So…..been thinking about another tale for years, a fourth in this little series that did not start our as a series, but kept getting derailed by finishing earlier tales, then producing them with IronTwine Press….went back to the proven system, research and good old handwritten notebooks, jotting notes, thoughts, ideas, plot threads….finally started five weeks ago, really writing, you know, sitting down and actually writing…..it’s now March, spring’s coming, and I’m deep in it, 40,000 words almost, and seeing where the threads are going, chasing each one…..It is such an adventure…And meanwhile, getting reviews for the second in the series Adrift, good ones, actually, and here’s one…
I have been going to retirement villages out on the Olympic Peninsula and within a day’s drive of Tacoma to read from Strong Heart and Adrift, or once to discuss the research I did before writing the tales. Without fail, I get more out of these events than the audience, because after the reading and questions and book sales and signings I get to hear their stories, and some of those stories are astounding. I am surprised, though I should not be, at how many in the audience have Native American ancestors, how many are fourth or fifth generation descendants of the first pioneers, how many are writers themselves, and especially how many have ornery and complex daughters, cousins, nieces, or grandchildren so like Sarah Cooley, the main protagonist in my tales. I don’t know where Sarah came from, she just appeared when I started the book, but she seems real to me. Is real. Apparently so with audience members, too.
Many of my listeners cannot hear very well, so I talk loudly or use a microphone, and many others ask about an audio version, as they cannot see that well for reading. I am in the process of producing an audio version of Strong Heart with a company which will produce both MP3 files for phones and pads and CDs as well. If this works I hope to to the same with Adrift, using the same great narrator, Laurel Anne White, and when my third book appears, probably next September, tentatively titled Found, that one, too. It’s fun to go to these places, knowing these tales will be in the hands of children and grandchildren (after being read first, of course) in time for the holiday season.
I also have prepared this talk, about 20 minutes long, describing all the research that went into Strong Heart – human origins, human migrations, glacial epochs, DNA evidence, fossil evidence, sea level changes, climate shifts, where the ice was and where not, glacial refuges, how people may have traveled ages ago, when they may have first reached the Americas, and whether the ancient legends among First Peoples that they have always been here might be true. The discussion after such a talk with these groups of elders, some of great age, experience, and knowledge, is fascinating.
OK. Book has been published. These days I am not sure what that means. There are somewhere in the range of 100,000 brand new novels produced each year in the U.S. alone. That’s 333 a DAY. For those few lucky enough to have a well funded publisher, or endless deep pockets, or previous best sellers, their new books are almost automatically picked up by bookstores everywhere. But for the rest of us, and boy am I in that group, the struggle is, I am learning, being noticed. How do you get noticed among the blizzard of alternatives?
One thing to increase visibility is a giveaway. My publisher is doing that for Strong Heart May 30 through June 3, any Kindle download will be FREE, with hopes enough people grab it to bump its sales figures enough to appear on everyone’s searches in the hope it then starts selling at its list price of $ 4.99. Maybe this will work, start something viral. That’s the great hope – something, somewhere, takes your book viral, a function of luck and timing and grace – because we authors cannot do much one person at a time face to face.
Yet….that’s what I am doing, now. Driving to bookstores, introducing myself, saying, here’s a copy, read it, or have someone on your staff read it, and if you like it order some for sale. Or take a few more on consignment. And here’s a couple fliers about the book, me, and some reviews, which are all terrific, by the way. I am going to Indie stores, one at a time. They are kind with me, at times very supportive, at other times the key person isn’t there and I need to come back, and I have already learned that while those of us who try to write are mostly crazy and in a hopeless chase, it is the bookstore owner who is the true hero, the real person of courage, because if a writer’s task seems hopeless, the bookseller’s seems twice as hard. Which book will sell? That’s a function of reputation, name recognition (I have zero of both), the cover and whether it draws people, the words on the back, and the general…feel. If the book is placed on a shelf, spine out, there is not much to see, but it’s a struggle to get the space to display the whole cover, even have something about the author or reviews. That’s my challenge – to get noticed then to get someone to decide this puppy will move. And it’s done one person and store at a time.
