Ben Rehder wanted to become a writer ever since he was dropped on his head as a toddler. As he grew into a young adult and the vertigo gradually dissipated, his passion for literature grew. Ben longed to craft the type of soul-stirring prose that would touch people’s lives and help them explore new emotional horizons. But he went to work at an ad agency instead.
Throughout his rewarding and fruitful career in the ad business, Ben has been known to write such imaginative and compelling phrases as “Act now!,” “Limited-time offer,” and “Compatible with today’s rapidly changing network environment.”
However, there eventually came a time when, as unbelievable as it sounds, writing brochures and spec sheets simply wasn’t enough to satisfy Ben’s creative urges. Ben knew: It was time to write a novel.
What is your current project? Tell us about it.
My agent is pitching a manuscript I finished this past fall. Unlike my earlier books in the Blanco County series, this one’s a standalone that takes place along the Texas/Mexico border. It’s not the best time for my agent to be pitching it, so cross your fingers for me. In the meantime, I’ve been writing a few magazine articles and other short projects. Plus, I have a dream of becoming the origami champion of south-central Texas.
Share your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.
The short version: Made a New Year’s resolution to attempt to write a novel. (Notice the word “attempt” in there; that would’ve allowed me to keep my resolution without actually writing a novel.) Wrote the novel in about a year and a half. It took that same amount of time to find an agent. (I have more than 100 rejection slips, so don’t whine about rejection until you’ve joined what I call the “triple digit club.”) Once I had an agent, she found a publisher in about seven or eight weeks. That phone call–when she told me we had an offer–qualifies as one of the best moments of my life. I didn’t care how much money (or, actually, how little) they were offering; I was just thrilled that I’d be a published author. You know what? I’d say, eight years later, that I still look back on that moment with the same satisfaction.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Sure, I still have doubts occasionally, but then I remember that editors and agents have doubts about their abilities, too, and that generally makes me feel better in a sick sort of way. But my doubts are less about my writing and more about whether I have any realistic chance of “making it big.” It’s a fairly brutal business, and nobody really seems to know what sells books, so that can get you down. Writer’s block? No, I don’t really get that. In fact…I…uh…let’s see…I can’t find the right words.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
That’s a tough question, because how can you really know what’s a mistake, short of making a pass at your agent or telling your editor he’s a pinhead? (I have done neither of those things, by the way.) My point is, when you make certain choices in your career, you’re choosing NOT to go down another path. There’s no way of knowing if that other path might’ve been a wiser choice. An example: My Blanco mysteries are comedic, even though the rule of thumb is that funny mysteries don’t sell well. (With exceptions, of course.) But if I’d written a “straight” mystery, maybe I wouldn’t have been published at all. Plus, as I’m sure some readers are thinking, there’s more to life than sales. All you can do is make an informed decision at each critical stage in your career, then hope for the best.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
Everyone says to write from the heart–rather than to write something similar to the bestsellers–but you’ll have to decide for yourself whether that’s good or bad advice. It’s probably blasphemy on my part to even question the “write from the heart” bit, but you don’t see me on any best-seller lists, do you? Regarding promotional efforts, one thing that almost everyone says at some point is, “Well, it couldn’t hurt.” How about a tour? “Couldn’t hurt.” Postcards? “Couldn’t hurt.” Website? “Couldn’t hurt.” A tattoo of my book cover on my forehead? “Couldn’t hurt.” Again, nobody seems to really know what sells books, so there’s a lot of wasted time and money.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
The ideas pretty much have to come from that idea factory between your ears.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
When my original editor left my publisher, that was a blow. Not only did we work great together, we’d developed a friendship. Also, your editor is your champion within the publishing house, so when your editor leaves, that can mean trouble. In this case, my new editor was every bit as sharp, but I sensed that I’d lost some momentum within the house. So it was time to try something new, outside the series.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
You only get one debut. Make sure it counts. Is this the novel that will launch your career and help you meet your goals? If not, should you set it aside and write something else? I don’t know the answer, but those are questions worth asking. In hindsight, I’d have to really contemplate if I wanted to “come out of the gate” with something more in tune with market demands.
Also, don’t spend so much money on any particular marketing tactic without pretty good evidence it works.
Lastly, if you receive a call saying you’ve been nominated for the Edgar, remember how you felt at that moment, because it will be hard to surpass in the future.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
My background is in the ad business, and that’s where I learned to write. There’s one particular person–my first boss–who had more impact on my writing than anybody else. Her name is Mary Summerall and she is one great lady. Also, I got some pretty good writing genes from my mother, so she deserves a shout-out. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a tremendously supportive spouse, which I do.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I wrote an essay for Newsweek about a dog I used to have. Her name was Esmerelda and she was a pit bull. Very sweet and friendly, and she remained that way her entire fourteen years. The overwhelming majority of pit bulls are just like her, though you wouldn’t know that from the media. Yes, I acknowledge the problem with pit bulls, but it’s never good to generalize. I hope my essay got that point across.
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”
Honestly, I’m not sure what that means. I don’t feel any sense of a sacred duty. I’m not obligated to anyone to accomplish anything in particular with my writing.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
See above. Nobody knows what actually sells books. Oh, except for Oprah.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
Obviously, I want to continue to make a career out of it, whether it’s with my novels, magazine articles, copywriting, or a combination of the above. Almost all authors want to be widely read, of course, and to get their books made into movies, and to make the bestseller lists, and to be interviewed on the Today Show. Those things would be nice, too.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Writing really is hard work. I procrastinate a lot. My least favorite part is actually getting started each day. My favorite part is reading a scene I just wrote and knowing I absolutely nailed it. Also, seeing your first book on bookstore shelves for the first time is a great rush.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot.
My wife and I own a small “ranchette” in Blanco County, west of Austin, and I built a cabin out there in 1996. I love to write out there, away from everything. It’s possibly my favorite place on the planet. You can see a photo of the land and the cabin (if you look real hard) across the top of my web site.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Gerunds are always tricky. I went to a gerund training school.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Make sure I understand WHY I’m writing the book. Where am I going with it? I don’t outline, but I should at least understand the big picture before I begin.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
When I’m writing a novel, I set a weekly quota, and it’s appallingly low. Just two thousand words. But I always exceed it, and that makes me feel like I’m accomplishing more than I need to. Mind game.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Sort of a combination. As I mentioned above, I like to have a big-picture feel for the plot before I begin the novel, but as for specific scenes or plot points, anything can happen. My opinion is, if you outline too thoroughly, your novel begins to feel somewhat like a paint-by-numbers piece of fiction.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
I like to have a lot of subplots that appear unrelated but come together near the end. That can be difficult to pull off. Like many authors, I can be halfway through and start to panic. But it’s always worked out. I don’t write a lot of drafts, because I edit as I go along. If I’m not happy with a chapter, I keep at it until I am happy with. Sure, there are times when I make decisions that affect earlier chapters, and I have to go back and do some rewriting, but it’s fairly minimal.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
I once received an email from a soldier in Iraq who thanked me for giving him a mental break and reminding him of his home state, Texas. That was definitely a highlight of my career. He included some photos of himself reading one of my books in one of Saddam’s vanquished palaces. Pretty cool.
Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.
Edgar Award nomination.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I’ve touched on this above, but here’s one other thing: When someone asks you to do an interview like this one, do it!
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Readers don’t realize how much of an impact they have on the publishing industry or on a given author’s career. By buying a book, you are in a sense “voting” for that author and saying you want to see more by him or her. Is there one particular author you like who isn’t well known? Do you want to see more books from that author in the future? You know what you have to do to make that happen.