Author Tracy Schumer: 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author
Have a work ethic and stick to it. I wrote five novels while living aboard a sailboat at sea. And this was with four other people living alongside me. To preserve my concentration, I often wrote in the head. I used the toilet as my chair, with my laptop straddled across my knees. I learned to write inside a rocking, rolling, pitching, sailboat. That’s the level of dedication I have.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Schumer.
Tracy Schumer is an Amazon bestselling author, former freelance journalist, and an instrument rated pilot who crossed the Russian Far East in a single-engine aircraft. She circumnavigated South America by small plane, sailed around the world, and knows how it feels to be aboard a crippled yacht adrift in the Pacific.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
My first paycheck was for a magazine article. It was the mid 90’s, and there were still some publications with open submissions. One of these was a publication called Western Horseman. W.H. was founded in 1937, and they’re still around today, even in print. I’ve always had a keen interest in cowboy culture, and was actively searching for anyway to get a foot through the door on my path to becoming a professional writer. In my home state of Florida, a group was organizing a reenactment of an historic, cross-state cattle drive. I decided to cover the drive on spec, and then submit the finished article to W.H. Several weeks later, I got a letter back informing me that they’d like to publish my piece. It was an incredibly thrilling moment when my article appeared in print. That first open door led to a decade long relationship with not only Western Horseman, but several other publications. The experience taught me how to work with editors, the importance of meeting deadlines, and most of all, how to pitch an idea, and then deliver the goods.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
The event that inspired my first novel occurred while at anchor inside one of the remote French Polynesian atolls of the Tuamotus in the South Pacific. There were five of us on board a sailboat that had departed from Palma de Mallorca the year before. That evening we’d enjoyed a fish dinner beneath an incredible sunset sky. Later that night I decided to drop a light off the aft deck just to see what sort of aquatic wildlife might turn up. I love all sorts of animals, and fully expected to see darting squids, eels, jellies, and perhaps even the odd pelagic. What turned up were sharks. Lots and lots of sharks. Then one of the guys gets the bright idea to tie a rope to a bony chunk of fish carcass and toss it over the side. By now there were perhaps thirty wild adult grey reef sharks circling beneath the boat. The bright light and clear water gave the shark’s bullet like bodies a shimmering glow. To get into the proper position for his chunk-of-fish deployment, our guy steps down onto the boat’s swim platform, and readying his rope and bait, takes up a kind of Bruce Lee stance with his toes just inches above the waterline. I had my camera rolling when that chunk of fish hit the water. The splash set off an instantaneous explosion of frothing sea and shark flesh. A reaction so immediate it jolted us all, but not as much as the guy holding the other end of that rope. He danced with certain death for several seconds before the rope finally snapped and he fell back to safety atop our boat’s teak deck. But in those moments I managed to record every detail as the sea came alive with dozens of rapidly snapping jaws. The resulting novel, appropriately titled Death Catch, is a supernatural zombie-shark horror/thriller. You dream your whole life that one day you will publish your first novel. I never in a million years thought mine would tackle such a crazy subject, but that’s how it happened.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
To begin is always the hardest part, isn’t it? Like so many writers before me, fear held me prisoner for many years. I’d experienced so many false starts. Even adopted several “shadow careers” as Steven Pressfield calls them. After graduating from the University of South Florida with a mixed bachelor’s degree in fine art and education, I went on to teach in the public school system for the next ten years. It was a wonderful experience. But it was a classic shadow career. To supplement my meager teacher’s pay, I became a reasonably successful freelance journalist, but my fiction never went anywhere. In my experience, writing about real people and real events is a lot easier than writing fiction. Because facts are so powerful. Facts have a way of carrying you shoulder-high across your editor’s desk. When you write fiction every word originates out of it your own head. Fiction isn’t about facts as much as it’s about truths. But truths can differ from person to person. This is why writing fiction can be so magical, illusive, and terrifying. Anyone who reads your work will undoubtedly see your naked self. This is one reason why so many fiction writers get bogged down in the research phase. Facts are a safe-space — they’re clothing. In my case it took co-piloting a single engine aircraft around the world, and then crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans aboard a sailboat, before I finally realized I had nothing to be afraid of. Overcoming fear is the greatest obstacle to becoming a writer, but it never really goes away, it just reshapes itself as you advance.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh my… well, when I first encountered the famous phrase, “Kill your darlings,” it wasn’t from the original source. So, minus Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s complete quote, I literally thought it meant to kill someone adorable. Which I did, in my second novel…yeah. I thought it was some sort of writer’s right of passage, like when a kid shoots her first deer and then has to finish the animal off with a pocket knife. The lesson I learned was twofold. First, never take a quote literally. Second, always double, triple and quadruple check your sources.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
