John H. Cunningham Strikes Adventure Gold by Writing What He Knows
Second Chance Gold is the fourth release in John H. Cunningham’s mercilessly entertaining and seriously fun Buck Reilly series. Cunningham, a commercial real estate broker by day, could fool (and frustrate) us all by claiming that his writing always came naturally. But we can rest assured it did not.
“I don’t have an MFA,” Cunningham said, “but I was a pretty good English student, and like to read, so I thought could write.”
He was right, of course. But simply wanting to write doesn’t get you very far in the field of publishing. Turns out, there’s something to be said for spending some time learning your craft before turning you novel loose on unsuspecting readers.
Cunningham took this process seriously and penned three novels before arriving at the concept for Buck Reilly. And I mean that literally, at least as it pertains to his initial attempt. “My first novel, written by hand on a dozen legal pads, was totally unstructured. I hadn’t learned about character development, POV, the hero’s journey, ‘show, don’t tell,’ the art of dialogue and many other fundamentals.”
Still, with each novel, Cunningham held out publishing hopes—hopes that agents and publishers failed to fulfill. His first literary agent, referred to him by Shakespeare and Company in Paris, an old stomping ground of Ernest Hemingway, was 85 years old and, though well-intentioned, just a tad out of touch. Cunningham later landed a top, more middle-aged New York agent for representation. Unfortunately, that was all he landed.
“The reality is,” Cunningham said, “if you’re not already part of the system, it’s really hard to break in.”
It’s an interesting thing, writing. As a passion that is often secondary to a full-time responsibility that actually puts food on the table, rejection and frustration can easily lead to throwing in the towel. One would think. But, as passions would have it, it’s not that easy.
“Rejection always pisses you off,” Cunningham said, “especially when you read other ‘popular’ fiction that often seems inferior, and I’m sure many people quit when they hit the wall. But, if you love to write, that’s not possible.”
If insanity is indeed the result of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, it’s safe to say John H. Cunningham is not crazy. He consulted with expert writing coaches and a team of private editors while continuing to hone his craft through the miracle of writing being improved by writing. And, as fate would have it, Cunningham would send his manuscript to the right place.
What Ross Browne at The Editorial Department saw in Cunningham was great potential, and a lot of work to be done. He urged the author to consider a series protagonist, an idea Cunningham initially ignored, but one to which he eventually succumbed. More importantly, Browne preached a popular writer’s maxim that too easily gets lost in the rubble of failed manuscripts: Write what you know.
And with that, Buck Reilly was born.
One of the tools Cunningham has used to draw readers into Buck Reilly’s world is a first-person narrative. One of the reasons for that is, as if to take Browne’s once rebuked advice a step further, is to make readers themselves feel like the protagonist in their own adventure.
“I love to write in the first person,” Cunningham said, “because my goal is to make readers feel as if they are in the story. Action should have an immediacy that readers feel the moment the protagonist does, and while in this case, Buck Reilly is seeing stars or in shock from the latest challenge or surprise in front of him, the reader is also holding their breath.”
For Buck Reilly, action itself is the end game, and first-person narrative allows Cunningham to shirk superfluous words for our hero, instead favoring something that speaks louder.
“With first person you must learn to minimize internal dialogue,” Cunningham said. “Many writers who utilize first person succumb to the temptation of sharing too many irrelevant opinions, thus causing needless distraction to the plot. They want the reader to ‘understand’ their protagonist, or editorialize their own ideas, but too often it just slows the action.”
And as anyone who has read any offering in the Buck Reilly series knows, the action rarely slows. Neither do intricate details regarding another thing Cunningham knows well—the picturesque setting of Buck Reilly’s exploits, the Caribbean.
Cunningham called Key West home in his early 20s and became hooked on island living. As a wise friend told him when Cunningham left paradise to pursue to the monotony of higher education, “You’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get back here.” Which, of course, he did, physically himself and vicariously through Buck Reilly And although many writers share his love for the islands, the depth of his firsthand knowledge is what sets him apart, especially when it comes to Buck Reilly’s favorite mode of transportation—amphibious aircraft.
“My wife’s grandfather flew Pan Am Clippers in the ’30s,” Cunningham said, “my cousin flew Grumman Mallards for Chalks.”
If you know what any of that means, congratulations on being Cunningham’s target audience. Although you certainly don’t need a PhD in “flyingboats” to enjoy Buck Reilly. Besides, you’ll learn. And if you’re a Parrothead, then, well, all the better.
“I once got on board Jimmy Buffett’s Grumman Albatross and have flown on the Grumman Widgeon and Goose.”
“I used to fly myself before having kids and working too much,” Cunningham said. “So, mix this all together and you get Buck Reilly escaping a traditional career to live in Key West and operate Last Resort Charter and Salvage aboard various Grumman amphibians.
“Ross was right. I wrote what I knew, what I loved, and my readers now live vicariously through the colorful characters and island-hopping stories.”
What was truly right about Ross Browne transcended advice alone. What he and TED offered was exposure and support for independent authors, and Cunningham’s notions about the validity of traditional publishing slowly melted away.
“The decline of brick and mortar stores as a result of the availability of ebooks and the ability to produce hard copies at reasonable prices made the choice easy,” Cunningham said. “I have not looked back. Frankly, I don’t even think about traditional publishers anymore. They have great networks but take the lion’s share. They have to—it’s an archaic, expensive and broken process. TED helps me with everything from story development to editing to cover and interior design, so they have truly facilitated and helped me hone my craft.”
As independent authors nod their heads to that, it’s a mere philosophy if it doesn’t manifest itself in sales. At the risk of being tacky, how has that worked out for Cunningham?
“I have sold approximately 60,000 copies of my books,” he said, “which, had I waited ‘to be discovered,’ that number would more likely be zero.”
With Second Chance Gold having been released this past October, the only question for Cunningham is one that plagues every author—what’s next?
Not one to be type-cast, Cunningham’s latest venture delves deep into the precarious world of nonfiction for a subject close to his heart—adoption. But he’s also hard at work on the fifth book in the Buck Reilly series, which we have good reason to believe will be set on the island of Jamaica.
John H. Cunningham has come a long way from handwritten words on legal pads. The Buck Reilly series is 60,000 strong and only getting stronger. Not bad for a commercial real estate broker. Not bad for a guy who got into writing because he thought he could write.
(He was right, of course.)