IndieView with J.W. Fagan, author of The Survival Job


My wife challenged me to develop one of my many outlines into a full story. She did the Marty McFly motivation trick, saying “What are you, chicken?” That was it, I had to get it done.

J.W. Fagan – 13 February 2018

The Back Flap

A desperate recent college grad takes a job as an apprentice butler and over the course of a summer has his safe and limited world turned inside out through a series of unusual adventures.

Toby Jordan’s college experience ends with a ruinous car fire, forcing a move back home. Struggling to find work, other than the family funeral business, he’s desperate to get back out on his own.

A friend points him to an opportunity – as an apprentice butler. Unsure what a butler even does in the modern world, but desperate to escape his current situation, Toby accepts the ‘survival job’, hiding the choice from friends and family.

The training is unorthodox, challenging and oddly engaging for Toby. Adventures and blunders abound, while friends and family believe he’s taken an entirely different, more conventional path. Struggling to carry out offbeat tasks is only part of the crusade, as troublesome clients and unknown forces work against him, all while Toby hides his true assignment to avoid judgement.

His deception exposed, Toby deals with the fallout while preparing for his ‘final test’. Who knew the life of a butler involved secrets, lies and sabotage?
This coming of age story takes a light-hearted look at the challenges of finding a career, and more importantly, a life.

About the book

What is the book about?

Fresh out of college and desperate to find a job, Toby Jordan takes a job as an apprentice butler. Over the course of a summer, he has his safe and limited world turned inside out through a series of unusual adventures.

When did you start writing the book?

I started in January of last year (2017). My wife challenged me to develop one of my many outlines into a full story. She did the Marty McFly motivation trick, saying “What are you, chicken?” That was it, I had to get it done.

How long did it take you to write it?

I was editing right up until December 1, which was my self-imposed deadline. Kind of like the challenge to move a story from outline to full story, I needed a hard deadline or I’d never consider it done. I spent an average of about 10-15 hours a week writing, mostly evenings and weekends. A few gap weeks to “leave it alone” were important to refresh the drive to keep writing.

Where did you get the idea from?

I saw an article online about the surge of ‘Butler Schools’ popping up to meet the demand for rich foreigners from China and the Middle East who consider it a status symbol to hire an butler from North America or England. It gave me the idea a guy running his own apprenticeship program to train a butler, and the kinds of strange experiences that would lead to.

Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?

Finding information about the life of a modern butler was more difficult than you’d imagine. Material is scarce and almost secretive. I received threats to not expose the inner workings of their world. I made the last part of that up, but someday I hope to write something that someone wants to silence me for.

What came easily?

The main character and plot came into shape fairly quickly, and even though I dumped sections during the edit process, the main pieces remained solid and held up. So many other things I’ve written died on the vine, either creatively or from lack of interest in the story, but I had no problems staying excited about this story. That made me want to see it through, the fact it I was enjoying it so much.

Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?

I find it fun to build characters and events based on my experiences. While no character is a complete copy of one person, several are pieces of many. Personality quirks are what make people interesting, and I tried to use some that I enjoy in the people who tell this story. The same with situations, sometimes reality is more strange (and funny) than fiction, and I’ve been lucky to have seen some interesting things. There’s a part early in the story where the main character is describing several workplace/job mishaps. All of those really happened.

We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?

Donald Westlake was a master of quirky, character driven stories and one of my biggest influences. Carl Haaisen can paint an absolutely crazy scenario in a way that it seems plausible. Janet Evanovich has a great voice that I always try and emulate. Robert Parker for his narratives, especially in the Spenser series. Both he and Lawrence Sanders also really use food descriptions and cooking details to bring wonderful dimension to those stories. If a scene can make you hungry, that’s powerful writing.

Do you have a target reader?

Is it bad to say no? I’m sure the story will appeal to some and not to others but the genre is kind of vague. It’s funny but not a strictly humor story, and it has adventure but not enough to be of that ilk either. I went with “Coming of Age” as the amazon category. I purposely kept the language PG, so not to limit who might want to enjoy the story. The character is in a situation many get to in their lives, wondering what the next step is in figuring out a career. I hope the trials Toby goes through resonate with people, in general. I doubt anyone specifically ever had to go through what he did!

About Writing

Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?