I am encouraged, though. The local Mailbox place in Ballard, where we do our mail, a small shop which also sells cards and knick-knacks, and occasional books, saw me mailing all these books out to reviewers and offered to place my book for sale. So I did, on consignment, this is a place that is not a bookstore, the customers are there for mail, not for books, and furthermore other books they had tried had not sold at all, and so the book was placed there on the counter, just the cover and behind it a sheet with some of my reviews, and the damn thing has been selling, about one copy a week. Something must be right, but still, the challenge, is, get the book in places where people will see it. And that means, bookstores.
The Pacific Northwest is pretty big. My car has 146,000 miles on it, a 17 year old Toyota I plan to drive until it has become a precious antique, and what I am doing these days is driving hither and yon and stopping at independent stores and making my pitch. I have the sense there is a stream of authors like me doing this, every day, but perhaps not. I do know from one store that they get 20 to 30 asks a week for readings and displays. I think most of those are via email.
I am in the mind of many now old. How the hell did I reach 70? Old school, me, a computer dinosaur, an old car, raised on the rules of personal contact and reaching people one person at a time, and having something worthwhile to offer if I am taking their time. That is hard, for something I saw appear beneath my hands, this book, but I carry my publisher’s faith and enjoyment of the tale, and the reactions of my readers, for the courage to walk in and say, “Hi, I’m an author and I’d like to convince you to sell my book here.”
This odyssey, the bookstore tour, started a couple weeks ago and continues. Maybe you’ll see me rattling down a northwest road somewhere, this now-retired guy, spending his time as a peddler, flogging his tale. Lotta driving, and to some surely a nightmare, but bookstore owners and workers are great people, fun to talk to, and their stores tend to be in pretty interesting communities. In between these road trips there are some local readings, and a library convention in Idaho in August for Pacific Northwest libraries I plan to attend, and then there the Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association event this fall. Plus, there are a few planned hikes, including one to take in the total eclipse of the sun August 21 deep in the Olympics, so maybe all this isn’t such a nightmare after all….
Everything relies on my humble chariot here….
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.
I am beginning to think that writing must be a genetic condition that influences some of us, or maybe many of us, based on the hundreds of people who pay good money for writer’s conferences all over the country. I have no idea why anyone else does this. I have no idea why I do this, and hence have concluded I must carry a defect, a sort of self-punishment and humiliation gene. Actually maybe I should amend that. It isn’t the writing itself that brings pain, at least not for me. In fact the process of writing is a form of serenity, a timeless place where things happen and flow from somewhere within the background onto a page. There is magic in that, and even more magic when things start to happen that could never have been imagined going in.
I think it is in the area of bringing your writing to public view that is where the pain lies. Even that is inaccurate, honestly, because these days there are a million ways to go public (witness this never read blog for example). No, the pain lies in the drive or belief or sickness that says, this story should be “out there” meaning as a BOOK. Of course in the last twenty years with print-on-demand systems and computers and the web it is now easy to publish a book. I think I read somewhere that there are 50,000 new novels produced each year, most of them self published. It used to be just getting a book published was a huge effort – setting type, printing, distributing. Now that is simple and almost free. Now the problem is, getting noticed. But, in either case, those among us who try to go the “traditional” route of finding a publisher and putting out books are, in most cases, doomed to a track of unrelenting pain, rejection, disappointment, and grief.
I now see I was spoiled when I sold the first full novel I wrote in about 1989. I had tried a few before then, the first back in 1971, but this one I finished, learning along the way all about the issues of how you write and rewrite and then correct, this in the days before many computers or word processors worth anything and the old dot matrix printers that ran for hours. I finished the book, sent it to an agent recommended to me by the one guy I knew who had published some books, and she picked me up, and then in a few months sold the book to Pocketbooks for a $ 5,000 advance. It was so easy (I now see).
Being encouraged, I wrote another book while waiting for the first to be sold, then another soon after, but these the agent didn’t like, they were not a series, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, I was in no writing group, had no comments, nothing. My agent fired me, eventually. She should have.
I kept on, this when self publishing was just starting, wrote more books, lined myself up with a company to self publish, designed the covers myself, and produced them after rewriting them all in 2004, mostly to get them in book form. Disaster, though, because when it came to – when it comes to – the self promotion thing, the marketing thing, the blow your own horn thing, in this sector and area I am crippled, inept, shy, lazy, afraid.
For a few years I put writing aside. I had this “big” job running around being an executive (which I hated and am entirely unsuited for because I don’t kiss ass well at all) and besides when you’re working in an office all day and writing memos and emails all day your writing gene withers and eventually dies, or mine did, but then, in the last such job I had, I knew there was nothing but a bad ending ahead, and so I thought well, if I’m going to go down I might as well learn something on the way, and so started again with research (something I had done little of before), building notebooks of ideas, themes, lessons, desires (something I had also never done, because I simply would start and a book would emerge), and then I was fired and went to sea to clear my head and earn money and soon learned that at sea there is no time to write, not working 12-14 hours a day, but plenty of time to ponder. Then, back from sea, I decided, OK, if you are serious about this, then get serious, so I entered this literary fiction course at UW and the day the class started I started my current novel, Strong Heart, though it had a different name then, and before I knew it (three months) I had a 155,000 word draft and the real work and “fun” began. I started the book Octotber 8 2013 and had the first draft done by December 30 the same year.
Remember, though, I had been spoiled, thinking, because that first book was easy, so would the rest, and here I was with one published and then republished mystery, Fat Chance, which has never really sold but is a very decent potboiler, three others self published, Guardian, Chasing Davy Jones, and Boomerang Heist, and a fourth finished and edited but in a box in my office gathering dust, Logger’s Landing. I removed Boomerang Heist because it is a book now dated and one element in it I want to use in a new book I am planning now. The other two are OK for what they were. But now I finally had a story, after getting great comments and huge reactions and hiring a editor and having great insights from people who knew what they were doing, and so, in the late winter of 2014, I began the process of getting this new book out.
I thought it would be easy. Instead I found nothing but pain, grief, humiliation, and rejection. Lots and lots of rejection. And it’s an ongoing story.
I’m old enough to remember when you bought a typewriter with a ribbon to write nice prose, back in the days when buying such a tool was a lifetime investment. Such typewriters would last forever. Remember, back in the days when making a copy meant adding a sheet of carbon paper to your paper and then another sheet, rolling all through the roller on the machine. Back then you had to type perfectly because there were no self correcting balls like the later IBM Selectric machines. Remember them?
Back in those days as a writer you worked with pens or pencil and paper, hand written drafts, before committing to a typewriter. I never earned to type properly. I am a two finger typist, only. I bet I am one of the fastest on earth and I use the backspace a lot because I make plenty of mistakes. Yet even by high school I was writing papers right from my head onto the paper, no drafts, nothing. I wrote lousy papers but I passed and I now see I was just learning how to use a typewriter fast.
By the time I was out of school there was a lot of talk about computers but in the 70s we still wrote by hand and typed final drafts. By then the Selectric had appeared which vastly simplified life, along with Whiteout. Remember Whiteout? I used gallons. Gallons.
Until say thirty years ago we writers, if I can call myself such, worked the same as we had hundreds of years before, sheet by sheet, pen by pen. Writing was slower then, more laborious, and probably more careful. When we finished something we would use a typewriter or go to a typesetter or print shop.
Then the computer, the personal computer, appeared. My first was an MSDOS Kayro, weighed about forty pounds, was the size of a suitcase, had a brown screen. I wrote my first full book then. I had started a few before, several times, even gotten into them forty or fifty pages, typed, but that was it, life intervened. Then in the mid 80s I wanted to write a story and I was working in the World Trade Center, 64th Floor, for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, before it was sullied by New Jersey pols, and I rode the train from Millington New Jersey every day. I got a lined notebook and some pens, and every day for that half hour ride I wrote longhand on the train, a half hour at a time. It’s amazing how the pages pile up. Weekends I would then type the handwritten ages into the Kaypro. This took hours and pissed off my kids and my wife, understandably, and I realized that if I was going to tell stories I needed a better production system.
