Tell us a bit about your current project.
The Sinners’ Garden is a book of forgiveness and second chances. It tells the story of Andy Kemp, a young boy whose life has been as ravaged as his scarred face. Disfigured by an abusive father, the teenager hides behind his books and an impenetrable wall of cynicism and anger.
As Andy’s mother struggles to reconnect with him, his Uncle Rip returns transformed from a stint in prison and wants to be a mentor to the reclusive boy, doing everything he can to help end Andy’s pain. When Andy begins hearing strange music through his iPod and making near-prophetic announcements, Rip is convinced that what Andy is hearing is the voice of God.
Elsewhere, police officer Heather Gerisch responds to a late-night breaking and entering in one of the poorest homes in town. She soon realizes that the masked prowler has left thousands of dollars in gift cards from a local grocery store.
As the bizarre break-ins continue and Heather pursues the elusive “Summer Santa,” Andy and Rip discover an enormous and well-kept garden of wildflowers that seems to have grown overnight at an abandoned steel mill.
Soon, they realize who the gardener is, and a spree of miracles transfigures this small town from a place of hopelessness into a place of healing and beauty.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
Whenever I think about this, I shake my head. God has been too good to me, and with His hand, I was fortunate to have missed the need to hunt for an agent or ever submit my manuscript to a traditional publisher. Still, I ended up getting signed by the biggest Christian publisher in the world.
We had originally planned on self-publishing The Reason, and a few months before the self-published version of the book was going to be released, we were pretty comfortable with the story and decided to print 100 advance copies to create a little pre-release buzz. I then contacted some of the biggest churches in the country and asked if they had any avid readers who would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book and then maybe provide me with some feedback. Once I had permission, I included a letter with each copy of the book I sent. In that letter, I basically introduced myself and provided my phone number, email address, and also mentioned I would greatly appreciate it if the reader would let me know what they thought of the story.
I didn’t hear anything for a month or so, and I was expecting, at tops, maybe a half a dozen responses. Beyond getting any general feedback, I also wanted to identify recurring themes or concerns readers had so that I could make revisions before the final version of the book was released.
Then I received my first email from a woman out west that said she enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait for it to come out. It was an awesome feeling. And then I received a phone call from a woman that ran a church bookstore, wanting to know how they could buy it. Before long, we had around 250 responses from men, women, teenagers, and ministers, sharing how the book affected them in ways I couldn’t believe, and these responses were so heartwarming that they literally changed the reason I want to continue to write.
Fortunately, one of those advance copies we made ended up on the desk of a receptionist at Thomas Nelson, and it was her response to the book that resulted in it being passed on to their fiction team. Just before we were to release the self-published version of The Reason, Thomas Nelson picked up the title along with a request for me to write two additional books. Once again, God has been quite good to me, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
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.
Patience is a problem for me when I write. When I’m putting a story together, I usually write the ending first, that way I have a target to hit. But sometimes, I get so anxious to get to certain scenes, I find myself in too much of a hurry to get there. So instead of forcing the story, I’m learning to really slow down, and when I do that, the characters end up telling me what to do instead of the other way around.
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?
I think I had a late start on building my social media platform. I didn’t put much of an effort into building a following on my website, Facebook, and Twitter until after The Reason was released. For budding authors, it’s extremely important to constantly blog and post on these sites in order to connect with readers and potential readers even before the release of a first book.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Altered versions of real life experiences. For me, writing offers the perfect opportunity to sprinkle personal lessons I’ve learned amongst characters in stories.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
This has happened to me several times talking with readers at bookstores…
Reader at a bookstore: “Mr. Sirls, what did you do before you wrote The Reason?”
Me at bookstore: “I was in Federal Prison.”
Look on readers face… priceless
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Always work on getting better at every aspect of the business, whether it’s the writing itself, social media, or simply reading about the ins and outs of the industry. In terms of becoming a better author, I know it’s been said a million times before, but the best advice anyone will ever give is to read a lot and write a lot. I also think it’s important to really try to have a clear vision on what the exact message is that you want to share with readers. Beyond that, have realistic goals and most importantly … have fun!
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
Prison is one of those experiences I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but at the same time, there are few things for which I would trade the experience, because from a spiritual standpoint, it gave me the opportunity to slow down and realize what is important. As my faith grew, I became increasingly anxious to share some of the things I learned involving faith, grace, forgiveness, and realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around William Sirls. At the same time, I didn’t want to come across as some religious jailhouse lunatic, so I figured my best way to share these lessons would be by sprinkling them amongst characters in my writing.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
The Sinners’ Garden. After all the wonderful emails, phone calls, and letters I received from readers that read The Reason, writing another story was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. It was extremely important to me that I didn’t let these readers down and that after they finished the book, they were both entertained and felt closer to God. Based on the reviews we’ve received so far, with God’s help, I’m thinking we may have done a decent job and I’m thankful.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Not really. I think it’s a fascinating business and if I had to pick something that bothered me about it, it would be how truly unfortunate it is how many authors give up on their dreams of being published. It’s even more unfortunate how many never even try, because what’s that old saying? “If I can do it, anyone can.”
