In case you haven’t figured it out yet, being a published author is my dream job. Ten years ago, when I first started writing, authors were my rock stars. I read their bios with devotion, poured over their acknowledgements hoping to find a tidbit more of their personality, and pretty much daydreamed like a gushing fan girl about meeting one someday. Ten years later, I still squee on the inside, but I’m way better at taming my idol worship into a poker face. I’ve also met a few. Turns out, they’re a lot like you and me. At the beginning of my brave year, I noodled the idea of a six-week series interviewing authors. Fun, right? The rest is history. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!
Today, I’m interviewing Jeff Gerke. I met Jeff last year at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, when I took his fantasy/sci-fi morning track. As a professional novelist, editor, teacher, graphic designer, nonfiction writer, typesetter, artist, and former publisher, Jeff knows his stuff. If his credentials and years of experience weren’t enough, his quirky style and quick wit make his workshops a ton of fun. As if that list isn’t long enough, I just found out Jeff has a theater background and is currently playing the role of “Father” in the musical Children of Eden. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and three children.
I could go on, but let’s dig into the questions.
Rachelle: You’ve worn many hats in this industry—writer, editor, publisher, educator, and more—what has been your favorite role? Most challenging? Why?
Jeff: In a recent week, I posted in subsequent days about a short film that had been made from one of my stories, an animation I created to illustrate the Christian’s struggle with the flesh, a teaching engagement at a writers’ conference, my new art portfolio site, the release of my latest novella, and the dates for the performances of Children of Eden.
Yes, I do wear a lot of hats. They’re all fun. They all work. And I’m usually very relieved when each one is over for a while!
I don’t think I can pick one as my favorite. I loved being a new novelist. Then I loved being a seasoned novelist. I loved being a new, and seasoned, editor. I loved running my own publishing house. I love creating my digital paintings and then seeing people react to them. I love being onstage—I even love all the rehearsals that go into stage productions. I love teaching writers how to better do what it is they’re trying to do.
If I had to pick a role I like best, I think I’d pick that of daddy to my three children.
The most challenging role I’ve had so far has probably been that of publisher when I ran Marcher Lord Press. When you’re a one-man company, you come to see very, very clearly what things you are terrible at. I think I was passably good at, say, 8 of the 10 roles required to run a book publishing house. But the two I stunk at were very distressing to me. If I were to do that again, I would partner with one or two people who excel at the tasks I’m terrible at.
Rachelle: That’s wise advice for life in general. And I think we can all collectively awwwww that your favorite role is daddy.
Just about a year ago, at Mt. Hermon, you shared with me how you started writing for Writer’s Digest. That story stuck with me, probably because of how brave it was, will you share it again?
Jeff: One day about eight years ago, I received an e-mail from Christian novelist Dianne E. Butts, who had heard me teach at the Colorado Christian Writers’ Conference. She discovered a web page (which is no longer in existence) on which the then-managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books, Jane Friedman, had posted a list of all the books she wished someone would write for WD. When I visited the page, I saw a number of titles I could pretty much write in my sleep, having taught that content for a decade.
So I took a chance and contacted Jane about one of the books, called The Plot Bible. I gave her my credentials as writer, editor, fiction teacher, etc. and told her I’d like to submit a proposal for that plot book. But I mentioned when I taught material at conferences, I actually began with the creation of the main character, including that person’s transformational arc, and then I created the plot around that inner journey. I told her I though all novelists were either plot-first writers or character-first writers, and whichever thing they were good at (plot or character), they were usually terrible at the other thing.
Jane liked both my approach to plot and character and the idea of plot-first/character-first, so she suggested I submit two proposals, one for The Plot Bible and another for the plot and character book I was envisioning. They ended up offering me a contract for that latter book, which became Plot Versus Character.
After I completed that book and worked well with the editors and staff at WD, it was natural for me to propose more books they might publish. I went on to publish five fiction how-to books with Writer’s Digest: Plot Versus Character, The First 50 Pages, Write Your Novel In a Month, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, and The Irresistible Novel. I have loved all aspects of working with WD.
Rachelle: Thanks for sharing that story again. Hearing it reminds me that risk is a good thing. Funny fact, The First 50 Pages was the first writing book I ever read. That poor book is so highlighted and post-it noted up, it’s hard to actually read the content.
When did you first start writing? Tell me a bit about your journey from blank screen to published work.
Jeff: I probably began storytelling when I was a kid making up adventures with my G.I. Joes. My first attempt to be published was with a scenario and adventure I’d created for a role-playing system. In high school and college, I always seemed to get very high scores for my creative writing assignments, and sometimes my teachers would make special mention of what I’d written. I went to film school and wrote some screenplays. Then I thought it would be fun to turn those movie ideas into novels (since I was getting nowhere close to having them produced as movies!). I approached Zondervan with a fantasy series I’d envisioned, and I actually got to the final “pubco” round of deliberations before it was shot down. Rather than discourage me, that told me I was almost over the wall, and the next series I presented to Christian publishers turned into contracts for my first trilogy of novels.
