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
Judith 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.”
- 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 Query, Query 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.
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.”