Seth Harwood is the perfect example of a writer who didn’t give up. How many of us get rejection once or twice, and figure that we’re not meant to be a writer? Seth didn’t do that. Instead, he came up with a unique way to get the attention of readers, and in doing so, got himself a book contract. See if his path doesn’t inspire you as well!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?
I’m from Boston originally and I’ve been writing for 15 years. I started writing a novel right after I graduated from college in 1995 when I was living in New York City and working on the commodities exchange. Three bad novels later, I moved back to Boston and started taking night classes in creative writing at Harvard extension. There I started to work on short stories and that was when my writing really started to improve. Those were my first workshops. From there I went to the Iowa writers workshop, where he studied with Marilynne Robinson, Chris Offutt, Frank Conroy, and Ethan Canin. I graduated with my MFA in fiction in 2002 and moved back to Boston to start teaching English on the high school level. For a few more years I kept working on short stories, and then in 2005 I moved to San Francisco and started my work on Jack Wakes Up: A Novel, my first crime novel.
I worked on Jack Wakes Up through the fall of 2005, didn’t get any traction with agents, and in the spring of 2006 I started podcasting it — producing and distributing free serialized audio episodes of the novel on the web. I saw audio as the answer to how I could bring my writing to people online. And it worked! By teaming up with other podcasting authors, and sharing promos with them, I had over 1,000 listeners by the end of the first book — 20 episodes. From there things kept going. Having found my audience and getting regular encouragement from them online in the form of e-mails, comments on my site, and their participation in the podcast, I was hooked: I started writing the second Jack Palms crime novel the next fall. By 2008, while I was podcasting Jack Palms Three: Czechmate, I released Jack Wakes Up as a print novel through Breakneck Books and with my listeners help, it hit number one in crime and mystery on Amazon.com. The next day I had an agent and a few weeks later Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, had bought the novel for its May 2009 release.
You went about publishing your book a different way. Give us some background on that.
I started podcasting my novel to build an audience with the idea that agents would see this fact in my cover letter — that a few thousand people wanted to buy my book — and be more excited about taking me on. But that didn’t work I had to prove to them that I could sell it by going on Amazon with Breakneck Books.
Breakneck Books was a small POD publisher, run by Jeremy Robinson that knew what I was doing online and believed that I could sell books. He understood podcasting and what a few of us were doing to build audience. The only downside of this was that it was hard to get the book into stores.
What’s the best thing about writing?
That’s a tough one. I think it’s something that I just decided in my 20s was what I wanted to do and since then I’ve been too stubborn to quit. The fact is though that when I’m at my desk working on my stories or a novel, I know I’m doing what I was meant to do. There’s a peace and calm that I don’t get from doing anything else in this world. Those times, and doing that work, that’s the best.
That and interacting with my fans online. I get such a rush when someone e-mails or calls my online voicemail to tell me they love my stories.
Share some of your writing goals.
My goal is to be able to continue writing. With four novels written now in the Jack Palms crime series, I’d like to publish a least one a year for the next three years. I know that to build my career as an author I need to keep putting books in the marketplace. I guess that’s my goal: for writing to be my full-time career, the way that I make my money and support my family.
Maybe that’s unrealistic in 2009, but one step at a time, one small step, and then another, I’m getting closer and closer.
Is there a specific time of day you like to write?
Yes. I like to write first thing in the morning. The faster I can go from bed to desk, the easier the writing seems to flow — no e-mails, no blogs, no online news. Just straight from sleep to where I left off the day before, that’s how I like it.
What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?
A Night in the Life of the NBA by Bob Ryan. That or Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
It wasn’t until I reached my 20s that I knew I wanted to be a writer, but now looking back I can see I wanted to be a writer all along. My father has been digging up little books from the basement lately that I made by dictating stories to my babysitter before I could even read or write. When I played with action figures I used to make up long narratives and wish that I could write them down.
In fourth grade, I wrote a story about dragons and swordsmen that my teacher submitted to a magazine. They rejected it, saying it was too violent. How’s that for a start?
Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Megan Abbott, Flannery O’Connor,Denis Johnson, Ernest Hemingway and Michael Connelly
Book you’re currently reading.
Denis Johnson’s Angels, Michael Connelly’s The Scarecrow.
Any type of writing ritual you have?
I like to pick a set number of words to try and get in each day—usually 1,500 or up to 2,500 when I’m drafting a new novel. I’ll write until I get that goal, but always leave off in a place where I know exactly what’ll happen next. That way when I start the next day I can pick up with something I already know. It gets me going more easily and then once I get a few sentences in, I can usually keep going.
Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?
I believe there are just certain times where we’re tired and our subconscious is tired, spent. There’s only so much that you can pull out of your head without a rest. I’m a big believer in my subconscious as a part of the creative process.
Hemmingway said you have to make sure to leave some water at the bottom of the well each day when you write, and I believe in that. You drain yourself out completely, it’s harder to get the water generating itself back up for the next day. If that makes any sense.
Denis Johnson, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, has “Wait” as one of the four cardinal rules for a writer. Sometimes it’s just what you have to do. Faith is a big part of my writing process.
What’s the measure of a successful writer?
Someone who can support themselves and make a living by writing. (Perhaps even—dare I say it?—a good living.)
Advice for other writers?
Keep at it. It’s just a dumb old chestnut, but the reality is that the process of the writing has to save you. If that process doesn’t sustain you (and I’m not saying it has to be all you have or do—it shouldn’t) then you won’t last. When you’re writing, that part of it has to be a big part of what you love.
Otherwise, get a different job.
Once you’ve made up your mind to do it, get online and start building an audience. Regardless of what happens and who publishes you, that audience can carry you for a very long time. In many cases, it will have to because a publisher’s not going to give you much help. You’ll have to sell yourself and your books in the end, so you might as well start practicing.
Where can we learn more about you?
You can find out all about me, hear my free audio novels, short stories, and writer’s-life podcasts at http://sethharwood.com. You can also find me at http://CrimeWAV.com where I podcast a free short story a week by other great writers in the crime genre. I’m also teaching a class with Scott Sigler on how authors can build their online audience. Info about that is at http://authorbootcamp.com.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed doing this interview. Write what you love to write. I started writing crime fiction, an act I felt guilty about at first because I was incorporating movie influences and television into what I drew my fiction from, and I’ve been much happier writing since. Salinger, through one of his characters, gave this advice to writers “Write the book YOU want to read.” That’s all. Do that.