When my debut novel— Better Than Bulletproof—was published in 2009, I wrote an article describing my “journey to publication.” One of the people I mentioned was my college English professor, Dr. Joe Stockwell, my writing mentor. The first day of American Literature class Joe told us—his students—that for assigned papers we were to, “Write on one side of the page only. You can write all over the page if you must, but one side only for your papers.”
That was my introduction to “writing tight.” Joe knew that his students would have to fully understand the material and concepts he was covering to write a “one-pager.” Every word had to count. It wouldn’t be possible to B.S. one’s way to a sensible conclusion in text that concise. His class gave me a deep appreciation of language and I fell in love with that kind of writing, even though I didn’t take a true creative writing course until ten years later.
When I graduated from Mississippi State and landed my first job teaching high school English, I wrote Joe and asked for advice. I can’t remember what he told me. Something that made me laugh, I’m sure. Still, that letter started our correspondence, and we’ve kept in touch ever since…for the past 27 years.
Although I’ve only seen Joe once since graduation, he has been one of my biggest cheerleaders in my writing career. He read my first completed manuscript and helped with editing and revisions, giving me fabulous suggestions before I started the process of submitting for publication. He also edited my second manuscript, encouraging me through multiple agent and editor rejections. He was almost as thrilled as my dad when I finally sold. And in the true spirit of a teacher, he still talks about one of the papers I wrote on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for that American Lit class, so long ago.
When I sold the manuscript for that first book (Better Than Bulletproof), it was single-title length (about 380 pages), and I was asked to cut eighty pages from the text in order to fit the publishing line’s category word count specifications. To make that work for the story I had to cut an entire subplot and put all the “deleted” action off-page. I wouldn’t have had a clue how to do that if Joe hadn’t introduced me to tightening material for those one-page college papers over twenty years before.
Joe just turned eighty-eight in July and last year he was inducted into the French Legion of Honor for his service during World War II. I could have told folks a long time ago that Joe was a hero before I ever learned of his remarkable service to our country and our Allies.
I would never have taken a creative writing course as an adult or tried to write a novel, much less finish one and find a publisher, if he hadn’t made me believe I could do it and showed me how—all those years ago. I’ll always be grateful for his encouraging words and his belief in me and my ability. That’s why I dedicated Hard Target in part to him.
"For Dr. Joe Stockwell—my college English professor, first editor, and friend. Thank you for being my inaugural fan."