To continue my interview series with editors, writers, and other folks in the books industry, I am pleased to present my discussion with award-winning author E. Michael Helms. He offers some great advice for writers who are hoping to be published and provides insight into the realms of war and mystery novels.
(You can also check out my interview with Alison Hennessey, Editorial Director of Bloomsbury’s Raven Books here.)
Bio: Michael Helms is the author of 7 novels and 1 non-fiction book. His first book, The Proud Bastards, is a memoir of his time spent serving as a combat Marine in the Vietnam War and has been in print for over 26 years. In addition to publishing other books about the Vietnam War and the American Civil War, Michael has written the first novels in the Mac McClellan Mystery series starting with Deadly Catch in 2013 and Deadly Ruse in 2014. Deadly Dunes followed in March 2016. Deadly Spirits will be released in January 2017, followed by Deadly Ruse in September. If you haven’t delved into the world of Mac McClellan, now would be an excellent time to start.
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1. You have worked with several different publishers in the past. Do you have any advice for authors hoping to go the traditional publishing route? What things do you wish you had known about publishing?
The best advice I can give to writers hoping to go the traditional route—if they’re hoping to land a medium-sized or large publisher—is to find an agent. Of course there are numerous small houses that will consider non-agented works. I’m signed with a couple of them myself, although I do have an agent. With the larger, mostly New York based publishing houses now comglomerated into four or five mega-houses, it’s harder than ever to break down those walls. It can be done, but it’s a tough nut to crack. I’m fortunate enough to have one book with the “Big Guys,” and it’s been a sweet ride. That book, my Vietnam memoir, has made more money than all my other books combined.
To be realistic, the best shot a writer has today is to do your homework on the independent presses out there, and then hit them with a strong query letter and topnotch synopsis and writing sample. Make it good, and make it personal. The independents generally work with their authors on a more personal level than the big publishers. The advance, if they offer one, is usually small, but the royalties are comparable and sometimes more generous than the large houses offer.
As for what I wish I would’ve known when first trying to break into publishing, I’d say the biggest thing is not to roll over and kiss their shoes at the first offer they dangle before your eyes. When The Proud Bastards sold, I jumped at the first offer. I wound up with a meager advance (for a New York house), and a minimum royalty rate. This was in 1990. Fourteen years later, when I received all rights back from the initial publisher, my agent at the time landed a much nicer offer from one of the really big houses. I turned it down, and asked for double the advance they first offered. They countered, and we agreed to meet in the middle. It was still a sweet deal, and the royalty rate I landed was twice what I received from the initial publisher. So, I wish I’d wiped the stars out of my eyes and grown a backbone way back when.
2. You are currently represented by a literary agency. Did you try to publish books prior to partnering with an agency? How has working with an agent influenced the way you write and promote your works?
I’ve never really “not had” an agent, except a few times I’ve been between agents. I lucked into an agent for my first book (The Proud Bastards). At the time I was freelancing magazine articles and had sold a couple to the editor of “Vietnam Combat” magazine, including a frontpage feature. Thinking they could stand alone as magazine articles, I sent him a few chapters of my memoir (which at the time was a work-in-progress). He liked them, but told me to send the entire manuscript when it was completed. I didn’t know it then, but he was also a literary agent representing a few select clients (focusing mainly on the subjects of military, guns and ammunition). I sent it to him, and within a few weeks he made the sale to a New York house.
As for how working with an agent has influenced my writing or promotion, well, it’s made me put my best foot forward from the get-go. You’ll have a difficult time landing a good agent unless your work is good, polished, and marketable. If you go “shopping” for an agent, do your homework. I can’t stress this enough. There are a lot of shysters out there waiting to prey upon writers hungry to see their work in print. Never, ever pay an agent a penny to represent you. Promotion? That’s a different beast altogether. Unless you happen to be a “name,” you’re going to have to work your butt off promoting yourself and your books. That means being actively involved in social media, and keeping at it. I’m lucky in that my current agent has helped promote my work as much as possible. That’s not an agent’s job. But, the more sales, the more money for both of you.
3. Though your first books are set around various wars, your recent Mac McClellan Mystery series focuses more on solving crimes. What caused you to switch genres? How does writing mysteries differ from crafting war stories?
