Stay true to the story you want to tell: A Q & A with author Alex Messenger

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Photo by Lacey Messenger

 

“No matter how you go about publishing a book, it’ll be a long process, with ups and downs . . . You have to stay true to the story you want to tell, but most importantly, you have to believe in it.”

We’re sure it will come as a surprise to no one that we have to cancel our April 4 “Published!” panel due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We hope all of our members and blog readers are healthy and safe during these trying times. 

Since we couldn’t hold our panel discussion, we thought we’d bring the panel directly to you! We reached out to our panelists with a list of questions about writing, hobbies, and their publishing experiences. We’ll be posting their responses to the LSW blog.

Our first panelist is Alex Messenger, author of The Twenty-Ninth Day, Surviving a Grizzly 81h0eAszMELAttack in the Canadian Tundra. A Duluth, MN, author, marketer and photographer, at seventeen, Alex was mauled by a grizzly bear. In the decade afterward, he worked as a wilderness guide, marketing specialist, photographer and volunteer search-and-rescue operator. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, National Parks magazine, Outside Online, and Backpacker magazineHis website is alexmessenger.com.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I first wanted to be a writer when I was very young. I think I got the inspiration from my parents, and specifically, my Mom. She did a lot of things, and in addition to her full time job, she was a writer and editor, publishing and compiling a number of books. I saw at that time that it was possible, and the rich experiences I had as a child, tagging along with her and my Dad as they taught anthropology study abroad trips filled me with experiences from exciting, far-off places. My challenge was that I didn’t know what to write about. I had a few non-starter concepts and have many sets of just a few pages from a story. Nothing stuck. Then when I was 17, I had this life-altering thing happen with the bear attack, and it was kind of like, “well, there’s your story!”

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? 

It’s funny you should phrase it that way, because I’ve always written while also working a full time job. Part of that is because I wanted to take my time putting my work together, and I didn’t want to rush the book. I do my best writing work first thing in the morning. My favorite schedule is to get up very early in the morning, ideally before the sun rises, and before anyone else in the house is up for the day. Then, I’d write for 1-4 hours by the glow of the screen and the keyboard. There’s a mental freshness and focus that comes from doing it first-thing and there’s also fewer distractions. No one is calling, social media isn’t usually chiming away yet, and with the dark, the visual distractions of the desk, or the room, or the house—even the outside world—are in shadow. I’ve found I can only write for up to 4 hours at a time, so even if I was up at 4am and leaving for work around 8, I was still getting a ‘full day’ of writing time in.

Do you have any interesting writing quirks or habits?

Other than my schedule, which I think is relatively common for writers, I think my biggest quirk is that I have to write down everything first. Some writers can trim their work as they put it down, but not for me. My target for word counts are always things I have to trim down to. My process is to have it all on paper, and refine it down to the best version of itself, like carving from a piece of wood to make what I want from the blank starting block.

What is your proudest writing achievement?

My proudest writing achievement is definitely my book, The Twenty-Ninth Day. It took an inordinate amount of time to write, and it’s an incredibly personal story. I think the fact that it is so personal was one of the biggest challenges, too. I’m really excited that this intense journey is something that other people can experience, and I hope that each reader takes away lessons that are relevant to them.  

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not sure where this advice came from, but writing is a process. One of the biggest things to remember is that what you’re writing doesn’t have to start out the way it is when it’s done. That is to say, what you’re starting with is something to improve upon. If you don’t get it started though with that very rough beginning, and if you don’t then keep moving it forward to the next stage and the next and the next, you’ll never come up with the finished product. So get it started, and keep going.

What are your hobbies/pursuits when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m doing my day job of marketing for St. Luke’s health care system in Duluth, MN, or exploring the trails and waterways of the north country with my family and friends, or working with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad to perform search and rescue services from Lake Superior to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

Describe your path to publishing and some things you perhaps wish you’d known starting out?

As I was working on my book, I didn’t have a set way I was going to go about publishing the finished piece. In my mind, though, I always wanted to go the traditional publishing route first and planned to self-publish if that didn’t pan out. I think being adaptable and dedicated to getting your story out there is incredibly important. To that end, I had that route I wanted to take, but what was most important was two things — that my book would be of a quality that I was proud of, and that it actually got out there in finished book form. In the end, I was able to work with a traditional traditional publishing model. I found the experience to be good for me. They were very thorough. They have an established system. Before getting there, though I put a ton of work into my manuscript before pursuing an agent through Publisher’s Marketplace. When I queried a few folks, I found out that the ms wasn’t ready for representation. Luckily, one of the agents I’d queried works with books at all different stages, and I ended up hiring him and paying him as a freelance editor to help me get the text to the next stage. After we’d finished working on it, and cutting it by about half, we were both happy with the result and I signed with him to represent me as an agent.

At that point he started shopping around to publishers and found Blackstone, an independent publisher that started publishing audiobooks in 1987 and became a full-fledged publisher. I like to say that they’re big enough to put some really good energy behind the book, but they’re small enough to care about my book. They’re a great fit. 

Once I’d signed with the publisher we got to work once more on refining the book. The manuscript went through so many more edits but I had the resources of an editing team, graphic design team, marketing team etc. I think that’s what was most helpful to me; I wasn’t not alone, I was working with professionals. With self-publishing, you have to coordinate all that yourself. That’s a lot of work, and you can put together a great piece that way, but you truly are the hub, the driver. I found in my own journey that there were blind spots I hadn’t realized were there. With a bit of experience in design in college, I’d tinkered with some of the graphical elements for the book… Suffice to say, none of my design elements made it into the final book, and that’s a good thing. I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to realize that I needed to hire out for things like that if I’d been doing it all myself.

The folks at Blackstone, though, put together such a beautiful product, and were really collaborative the entire time. I had input throughout. I valued their expertise as we went through everything, and gave every suggestion and edit weight. Sometimes, I pushed back if I disagreed, but we came to excellent resolutions. We’d gone through all this work to get the manuscript ready to shop to publishers, and when we sold it I was told that it was basically ready and that maybe we didn’t need to bother with a content edit. Again, I wanted the book to be as good as it could be, so I asked that we do go through the edit. The most humbling thing for me was getting that first round of revisions back. All that work leading up to it, and the word doc came back just full of red revision marks. It was one of those moments where I was like, “well, I guess there’s still a lot more work to do.” But I’m so glad we did that. Having those fresh eyes on the text when it was already so far along let us really refine the story that much more, and it’s better because of it.

No matter how you go about publishing a book, it’ll be a long process, with ups and downs. And that comes back to the start of my publishing journey: you have to stay true to the story you want to tell, but most importantly, you have to believe in it.

 

 

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