Wisdom from the Publishing World with Greg Renz
Welcome to the June installment of the 2021 Author Series, where a published author takes the stage and tells us what they wish they had known before they published their first book along with what advice they would go back and give their pre-published self. Greg Renz, author of Beneath the Flames, is our June author. You can find my earlier review and author interview with Greg here. His book was based upon his own experiences as a firefighter and remains one of my favorites!
The first rule of firefighting is to never enter a burning building alone. Sometimes rules must be broken, much like writing. Fire Captain Gregory Lee Renz was involved in a dramatic rescue of two little boys from their burning basement bedroom. He received a series of awards for this rescue including induction into the Wisconsin Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006. When he was asked to share the dramatic rescue at several awards banquets, he was moved by the emotional responses he received and was struck by the power of his storytelling. Gregory has always been an avid reader and thought maybe he could craft a compelling novel if he could learn how to get these stories on the page. How hard could that be? He would soon learn.
In 2008 Captain Renz retired, exchanging his turnout gear for a writing desk to pursue his passion, storytelling. After numerous creative writing courses through the University of Wisconsin and countless workshops, conferences, and revisions, he finally typed The End to Beneath the Flames which was inspired by two adorable little girls, around eight and five years of age, who lived across from an inner-city firehouse he was stationed at for three years. Those two girls stayed in his thoughts over the years, demanding he tell their story. They are two of the main characters in the novel. He hopes he did them justice.
If I could go back and talk to my pre-published self, what advice would I give?
I would tell him to begin studying the craft of creative writing much earlier. Don’t wait and die with your music in you. I didn’t get serious about learning about creative writing until I retired. Since I came to this writing gig later in life, it took ten years of conferences, workshops, and creative writing courses before I published my novel. In addition, I would have suggested reading every book on craft he could get his hands on.
I would tell him to turn away from ego and open himself to constructive criticism early on. It took me some time to stop defending what I wrote. Once I was able to do this, I could see things from the reader’s perspective and improve the story. Now, when I receive painful critiques or edits, I put them aside for a few days while the pain dissipates before accepting or ignoring the suggestions.
Agonize less over the early drafts and have confidence they will get better with revision. Many times at the end of a day of writing, I’d be incredibly discouraged by what I wrote. The next day when I looked at it again, I realized it wasn’t that bad and with some work might not continue to make me nauseous.
To have more confidence in the creative side of my brain to come up with plot solutions when I would get stuck and wonder where the heck the story was going. Stephen King said something to the effect of sometimes you have to wait for the boys in the basement to send something up when you get stuck. Those boys have bailed me out countless times.
What do I wish I had known before publishing my first book?
I should have spent more time learning about the publishing side of writing. The first draft of my novel came in at 176,000 words which I knew was much too long. I revised it down to 144,000 words. Beta readers loved it and said they would not change a thing. This is where I made my first mistake. I began querying agents who I researched and felt would be a good fit for the story. One agent asked if I would submit my manuscript to her agency exclusively for one month. I agreed. The agent got back at the end of the month and said the agency discussed my manuscript and would have to pass on it. Had I known what I know now, I would never have submitted a manuscript of 144,000 words to any agency. I revised some more and got the book down to 133,000 and later to 113,000 words. I stubbornly thought agents would take a look at the story at these word counts. So I queried agent after agent and received rejection after rejection but also some requests for partial and full manuscripts which also were rejected. My mentor Christine DeSmet convinced me I needed to get the manuscript down to 100,000 words. She may be the only person who could convince this stubborn writer to do this. I did, and queried the agent who had requested the exclusive submission. She was no longer interested. The lesson learned is to be patient and not query before the book is polished and ready for prime time. You may only get one chance with an agent. I reached a point where I just wanted to get the book published and was fortunate to have my book acquired by HenschelHaus Publishing in a traditional book deal.
A fire in a neighboring farmhouse has young farmer and volunteer firefighter, Mitch Garner, blaming himself for the tragic outcome. He loses all hope of forgiving himself. His only hope for redemption is to leave Jennie, the girl he’s loved since high school, and journey from Wisconsin’s lush farmland to the decaying inner city of Milwaukee to prove himself as a professional firefighter.
Mitch is assigned to the busiest firehouse in the heart of one of the most blighted areas of Milwaukee, the Core, where he’s viciously hazed by senior firefighters. He struggles to hold it together at horrific scenes of violence and can’t do anything right at fires. Within weeks, he’s ready to give up and quit. His salvation comes in the form of a brash adolescent girl, Jasmine Richardson. Mitch is assigned to tutor her little sister through a department mentoring program. Despite Jasmine’s contempt toward Mitch, her courage and devotion to her little sister inspire Mitch to stay and dedicate himself to helping her and the neighboring children overcome the hopelessness of growing up in crushing poverty.
Trouble on the farm has Mitch torn between returning home to Jennie and staying in Milwaukee where he’ll be forced to risk his life to protect Jasmine from the leader of the One-Niner street gang.
Beneath the Flames has received the Gold Medal in The Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards, A Best Book Award in The American Book Fest Awards, A Midwest Best Book Award, and a Public Safety Writers Association Book Award.
Purchase Beneath the Flames at these retailers:
Greg will appear at these upcoming events:
- July 10 - The Lake Geneva Author Fest
- August 28 - Dane County First-Responder Symposium, featured speaker, addressing PTSD and the suicide epidemic among first responders which is one of the storylines in my novel.
- September 9 – Manitowoc Library virtual talk
Follow Greg’s writing adventures:
State Journal Article: Former Firefighter Conquers the Resistance of Writing