THE CRAFT OF WRITING – JUNE 2020
THE CRAFT OF WRITING – JUNE 2020
This month I’m happy to welcome Gordon Castelnero to the blog. Although Gordon had previously published two non-fiction titles, his first fiction work, Staying on the Vine, was released in April 2019 by CrossLink Christian Publishers.
Staying on the Vine is the story of Lindsay and Nick, two divorcees who have sought fulfillment in everything but God. Their individual journeys lead them to a second chance at marriage and a better life in Christ.
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Gordon Castelnero is a native of southeast Michigan. He left his hometown to attend California State University, Long Beach where he graduated with a BA in Radio/Television/Film in 1990. Upon his return to the Midwest, he worked as a producer at an adult contemporary station, WNIC-FM, for four years. While in radio, he successfully transitioned into television as an independent writer and producer of multiple documentaries for the Detroit market. His productions were recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences – Michigan Chapter with an Emmy award and several nominations.
In 2006, Castelnero’s first book, TV Land Detroit, was published by the University of Michigan Press. He later collaborated with his former banjo instructor to co-write Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon, the first authorized biography of the famed country/bluegrass musician, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017.
Staying on the Vine is Castelnero’s third publication and first novel. His faith in God compelled him to chronicle the “ordinary everyday” events in his life, as well as his wife, in a character-driven story reflecting their kindred journeys to Christ and each other. Gordon resides in a suburb of Detroit with his wife of ten years and their eight-year-old daughter.
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Welcome, Gordon, and thank you for joining us!
Thank you, Kay. Good to be with you.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in writing?
Writing is something that I kind of fell into unexpectedly. It was never an aspiration, as I wanted to be a television producer. When I was in college, I discovered that my ability to write good essays and papers is what attributed to my graduation. Afterward, I produced and wrote a few local television documentaries, which received some accolades. I then wrote a few trade magazine articles, which brought me a lot of personal joy. From there, I took the next step into books. My first two projects were biographical non-fiction. Staying on the Vine is my first novel.
After having written non-fiction pieces, what made you decide to write a novel?
The novel came out of a series of disappointments in my pursuit to write another biography. Even though I could write an unauthorized book about any public figure, it’s not my style to do so without their permission—all of my documentaries and non-fiction books are authorized works. Well, I didn’t want to stop writing so I thought it best to write a book about something that I have exclusive rights to, and that’s my journey in coming to Jesus Christ.
I originally drafted Staying on the Vine as a screenplay back in 2011. Since it didn’t pan out as a movie, I decided to rewrite it as a novel. It’s kind of funny the difference in constructing a screenplay versus a novel. The screenplay was completed in a few weeks, while the book adaptation took about nine months. A lot more material needed to be added, not to mention the extra attention to detail.
As I mentioned, it’s mainly based on my spiritual journey, plus my wife’s faith walk too. There are many elements to the story that required the compositing of characters and events, along with streamlining them into a compelling story that moves quickly. I tend to write for the easy reader so anyone and everyone can breeze through the story.
Give us a short synopsis of Staying on the Vine.
Like so many Americans, Lindsay Kish and Nick Robinson grew up as Christians in name only. Their perceptions of life mirrored the idolatry of the world in rejection of God. Both of them nurtured appetites for their biggest vices, which tainted their judgment in romantic relationships. Their spiritual darkness ultimately led them down the aisle to childless marriages besieged by never-ending sins. Yet, during their trials of tribulation, God always threw them a lifeline of grace through revelations they routinely ignored but would come to embrace after hitting rock bottom.
Based on a true story, Staying on the Vine is portrayed through character-driven backstories depicting the doubtful romance between two mid-life divorcees who ignored God’s many calls, until they came together as the result of answered prayer.
What was the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
Aside from staring at a blank page, I’d say, keeping your ideas fresh. I learned early in my career that no matter how original you think your ideas are, there’s always someone else who’s done the exact same thing, or gotten eerily close to duplicating your grand designs. The difficulty is how to spin them out of the realm of predictability so the reader can say, “Wow…I didn’t see that coming!”
