Monday, January 4, 2016

Not your Common Veterinarian

Last month, I had the privilege of tracking down Elliott Garber, DVM, a unique veterinarian and author. He had some great stuff to tell me about his journey to getting his first novel published, establishing a platform, his writing process, and his secrets to staying focused as a writer. I'd like to share our conversation with you in this month's VetWrite.

Firstly, I had to clarify exactly what Elliott is doing professionally at the moment. You see, Elliott's fascinating blog, The Uncommon Veterinarian, is thick with international intrigue from a vet med point of view. For example, Veterinary Capacity Building in Post-Conflict Liberia and Wildlife Medicine and Conservation Programs in Belize are enough to make anyone's search histories of kittens and tea just seem like, well, come on people. There's a world outside of your steaming cup of Earl Grey. (Rest assured, I am sitting behind a steaming cup of Earl Grey right now.) Elliott clarified currently, he is working as an Army vet based just outside San Diego, dividing his time between providing clinical vet med coverage to the working dogs of the Navy SEALS and veterinary regulatory oversight to lab animal research. In his spare time, he's working on promoting his newly published novel, The Chimera Sequence. And off we go:

In Elliott's novel, a veterinary medical thriller, we follow the main character, the ex-Special Forces veterinarian Cole McBride, chase the origin of an outbreak from central Africa to expose dangerous implications of international terrorism. Intense stuff. Complex stuff. I asked Elliott how he could possibly start something as ambitious as this.

"Writing a book has been a life-long ambition, but this particular story has taken about three years," he says. "The actual idea for this story and then sitting down and doing it just sort of came to me. I remember exactly when it happened. I was traveling for work and I was in a hotel in the Netherlands on the side of the highway. I thought, well, I've always wanted to write a book so let's see what I can do. So I wrote the first couple of paragraphs, then a few more pages, and then I realized it started getting serious."
Elliott Garber, DVM, and his lovely family

Sigh. He makes it sound so easy. Elliott describes that after his initial leap into novel writing, he had to pause the creative process to actually learn how to write a book. Through some research on the craft, he continued and then finished his very first novel.

"I jokingly say that I wish my life were as cool and exciting as my main character's, but in reality, it's not," Elliott says. Do note, however, that his novel is loosely based on Elliott's job and experiences. "I try to write the type of story that I love to read. I tried to tie in all the stuff I naturally have an interest in and have knowledge of. That made the whole writing process a lot easier because doing some of the background research was enjoyable as it was stuff I was interested in learning about."
Dr. Elliott with a small wooly friend.
Somewhat ironically, Elliott's blog came about as a platform for his novel; however, Elliott felt it started turning into something unique in and of itself -- which is good -- but was taking time away from his novel writing -- which is bad. Many writers, including myself, struggle with two key concepts that Elliott hits on here:

1. How to develop a platform
2. How to not let your platform eat away at your creative space

"A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

One thing clever about Elliott's blog is its timelessness. Although he's taking a break from blogging at the moment, Elliott's timeless nature of his topics creates a self-described "immortality" in his online content. "My blog went off into its own thing for a while," he says. "And then I got kind of tired of it and stopped updating because I wanted to finish my book. Then I kind of defeated the whole thing because I didn't really use my blog too much for launching my book. It was a big failure," he laughs. Still, Elliott feels his blog has allowed him to communicate with others with similar interests and he's acquired a few speaking engagements out of it at vet schools. So, not quite the failure, after all. Elliott says he would like to get back to the blog at a later point. I think he should, too. "It's not completely dead," he reassures me. "Just hibernating." Podcasting was another branch of the blog, too - listen here.
Dr. Elliott Garber being a bad ass veterinarian.
The time suck of the online presence for writers is a delicious topic to talk about -- maybe because we all fall victim to procrastination and what more self-rewarding, prophetic way to procrastinate as a writer than to talk about procrastination with another writer. "I had to cut back on blogging," continues Elliott. "I just couldn't do everything at once. I frequently saw on writing forums that a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

Truer words were never spoken.

Luckily, Elliott remained unchained by the bonds of NOT WRITING and settled into a pattern. Writing in the evenings, Elliott honed technique and took time for research and learned a little about himself along the way. "One of the things I discovered about myself after the first few months of writing was that I couldn't write fiction very well while I had access to the internet. I was always wanting to look up something -- oftentimes related to the book, so it wasn't completely worthless -- but I would just keep bouncing back and forth between writing and getting dragged down the internet wormhole. Then I discovered this app called Freedom App which lets you turn off your access to the internet universally for a certain amount of time. It's funny to think about having to force yourself to do something that you're choosing to do, but I think for a lot of writers it's a struggle to produce content. But I think there's something about getting to the end that makes it worth suffering through the process."

Elliott then hit on a topic that had recently been discussed at my very own writer's group: as a writer, are you a pantser (meaning, you write by the seat of your pants, unplanned and free flowing) or a planner? Elliott discovered he could write his actual novel more efficiently if he had planned a few chapters in advance. "I would write in the style of telling myself what's going to happen without actually writing it in story form, so once I had that settled in my mind, I could switch to the actual story," he says. "It made a big difference in efficiency. There was no more agonizing over deciding what was going to happen next and then actually writing it."

In the end, with novel finished, Elliott explored the traditional publishing routes first. After getting an agent, he ended up rejecting offers from a few publishers, as he felt he'd ultimately have more control over his own intellectual property (and how it was formatted and sold) if he published independently. "From my own research, I knew the offer the publishers were giving me didn't represent much of an investment at all from the part of the publisher so really they would get it out there without a whole lot of input from me. So I turned those offers down. It has been a lot of work for me this year getting everything ready for independent publishing, so now it's a matter of time to see if it was a good investment doing it this way," he says. "But, I've learned a lot and had a good experience." Elliott writes about his process in more detail here.
Dr. Elliott Garber in India
Prior to The Chimera Sequence, Elliott self-published a short story, called No Dog Left Behind. Also available on Amazon, this was Elliott's first experience with independent publishing and it was a positive one. "I try to tell people there are lots of different ways to do this and it's better having a few people read your work than having it sit on your computer having no one read it at all. It was good training for a bigger project."

In the end, Elliott is extremely positive and open-minded about his own future, both as a veterinarian and as a writer. He acknowledges a sequel to his novel is a possibility, but he's not sure when that might happen. He's still waiting to see how well his first novel will do. "There are also a bunch of other things I like doing and am interested in, so I'm kind of doing other things while seeing how this novel goes. I also have other ideas about other totally unrelated books I'd like to write, too. It's just about making the commitment."

Well, hurry up, Dr. Garber. I want to see what all you can do.

Until next month, dear readers!

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome, I love Dr. Garber's blog, it's right up my alley! Very cool to learn more about the literary side too!