months to a year to hear back. This was too slow for me. (Just as aside, I still haven’t heard anything back, so it’s a good thing I didn’t sit around waiting.) So I went on the Internet and did a Google search for emergency management publications / publishers, and Rothstein Associates came up prominently.

TC: Can you tell us a bit about how your relationship developed with your publisher?

JAG: I emailed a query to Rothstein and received an interested reply from the publisher very shortly thereafter, asking if it was a proposal or if it was already written. I told him it was written and he requested an outline and a chapter. And after that he asked for the whole manuscript. Once he had the whole manuscript, he said that it was definitely something they were interested in dealing with, and that’s because it was in keeping with the style of book that they publish. Then he suggested we talk over details in person, so he called me. A phone call was best way to do it, because we’re on opposite sides of the continent. He thought the book was promising; they would edit it, publish it, and pay royalties on sales.

TC: In general terms, what sort of agreement do you and your publisher have?

JAG: In our initial conversation, he noted that he pays a little more in royalties to authors than typical publishers. It’s a straight royalties agreement; there’s no advance. The royalties are a percentage of the sales, and are paid out quarterly.

TC: Did the publisher suggest any changes to content or style or any other aspect of the book? Did you have to make any revisions?

JAG: Yes. His experience in the field led to some changes in content. We also worked on tailoring it to the target audience. The book was designed so it could be followed step-by-step in the construction of an emergency plan to be written by the reader. He suggested an appendix that broke the entire text down to single word bullet points that could be used as a checklist to follow along with while developing a plan.

He also had some suggestions to make it conform to recently published American emergency planning standards. Also, this book was published in the wake of September 11, 2001, so some comments were added to highlight the new nature of emergency planning post-September 11.

TC: Once you’d come to an agreement with your publisher, what was the timeframe before your book actually appeared in print?

JAG: About 10 months. It was published in December 2002.

TC: What was it like, seeing your book in print for the first time?

JAG: The first time it really hit home was when the author’s complimentary copies came from the publisher. It was exciting to open the box, gratifying to see it in print, and it was pleasing to see how professionally done it was.

TC: Where is it being sold? How are sales so far? Have you received any royalties?

JAG: It’s being sold on the publisher’s web site and at Amazon. Sales have been moderate, but it’s been picked up as a textbook for some college courses. Royalties are being paid regularly.

TC: Would you say this has been a good experience? Is there anything you might have done differently?

JAG: It’s been a very positive experience with the publisher and we remain in contact discussing the marketing of the book. In this case, because the publisher had experience in this field, some of the editing process could have been avoided by earlier contact with him before I’d reached a final draft. Perhaps submitting a proposal rather than a complete manuscript would have been a more efficient way to go.

TC: What advice do you have for someone who wants to turn his or her expertise on a subject into a book?

JAG: If you have something to say, say it. Don’t underestimate yourself, don’t say, “Oh, no one will buy this”—there is probably a market for your ideas. I write articles on a variety of topics and there is always someone interested in publishing them. If you’re writing non-fiction, start by writing articles. A compilation of those articles can be the foundation of a book. And try to find a publisher who publishes books on subjects that are very similar to yours. You’ll have a better chance of seeing eye-to-eye because they’ll understand what you’re writing about.

TC: Any plans for a follow up?

JAG: This was the one area of my broad responsibilities where I saw the most immediate need; as a critical thinker, I can see future books in other areas.

TC: Thanks for talking to us!

Final Poll Results

Absolute Beginners

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

So, you have the idea that you might like to try to write something but have no idea how to get started. Should you just dip your toe in the inkwell or should you jump in feet-first?

Beginning to write is not as simple as it might seem. It can be intimidating to start a new hobby (or career, depending on how far you want to go), especially when you are basically teaching yourself.

Bookstore shelves sag under the weight of “how-to” books in the writing reference section. If you’ve never written, how do you know what advice to follow? What if you just feel like you’d like to tell a story but the back cover intimates that you should aim for publication? Before you decide to take up model shipbuilding instead, here are a few ideas for the absolute beginner.

Background Image: Sharon Brogan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Getting started

Writing as a hobby can be a lot like jogging as a hobby. Just as a runner only needs to know “left foot, right foot, repeat” to start running, you only need to be able to put what’s in your head onto paper. That’s all there is to it! Worry about style and substance later. Your goal is to get accustomed with the writing process.

