Full Circle – From First Page Critique to Publication

by Debbie Burke


Let’s flashback to September 2020 when an anonymous Brave Author submitted a first page entitled The Recruiter for critique. I was fortunate to be the critiquer. The page demonstrated excellent craft skills. The first-person voice was both funny and grim, reminding me of Raymond Chandler, my all-time favorite author.

It was also a difficult page to critique because there was almost nothing wrong with it. Comments from other readers were overwhelmingly positive.

I’m always glad when a Brave Author steps forward and responds to feedback. This BA shed his cloak of anonymity and introduced himself as Gregg Podolski.

Gregg Podolski

A subject we often discuss here at TKZ is the right place to begin a novel. Gregg recognized this scene, although action-packed, was not the best beginning.

Another frequent TKZ subject is “Killing your darlings.” This is always a difficult decision for authors to make. Fortunately, Gregg realized that, as much fun as he had writing the scene, and, despite favorable feedback comments, this page had to go.

Other readers and I asked Gregg to let us know when the book was published.

But…from first page critique to publication is often a loooooong journey. I wasn’t holding my breath because many good novels unfortunately don’t see the light of publication.

Then, in 2022, Gregg emailed me to say Blackstone Publishing would release The Recruiter in July 2024.

Wow! Wonderful news!

He also mentioned I was the first person outside his family to read and offer feedback on the story. That made me feel good because it’s especially rewarding to see a piece I’d admired come to fruition.

Several weeks ago, Blackstone sent me an ARC (advanced review copy) which I’d requested.

I’m pleased to say the book far exceeded the potential shown back in 2020 in that original first page.

The Recruiter is a tense, gritty, contemporary noir thriller with hard-boiled echoes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. It’s in the first-person point of view (POV) of Rick Carter, a world-weary alcoholic who deserted his wife and children. He earns a living by recruiting assassins, gun runners, and assorted unsavory thugs to do dirty work for wealthy, powerful clients concerned with preserving their upstanding reputations.

Yeah, I know. Rick Carter sounds more like a villain. Yet Gregg managed to infuse enough humor and humanity into this anti-hero to keep me reading and fascinated.

I invited Gregg to discuss his journey from first page critique to publication in today’s interview.

Debbie Burke: Gregg, welcome back to TKZ and big congratulations on the upcoming release of The Recruiter! Where did the idea of an executive recruiter for criminals come from?

Gregg Podolski: Thanks so much for having me, Debbie! As far as the idea, I’ve been a professional recruiter for the last 17 years, and it dawned on me that there really wasn’t a lot of books about my profession in the fiction world. I didn’t just want to do a John Grisham book but with recruiters instead of lawyers, though. Instead of writing about a recruiter who was a good guy caught in a bad situation, I thought it would be more unique—and more fun—to write about a guy who recruits bad people to help other bad people do bad things. See if I could turn a character who would be a secondary villain in a typical thriller into the protagonist of an entire novel.

DB: How long have you been writing? Have you attended classes, workshops, or conferences? Any previous publications?

GP: My first short story, “The Horse Raised by Wolves,” was published in Highlights Magazine when I was 7 years old. Six years later, in 8th grade, I wrote my first thriller novella, “Poison 101,” which my dad submitted to Reader’s Digest, but was rejected with a very nice letter from their editor who encouraged me to keep writing. Both stories are available to read on my website, greggpodolski.com, for anyone who’s interested. I’ve been writing ever since, with no specific training or extra classes. I wrote two full novels, half of another one, and a collection of humorous essays before writing The Recruiter during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. None of those earlier works were published, though a few got some mild interest from agents.

DB: Your lead character Rick Carter starts off as a big jerk. When you originally envisioned the story, did you have his entire character arc/transformation in mind? Or did he evolve during the writing process?

GP: I always knew this book was going to be about Rick reconciling the man he used to be with the man he’s become, but how he accomplished that definitely evolved as I wrote. The biggest change is evident if you compare the first page you critiqued with the character he is in the finished novel. The guy you met in that since-discarded first page was a little tougher than the guy he turned into. I just really liked the idea of writing a book in which the action hero is kind of bad at the action stuff.

DB: The plot of The Recruiter has many reversals, course changes, and surprise twists. I gotta ask—are you a plotter, a pantser, or a combination?

GP: Definitely a combo. I always know how a book will begin and end before I start, and then the connecting story beats come to me as I go. My phone is filled with notes ranging from a single line of dialogue to an outline for an entire scene. I type them up as they come to me and then try to work them in wherever they make sense. So, in a way, I sort of plot as I pants.

DB: Can you share the process you went through to get The Recruiter accepted for publication?