Then of course once the handwritten drafts were on a computer file I needed to print off the drafts, and the printer we had with the Kaypro was a dot matrix printer that roared like a lion and spat out paper at a terrifying rate, and took forever to print a book, but then at least I had a typed draft that was clean and I could start editing. Editing is wonderful fun, working with text, moving things around, changing things, leaving the sheets covered with arrows and notes and lines, all then to be retyped into a new file, and printed again….I learned a lot later, of course, that we writers cannot edit our own stuff, at all, and unless we hire or find someone who is good who can take a ruthless look at our work and start hacking away the unneeded stuff, our work will be weak, sloppy looking, bad.
And thus began the saga, still emerging, now almost thirty years long. In the 80s Windows came along and Microsoft and software and everything changed. Everything. Now it was possible to sit in front of a machine and type perfect prose, auto spell checked, letters replaced without whiteout or erasure, everything was formatted, it was a miracle once you understood it. I was slow, of course. I am slow.
It used to be you bought a typewriter for a hundred dollars and it lasted a lifetime. Now, in perhaps the most brilliant marketing vision in history, you need to spend fifteen hundred dollars every two or three years for a full color, bells and whistles….typewriter. Brilliant, at least for the makers of computers. The death of the typewriter and the end, mainly, of handwritten drafts. Now it seems everyone can type and write pages and pages, books and books, and the volume of production has soared, and is soaring still. Maybe people today write and then edit on screen entirely, never using real paper, but for me, personally, there is something about taking a stack of fresh printed pages and a pen and digging in, changing, working, altering. I love that part of it, even though I know now I still need a professional editor at the end.
But. Maybe if you are a full time writer you can like John Cheever (I think it was) get dressed then go downstairs to your computer and write six hours a day, but for those of us who had to earn a living the writing must come in between, afterward, or before, stolen in the cracks of days, hours stolen from chores and family, or sleep. I am lazy, mostly, and not very well disciplined, so what I find works for me over the years has been stealing time if I can when going to or from work, on the train in New York, or, once I moved to Seattle, and found a house across the sound a ferry ride from the city, on the ferry, while commuting. In motion, trapped, moving, and only for a short time, thirty, forty minutes. This works for me, and as I said the pages add up if you stick to it. In my experience, it takes three or four months, this way, writing five days a week, to produce a 100,000 word draft, and then at least that long working with the draft and a pen editing and changing and improving. This adds up to two books a year for anyone mathematically inclined, but for me there is a recharge period, a fallow time, a do-nothing and rest time, necessary between one tale and another, because the time of reflection and pondering and dreams is pretty important to a good tale, and this I think I have finally learned, but as I said earlier, I am slow.
But there’s still the production problem. Remember this was before laptops. Remember? I was terrified of the weekend typing drill, so I looked and looked and finally found several little small units that allowed me to type text on tiny qwerty keyboards with short battery life which I could then dump onto a three inch disc and move to my Kaypro. But now I had another computer, Windows, better, but still huge. Oh the months of trials, this system, that pad, this unit, that unit, all flawed, but somehow workable. Moving files from one disc to another, in lots of 10,000 bits or fewer, what a pain in the ass. Hours in second hand computer stores in Ballard finding cast off systems that had the keyboard and a little memory. If I had been smarter, or richer, or something, I’d have bitten the laptop apple and bought one, but at three grand a pop that was way too much, so my expertience is a model of inefficiency and, I dare say, cheap-ness.
Laptops came out, five pounds, expensive, these could be taken on the ferry and typed into but there was a problem here, too, because they lasted about an hour on their battery – still a problem with most – and back then the idea of plug ins on the ferry for commuters was unknown. So I struggled along with one stupid machine after another, all cheap, not very useful, but workable, somehow.
There were many issues.The keys on the keyboard were too close together, or too hard to press. The unit itself was too small to rest on my lap for tying, meaning I had to find a table or desk which was not easy on the ferry and besides if I was writing on the ferry at such a table people would peer and ask questions and bother me. Writing is solitary, or should be, and I looked for the hidden remote seats up on the top deck out of the way and worked there, sometimes all weekend going back and forth, hiding from the ticket takers. But my machines needed expensive batteries and the file transfers were a pain in the ass and the laptops were too costly and heavy, and then when Ipads came out they had qwerty keyboards that you had to attach which was even more of a pain in the ass, or they had these virtual keys on a screen which had no feeling and you couldn’t really hit and I like to slam the keys, you know?