You don’t need fancy equipment to get started. To start running, all you need is a pair of shoes. Special pens or ergonomic keyboards won’t make a difference in what you produce. I think it’s best to start as simply as possible. You need either a computer or paper and a writing utensil. That’s it.

Step 2: Relax. You don’t have to win a race the first day you go out jogging. There’s no need to produce anything of any quality right off the bat. You don’t ever have to show your work to anyone, so there’s no worry about impressing people with a spectacular first draft.

Try to decrease your distractions. If your writing space is distracting (noisy, bright, etc.), find a new place to work or cope with the distractions. If you can’t stop thinking about your grocery list, it’s okay to jot it down but don’t let it replace your creative writing.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get any creative writing done on your first few ventures. You’re settling in and learning what you need to be a writer, whether that’s an inspiring exercise or a CD of cello music in the background. You’re writing for pleasure so allow yourself a pleasurable experience.

Try to write a little every day for a few days, like how runners condition themselves. Promise yourself a set time period or word count. You may be surprised by how quickly you can produce just 500 words of fiction or a dozen lines of poetry. If you don’t meet your goal one day, just say to yourself, “I can meet tomorrow’s goal.” You won’t have gold pour from your fingertips every time you sit down to work.

Even if you only want to write as a creative outlet, it is still just that—”work.” Just as jogging can be exhausting and fun at the same time, writing can be pleasurable and taxing all at once. It is the reward of work well done that brings joy to a writer. Don’t be intimidated by the “work” aspect of writing.

Appreciating the art of writing

The written word is an essential part of everyday life. You may not even realize how much writing you encounter every day. Someone wrote the creative copy on the back of your shampoo bottle. Someone wrote the copy being read by the morning news anchor. Someone wrote the lyrics of song you listen to on the radio. You encounter more writing before 9 a.m. than you may have realized.

As you begin to identify yourself as a writer, try to identify writing wherever you find it: greeting cards, instruction manuals, advertisements and menus as well as magazines and books.

When you watch a TV show or a movie, think about how the story began: as a writer’s inspiration. Do you think he came up with the situation first or the characters? What would you have done differently if you were guiding the story? Do you find the dialogue believable? Do you find the characters consistent? If not, how does that affect your enjoyment of the show/film?

When you talk about a piece of writing, try to refrain from using the term, “what the writer was trying to say.” The writer was not trying to say something; the writer said something. It may have come across well or poorly but it was said. It may not seem like a great difference but you may be surprised how much it changes what it is you are saying about writing.

Think of writing as a form of abstract art. What the writer-as-artist produces is not just this piece of art; she produces a reaction in you. Your response is essential to the piece. Without a reader, writing is simply “words on paper.” Once you gather something from those words, once the writer says something to you, it becomes a story, a book or a poem.

Let’s get writing

You may not know what it is that you want to write but you know you want to write. Maybe you should ask yourself, “What do I like to read?” If you read poetry, let’s write a poem. If you like novels, let’s work on fiction. If after seeing the Lord of the Rings trilogy you thought it might be fun to write a story like it, try your hand at “fan fic” using those familiar characters.

There are a few exercises that accompany this article and that would be a good place to start. Comb through our past exercises to find something that interests you. Check our calendar or our boards for writing prompts.

One good place to begin writing is in a weblog, or “blog” as it is commonly called. You can begin a weblog by signing up with a free service like Blogger, Blogdot or Diaryland. If you are more Net-savvy, you might want to investigate Movable Type or Greymatter.

Your weblog can be public or private. You can write about anything from the minutiae of your day to specific topics like baseball or a political campaign. Read other people’s weblogs to get ideas for what you’d like to write about. Keeping a weblog, either for non-fiction or for creative writing, is a good way to keep on a daily writing schedule. Just keep a handy link to your blogging tool and you’ll find yourself making time to blog even when you have time for little else.

Suggested Reading: The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood

And then…

Once you’re in the groove of writing, gaining confidence and practicing, go ahead and take the next step. What is the next step? It’s what you want it to be. You might want to share something you’ve created, if for no other reason than to hear a friend say, “You’re a writer? Cool!” You might want to try more complicated exercises. You might want to plunge into publishing. You might want to find a critique group or take a course.

You may never be more than a beginner and that’s fine. What’s important for you as a new writer is to enjoy writing for writing’s sake. If it’s not fun anymore, take a break. Come back when you are ready. The inkwell will be there.

Final Poll Results