I always love it when an author has some unusual process – like they write the entire book longhand, or still use a typewriter, or can’t leave the house for the day until they’ve written three thousand words. Sadly, I have no process that’s unusual or stands out. For this book I created the outline, the just wrote chapters pretty much in order. Then, started threading certain elements to provide more continuity. The tricky part in the editing process is removing or adding elements while not impacting details in other chapters.

Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?

I did the outline process twice. Once as a general guideline, then once I had 60 thousand words or so, outlined it again to make sure everything felt connected. There was several chapter moves as a result of the second outline to improve the story flow.

Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?

For the most part after I finished the first draft. I didn’t want to linger or get bogged down in any one area in case I was going to cut it. I was talking to another writer about the editing process just yesterday. Deleting an entire chapter or thread that may not be working is the hardest thing and the best thing you can do.

Did you hire a professional editor?

I didn’t. I’m lucky to have several people in my life that are talented writers and I leaned heavily on them for feedback. I think there’s certainly a case to be made for hiring a good editor, depending on what your publishing goals are. I guess it’s dangerous answering this question that way, because the next words from your mouth could be, “Well, you really should have spent the money…”

Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?

I’ve seen articles that say listening to music with lyrics when writing is actually distracting, but it isn’t for me. I listen to a huge variety of genres, so tough to nail down one or two. Several songs were influential to certain scenes in the book, although I was advised to remove the specifics of the songs and make it more generic. Some bands I’ve listen to while just working on this doc are: Black Eyed Peas, Miike Snow, RUSH, Weezer, Burton Cummings, Dave Brubeck, Trace Atkins, Beethoven… I’m all over the place.

 About Publishing

Did you submit your work to Agents?

Back in September, I rolled the dice and submitted query letters to about a dozen agents who dealt with similar books. Luckily, I knew the odds and the reality of that option going in, and it wasn’t my motivation for creating this story. My goal was to have it available by December, 2017. With an agent/publisher, I realize that it might have been well into 2018! The wheels move really slowly in that world.

What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?

I actually self-published the first time in 1996, with my first book. Back then, it was more expensive to do, but the marketing side was easier, since there were much fewer people doing it. I was able to book radio and TV interviews as well as getting reviewers at newspapers and entry in to bookstores. I enjoyed the process then, having total control. And I had the time to put into it. Now, the process to get the book created is much easier, but getting it noticed is going to be the hill climb. I’ve been enjoying it so far.

Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?

I did the cover myself. I had a few ideas that I tried out, and selected the one with the best feedback from other people. I tried the cover creator on CreateSpace, which was good, but I eventually created my own through one of their layout templates using MS Word.

Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?

I’ve tried to make a plan. I’ve got people lined up to review the book, I’ve got my launch communications, a press packet, and a web site. There’s a lot of good articles on steps you can take, and although much of it is out of date, there’s still some nuggets of gold in them thar hills. I suspect it will be largely a learning process, which is fine. I’m not in this to make my fortune. I have a Bitcoin mining operation underway for that.

Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?

I’ll suggest something I didn’t do, only because I didn’t read the advice until too late, and that’s look for writing groups either online or local that will give you feedback on your writing as you go along. It’s easier to ask a stranger for their opinion that someone close to you. They may be afraid to tell you what sucks. You need to know that.

About You

Where did you grow up?

All over the place. L.A. California, Upstate New York, Vancouver, British Columbia are the highlights. I can’t imagine having the life my kids have had, only knowing one house, one town, etc. Then again, moving around so much allowed me to “start over” a few times.

Where do you live now?

Back in Upstate New York, dead center between NYC, Boston and Montreal. I try to get to 2 out 3 of those cities as often as I can. NYC and I have never really gotten along.

What would you like readers to know about you?

My social security number is… no wait. I’m a programmer in real life, which actually requires quite a lot of writing. I’ve been to 36 of the 50 states, and once was mistaken for Bob Saget on an airplane and got free drinks. I’m pretty sure that’s not a compliment, but whatever works.

What are you working on now?

A few years ago I wrote a sci-fi screenplay that I want to convert to a novel. It’s kind of nice to revisit the story, and I’m having fun repainting that canvas.

End of Interview:

For more from J.W. Fagan, visit his website.

Get your copy of The Survival Job from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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