Here’s how the dream goes: Aspiring novelist goes to college, takes writing and literature courses. He pens his first novel, the writing process blissful and effortless. The book is a critical and commercial smash. Fat checks and fame follow. The author kicks back, releasing new best-sellers into the world when inspiration strikes.

Jon Sealy - how to write a novel

Jon Sealy earned an English degree with a minor in creative writing from the College of Charleston in 2005. His debut novel, The Whiskey Baron, will be published on April 1, 2014.

Here’s how it really played out: Jon Sealy ‘05 attended the College of Charleston to study physics, but soon decided he’d rather write novels. After earning an English degree with a minor in creative writing, Sealy completed the MFA program at Purdue University. His first novel was rejected repeatedly. He found work selling TVs and writing for a newspaper before starting his own copywriting business. He rose early to chip away at another novel. This one got published. The early reviews are promising.

Sealy admits that he once entertained the dream scenario. What aspiring novelist doesn’t wish to become the next John Grisham?

But with his debut novel, The Whiskey Baron, set to hit bookstores and online retailers April 1, 2014, Sealy is taking it slow. He plans to keep his day job.

In advance of the book’s official release, Sealy will visit the College of Charleston for a book reading at 7:30 p.m. on March 25, 2014, in Alumni Hall (Randolph Hall). The event is free and open to the public.

Set in a South Carolina cotton mill town in 1932, The Whiskey Baron is a literary thriller about a bootlegger’s crumbling whiskey empire. The book’s publisher is Hub City Press, a non-profit independent press in Spartanburg, S.C.

[Related: Read what other authors are saying about The Whiskey Baron.]

How to Write a Novel

Growing up in the rural town of Six Mile, S.C., provided Sealy with a deep reservoir of material for his writing. He drew on the rich characters and deep-rooted traditions of his Southern upbringing. What he didn’t learn first-hand (he owns a T-shirt that says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel”) or conjure in his own mind, he gleaned through dogged research. He became obsessed learning all he could about key elements of the novel’s backdrop: the Depression-era economy, bootlegging, and cotton mills.

Bret Lott

College of Charleston English professor Bret Lott, best-selling author of more than a dozen books, is raving about the debut novel written by one of his former students, Jon Sealy.

While he believes it’s important to stay grounded, Sealy, who now resides in Richmond, Va., could be forgiven for having high expectations for the book. New York Times best-selling author Bret Lott, among other noted writers, is raving about Sealy’s novel. Lott, a professor of English at the College of Charleston, taught Sealy creative writing and has continued to serve as a mentor.

Of Sealy’s book, Lott wrote: “I couldn’t put it down — I mean that — and found in its pages a voice sharp and true, a rendering of its time and place that has haunted me to this day, and especially a phenomenal sense of tension and pace that kept me on the edge of my seat. This book transcends the notion of its being a Southern novel. It’s an American novel, and Mr. Sealy a grand new talent we’ll hear much from, I am certain.”

Lott’s classroom lectures (many of them outside) were as much about the writing life as they were about the craft itself, Sealy recalled.  He learned that the life of a writer can be a tough grind. You do it because you love words and language. Any reward beyond the journey toward and satisfaction of completing a stack of well-written pages is gravy.

[Related: Read some of Bret Lott’s tips for writers.]

Before The Whiskey Baron was picked up, Sealy unsuccessfully shopped his first novel around to publishers for two years. Birthing a novel is so deeply personal that it can come as a blow to the writer when everyone doesn’t also love it. “I thought that was going to be my first published book, and it was going to launch me into fame and stardom,” Sealy joked.

The Whiskey Baron

The Whiskey Baron by College of Charleston alumnus Jon Sealy has received high praise from several noted authors.

Some publishers called his prose “quiet,” which Sealy described as “a euphemism for ‘you are just a chump from South Carolina.’”

Still, he pushed on. And rather than try to change his writing style to suit publishers, he told himself he just needed more practice on the style he already had. “I’ve always told myself to take the long view, to stick with it.”

He found his rhythm with the second novel, what would become The Whiskey Baron.

And that’s when accomplished authors who Sealy greatly admires went and wrote things about him like, “a significant new voice in Southern fiction,” and “a remarkable first novel.”

It’s enough to make a guy start dreaming about fame and fortune, want to sit around and write novels for a living.

For now, Sealy’s taking the long view. Besides, he said, having a day job that gets him out of the house provides an abundance of material for his next novel.


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