STUDENT: Randall Sawka
In this week’s profile, we meet Athabasca University graduate Randall Sawka, a freelance writer who has just published a thriller novel. He chats about the self-publishing business, how Athabasca University has helped him fulfill his dream of becoming a writer, and just what to do about writer’s block.
Randall and his wife Nancy live in Victoria, British Columbia; their grown daughter, Michelle, attends the University of British Columbia. In 2005, Randall graduated from Athabasca University with a major in English. This achievement paved the way for a career in freelance writing, beginning with the publication of his first novel this summer.
As a teenager Randall had considered becoming a journalist. However, aside from writing for his high-school newspaper, he never pursued it until decades later, after he had been working in sales for years.
?I was tired of business courses and wanted to get away from sales,? Randall says. Since his long-held dream had been to write fiction, his wife encouraged him to begin studying English. However, he wasn’t enthusiastic about taking classes with students his daughter’s age. Athabasca University offered a good solution with distance education. ?My daughter was happy,? Randall jokes.
Athabasca’s flexibility was also appealing, as it allowed the Sawkas to continue travelling frequently. In fact, at one point, Randall was able to combine the two, obtaining special permission from the university to study Spanish in Madrid for a month.
At Athabasca, Randall focused on obtaining the knowledge and skills he would need as a freelance writer. Course-wise, he concentrated on English literature in addition to taking writing classes. ?I wanted to rebuild my foundation,? he says, so studying the classics fit well into that plan.
Randall recently published his first novel, Rough Business. He describes it as ?a fast-paced police thriller? that starts out set in Edmonton but soon involves a ?chase around the world.? Interestingly, the writing process was closely tied to his timeline as an AU student. Randall didn’t want to start writing the novel until after he had graduated, but he kept his brain active as he worked through his courses. When he started his first writing class almost five years ago, he began collecting the ideas which would one day become the novel. He’d write ideas on scraps of paper around the house or on napkins in a café and collect these ideas in a jar. It paid off; all that prep work allowed him to write the first draft of Rough Business in just one month, writing for about five hours each day.
What about distractions and writer’s block? To keep focused, Randall employs the same technique he used while completing assignments for his courses: he writes on beaches and in coffee shops, ?away from distractions and refrigerators.? He also keeps several projects going concurrently in case of burnout.
As for writer’s block, Randall doesn’t begin a writing project cold. ?Keep writing the little ideas down,? he advises. ?In a year or two, you may have a book.? For Randall, a general idea of the story is the most important; he writes straight from start to finish, with the little details resolving themselves along the way. ?I’ve learned that the ending is usually straightforward . . . the good guy wins!? he laughs.
Breaking into the self-publishing world wasn’t easy, but Randall claims that It’s not as bad as some might think. Realizing that major publishers and agents only want writers with experience is the first big step. ?One must sweep that away and learn the basics,? says Randall. Then ?you just dive in and learn to market yourself and your book.? For Randall, this meant calling and visiting various bookstores across Canada and pitching the book. You need to have the ?nerve to ask for the sale,? he says.
Marketing can be a challenge, however. Randall estimates that he spends four hours marketing for every hour he spends writing. While his sales background has definitely helped in the marketing and business end of writing, he believes that persistence, politeness, a lot of hope, and a very thick skin are crucial as well. Writers may be stereotyped as quiet and retiring, but Randall notes that it is ?vital to be in front of the public?–whether on the radio or in bookstores, or even on television for more established writers. During a book signing, It’s important to be proactive and engage people, rather than just ?sitting behind a desk quietly.?
To current AU students looking to further their own goals, Randall has some good advice. ?You are already doing the important thing–you are in post-secondary school,? he says. Doing what you love is also vital; ?it makes getting out of bed every day easier.?
Support is also important. ?I had great encouragement from profs and tutors,? Randall says. ?They told me I had the ability to tell a story.? That gave him the confidence to start and keep going. His wife’s support was also crucial during both studying and writing.
At this point, Rough Business is carried by more than 40 bookstores across Canada, with more expected soon. Randall anticipates that if he sells three to five thousand books, he may be able to catch the attention of a major publisher for future works. He’s also been approached to do a lecture cruise on the basics of self-publishing. Randall has written another novel, which is still in manuscript form, and has several other writing projects in various stages of development. ?In short,? he says, ?I’m living my dream . . . and having a blast.?
For more information on Randall Sawka and Rough Business, check out his website at http://www.randallsawka.com
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