The agony of writing (2): Impatience, humiliation, despair

I’d have to say, honestly, I have been a lazy writer most of my life. Winging it. Floods of words, tons of self-edits, but always blinded by self, and hence unable to see where changes are needed. In 2003 I asked one of my oldest friends, Beth Richards, to edit a couple of my tales and she did a great job with the tiny budget I had, and from this I knew if I were to be serious I needed to find an editor and have it done properly (ie put my money where my mouth was.)

So after Christmas in 2013, having to my astonishment a 155,000 word draft of a big sprawling tale, I gathered my breath and asked Pete Wise, a classmate in the fiction class and former journalist, and a damn good editor, to have at it. A month, maybe six weeks later he comes back with a 105,000 word tale. He’d cut a THIRD of the words away, yet this much improved the story. Just about then I learned that in March 2014 the big national AWA Writer’s conference was in Seattle, so I spent a couple hundred dollars and went. I also learned that Amazon had this Breakthrough Novel contest, for new novels, with a submission date at the end of March. I went to the conference and that was an absolute eye opener. So many damn people. So many. All of them doing what I was doing, I thought. I learned enough to understand that the process of sale and production is just as intimidating as a blank page before a novelist. Based on that conference, and the seminars, and listening, I set up a web page – this one here, an earlier version – I joined Twitter and I looked at joining a writers group. These are all things I loathe, by the way, well, not a good writers group, I have one of those, the Edge of Discovery Group, made up of a few of us from Lyn Coffin’s class, including Lyn, which we started in the fall of 2015. At the same time as that national conference in March 2014 I submitted my tale to the Amazon contest, which takes 10,000 entries in a bunch of categories. First you need to get through the “pitch” round, then the first 5,000 word round, then the full book. Just about then, too, I took a consulting gig in Cleveland at the Port there, moved to Amish country, and continued with my literary fiction class via Skype.

My Amazon tale got through the pitch round and a few weeks later the first 5000 word round and I thought, maybe I have a chance, but in the quarterfinal round, now down from 10,000 to I think 2,000 entries, my tale stopped. I got some great reviews along the way and took the first 80 ages and produced a little Kindle novel on Amazon which some people liked but which didn’t move much (the being noticed issue I think).

Meanwhile, out in Cleveland, I had some time when not working, and something was nagging at me, the threads of another story, some things from the first tale needing more to be told, and so while out there I began another novel, Adrift, set a few months after the first tale and beginning with a terrible ship fire in the Gulf of Alaska, an abandoned ship, the salvage effort, the fate of the two lifeboats. Part of this tale had been in the first, because the frame I was using, stories within stories, meant that some shipwrecked sailors were being told a story by one of their shipmates, William, about the summer before, as a way to keep everyone sane. For some of my readers that worked, but for others the frame was awkward, as some felt I should just tell the wilderness journey without it being told around a fire. I guess the frame I was trying was the same as Conrad’s in Heart Of Darkness, where the real story is told while some people are in a boat waiting for the tide to reach a ship.

So while in Cleveland I wrote Adrift,  a rough first draft of about 100,000 words, and then came back to Seattle. The Amazon effort had not proceeded and now I had two books.  I looked at them and made a decision somewhere along the way, that summer and early fall, to change the frame of the first book, make it just the direct wilderness journey, and add to the second tale the chapters from the cast away lifeboat, with some kind of story being told but no focus on it, the real story being about what happens to the sailors and the abandoned ship. My assumption was then, and remains today, that if both books are published, either one must stand alone, and those readers who read Strong Heart will know right away the story William is telling in the second, and those readers who haven’t read Strong Heart but read Adrift might then pick up Strong Heart to read later.

By the way, all the winter before I had been querying agents about the first tale. I was early, too impatient, should have waited, as I now see that a book, as written by me, anyway, needs two to three years to evolve, season, get revised, and settle into its proper place. This long period for settling is the total difference between something that is worth reading and something not. I bet I queried 200 agents. I queried my first and only agent, from Fat Chance and the 1990s, and she was polite but refused me, and recommended someone else who essentially told me she didn’t like stories about the woods and suffering and dark places, and she, too, refused me. A couple other agents asked for the first chapter (and I mean, just one or two) and nothing happened there (as it should not have because the tale was still raw). But I kept on, being persistent, if nothing else.

