Writing Novels in Retirement

Judith Starkston

Judith Starkston

When Judith Starkston, a classicist, retired from 30 years of teaching, she had a vague idea that she wanted to write historical novels. She specifically wanted to write about the Iliad, an epic poem written by the ancient Greek poet, Homer, who historians credit with greatly influencing Greek culture. Two of his poems cover the mythical Trojan War era, Judith’s specialty as a teacher.

Judith discovered that, “Writing fiction is so much more demanding than a purely academic understanding of the topic.” Also, while academics knew about the timeframe described in the Iliad, less was written about the people and the rich Greek culture. “No one had tried to make it understandable to a popular market, so I educated myself about it,” she said.

On the road to her first book contract, a novel about Briseis of Troy called Hand of Fire, Judith taught herself the craft of novel writing and delved deeply into ancient Greek culture.

“Before I started writing, I spent a lot of years reading about the world in which I write. Also, I had my own slow version of a Masters of Fine Arts degree through taking classes at Arizona State University, submitting my work to critique groups, writing manuscripts, having them rejected, and going to conferences,” she said.

Advice to Aspiring Authors

JudithStarkstonSODesertJustice2012Judith took a two-pronged approach to becoming a novelist. First, she expanded who she was as a classicist. Second, she learned about the world of fiction writers, including submitting short stories to the Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths Anthology. Here’s her advice to others.

  • Get connected, both locally and nationally. Join and participate in organizations like Sisters in Crime, Historical Novel Society and Romance Writers of America. “I learned a lot from other writers,” she said.
  • Learn about your marketplace. Judith started reviewing books on her website and for both Historical Novel Review and Poisoned Pen Press. “That taught me so much about what’s working in historical fiction these days and how what I was doing wasn’t working,” she said.
  • Seek quality critique. Judith made the common mistake of submitting to agents before her manuscript was ready. She was lucky enough to get one-sentence rejections from some of them, teaching her that her manuscript was too long and that her dialogue wasn’t fresh. She also got valuable critique from other writers.

“I had followed models of my childhood reading, but that doesn’t work anymore,” she said. To correct that, she studied recent historical fiction writers, cut scenes and read and re-read her manuscript to ensure that she had made an emotional connection with her readers. She also worked with her critique group, hired a content editor and had a professional editor friend also edit the manuscript.

Finding a Good Editor is Critical

“It can be a tricky process to find a good, professional editor,” Judith said. “Unless you have an experienced friend, you’ll have to hire an editor.”

In a blog post on the Huffington Post, David Kudler (publisher of Stillpoint Digital Press), said there are four different kinds of professional editors.

  • Developmental Editors – help authors with structure, plot and character development.
  • Line or Substantive Editors – review the manuscript as a whole, typically not as deeply as a Developmental Editor. If they do review as thoroughly, then they’re Substantive Editors.
  • Copy Editors – focus on helping authors create clean and consistent manuscripts.
  • Proofreaders – looking for errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation, these are usually the last people to see a manuscript before the book goes to print or ebook.

He suggests talking to other writers you know to get recommendations before hiring an editor.

“The reality with the publishing world is that there are a lot of really good editors who are unemployed,” Judith said. “Go hunting for someone who can tell you whose books they’ve edited. You’re looking for editors of published and successful authors.”

To Agent or Not to Agent

Judith submitted her manuscript to several agents.

“The world of agents is huge,” she said. She researched the agents to whom she wanted to submit, based on what they were looking for. Among her research tools were Agent QueryQuery Tracker and attendance at conferences attended by agents.

“Even though you think your book is perfect and ready to go, don’t send first to the list of agents who you would most like to have,” Judith cautioned.  Since most new authors get many rejections, Judith suggested grouping your agents into A, B and C lists. Send to the C list first. If the agents respond with a suggestion, you can change your manuscript, synopsis or query letter. “Once you send to an agent, you can’t resend it,” she said.

Simultaneously, Judith researched small presses that published her genre, going through a similar research process to find the right ones to which she submitted.  In the end, she was offered a contract with a small press, which she decided to accept.

In traditional publishing, larger houses require that you work through an agent. Smaller presses often will consider unagented authors.

Finding Joy

Judith’s main source of joy is her family, but she also enjoys reading, writing and networking with other writers. She loves talking about what matters in life, and she especially likes relating those conversations to history and literature.

“Having conversations that touch at the core of life, that’s joy,” she said. “That’s what I find in this community.”

You can follow Judith on Facebook and Twitter.

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10 Responses to Writing Novels in Retirement

  1. Thank you so much, Karen, for this lovely interview. I wrote my novel about Briseis, the captive woman Achilles and Agamemnon fought over, not about Helen. Helen always gets the press. It’s time Briseis gets her time in the limelight.

    • Karen Randau says:

      Thanks for the great interview, Judith. I’m inspired by your perseverance and celebrate with you now that you’ve signed your publishing contract for this novel!

  2. Pingback: My first “author” interview! – Judith Starkston

  3. Very nice informative interview. Congratulations to Judith, she has obviously worked really hard to produce the best possible read – and I for one will be looking out for it.

  4. What a fabulous interview. Great learning more about you and your journey, Judith. I love that you’ve embraced the writing community – and created your own, through the Arizona Historical Novel Society. Love the group! Can’t wait to hear more about your finished product.

  5. Daniel Bonner says:

    Congratulations on your first book. I am presently reading “Homeric Soundings – The Shaping of the Iliad”, by Oliver Taplin. Professor Taplin has opened new avenues of enjoyment and appreciation of the wonderful masterwork. I look forward to reading yours.

    Daniel Bonner

  6. Cynthia Robertson says:

    What fun! So much I didn’t know about your journey, Judith. Some great advice here too. Can’t wait to read Hand of Fire.

  7. Lots of great advice here. I’m especially struck by how much time Judith put in to her “writing” before she ever put words to the page. That’s what many aspiring writers forget or never learn — that there is a lot of work and preparation that must be done before the writing ever begins if one wants to write a story that truly touches people. I’m looking forward to reading Hand of Fire more than ever.

    • Karen Randau says:

      That’s so true, Jessica! I’ve been a marketing writer for many years and didn’t realize until I was doing it that novel writing is a different kind of exercise. There’s a lot to learn, and I’m inspired by Judith’s dedication to learning before doing.

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