Demi: You have an alter ego as a bit of a travel writer. Which came first – novels or articles?
Don: As you may know, I spent a career in the Army. When it came time to leave, I wasn’t sure what I would do next. Then I happened to see an ad in the Washington Post about a symposium on travel writing. Elaine and I enjoy traveling, and I thought why not get paid for it. I spent the next five years traveling, then writing about it. It was fun and helped me learn how to write. Travel writing is creative nonfiction. The goal is to bring the place you are talking about alive, using sights, sounds, and smells, and not just another travel brochure.
Demi: With four novels under your belt, do you feel there was a moment when you moved from “amateur” to “pro” in your path as a writer?
Don: I’m not sure about moving from amateur to pro, but I definitely feel that I can call myself a writer. Actually, while I was travel writing, I had cards printed up with my name and professional travel writer. It felt good.
Demi: What or who are the primary influences that got you writing… and kept you writing?
Don: While I was writing travel articles, I joined a poetry group here in Perry County and spent about a year in the group. I enjoyed it a lot, but knew early on I would never make a poet. But it did help me become more sensitive to things around me – beauty in the sky, colors, sounds, etc.
Pennwriters helped me move into the fiction world. I was fortunate to have three mentors who helped me learn how to write. Of course, it’s one thing to write, it’s quite another to have people appreciate what you write.
Here is where the Pennwriters Fourth Wednesday Writers Group helped so much. I made friends and we all grew together, helping one another with our writing. Some of us have been together for 12 years. I was also lucky to have a four-person on line critique group. I’m a big fan of critique groups.
Once I published my first novel, I joined International Thriller Writers. They have a debut author program where some of the biggest authors in the business spend time with debut authors helping them learn. In a way, it’s almost like a pledge class. Many of my debut author friends have done well, and we’ve stayed in touch and still help one another.
Once I finish drafting and critiquing a novel, I have four readers who go through it and make recommendations. The final reader is my wonderful wife, Elaine. She spent a number of years in New York as an editor for publishing houses. How’s that for lucky?
Demi: Your most recent book, Secret Assault, was selected as Best Suspense/Thriller at the 2015 Indie Book Awards. What was the submission process like? And did winning have any effect on book sales?
Don: I’m lucky to have a supportive publisher. Actually, I didn’t even know that she had submitted Secret Assault for an award until one day I got an email from her that read, “Congratulations, Secret Assault won best Suspense Thriller at the 2015 Indie Book Awards.”
It was fun to travel to New York and receive that award. What an honor. And yes, I’ll have to say it did help sales.
Demi: Is there any piece of advice you’d like share with us?
Don: I attended a one-day workshop with Donald Maass and heard two things that really stuck with me.
“Writing is an Art, but Publishing is a Business.” Many writers never make the conversion from the art of writing to realizing they must work hard to market and sell their novels.
“It’s not only about selling books, but building a community.” I’ve been to a number of signings where I haven’t sold many books, but I’ve met a number of fun people. I never turn down a chance to be with people. I look on them as my community, and I want to continue to build that community. The worst thing you can do is push people to buy your book. You are your brand, and if readers like you and your brand, they’re likely to try your book. Hopefully, they will enjoy it and become a long time reader.
Meet Don Helin at the Writer’s Conference this Friday and York Book Expo on Saturday.