I went to “pitch sessions” at another writers conference in Seattle, this one the PNW conference, at a huge cost, and aside from realizing this was mostly a scam to pay agents and others to run around from conference to conference acting self important (the wrong attitude, I know) and was again unsuccessful.

That fall, the fall 2014, I went to weapons training school in San Diego for work on military reserve ships, as it was way beyond time to earn more money. Down there, being there three weeks, I started querying small publishers, having had zero success with agents, and this effort – the small publisher chase – lasted from November 2015 until June 2015. I bet I queried 150 of them, too. Maybe more. It is a lot easier to query with internet, I am sorry to say.

I had one small publisher respond, the first of three or four, with rave reviews and asking to publish the whole thing, and I thought, great. Finally. I had queried a publisher with a focus on environmental tales, but then they wrote to me and demanded I rewrite my tale and turn it into a screed against global warming. I didn’t want any screeds in my tales, at all,  so I wrote them back and said I wasn’t sure I believed in global warming as totally man-made,  because orbital cycles argued we should be about to enter a new ice age. I never heard from them again. Another house, this time I am in Baltimore on a ship, the Gilliland, says they want the book so I check them out and learn they have stiffed their authors. A few others ended up being self publishing rackets, really set up to squeeze editing dollars out of you.

But, in Baltimore, ship at the dock being maintained, sort of like a warehouse with mooring lines, I had time and still felt there were threads from Strong Heart and Adrift that needed more weaving, and so I wrote another novel, Bear Valley. This one, 110,000 words, I finished in the spring of 2015. And so when I came back from Baltimore in the summer of 2015 I had three novels. I asked Pete Wise to edit Adrift, which he did, that summer. I worked on Bear Valley myself as much as I could. Actually I worked on all my drafts. The beauty of working on those military ships, they are reserve ships and you have much more time (and make less money) than while at sea, and so I disciplined myself to write every day after dinner, and on many weekends I forgave overtime to write, and as I have said many times if you stick at it you can produce a book damn fast. Once the first draft was done, about March 2015, I found a printing place, printed off the draft, bound it, at a hideous cost, and then used that to edit, which I love. I bet I have printed and bound over the last three years 30 drafts of the three books. So be it.

By the start of June, 2015, when I left the ship, I was feeling pretty good in that I had three books, now, which told one broad tale (and I feel there are more tales, out there, if I can get the time to reach for them) but I was also feeling pretty bad, because after 200+ agents and 150+ small publishers and the Amazon Breakthrough stall and two expensive and frustrating writer’s conferences I was nowhere, I mean, zero, it seemed, as far as getting published. No where.

I came back to Seattle and spent the summer fixing stuff around the house with Randa and I went back to Rambo school refresher that August, figuring I’d do another seagoing gig, wanting to work into my 70th year, needing the money, and thinking, this military ship thing is great for editing and writing and there’s more to do, on these books.

Looking back at this I am wondering why the hell I didn’t just give up. Surely an intelligent rational person would. I have never said I was the brightest bulb in the room.

You will note that never in all this did I ever consider for a second self publishing as I had done in 2004. This was for a couple reasons. One, the blow your own horn thing. If I had a publisher backing these tales then I wasn’t alone, then someone else believed, too, and had skin in the game, and this made things not totally and entirely a self absorbed exercise in ego. Two, and much more important, if you’re self published then you cannot get proper reviews, you cannot get into libraries and volume buyers, not really, and biggest of all bookstores cannot return your books if they don’t move which means bookstores don’t want self published books except maybe as consignment sales from the author and that means the author is driving all over all the time replenishing stocks.

Then, it seems, in the fall of 2015, things changed. Maybe. But that’s another story.

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