I first “met” Tom Starita several weeks ago on LinkedIn. He shared with me that he’s a two-time novelist—that his second book, Growth and Change are Highly Overrated, came out in December, 2016. Recently, Tom and I sat down to talk about his books, his experiences, and the lessons he’s learned.
This is his story.
Like many writers, Tom Starita’s journey began when he was a kid. He wrote his first story when he was 9 years old—a fanfiction titled Mike Tyson vs Shaka Zulu. “The Shaka Zulu miniseries was on TV,” Tom explains, “And Mike Tyson was huge, and in my brain that made perfect sense.”
Mike Tyson won.
He spent most of his teenage years writing; he loved creating worlds, creating people. To this day, he still has five subject notebooks in his closet, crammed with his teenage thoughts, that he never plans to show anybody. As he grew older, he began writing professionally. He wrote several articles on the METs; in 1997, he got on GeoCities and MySpace and started creating blogs and websites. “Google is a graveyard of old Tom Starita dead links,” Tom says with a chuckle. “That’s basically my twenties right there: a lot of ridiculous writing.”
Around that time, he got a job as an office manager at the Associated Press. He hated it; not only was it a drag, he immediately recognized that he was ill-suited for the job. But, since he there anyway, he decided to use it as a backdoor to get involved in journalism. And it seemed to be working—he met a contact who told him that, since he was already working there, they would give him some assignments and see how he did.
Then, in the interim, he got fired from the AP.
When he came back and told them that he’d been fired but had almost finished the articles, they told him they could no longer accept them. He needed a journalism degree, they explained. Before, when he was working for them, they were willing to overlook that. But now it was different.
So he went home, alone and dejected.
Things only got worse. His grandfather, Frank, was getting old. Tom realized that he might not have much time left; that his grandfather, whom he’d known all his life, must already be coming to terms with the end of his own journey.
Later, he took a shower. One of those slow, long showers, where you bow your head and reflect. On life, on pain, on how it all ends.
And that’s when the idea first came to him.
He could turn this experience into a book.
Two Ways to Sunday
Tom rushed out of the shower—he didn’t even pause to rinse off—and started writing. He soon had four pages written out. He leaned back, he recalls, and thought to himself:
This isn’t so hard.
At the time, Tom didn’t really think writing a book would be a big deal. “I wrote four pages and I thought, Oh, I can do this.” He had no idea the momentous project he’d just taken upon himself—all the drafts, the revising, the editing. He figured that the process would be relatively simple and painless.
And the first and second draft did little to shake him of that view. The first took him about a month and was maybe 40,000 words, and the second added another 20,000 to the count. It was only by the third draft that it became a challenge. That was when he started really developing the characters and fleshing out the plot; when he started tying loose threads and making sure everything connected.
In the end, it took him four years to write.
Looking back, Tom is glad he didn’t know how difficult writing a book would be—and how long it took him to realize it. By the time he was faced with the challenges, he’d already written so much of the book that it would have been a shame not to finish.
“If I had known that first night what I know now,” Tom confides, “Maybe I would have stayed in the shower.”
There were other challenges, too; the usual life challenges every author faces. He had work; he was dating; he had friends. He had only so much time to write daily. The key, he found, was to set aside time every day to write and to make sure his goals were reasonable. Originally, during his first two drafts, his goal was to write an hour every day. By the third draft, that stopped being reasonable. Instead, he told himself he only had to work on a paragraph a day.
It was more manageable, he explained. And it helped him overcome writer’s block. A paragraph wasn’t a lot, so it wasn’t hard to persuade himself to do. And he often found that once he started, he’d keep going. But even if he only did that one paragraph, he was able to say that he did something valuable that day.
In addition, Tom reveals that writer’s block was never a huge struggle for him anyway. “I had the emotional undercurrent, which I think made the book much easier to write. Everything was true and real because the emotions underneath it were true and real.”
After four years, he decided it was time to get it published. He received a couple of deals from small publishing houses, but they were only willing to give him a small advance, and he would have had to pay for marketing and advertising. Which didn’t appeal to him. “I decided, if I’m going to be doing all the work, I might as well keep more money.” So he decided to self-publish, which allowed him to retain more control over the process and keep more money.
“It was a win-win.”
Tom will never forget the day he first saw his book published. He was in a book store--The Book Revue—in Long Island and there, on the shelf, was Two Ways to Sunday.
“It was probably the greatest personal achievement of my entire life.”
