Who I Am & How I Started:
For thirty-five years, my career was as a full Professor of Medicine, doing scientific research, teaching, editing a peer review journal, running Intensive Care Units and managing a university division as a division Chief while taking care of patients.
Like many authors, I began writing outside of work and school for many years before finding a publisher for my latest novel. My first novel was incomplete when I gave it up; my second novel was not good enough (in my judgment).
Recognizing My Own Flaws:
Initially, my characters were one-sided. My plots were undeveloped, which resulted in a lack of tension and conflict in my story line. My dialogs were stilted and un-lifelike. I needed help and began thinking about my problems in depth and studying the work of others who had succeeded where I was failing.
Educating Myself To Tackle My Flaws:
I read “How to” books, several excellent and helpful, including: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner (very helpful), On Writing by Stephen King (his personal journey, not so helpful), Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (very, very helpful), How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (helpful), The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer (an interesting, narcissistic voyage of one author, less helpful—title is the best part), 20 Master Plots by Ronald B Tobias (most helpful, superb).
I reread my favorite classics, over and over, in order to really understand what elements would succeed; I watched well-plotted, well-dialogued movies repeatedly, the idea being to study masterpieces which are built well and show the way to mending one’s own personal writing flaws.
Writing My First Novel Worthy of Submission:
It took me fifteen years to write The Serpent Papers, a book close to my heart, to be published February 28, 2022, by The Permanent Press (see jschnaderauthor.com/book-reviews). I did it while working my full-time career as a professor and ICU physician, following the age-old writer’s maxim, “Do not quit your job to be a full-time writer”—though once I retired, the process of finding a publisher was faster.
I have heard that authors approach writing a book differently from one another. Some plan every scene in advance of writing and never deviate (a rigid system), perhaps because they write formulaic mysteries or series of books which are cookie-cutter (although perhaps good writing). Other authors just start writing and see where it goes. I’m the latter. I begin with an idea and write a few scenes which are key and must be in the book. These become benchmark chapters, which define a problem, a plot direction, and a plot finale.
I outlined the book many times, but the ordering of the events in the outline never ended up as the order of what I wrote in the book. The book bent me to its will, eventually dictating what I had to write in unanticipated ways. One must be flexible.
Above all, there is no one way to write a novel. As an author, you must invent and own your own methods. But do not keep pages that don’t fit! Trim constantly. The writing of the book is more important than any of the other piece of the process. I wrote and rewrote every single page between three and fifteen times, averaging about five to seven times per page. I wanted with the fewest words possible. This is hard because we all love our own words, but it must be done. Every sentence must either be necessary in moving the book forward in its aims or be surgically removed. I tend to write too much and carve out passages later, which I believe is better than not writing enough, but we are all different.
It is also important to have other authors or readers make constructive comments about your work. Positive comments are nice, but negative comments are often the most valuable. To this end, the Columbia Fiction Foundry was extremely helpful for my polishing my work. Of course, like any commentary, the author must decide which comments merit attention and which do not, but this is a worthwhile headache to have. Certainly, if several readers have the same criticism of the work, the criticism cannot be ignored.
I finished the book, but I wanted what was nearest to perfection, so I hired an editor. I think an editor is a “must”, and this isn’t only my opinion. The less work an agent has to do, the better (many hate editing and will reject an author because of it; others think they are fabulous editors, and they may or may not be). Out of all my decisions, the decision of which editor was the hardest decision that I had to make. Most editors are good at grammar, sentences, etc, but to get a book in the correct order is a big deal, and not all editors will get this right.
I shot for the very best editor I could find, and I got lucky—Richard Marek had edited Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and all of Robert Ludlum’s books. We worked together for over two years, and it was eye-opening. He was a genius for plot. A great editor is a must but may cost thousands.
You must have an agent to be “traditionally published” and certainly if you want to be published with one of the big 4 or 5 houses, which produce the lion’s share of best sellers. Most agents are very helpful, especially those in business for a long time with a track record. Their job is to get you a publisher, and many will state outright that there is no guarantee that you get a publisher, even if you have an agent.
You must be extremely lucky to get a publisher without an agent, but it can be done. Some small to medium sized publishers will accept manuscripts without agents—I found one of them. I searched the lists on Google for “The top 10 [or 20, or 30, etc] small publishers,” and there are lists of these. I applied to 60 agents and had about 10 full and partial manuscript requests from them, but none would take my book. I had maybe another 200 agents to go, so I thought I would ask a few publishers too as a sort of experiment. I approached about 3 publishers on my own without an agent. The Permanent Press gets about 6-7,000 requests per year and reads partial manuscripts from about 600. They take 10-20 per year to publish (only 3-4 last year). They took mine; I was lucky. To this day, I do not have an agent. There are plusses and minuses to this, but I do not have to share my royalties with an agent, which is not too bad.
Don’t Give Up!
The main thing is not to give up. Keep going. It is a marathon; stamina, drive, motivation, and belief (which borders on insanity) have to keep you going. It is a war of attrition. Many agents are looking for the wrong books too—many agents don’t make it from year to year and leave the industry for other kinds of jobs. They should be looking for your book, but they are looking for something that will fail, and so they fail, and these are not the agents you would want. So, keep going, because next year there will be another new batch of fresh-faced agents to replace those who left the industry, and one may be looking for your book!
Jeff Schnader was at Columbia University in 1972 where he participated in sit-ins, marches and protests against the Vietnam War. He took part in marches and demonstrations, including a protest in front of Hamilton Hall where students were beaten by the New York Tactical Police, who were in full battle regalia. Scenes in his novel are authentic because he was there.
His short story, The Champion, won first prize in the 2020 Annual Quills Contest, and he was a short-listed finalist in the 2021 Blue Moon Novel Competition for his novel, The Serpent Papers. Chapters of The Serpent Papers and, more recently, his short stories, The Oma and Durango, have been published in The Write Launch literary journal.
After graduating from Columbia with a BA in physics, he received his medical degree (MD, CM) from McGill University with further work at Johns Hopkins. He recently retired as full Professor of Medicine after authoring over 50 scientific publications and chairing & speaking at over 130 national medical conferences. He was a frequent guest on NPR's “Sound Health” and has been awarded for teaching and for editing a medical journal. He worked full-time in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for 22 years, serving American war veterans, including those of The Vietnam War.
Jeff Schnader Author Website:
Columbia Alumni Association Bookshelf:
To purchase The Serpent Papers:
Bookscover2cover link to essay: