Learning The art of Writing

The word “determination” is on Mike Mullin’s taekwondo black belt.

The Hoosier author, who grew up in Indianapolis and now lives in Danville, said years ago when he decided to start martial arts, he realized he wasn’t the strongest or fastest when it came to breaking boards.

He also learned that was the case when it came to writing — he wasn’t the strongest or fastest.

But if he wanted to be successful in both endeavors, he said he had to learn different techniques and spend a lot of time practicing.

That led to his first published novel of a trilogy, “Ashfall,” selling 5,000 copies in the first six weeks and later being named one of the top five young adult novels of 2011 by National Public Radio, a Best Teen Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews and a New Voices selection by the American Booksellers Association.

Since then, he has written the other two books in the Ashfall Supervolcano Series, “Ashen Winter” and “Sunrise.” It follows Alex Halprin and his struggles to survive and find his family after the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging the world into a cataclysmic natural disaster.

He begins a trek to search for his family and finds help in Darla, a travel partner he meets along the way. Mullin’s other book, “Darla’s Story,” is told from her perspective.

Mullin recently visited Seymour High School and presented a program, “How Taekwondo is Like Writing.” Before that, he met with a small group of students in the library during Power Hour for a pizza party, book signing and question-and-answer session.

During that hour, students asked about Mullin’s background and his advice for becoming a writer.

One piece of advice he offered is to read a lot.

“Because that’s how you learn what works and what doesn’t in whatever you’re trying to write,” he said. “You’ve got to read voraciously, read really deep into whatever you want to write.”

Mullin said he also reads outside of the subject matter he wants to write about. About 40 percent of what he reads is young adult fiction, while 25 percent is adult nonfiction, and the rest varies, including poetry, graphic novels, mysteries, adult science fiction, adult fantasy and some literary fiction.

Another piece of advice is to write and practice a lot. Mullin said most writers have to write several novels before they write a really good one.

With “Ashfall,” Mullin said it took three years to write. The first draft took about six months, and he wound up with more than 200 versions of his book saved on his computer.

Once it reached a publisher, it went through three rounds of editing, each by a different person. He said he rewrote the ending six times.

Mullin encourages writers to “revise obsessively.”

“You cannot revise too much, you really can’t,” he said.

Getting published is the most difficult part about being an author, Mullin said. Writers often meet rejection during that process.

Mullin gave an example of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling being rejected by every publisher in Great Britain before ultimately making billions of dollars and becoming a wealthy writer.

“You’re going to get rejected a lot,” Mullin said. “A key thing to focus on now is to become the best writer you possibly can be and write as much as you can. Most writers write eight, 10 novels before they are good enough, before they break through, before they get published.”

One option is to write a query letter to a literary agent telling what your book is about and why you want them to read it. Mullin said “Ashfall” was rejected by 24 literary agents before he found one who was interested.

“Hopefully, an agent will pick you up as a client, and they go out and try to sell it to a publisher,” he said. “You only need one ‘yes.’”

For someone who flunked out of high school and got his GED and later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Mullin said he has wound up making a good career out of being an author. That’s after having several other jobs he said he hated.

“I’m much, much happier with what I am doing now, and being a writer is the job I love,” he said. “I want to keep writing and speaking until they bury me with my laptop. And yes, I want to be buried with my laptop because I might come up with a great idea.”

Freshman Matthew Dupuis was among the students at the meet-and-greet with Mullin. He said he came across “Ashfall” on the school library shelves, read the summary on the back cover and was intrigued.

Dupuis said he was excited to meet the author of a book he read.

“It’s probably one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “I was very enthralled during the meetup we had. I will never probably be able to meet an author that I’ve read the books personally of. There are a couple of authors I’d really love to meet, but I’m really glad I got the chance to meet Mike Mullin.”

Jill Railsback, the school’s media specialist and corporation’s director of media services, was glad to give the students an opportunity to meet an author.

“They love the series. We can’t keep it on the shelf,” she said of Mullin’s books. “For him to talk to them about writing especially and make that important and the reading aspect of it is so important for them, as well. That was the whole point in trying to get an author to come visit. You just don’t get that opportunity very often.”

She also thought his message of determination was important for the students to hear.

“We live in a society where kids want instant results, and that’s just not real life with learning a skill, practicing a skill and preparing for whatever your interest may be,” she said. “Knowing how long it takes to practice at any skill at anything you enjoy doing and want to do, that determination, I think, is very important for the students.”

On the Web

For information about Hoosier author Mike Mullin, visit mikemullinauthor.com or email him at mike@mikemullinauthor.com.

Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.