I’m naturally a plot-first novelist, so story ideas come to me so very easily. I have a Word file with over 300 story ideas waiting their turn. Character stuff is much harder for me, which is why I created my own system for coming up with realistic characters. So, I start with my idea and often turn that into a basic three-act stricture. Then I’ll craft my main character and his or her inner journey. At that point, I’ll often have to revise the three-act structure to better fit the hero. Then I’ll flesh out an outline to the degree I like (not too much, nor too little!), and start writing. I don’t do multiple drafts, like many novelists I know. I push through to “the end” and then go back and change the things I know need changing. But that first draft is very close to what eventually gets published.
Rachelle: What is the favorite place you’ve ever written? Why do you love it?
I used to take a pen and pad of paper out into the pine and white oak forest my uncle owned in East Texas. I’d sit against the bole of a massive oak, soak in the sounds of pure nature in a quiet grove, let the animals forget about me and go back to their daily business, and I’d write. A cloudy day was best, as green and gray is my favorite color scheme.
Rachelle: You’ve answered a lot of this previously, but anything to add to your writing process? Has it changed from book to book?
Jeff: I used to outline way more than I do now. It got so bad that one time, after I’d created this massive and detailed outline, I no longer wanted to write the book! All my fun of discovery had already happened, and all that was left was the long terrible process of writing a really long document.
Now, I do the bit of outlining I’ve mentioned above, leaving lots of room for discovery and improvisation and brilliant ideas later.
Rachelle: That’s funny, I’m going through a similar process falling (not too far though!) more into the “seat of the pants” club.
What advice would you give your beginner writer self?
Jeff: You’re probably not going to make a living as a novelist. Sorry, but the odds are not “ever in your favor.” I know over 300 multi-published Christian novelists, and I’m guessing about four of them make their living from their fiction. And for some of them, much of the fun of it is gone, and in its place is the next deadline and the hope that this one will sell at least as well as the last one, and can I get a new contract after this one runs out?
Most of the novelists I know who don’t make a living at it, but also don’t need a job outside the house are, not to sound sexist, housewives with kids in school or out of the nest. Now, those ladies are very hard-working and have to struggle to find the time and energy to write, the same as everyone. Still, there aren’t many times I wish to be something or someone other than what I am, but sometimes it does sound nice to have the essential income brought in by someone else while I concentrate on adding to it through my writing. That way, there’s less pressure on the publishing and the career can build at a more sustainable pace, and if I wanted to stop doing it, that would be okay.
What I tell young writers is that fiction writing may never be your primary income, so get an education that will allow you to have a “real” job that will pay the bills. However, even if fiction never constitutes the majority of your income, you’ll always have fiction. It won’t be taken away from you. You can do it until the day you die, God willing. Plus, it’s not always an advantage to have publishing contracts and the pressures and deadlines that come with them. Being that outsider, working on her own time and pursuing her own creative vision is sometimes the happiest stage of the novelist’s life, in retrospect.
Rachelle: What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Jeff: I think moving forward on faith to adopt our little girl from China was the bravest thing my wife and I have ever done. Also, right now I’m the lead in a major musical, and agreeing to do that, with my best-for-the-chorus-only voice, feels pretty brave! Which is to say, it scares me to death and I’m in over my head, but I keep going back to rehearsals!
Rachelle: That is truly brave! I’m sweating just thinking about being the lead singing role. I won’t even do karaoke!
What keeps you inspired?
Jeff: Actually, I’m in a time where my inspiration to write fiction is very low. The realization that I’m probably never going to “make it” as a full-time novelist, coupled with a change in my heart so that I no longer have to do certain “impressive” things to feel I’m a worthy human, has resulted in me almost never having the gumption to do the work it requires to write a novel-length manuscript. I’ve done a few novellas and short stories and screenplays lately, but all the novels I’ve started in the last decade are incomplete fragments sitting on my hard drive. When I want to say something creatively these days, I sit down and paint.
Rachelle: And your artwork is amazing. Readers, if you want to see it yourself, go here.
What’s your most vulnerable moment as a writer? Why did it feel so exposing?
Jeff: Years ago, I was going to a Christian counselor. One week, I gave him my fourth novel to read. He handed it back to me the next week and said, “This explains so much.” LOL. I didn’t know what I had exposed about myself, but it was evidently very clear to him. Writing a novel, I have learned, is the act of taking 400 pages to interpret a Rorschach ink plot. It exposes what’s inside you, and you don’t even know you’re revealing it.
Rachelle: This is so true! Sometimes I feel like I gave all my blood to Gatekeeper.
What quirk does the greater public not know about you?
Jeff: Oh lots. I create my own Diet Mountain Dew mix from a blend of sno-cone flavouring and off-brand soda. I’m left-handed. I love to play computer games including the Battlefield series, the Mass Effect series, the X-COM series, the Company of Heroes series, and the Madden series. And I wish, if I weren’t old and didn’t have wonderful ties to family at home, to be a Mars colonist.
Rachelle: Wow! I love that. A Mars colonist, huh? Sounds terrifying to me. But the adventure of it sounds appealing. In theory. LOL!
Let’s end with a rapid-fire favorite round. Answer with one word. What’s your favorite:
Book—The Lord of the Rings (first is the Bible, of course)
Vacation spot—Scotland/Israel/Coastal Redwoods
Favorite place to write—Forest
Thank you so much Jeff! I had so much fun getting to know you better.
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