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Growth and Change Are Highly Overrated
Fast forward a few years. It was the weekend before Valentine’s Day; Tom was alone and sick with the flu. He’d been forced to take the week off from work to recover. It was, to this day, one of the most miserable weeks of his life. By Friday, though, he was starting to feel a little better; he eventually got up on Friday night. He walked over to the window, looked outside, and saw that he’d slept through a blizzard; he was completely snowed in.
He knew there was no chance getting out to buy food, so he tried to order takeout. He soon discovered, though, that no one delivered food during a blizzard at 11:30 at night.
So he dragged himself out of bed, shuffled down to the kitchen, and started looking for food.
He opened the fridge; there was nothing there. He opened the freezer; there was nothing there. He opened the cabinets; there was nothing there.
So he just stood there, sick, starving and miserable, and it occurred to him that this would be a great start for a book.
Writing Growth and Change Are Highly Overrated was a very different experience to writing Two Ways to Sunday. With his first book, his protagonist—Christopher Marcum—had a distinct voice, but that voice was very similar to Tom’s own. The protagonist of Growth and Change Are Highly Overrated--Lucas James—sounded nothing like Tom or anyone else he knew.
“It was almost like I was schizophrenic—like I was hearing a different voice in my head telling me, ‘Hey, I’m going to tell you a story, just type it down.’ And I had no idea where I was going with it, and I had no idea what the purpose and the point of the story was, but everyday I got up and I was excited because Lucas James was going to tell me the next part of the story. It became a fun outlet to get everything out of my life.”
Not knowing what was going to happen next didn’t deter him at all, Tom reveals. “With the first book, I mapped things out—not to the letter, but I knew the beats of the story. With this book, everyday was something new.” It was an incredibly enjoyable experience for him. Tom will never call himself a morning person, but while he was writing the book, he would wake up every morning, grab his laptop, head to Starbucks, and write from 8-12.
“I had no idea what the ending was going to be; I had no idea what the point of him was; I had no idea what he was going to do; but he made me laugh, and I figured that if this is making me laugh, then I’m sure that there are at least 10 people out there that will laugh, too, so I’m going to keep writing this.”
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“My dream,” Tom says with a laugh, “Is to one day not have an alarm or wear pants ever. But that’s not reality right now.” He works placing foreign exchange students with American families across the country. It’s a very rewarding job. “Also, I think that if you’re a writer, you should have some kind of job, because if you keep yourself in your house you don’t get meet people and you don’t get to have new voices in your head and new quirks. So I kind of think it’s beneficial to have a job also, just so you’re out in the world and experiencing things. Your writing, I think, is sharper that way.”
His goal for now, Tom reveals, is to write short stories. Each week he intends to write a new 3,000ish word story and submit it for publication. The plan is to litter the internet with the name Tom Starita. He wants each story to be a different style to the next, so that if the reader doesn’t like one, he or she may still appreciate a different one.
Explaining his process for pitching magazines, Tom reveals that he’s both a dreamer and a realist. When he writes a new story, he sends it first to the New Yorker and the Atlantic—Tom calls this the “Hail Mary pitch.” And then he also pitches small magazines. Even if he doesn’t land anywhere big, he’s content to accumulate clippings in small magazines.
His vision is to ultimately be considered as one of the top 75 writers to ever come out of Staten Island. “If you set really small goals and then accomplish them, that’s fantastic. Saying I want to be in the top 75 all time of Staten Island writers—I think that’s a manageable goal. I think I can accomplish that. I think if I said top 75 in New York—I think that’s ridiculous.”
His career as a writer has taught Tom things. He’s learned that writing is a very lonely and frustrating job; it’s just you and your computer. And you can’t blame anyone if it doesn’t work out. In the end of the day, it comes down to your talents. Which is its own challenge—it’s very tempting to constantly ask yourself if you’re any good. Having a good support system, Tom continues, is integral to dealing with those doubts.
He's learned other things, too. He learned that your characters have to earn their choices; you can’t cheat the reader. You have to earn the reader’s trust, so that when something impactful happens it’ll mean something. He learned the importance of writing a good sentence that would hook the reader. And he learned how to find his voice. It took him time—he only really felt he was beginning to find it by the third draft of his first book—but eventually he found it.
When people ask him for advice, Tom tells them this: if you’re writing to become rich and famous, pick up something else. Writing will get you neither. But if you’re writing because you have something to say and you want to say it—even if only 50 people end up reading it—then this might be the path for you.
Eli Landes is one of those weird writers who just can't get enough. A marketing writer by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time, he spends his spare time working on his novel, writing short fiction, or daydreaming (I mean, researching). His main genre is Jewish fiction, but he's been known to dabble in the weird, the absurd, and the truly dark.