GP: I always knew I wanted to go the traditional publishing route, as I am far too lazy to self-publish. The Cliff’s Notes version is that I wrote the first draft from March-June of 2020, revised it twice, then started querying agents in September. By June of 2021, I had racked up around 50 rejections/no responses and two offers. I picked the one who I felt best connected with both me and my manuscript, then we revised it again over the summer. We went out on sub right before Thanksgiving and I received the offer from Blackstone Publishing in March of 2022.

DB: In the epilogue, you left the door open for more adventures with Rick Carter. Is another Recruiter book in the works?

GP: Not only in the works but written and submitted to Blackstone, waiting for their approval! I would love nothing more than to turn this into a book-per-year series, for as long as readers are interested in seeing what Rick gets up to next.

DB: Anything else you’d like to add?

GP: Just to say how appreciative I am of you and the entire TKZ community. I’m more of a lurker than a commenter, but I check the site every day as part of my morning routine, and recommend it regularly to anyone looking for writing advice. The feedback you provided on my first page critique and the wealth of knowledge and encouragement in the comments section was exactly the boost of confidence I needed as I dove into the query trenches, even if that first page remains in my Deleted Material file. That’s why this interview is so special to me, and is without a doubt one of the most meaningful I have done or will do. Thank you all!


TKZers: I coaxed Gregg out of lurking in the shadows. Feel free to ask him questions in the comments and he’s happy to answer.

Want a book review? Try these tips

Jordan Dane

The Oklahoman newspaper

The Oklahoman newspaper

It’s my pleasure to introduce someone I’ve known for a long time, an Okie friend. I first knew Ken Raymond of The Oklahoman newspaper as a crime beat and features reporter. He is a talented author as well. After he graced me with a glimpse of his work, I’ve been trying to coerce him to write a novel ever since and hope he does one day. Very talented guy. Now he’s the book review editor at the paper, a man of many hats. Please chat Ken up, TKZers.

P S – I will be traveling and in remote spots this week. I may not have access to the internet, but I will try to check in on post day.

Ken Raymond’s Post:

Last year I interviewed David Sedaris, the humorist renowned for essays such as “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious chronicle of his days working as an elf at Macy’s one holiday season.

We didn’t have much in common, aside from our mutual appreciation of his work, but we both love books … and we share a similar problem.

Whenever Sedaris makes a public appearance, would-be authors thrust their manuscripts at him. He’s not sure why, but he thinks they hope he will read all the books, pass them on to his editors and launch the writers’ book careers.That never happens. Sometimes he says no to the manuscripts; other times he takes them out of a sense of politeness and civility.

Even if he wanted, he could never find time to read them all.

I’m not famous. I don’t make many public appearances, and when I do, they’re usually at writing conferences or classrooms. But I do get buried in books, most of them unsolicited. Dozens pile up outside my front door each week, and more still find their way to what used to be my office.

Who am I? I’m just the book editor for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. Book editor sounds important, but really I’m just one guy who reads and reviews books and tries to convince other people to do the same. My staff, such as it is, consists of volunteer newsroom staffers and a handful of stringers, whose only recompense is a byline and a free book. I interview authors, write about industry trends and work hard to deliver the best possible product, but I’m also a columnist and senior feature writer. There are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I’m among the fortunate few in this world who are paid to read books. The problem is that there are just so many of them, good and bad, in all genres and styles.

Given all that competition, how can you make your book stand out — to me and to the countless other reviewers out there?

There’s no guarantee of success, but these tips may help:

Be honest.

For some reason, no one wants to come across as a beginner in the writing business. I guess everyone assumes that if they’re not all polished and shiny, they won’t stand out.

Me, I’m sick of flashy. I get hundreds of emails a week from authors or publicists, and sometimes from authors pretending to be publicists. The messages are so flashy they look like old Geocities websites, with weasel words thrown in to make it seem as if the books they’re pitching are the biggest thing to hit literature since the Gutenberg Bible. Read them closely, though, and they’re largely unappealing campaigns of self-aggrandizement.

I prefer a simpler approach: the truth. Don’t try to impress me; your book should do that. Your emails should tell me who you are, what you’ve written and why you think it stands out. Talk to me like we’re eating lunch together, and I’ll listen.

I’ll also tell you what I tell everyone these days. I can never promise coverage, but I’ll give you the same chance at a review that every other author gets, including the famous ones. I’ll look at your book, and if it’s not for me, then I’ll offer it up to my review team. If anyone picks it and thinks it’s pretty good, I’ll run a review. If they don’t like it, I probably won’t run a review.

Follow up.

If you apply for a job, odds are you won’t sit by the phone for two weeks, hoping it’ll ring. Instead, you’ll follow up a few days after the interview, letting the company know you’re interested and making sure you’re remembered. You may follow up again a week later.