I was burned out with writing about war. The memoir was very tough to write because I had to dredge up so many bad, haunting memories. Basically, I “relived” my tour of duty while writing it. It was painful, but once finished, the writing also proved to be cathartic. For me and most combat vets, the war is never going to be fully “over,” but writing about it certainly helped purge some awful recollections and feelings.
My book, The Private War of Corporal Henson, is an autobiographical novel which depicts my struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) years after the war ended. It’s about 85% factual. The story follows a small group of Vietnam combat veterans who finally seek help for PTSD through group therapy. The characters are based on real people or composites, and the combat sequences all essentially happened as written, with a few minor changes. Writing this story required that I once again dig up and sift through all the bad “stuff” that happened to me and others in the group. Another journey through painful memoiries, but again, cathartic.
And then there’s Of Blood and Brothers, a two-volume (publisher’s insistence) saga of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. I loosely based the story on a real family that lived a few miles north of where I grew up on the coast of the Florida panhandle. One brother fought for the South, the other for the North. I spent years researching the project, and I believe it’s the best work I’ve produced. But once again, in order to paint the battle scenes realistically I drew upon my own personal combat experiences.
So, burned out on war, I decided to try my hand at something different. Just what genre, I had no idea. “Why not a mystery?” I said to myself one day. I had devoured the first forty-something Hardy Boys mysteries as a youngster. I’d kicked around the idea of a man out fishing and hooking a badly decomposed corpse. An opening line came to me in the middle of the night (writers seem to be cursed with nocturnal ideas), and I climbed out of bed and jotted it down: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. And thus was born Deadly Catch, the first book in my Mac McClellan Mystery series. To me, writing mysteries is a freewheeling experience. No more digging up bad memories and ghosts from the past. I can let loose and let go. I come up with an idea, and opening, and a general idea of an ending (which often changes), and then let the characters take over and guide me through the storyline. Anything goes, and that’s the fun of it. But you better get your facts straight or savvy readers will let you know. There’s a difference between a revolver and a semi automatic pistol, the 9X19mm Parabellum cartridge and the .45 ACP. If you get lazy and don’t do your homework you’ll hear about it.
4. Can you tell me a little about your current leading man? What inspired the creation of Mac McClellan? What makes him tick?
When the series opens with Deadly Catch, Mac is divorced and recently retired from the Marine Corps after a twenty-four year career, including combat tours in Iraq. I know, that sounds a bit hypocritical because I was trying to get away from the subject of war. I honestly tried not to go there, but I couldn’t get a grasp on the character. In order to get inside his head and know what made him tick, I had to really know the guy, inside and out. What better way to accomplish that than to make him a Marine (once a Marine, always a Marine) with combat experience like his creator?
Mac’s a Southern gentleman with an eye for the ladies, yet he’s trustworthy and true to his girlfriend, Kate Bell. His word is his bond, and he expects the same in return. He lives by the creed of Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful). He can be your best friend or your worst enemy. He has a great sense of humor (sometimes misunderstood), but he’s also as tenacious as a bulldog. He’s compassionate, but can be relentless when dealing with “bad guys.” Puppy or pit bull—that’s Mac McClellan.
5. In addition to the release of Deadly Spirits (January 15), what forthcoming books are you looking forward to seeing in print?
The fifth book in the Mac McClellan series, Deadly Verse, is scheduled for a September 2017 release. I’m under contract for a sixth Mac mystery, tentatively titled Deadly Rights. I hope to continue with the series. I’m also working on a collection of dark, hard-boiled short stories about a character I call “Dinger, PI.” The stories are set in post-WWII Las Vegas. Dinger is a veteran of the war (here we go again) who solves cases by hook or by crook. He’s not above stepping outside the boundaries of the law to see that justice is served. The publisher of my Mac McClellan series has expressed interest in publishing a novella-sized collection of “Dinger, PI.” I’m hoping to someday write a full-length novel for Dinger, and possibly a series. We’ll see.
Thanks for having me on your blog, Kristen. It was a real pleasure being had!
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Many thanks, Michael, for sharing a bit of your wisdom on the writing and the publishing industry.
I hope that the rest of you have a chance to explore some of Michael’s works. Winter is a wonderful season to curl up with a good mystery after all.