After publishing five novels, I’ve transitioned full time to writing screenplays. Story ideas are never in short supply, I have folders filled with outlines and treatments. It’s choosing the story truly worth my time and effort that is the ultimate challenge. If writing a novel is a marathon, then writing a screenplay is akin to taking on the Iron Man. It’s the most difficult form by far in creative fiction. A screenplay must present a compelling story, paired with a merciless technical format. I currently have three feature screenplays in various stages of completion, and all three stories scare the shit out of me. That’s how I know I’m heading in the right direction, it’s when the challenge at hand is utterly terrifying.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My fifth novel is a Florida Noir crime thriller set in my home town of Bradenton, Florida. The inspiration came from James Jones’ 1951 novel, From Here to Eternity, but not the novel itself. It came from the way he wrote the book. Jones used the form of a novel to recount and relive his own experience living in Hawaii. I had been living overseas for the better part of ten years, and mostly on board a sailboat. So writing a novel set in my home state was a way for me to travel back home without having to get on a plane. It’s the most autobiographical and personal of my books.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Finish. please, just finish. Then start your next project. The saddest thing to me, and I have met a number of these, is the writer who has been working on a novel, or screenplay, for six, eight, or even ten years. We all have a limited life in this world. If the writer’s muse calls to you, please listen. And then act. It took some time before I turned pro, (quoting Steven Pressfield again) but once I did, I completed and published five novels in under five years. You’ll never advance as a writer by working on just one project. You only advance by finishing a lot of them.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
#1: Have a work ethic and stick to it. I wrote five novels while living aboard a sailboat at sea. And this was with four other people living alongside me. To preserve my concentration, I often wrote in the head. I used the toilet as my chair, with my laptop straddled across my knees. I learned to write inside a rocking, rolling, pitching, sailboat. That’s the level of dedication I have.
#2: Publish. Today there is no excuse not to put your work out there and see what happens. All of my novels are independently published. My debut novel was accepted by Book Bub, and the resulting promotion put it on the Amazon Bestseller list. This gave me the confidence to complete the series, and to keep on putting my work out there.
#3: Don’t expect to get rich off your writing. If you’re writing to get rich, you’re in the wrong business. Very few professional writers earn even a modest living off their work. We do it because it’s what we were born to do. And don’t think you’ll get famous, either. The number of A-list top earning authors could all sit together on a single Greyhound bus. That’s how few there are. The rest of us do it because we have to. Because not writing is far more painful than even hearing from your friends and family how you’re waisting you life writing books that perhaps only a few thousand people will actually read. Do it anyway, and see what happens.
#4 Never, never, never, respond to your reviews. Never respond to your reviews! It’s a can of worms with no end. I headed this excellent advice from a friend, and I’m so glad I did. Do read your reviews. Gloat over the glowing ones, get mad at the mean-spirited ones, take note of the thoughtful criticism that often points out important flaws, but never respond. Just don’t.
#5 Own the fact that you’re an author. This one was really hard for me — I have terrible imposture syndrome. But anyone who has the guts to actually finish their novel and publish deserves respect. The day printed copies of my first novel arrived, all I could do was hold my book in my hands and stare at the cover in total disbelief. It had nothing to do with vanity, or seeing my name in print, or what my friends and family would think of me. It was the physical fulfillment of a lifelong dream. So few of us actually get to see our dreams come to life. If your dream is to write a novel? I can tell you, the only thing holding you back is you.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Please see the above five points, especially the first one.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
For whatever reason, I draw a lot of inspiration from books in translation. There is something about reading a book that was translated from another language that forces you, or better yet, entices you, to see words in a different way.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Leave your phone in a drawer and go on an internet/social media fast. These days so many friends are into dietary fasting and purifying their bodies in various ways. You need to do this for your mind. My most profound personal experiences happened when I was floating thousands of miles out to sea with no internet connection, no 24 hour news cycle, and no social media. Leave that stuff behind and see what happens.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!