Another difficulty is finding adequate time to write—not always easy to do when juggling a job and family. I always tell people that creative writing isn’t like painting a house or mowing the lawn. That kind of work can be started and stopped without missing a beat. Writing on the other hand, at least to me, doesn’t work that way. Once you’re on a roll, you can’t stop until your thoughts have been completely transferred from your brain to the page. Interruptions cause me to forget the ideas I was just about to type, and they rarely come back to me. When I sit down, I like to know that I’ve got plenty of uninterrupted time ahead of me, so the creativity can pour out of me freely.
Describe your path to publication.
It took me three drafts before I felt the manuscript was ready for solicitation. Once completed, I worked on a synopsis, and then a query letter. I had no idea just how competitive the Christian book market is until I threw my hat in the ring. I’m not a pastor, I don’t have any kind of platform, so I really felt that the deck was stacked against me. What I did have going for me were my previously published books. Even though they were not in the same genre as the novel, they were published by reputable publishers: the University of Michigan Press and Rowman & Littlefield.
I had hopes of securing an agent for this project, but the process was taking a very long time. I must’ve queried over twenty literary agencies, and was either declined or never received a response. Rejection is not an option with me, so I decided that I’d have to seek a publisher directly, which is what I did with my previous books. In fact, I contacted my editor at Rowman & Littlefield for assistance. She was kind enough to send me a vetted list of Christian publishers.
I queried a few of the publishers on the list, and it was Rick Bates at CrossLink Publishing who gave me the most favorable response. He’s been great to work with and my experience with CrossLink has been an absolute pleasure.
What lessons learned can you share with our readers?
Don’t be preoccupied with what competing authors are doing. When I started my first book, TV Land Detroit, I was convinced I had a concept that no one else had ever done. During the research phase, I learned that someone else was doing a similar book, which took the wind out of my sails. The “someone else” had name recognition, credentials, and industry contacts way above my pay grade. Thinking his was going to be much better than mine, I seriously thought about aborting the project. But since I had already made commitments to people who agreed to participate, I felt obligated to continue. And was I ever glad that I did—my book turned out to be much better and outsold the “other” book, which is now out of print.
The same thing happened again with Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon. Not too far into the project, I stumbled upon another author who was working on an Earl Scruggs biography. In the same respect to my previous comment about original ideas, you’re bound to cross paths with another writer pursuing the same subject matter as you. Never let it distract or deter you from completing your book—the end result may surprise you. The worst thing you can do is constantly worry about something you have no control over. By doing so, the quality of your work will suffer. Just stay focused on your material as if you are the only one in the world doing it, and it will be great.
What one message do you want readers to take away from your book?
The story is relatable to everyone who reads it. All of the disastrous choices made by the protagonists are typical of most non-believers who seek fulfillment in everything but God. I think readers will see a part of themselves in the characters of Lindsay and Nick. Their second chance at love, marriage, and a better life, in Christ, is an inspirational testament that failure is not final!
What single piece of advice would you give to new authors?
Have faith in your work. If your project is something you really believe in, don’t give up.
What do you do when you want to get away from work?
I try to get outdoors as much as possible—there’s nothing like fresh air and sunshine to put me in a good mood. I enjoy long walks, bicycle rides, and a good book with a cup of coffee. I look forward to church every Sunday, sermons online during the week, and of course, spending time with my family.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a new G-rated novel in the romance genre. It’s an original story I’ve kicked around in my head for over twenty years now—one of those ideas you get but just don’t know where to go with it, so it goes nowhere. Last fall seemed like a good time to revisit the concept and develop it into a novel. I’m almost done with the first draft. By the time the revisions are completed this summer, I will be ready to query it in the fall.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
I don’t have a website. Just type in my name on any search engine, and my books come right up—I’m the only person on this planet with the name Gordon Castelnero.
Thank you, Gordon, for sharing your expertise with us!