Ten Questions for Jack A. Saarela

by Marylee MacDonald in Ten Questions

In this new column, I’m asking subscribers to share their knowledge about writing, publishing, and marketing their books. I’m calling it “Ten Questions.” Thank you, Jack Saarela, for getting this off to a great start.–Marylee MacDonald

Because he believes it’s helpful to hear a manuscript read aloud, Jack Saarela recommends the free Natural Readers’ text-to-speech app. http://www.naturalreaders.com.

Jack Saarela of Wyncote, PA is the author of two novels, Beginning Again at Zero and Accidental Saviors. In Beginning Again at Zero, a young Finnish immigrant finds himself in faraway Canada when World War II breaks out and Russia threatens to swallow up his homeland. In the historical novel, Accidental Saviors, the author plunges two Finnish exiles, living in Germany at the beginning of World War II, into actual historical events. For more about the books, read the author box below.

A book begins as an idea in the writer’s imagination. Eventually, this grain of sand turns into a pearl. What was the grain of sand that fired your imagination?

Beginning Again at Zero is, in part, “inspired” by my own experience as a child in a family that emigrated from rural Finland to Toronto, albeit at the very different post-war era. I thought of the struggles my parents had to face and the sacrifices they made as emigrants in 1955.

Mostly, however, the story is based on stories I heard from a certain gentleman at my English-Finnish church in Toronto. He talked about his exploits as an immigrant to Canada just as the Winter War of 1939-40 between Finland and Russia was breaking out. Like my protagonist Onni, he tried to return to Finland very soon after arriving in Canada. He wanted to volunteer with the Finnish forces to defend the country. Later, he felt that he had abandoned his country in its time of need.

I’ve observed and worked with immigrants from other places. A common phenomenon among them is the difficulty they have settling in and being totally committed to life in the newly-adopted country. They’re constantly glancing in the rear-view mirror at the situation in their former homeland.

The idea of Accidental Saviors emerged from historical research that I was doing for another novel I had in mind but never wrote. I discovered these two fellow Finns who didn’t go looking to become saviors of people, but who felt called to use their unique experience and skills to save possibly thousands of Jews. One had been a whiskey smuggler during Prohibition and the other a highly sought-after masseur to the rich and powerful. He was “drafted” by Nazi SS Director Heinrich Himmler to care for Himmler’s profound health needs. I was so inspired by their uncommon courage that I put the other project aside. I simply felt their story must be shared.

How did you approach turning this idea into a manuscript, and eventually a book? Did you take classes, read books, or just plunge in?

As an English major in college, I had read plenty of novels and studied their structure. But, prior to my retirement in 2015, I had never attempted to apply theory about the novel into an actual novel of my own. I took a couple of online courses on novel writing and learned a lot from a writing group. Finally, I felt confident (and, frankly brave) enough to give it a try and send it out into the world. To my pleasant surprise, a freelance editor made such positive comments on it, that I was encouraged to consider a wider distribution than I had originally intended (family and a few friends). However, I didn’t know the first thing about marketing a self-published book.

Authors today have many options when it comes to publication. Did you work with an agent, find a publisher through other means, or self-publish your book?

I had heard how difficult it is to attract an agent or commercial publisher. I also saw how much work my neighbor had to do market her novel (Janet Benton, Lilli de Jong), even though she was with a big, traditional publisher (Doubleday).

It seemed I would have to do no less work promoting and managing Beginning Again at Zero as a self-published novel, so why wait interminably for some publisher to accept it?

Editor/publisher Karen Hodges Miller (Open Door Publication) gave a presentation at my writing group and what she said made sense. I took her up on her offer for a free half-hour telephone mentoring session in which she was very encouraging. I retained her as an editor for Accidental Saviors with no guarantee that she would publish the book. It was a much less lonely experience than trying to find my own way, as I had done with Beginning Again at Zero.

What is the biggest single lesson you learned during the writing process?

Not to be discouraged by the quality of your first draft. When I finished it and read it, I felt it was awful, not at all what I had intended. I was ready to throw in the towel and learn to play chess instead! However, my novelist neighbor, Janet Benton, told me every writer hates his/her first draft.

Then it was down to brass tacks and re-writing the draft several times, each one shorter and more in line what I had in mind. My beta-readers, and finally my editor, were helpful in getting me to the finish line.

What would you advise others who are still at the idea stage?

I followed some good advice I received from others at conferences and workshops:

  • Find and join a writing group.
  • And, recruit some beta-readers.

Members of my writing group talked about mistakes they had made. Members also made good suggestions about what worked for them. Hearing these comments proved invaluable.

