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Blue Ocean Life Nation Interview Series: Richard Merli

by Michael Coughlin |

Richard Merli is a New York-based author, editor, and investigative journalist whose career in journalism spanned over 30 years. He is the founder and editor of October Hill Magazine, a quarterly literary magazine. He is also the author of the upcoming novel, The Animals, and The Light of Ancient Stars, a collection of recent poetry. His investigative work exposed accidents, occupational illnesses, and fatalities in the industrial workplace, and corruption in industry, and led to such reforms as the passage of the Bloodborne Pathogens and Health Standard and the Lock-Out Tag-Out Rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Richard also holds a BA in journalism and creative writing from New York University. 

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How did you start your writing career? 

I began my writing career by writing romantic poetry in my teen years. But I quickly found my voice and vocation as a journalist. Journalism provided a formula for writing with the 5W’s – Who, What, When, Where and Why. It imposes a discipline on your writing. You learn to write not only concisely and accurately, but quickly to meet deadlines. In time, especially with feature writing and profiles, I learned that you can be quite creative in your reporting. 

Tell us about October Hill Magazine. How did you start that publication? 

October Hill Magazine was an outgrowth of a literary group I was managing in New York. Our goal in the group was to raise everyone’s writing to a level worth of publication. Knowing how hard it is for first-time writers to publish in today’s literary world, I wanted to create a platform where new writers could publish short stories and poetry quarterly. And we quickly brought aboard some very talented editors who would work with those writers to shape, revise and improve their first works so they could meet our standard for publication.   

How did you grow its readership? 

Our readership grew organically. We began to gain steady readers after our first publication. I believe that many of our authors began to spread the word about us in literary circles. Later, we added a social media manager to make sure that we stayed in front of our readers during issues. 

What inspired you to create the poetry collection? 

I had been writing poetry for years, both before and after I created a literary group. I had accumulated a considerable body of written work. I suppose it was a realization that, as a writer, you write not only for your satisfaction because you have some emotion or observation to express, but because you want to make an impact upon other people by sharing your work with them. As one of my old creative writing professors once said: “You’re not writing in order to keep your work stashed away in a drawer.”  

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Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing never exhausts me; it often energizes me. It’s a feeling of great satisfaction to have finished a day’s writing. You may be tired, as you would be with any other work, but you feel a very satisfying sense of accomplishment. You know you’re advancing closer to your goal. I once asked a neighbor on a hot, sunny day if he ever got tired of farming. He took a break from harvesting hay and jumped down off his tractor. “I’m a farmer,” he said. “Farming is what I do.” So, when people ask me if I ever feel tired from writing, I usually answer: “I’m a writer. Writing is what I do.”

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

One of the biggest traps is attempting to create the perfect character or the perfect story. Perfection is the enemy of good work. Striving for perfection, you lose sight of the process of creating good work. You will never create perfect work. In fact, you will discourage yourself in the process of attempting to do so. You will wind up defeating yourself. You may even stop writing. Aim for writing well. And when you have, feel good about yourself and your work.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Find a good editor. You’ll need one. You cannot ever edit your own work. You may rewrite it, but you cannot edit it. You need a pair of detached eyes and expertise to guide your work. Don’t be afraid of constructive criticism. Every young writer can improve his or her work. Nobody is born a good writer. Some people are equipped with a greater aptitude than others for writing. But nobody is born a good writer. It takes time, hard work, and a willingness to grow and to improve your craft.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I’m not sure my process of writing changed. I work very slowly and deliberately. You heard stories of writers who pin their ears back and bang out a novel in two or three weeks. I could never do that in a million years. If I write three or four good pages in one day, I consider it a good day’s work. I’ll never be the hare; I’ll always be the turtle. But I do finish the race in my own time. 

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

I might spend several months planning a novel, including mapping out the chapters, developing the plot, and shading in the characters. I can’t write without preparing the ground work for writing. A first draft of a novel may take me six or seven months to write; another five or six months to rewrite entirely. It may take me two years to compile enough work for a poetry collection.   

Do you believe in writer’s block? 

I’m certain it exists for many writers. But I think it can be overcome fairly easily. I believe in planning your work and what you write. If you take the time to develop a good outline or road map for your book, you’ll only need a rest stop. If you know where you are going with your story and your next chapter, make sure to write it down. You should always know where you are going and what you are going to write. You may even set a goal of writing five pages a day. If you fall short of that goal, try to be more efficient with your time the next day and make more time for writing. If you accomplish that goal, then feel good about yourself and treat yourself to a nice dinner, or something similar. Your selection of words for a particular sentence may change from day to day. But if you plan properly, you will always be able to write - that is, unless you have a fear of writing. But that’s a deeper psychological issue.  

What's the best advice you could give to any aspiring writer?

Work hard. Do not wait for inspiration to come to you before you write. You may find inspiration in the process of your writing. But nothing happens as a writer without hard and solitary work. Make sure that you have a good editor – preferably someone from a book-publishing background - as a sounding board and guide. Good advice will prove invaluable. If you are writing fiction, make sure that your story has plenty of conflict. Without conflict, there is no drama. Without drama, there is no good storytelling. Also, prepare to spend some time finding a literary agent to represent you. It may take you months to find one, but the search will be worth it. Unfortunately, major publishers will not even look at your work without an agent’s imprimatur. Your chances of publishing your first book without a literary agent are one percent!  With an experienced agent behind you, your chances go up to 15 to 20 percent. Invest the time.

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What other projects are you working on? 

I’m rewriting a second novel and compiling new work for a second poetry collection. The novel follows a cell of underground radicals in the U.S. who launch a series of attacks against the government and multinational corporations following the violent overthrow of a democratic government and the murder of thousands of workers and students in a coup d’état overseas. It’s a story of high-wire, breath-taking suspense, the eternal struggle between good and evil, and the reality that what is often perceived as black and white is more often far more complex and grey.   

How can readers get in touch with you? 

I always love hearing from readers. The best way for them to reach me is through my author web site: RichardMerli.com.

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