The same goes for book promotion. Often someone will pitch a book to me, and I’ll ask for a review copy. By the time the book arrives in the mail, I may not remember it at all; I’ve dealt with a bunch of other books in the interval.

A simple follow-up email reminds me that we communicated about the book. It tells me that I was interested enough to request it. It’ll make me take a closer look.

Don’t take it personally.

Nothing turns me against a book more than an argumentative author. Earlier this year, a guy blitzed me with phone calls and emails, demanding that I review his minor book about his favorite subject: himself.

Somehow he had browbeaten other news organizations into writing reviews, none of which were particularly flattering. When his berserk behavior persisted, I told him I wasn’t interested in interviewing him or reading his book. He promptly called my boss eight times in a two-hour period and drowned him in email.

He seemed shocked, absolutely shocked, that he couldn’t force his way into the paper.

I don’t want to be a puppet. Most people don’t seek out needless confrontation. If we all act professionally, we should get along fine, even if I can’t get to your book or publish a review. I bear you no ill will; without you, I couldn’t do my job.

Play the odds.

Major publishers release fewer books during the cold weather months. The spring, summer and fall are all pretty hectic, so those winter months are your best opportunity to contact me. You simply won’t have as much competition.

At the same time, I scramble for content around that time of year. I suspect others in my position do, too. I start pushing gift books on Black Friday and continue every week until Christmas. Even if your book came out much earlier in the year, I may use it in one of my gift guides. I generally offer a range of books in different genres.

But winter isn’t your only window. Whenever possible, people like me prefer to publish reviews proximate in time to book release dates. If I could, I would limit most of my reviews to books that are about to come out in a couple days.

In order for that to happen, I need your book about a month in advance. Some critics prefer digital copies; I like physical books, even if they’re uncorrected page proofs.

Because I am in Oklahoma, I take special interest in books with some sort of Oklahoma ties. If you live here, went to college here, set your book here, whatever, that’ll up your odds of getting reviewed. The same applies to other regional newspapers. If you’re in Alaska, pitch your book hard to Alaskan publications.

Set up book signings, too. You probably won’t get rich at a book signing, since stores take part of the haul, but I always mention local book signings in print. Many other papers do the same. It may not be as good as a full review, but at least it gets your name out there.

Best of luck, and please contact me about your upcoming books. The best way to reach me is via email at kraymond@oklahoman.com. Follow me on Twitter at @kosar1969.

Discussion: Any questions for a book review editor, TKZers? You ever wonder what a crime beat reporter sees on the job? Or maybe you want to know what was the strangest features article Ken ever wrote? Ask away!

Ken Raymond - Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond – Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond is the book editor and a senior writer at The Oklahoman. He publishes a monthly column called “Purely Subjective.” A Fulbright scholar and Pennsylvania native, he covered crime for much of his career, bringing dramatic stories to life through literary nonfiction. He has won numerous national, regional and state awards. Three times he has been named Oklahoma’s best writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Edmond with his wife, three Italian greyhounds and a Chihuahua.

Radio, TV and Podcasts

Nancy J. Cohen

I haven’t ventured far into the world of podcasts, radio interviews or TV appearances. As an author, I’d rather spend my time writing the next book. Nonetheless, I’ve done a few radio spots via telephone, but I don’t seek them out. Somehow the thought of a microphone or camera aimed my way with hundreds of invisible listeners makes me nervous.

A telephone interview can be fun if done with a dynamic host who knows all the right questions to keep things flowing. The interviews I’ve done to date have gone well in this respect. But I’m wondering how these shows serve the reader and if they’re worth the time spent.

Do you listen to these shows? Have you ever bought a book based on an author interview you’ve heard/seen on the air?


Do any of you listen to podcasts? Do they influence you to follow an author’s social media sites? Buy his books? Or do you just tune in to learn what you can and then move on? Are podcasts essential to one’s media kit?

For those of you who’ve done these types of appearances, have they led to other valuable contacts? Have listeners responded? Besides the publicity, did you gain an upsurge in sales? Or did you merely enjoy the experience?

One of the speakers on “Radio for Writers” at a Florida Chapter MWA meeting recently stressed that the story isn’t about your book. It’s about you as a person and your journey as an author. Finding that unique angle or local slant is what would interest her as a reporter. See her tips for authors here: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com/2014/09/30/radio-for-writers/

So what’s your take on this whole live media business? Is it worth pursuing or is your time as a writer better spent working on the next book?

Speaking of radio interviews, I’ll be appearing at http://www.authorsontheair.com on Friday, October 10 at 6:00 pm EDT. I hope you will tune in!