My writing group also has a critique night every month. We break up into groups and give constructive criticism of one another’s work-in-progress. People make great suggestions. I quickly got over my pride and considered their insights.

Even more valuable are the beta-readers. These people are either authors themselves, or discerning readers I know. I send them chapters as I finish them for their reactions, impressions, corrections and suggestions. It is only after rewriting (based on their comments) that I send chapters to my editor.

Were there any writing tools you’d recommend? Did you use apps like Grammarly, Scrivener, or another outliner to help you structure your book?

I tried learning to use Scrivener, but I felt the learning curve was too steep for an old fart like me. I couldn’t find any other outliner either. (However, since I am just at the outlining stage of a third novel, I’ll look one up now.) I plotted out my own outline, although as I went along with the first draft, I made changes and tried not to be a slave to the original outline.

I downloaded the free version of Grammarly which certainly saved on the number of typos and spelling mistakes.

It’s helpful to hear your manuscript read aloud. I used http://www.naturalreaders.com.

Was it hard to decide on a cover, or did you or your publisher hire a professional designer?

Accidental Saviors has a professionally-designed cover by Eric Labacz (www.labaczdesign.com), who works under contract with my publisher. The cover is a little startling at first glance because of the in-your-face sign of the Swastika. I’ve carried it on public transit. When people notice it and stare at me, I’m wondering if they think I’m some kind of neo-Nazi. (Eric Labacz Design: https://www.facebook.com/LabaczDesign/)

On one occasion, a stranger’s doubletake gave me an opportunity. When that person asked about the cover, I pointed out the white dove flying to freedom from a gap in the wall of Auschwitz. I then described the contents of the book.

Eric showed me at least three different possibilities for a cover, and it was clear immediately which one told the story and had the potential to catch the eye and imagination of prospective readers.

My editor says the cover of Accidental Saviors is Eric’s finest work.

The cover of Beginning Again at Zero I foolishly designed myself in order to save expenses.

Beginning at zero

The author designed the cover on his first book

I scoured images on Google for a suitable image for the cover, but most of the them were protected by copyright. Having a professionally-designed cover is well worth the money.

Who is your ideal reader? Who would particularly enjoy your books?

I was writing for readers who enjoy history, but who look for the human story in the history. My original ideal readers were of Finnish heritage. I wanted them to read the stories that don’t get into the history books. But, non-Finns have told me that they enjoyed learning about this small, out-of-the way country whose history is almost universally unknown, especially Finland’s brave story during World War II when it almost became a Soviet Socialist Republic. Especially with Accidental Saviors, I feel I have performed a service to the land of my birth and its people.

As I say, I wrote Beginning Again at Zero with my sons and nieces and nephews almost exclusively in mind. Then the freelance editor I retained told me that her parents were immigrants to Canada from Poland. She felt my story of Onni described what she had heard from them about their experience. Then I knew I had hit on a universal theme.

It’s important, of course, to have an ideal reader in mind. Just about every writing teacher tells you that right off the bat. But you must remember that every reader brings his or her own story to the reading of yours, so you never know how it gets “rewritten” in their minds.

How do you connect with readers? Do you like to do live events, such as book fairs or library talks, or have you found readers through social media, Goodreads, or Amazon?

Some have discovered the books by way of Amazon and Goodreads. Many have purchased it because the reader knows me personally. That is why I rely a lot on Facebook and Twitter a lot to promote the books. I have my own blog which includes every reader of my books for whom I have an email address. I want to keep them abreast of what I am writing, especially when the third novel is ready to be released.

I enjoy talking (listening, more importantly) at book clubs and library events. It’s just that I find it challenging to get even my local library to invite me because, I think, I’m not with one of the “Big Five” commercial publishers. I try to persist with librarians and indie bookshops, figuring that eventually the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” That’s worked on a couple of occasions.

That is why I sincerely appreciate your inviting local authors to be interviewed in this way for your excellent blog, Marylee!

(Aw, shucks, Jack.)

What has been your greatest reward in undertaking this publishing journey?

Well, certainly not the financial reward! I didn’t expect any, and my expectations have pretty much been fulfilled!

I will never forget the excitement and fulfillment I felt the first time I saw my books (which I had donated) on the shelves of my neighborhood library. I was a writer! It’s the answer I had given as a child when an aunt or uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I finished school. After more than a half-century, I have actually become one! The achievement of a childhood dream!

There’s also the satisfaction of telling a story and having people listen to it, enjoy it, and, actually congratulate and thank me for it.

Writing is, I think, a way of giving to people, but at the same time, a way of receiving from them as well.

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