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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Writing with a Plan: An Author Interview with James Flerlage

What made you decide to take on the challenge of writing a novel?
For the past eighteen years, I’ve written articles and columns for magazines, trade publications and newspapers. It was my wife, Kristine, who pushed me into writing fiction. She not only encouraged me to set my goals higher, she became my toughest critic and greatest champion. She also manages the daytoday operations of our company, DreamScapes Publishing Ltd.

How long did it take you to write this book?
The research for Before Bethlehem started in 2004. The book itself took about three years to write (the writing process was accomplished over weekday nights, weekends and vacations). I started several novels over a fourteenyear period. Up until now, this is the only one I’ve chosen to publish.

How many rewrites did you perform?
For me, rewriting a novel is an evolutionary process, done in fits and starts, and in the case of Before Bethlehem, rarely from beginning to end. There were dozens of rewrites on small sections, and in the cases where entire chapters were thrown out, even more. Scenes where the prose sounded more like a research paper were eliminated entirely. With the character of James, keeping his voice consistent so that it reflected the thoughts and words of a fifteenyearold, proved to be the most challenging part of the writing process. Between final content edits, line edits, and proofs, I probably went through the book from beginning to end at least forty or fifty times, if not more.

Who helped you with the editing?
There’s a ton of pressure to produce a quality product, particularly for first time novelists. The pressure intensifies if you choose to launch the title on your own, which is why I invested so much time and money in editing. My current team consists of six content reviewers, one content editor and two copyeditors. The bulk of the book’s investment was in editorial services. Steve Parolini ( serves as lead editorial consultant for all my projects.

Could you give me a short synopsis on the novel, Before Bethlehem, for my readers?
Before Bethlehem offers the eyewitness account of 15yearold James, son of Joseph bar Jacob, and the dangerous and heartrending choices his family must make in the days leading up to Joseph's relationship with Mary, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Before Bethlehem is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book Recommendation, under Fiction and Literature. A detailed synopsis of the book may be found at or in the January 1, 2014, issue of Kirkus Magazine. 

Have other books been started and stopped along the way?
Yes… thrillers, historical fiction, general fiction and nonfiction.

Prior to writing this novel, what other writing credits did you have?
In high school, one of my poems was selected for publication in a national literary magazine; one of my essays earned me a full academic scholarship. Over the years, I wrote hundreds of pieces for magazines, trade publications and newspapers, mostly on the topics of business and technology. I have authored complex proposals, case studies, professional trade blogs, marketing content, and ghostwritten several articles. I have another article coming out in the February 2014 issue of Chemical Engineering magazine, titled, “Three Insights for Managing Engineering Data in Facilities.”

When did you decide to selfpublish?
As part of a multiyear research effort on the publishing industry, I attended conferences, consulted with several authors, agents, acquisition editors, and publishing industry veterans, subscribed to industry trade magazines, and watched various insider blogs on publishing. (The aforementioned took a tremendous amount of time and investment; I burned vacation days, frequent flier miles, and personal income, all while holding down a demanding fulltime job.) In the end, it was a business decision fueled by royalty percentages, intellectual property rights, and the desire to write for multiple genres.

How do you write?
I set aside time each week to write, usually in the evenings and on weekends. I travel for work, so I tend to write when I’m on the road. I prefer the background noise of coffee shops and bookstores.

Did you do an outline first?
Outlining is a fluid process that changes with the needs of the novel. I typically outline the whole book, including the characters, plot synopsis, scenes, setting, dialogue goals and research needs, in a Moleskine journal (I keep one for each book idea… there are about fifty in a lockbox). Since most of my books contain a major research component, I have to set goals for reading, note taking, and writing.

Did you do individual character development before doing the plot?
My thrillers (which haven’t been released) have a myriad of characters, so I outlined each major and minor character before I outlined the plot. I follow a specific characterization exercise, which was given to me by a creative writing professor. I spend a great deal of time on character development (I have to love them or I’ll get bored).

What type of publicity do you do to promote the book?
There is a twentypage marketing plan for Before Bethlehem, made up of multiple components with budgets, milestones, and performance metrics (my MBA concentration is in marketing). Promotion is just one aspect that involves social media, blogging, and publicity.

What has worked best for generating sales?
I have found that wellpublicized promotional giveaways drive readership, and subsequently, sales.

What do you know now about writing/publishing that you wished you had known sooner?
Spend your time on the craft and your money on editorial services. Invest heavily in cover design and backcover copywriting services. Focus on the product – the rest you can figure out as you go.

Is this a standalone book or are you planning a sequel based on other Biblical characters?
I never intended to publish Before Bethlehem, so I’m wrestling with next steps with the help of my friends, family, spiritual directors, and editorial team. Although this book was supposed to be a oneoff, dozens of readers have asked me to continue the storyline. It is likely I will write a sequel.

 What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing?
In the movie, Finding Forrester, William Forrester (Sean Connery) tells Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), “The first key to writing is to write – not to think.” It is imperative that you dedicate time to write.

What have you learned about writing that you would like to pass along?
Do not fall in love with your first drafts; be ready to slash and burn. (I cut forty thousand words out of Before Bethlehem, and revised it so much that I was both exhausted and burned out by the project.) Set money aside for professional editorial services. Editors often become close friends and confidantes – choose wisely.

What advice would you give anyone embarking on the journey of becoming published?
1. Fail often and miserably. Failure and criticism are essential paths on the journey to success.

2. Learn how to edit your own work. SelfEditing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, is an excellent resource.

3. Study what editors and readers look for in both authors and commercialquality writing. The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner, is another excellent resource.

4. No excuses. Finish your book. It’s great to talk about your novelinprogress at cocktail parties, but getting it done is a crucial step to building confidence in yourself. Completing a novel is one of the greatest blessings of my professional life.

Anything else you would like to share?
I was educated in a small school district in rural Kansas. All of the teachers I had in grade school and high school were caring, skilled, compassionate, and deserving of all the recognition I can muster. Because of them, I developed a lifelong passion for learning, writing, and an appreciation for the arts. Take a moment to reflect on a teacher that made a difference in your life and make time to thank them.

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