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
I think all authors want to entertain readers, but as a Christian author with a checkered past, it’s particularly important to me that readers come away from my stories feeling closer to God. I also thought it would be pretty cool if one of my books served as some sort of icebreaker for those awkward “religious” conversations so many of us are afraid to have with people around us. I think it’s too bad that less than ten percent of Christians offer their testimony to friends and it’s equally unfortunate when we just mention “Jesus” or “the Bible,” people sometimes cringe or want to leave the room. Though there’s no substitute for the Bible, it would be an honor if a reader passed one of my books on to a friend who wasn’t a believer or even to someone who was “on the fence” in their faith. Hopefully, once that friend finished the book, it would break the ice for a spiritual conversation, giving readers an open door to talk about the Bible and how Christ can make a difference in someone’s life.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course)?
Creating believable characters with real problems and then offering Christian solutions to those problems, and then receiving letters or emails from readers on how they related to one of these characters and how the book helped re-ignite their faith. Getting messages from readers is truly amazing!
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
It would have to be getting picked up by Thomas Nelson without ever having an agent or ever formally submitting a manuscript. You should see the looks on some faces when I tell that story at writer’s groups. Once again, God has been too good to me.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
Desktop, legal pads, pens, thesaurus, Chicago Manual of style, LOTS of coffee, and the usual army of desk clutter that never seems to leave.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Showing instead of telling. I had/have a bad habit of bombarding single pages with tons of backstory instead of letting this information leak throughout the story. The first few drafts of The Reason also had a lot of “head-hopping” as well. This is where the writer commits the big no-no of being in more than one character’s point of view in a single scene. I speak with a lot of new writers and just like I was, so many are clueless about “showing instead of telling” and POV which if not handled properly, are manuscript death.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Write the ending. It’s a lot easier to then go back and let things happen with a clear target in view. When you hit a rough spot, your characters will also know the ending and they’ll help write the book for you.
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?
Even if it’s gibberish, and I can’t get in the groove, there has to be 2,000 words a day, because 2,000 poorly written words that keep the story moving are better than no words at all.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Definite combination. And then when these combinations don’t work, the wonderful editors I’m blessed to work with bail me out.
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?
The ending. Once you have that in sight, you then have to negotiate the other most difficult part: the beginning. For those that don’t start with the ending, just get those first few words down, even if they aren’t exactly what you want to say, because it’s like popping open a can, and once it’s open and you get those first words out, the rest of the words aren’t right far behind.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
Childhood leukemia is a theme in The Reason and one of the reader group questions is “How could God make something good come from the death of a child?” I encountered a young couple that had lost a son to leukemia that had also read the book and they answered that question. They told me that after their loss, their faith drew more people to God. The mother then told me that whether their son was 4, 10, 20, or 100 years old when he died, it didn’t really matter, because 1,000 years from now we will all be in heaven and that their son’s death created more believers. I was speechless.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
Giveaways and unscheduled visits to bookstores. I have given a lot of books away through giveaways and to bookstore employees. If you think your book is worth reading, give it to people. If they like it, maybe they’ll tell friends or customers about it.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
What was your inspiration for The Reason?
I was inspired to write The Reason in early 2004, which on the surface was a pretty difficult time in my life. I had just gone through a divorce and was in the middle of activities that were hurting a lot of good people. Those activities would ultimately lead me to federal prison.
I clearly remember walking down a hallway at a hospital in Detroit. I was there to visit my oldest daughter who had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At the time, I guess it would be safe to say I was pretty much drowning in my own pity party when I came across a young couple, probably in their late twenties, pulling their son in a little red wagon. The boy was probably around three years old, hairless, frail, and he had a gray and ashen look that suggested the end was probably near. For me, it was one of those rare moments in life when you realize that your problems aren’t as bad as you think, and while I was trying to fathom the amount of stress this family was under, this little boy looked up and smiled at his parents and they smiled back. It was one of the most beautiful exchanges I had ever seen, and something inside of me wanted to find a way to make those smiles last, because in so many cases, particularly in cases like that, they don’t.
So over the next couple of years, as I continued to head down the wrong road in life, and continued to hurt everyone around me, I somehow, in the middle of all that destruction, wrote a manuscript about a “magical” character who appears at a small Michigan hospital that has the ability to make smiles last.
At the end of 2007, I entered federal prison and when Christ entered my life, I decided to rewrite The Reason. There is no such thing as a coincidence and it certainly wasn’t an accident that the story became a lot less “magical” and a lot more “spiritual.” God certainly is good, isn’t He?
Over the course of his life, William Sirls has experienced both great highs and tremendous lows—some born of chance, some born of choice. Once a senior vice president at a major investment firm, he was incarcerated in 2007 for wire fraud and money laundering, where he learned a great deal more than he ever bargained for. Life lessons involving faith, grace, and forgiveness are evident in his writing. His first novel, The Reason, was published in 2012. The Sinners’ Garden (available December 2013) is his second novel. He is the father of two and makes his home in southern Michigan.