Success Story with R.J. Hoffmann
R.J. Hoffmann was born and raised in St. Louis. He attended Bradley University and then earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN was published by Simon & Schuster in April, 2021. Hoffmann is the winner of the Madison Review’s 2018 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction and a finalist for the Missouri Review’s 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. He lives in Elmhurst, IL, with his wife and two children.
I finished my first novel in 2004. I was very disciplined. I wrote for four to five hours every day, and at night I read novels and books on craft. I don’t remember how many queries I sent, but my novel was rejected or ignored exactly that many times. I won’t bore you with the details, but take my word for it—that story was awful. I learned a lot from the process, though.
I learned about the discipline of writing, that I had to show up at the desk every day. I learned about plot and character and suspense. I learned about the mind-numbing repetition of reading and revising required to sand a story smooth. I clocked several thousand hours toward the ten thousand that I’ll eventually need to be good at this thing. I did it all myself—and that was the problem. I don’t remember who gave me feedback on my manuscript, because I’m not sure that anybody did.
The dream didn’t die. It festered, as dreams will. I joined my MFA cohort at Columbia College Chicago in the fall of 2017. I expected to learn much from the professors, and I did. They helped me take apart great novels and examine the pieces to discover what makes them work. Just as important, I learned to listen. My cohort and my professors read my work and they gave me their honest reactions as readers and writers.
I learned to collect those nuggets of feedback like the precious treasure that they were. I brought them back to my lair and polished the many that would make my work better. I shared my manuscript with many non-writers. They told me how they experienced it, and I found more gold. I didn’t make every change that was suggested, but when I heard something twice, it gave me pause. When I heard it from three different readers, I knew that it was time to act.
I’m grateful for the opportunity of the MFA, and I know that not everyone has that luxury. But every writer knows readers. It’s a lot to ask someone to read a draft of a novel. I’ve learned to expect less than half that offer to actually finish. I’ve learned that food and booze increases the uptake. I’ve learned that if I want other writers to read my work, I must make time to read theirs.
Some useful feedback was very vague: I couldn’t relate to that character. I put the manuscript down after the fifth chapter and never picked it up again.
Some of it was proscriptive: Remove that extraneous subplot! Tell me what that character looks like!
Some of the gems came as questions: What if you wrote chapters from the social worker’s point of view? What if your main character broke the law?
All of it was precious, though. Even when it was painful. Even when it demanded that I slaughter my darlings and make room for other people’s children.
The feedback kept coming during the submission process. Harvey Klinger, the magician who would become my agent, said that he liked the version I'd sent him, but that it needed work. He took the time to sit with me and tell me what he thought. Some of it was hard to hear, but even though several other agents were reading the manuscript, I dove in and used his feedback to make the story better. It took me three more months. The week after I signed with Harvey, he sold OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN to Simon & Schuster.
I’m proud of us. All of us. The feedback continues. I’ve badgered a number of fellow graduates from Columbia’s MFA program into bi-weekly Zoom workshops, because I’m working on my second novel, and I desperately need to know what people think.
In OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN, three mothers make excruciating choices to protect their families and their dreams—choices that put them at decided odds against one another. You will root for each one of them and wonder just how far you’d go in the same situation. This riveting debut is a thoughtful exploration of love and family, and a heart-pounding page-turner you’ll find impossible to put down.