I moved to Seattle and stopped writing for years. Work and life intervened. One Pocketbooks publication and lots of rejections. I had a great agent but I pissed her off because I wouldn’t stay on the reservation, with a series or theme. And I wrote too fast and the stuff was, I now see, not professionally edited, and thus not good. I had a few books in manuscript form and these I edited, and one , Guardian, I had professionally edited, and worked on then retyped and self published so they’d look like a book and could be read, not that anyone ever reads them, but by making them books they will last and sit there and not vanish in the dusty stuff we all gather.
Got this idea for a story, long long ago, and decided to write it but first spent three years doing research. I was living up in Bellingham working up there during the week and instead of watching TV at night I began reading, studying, wondering, taking notes, filling one then a second notebook with this idea, this tale, this dream. Then things changed and I went to sea. I had this stupid idea I might be able to write on the ship, brought my computer, notebooks, and tried, but you know what? Impossible, at least for an ordinary then an AB. We stood watch then worked another four or six hours a day, twelve or fourteen each day, and had time to shower, eat, sleep, and work. My first trip we were gone 205 days and I worked 2800 hours and the shortest day in that whole period was a six hour light day. So needless to say not much writing was done. But I would open the notebook and jot ideas, and thoughts, and stayed true to the idea. I went literally all over the world working while I did this. Then one day last October, ashore and taking a writing course at the University of Washington, on the first day of class, just as we sat down, our great teacher Lyn Coffin said, we’ll start with a writing exercise, and that’s when I started The Spear Thrower, in that class, that exercise, October 8. I was home between trips on the ship I was working on and so for the first time ever I could write at home when not being Randa’s wife and cooking and cleaning the house, not in motion, using my laptop plugged in, and you know what, it was wonderful. Every day I’d work in the morning, three four five hours, telling this tale, and we went to the east coast to see my sister and I had a little IPad then and wrote with that, and so was able to do something every day (as they say you must). And you know what? By the end of November I had 80,000 words written and in December a sort of miracle happened and I sat there and watched my fingers move and another 70,000 words appeared such that by year end I had a book, 150,000 words. I also had, and this is KEY, that class and comments from Lyn and the students, all great writers, and those were not only essential but key to whatever value this tale has. Then I did the right thing and asked Pete Wise one of the students, a fantastic editor by the way, to edit my tale and he did so over about six weeks, and my 150,000 word story ended up 105,000 words long, mostly through his efforts, and he managed to reveal the core of the tale in so doing. I entered this Amazon Breakthrough contest and somehow have survived through the quarterfinals with one of the final cuts, choosing 5 from 100 in the general fiction category, coming Friday the 13th of June, and who the hell knows if I survive that? Point is, for this novel the production was easier. I could write at home. It was simple to take a memory stick and go down to the store and print off and bind drafts to work on and edit and show people. One of these days Randa and I will get a decent printer. But the process of production now is far easier. Just as the process of book publishing is totally different than it was. It’s now easy and cheap to publish anything. Costs literally pennies. But, and this is a big but, now we have millions of titles and how do you get noticed? Seen? Read? I know this, in the end the story better be good. That’s key. If you have a tale that absorbs the reader, draws them in, envelops them, then you have succeeded.
The production these days is so much easier, but maybe it fosters bad habits, haste, ill thinking. Who knows?
Now I have this new MacBook Air it is light and has perfect keys and lasts nine hours on its battery and I can write at home or on a ship or on a train and I think, nearly a geezer and finally maybe have the production system I need. That makes writing easier, for sure. But does it make it better? Only the story makes it better.
Best sea story (after Moby Dick): Typhoon by Joseph Conrad
Best woods story: Deliverance by James Dickey
Other good sea stories: Voyage by Sterling Hayden The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat Grey Seas Under by Farley Mowat Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Best Fantasy: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R. Tolkein (I know, that’s four books)
Best Science Fiction: The Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss