On Becoming a Published Writer

Often, when someone learns I published my first novel in 2009, and am now working on my fourth, the first question they ask goes something like this:  “how, when, or why did you start writing?” or “when did you start writing novels?”  The second question almost always has something to do with my age, the fact that I waited until my senior years to become a published writer:  “Why now— so late—at this stage of your life?”  Well, why not? is what I want to answer, but of course I don’t, thinking it may sound rude.  To tell the truth, the answer is too complicated to respond in one or two short sentences.

In this post, I will attempt to outline the path that led me to publication of a first novel. I first realized that writing was fun when I was asked by the teacher of a high school journalism class to be the assistant editor of the school newspaper.  Of course, interviewing someone for a human interest article, or reporting on last week’s basketball win over a rival town was a far cry from writing fiction as I do today, but I think it must have been the beginning of my discovery that putting words to paper, then rearranging or adding to them is an interesting challenge as well as fun.

During the years as a young wife and mother, I experimented with poetry, and wrote a series of pretty terrible short stories—some of which were bravely sent off to various women’s magazines, despite receiving rejection after rejection.  With my husband in the Army and my children growing up, we moved around a lot and I was kept busy with many other things, but I just kept writing short fiction and poetry whenever I had time.  Looking back, it was probably a way to work out frustrations over those little things in life that can annoy us.  Immersing oneself in a made-up story about fictitious people can certainly take your mind off the here and now.

But despite these early attempts at creative writing, it really wasn’t until our children were on their own and my husband retired from the military, that my interest in writing fiction had its true awakening.  We were living full time in Virginia’s Northern Neck by then.  I began to think I’d like to write a novel.  Perhaps it could be about a military family.  I certainly knew enough about that kind of life as the daughter, as well as the wife, of army officers.  I had lived in thirteen states including Alaska, and in Europe as well by that time.  My early education had been in ten schools in nine states across the country;  I had lived on or near at least fifteen army installations.   That’s a lot of memories to draw from.  Before long, intertwining fact with imagination, I had the kernel of a storyline floating around in my head, a generational story, the tale of a 20th century military family.

While working on the early chapters, I took several classes in fiction and short story writing at the local community college, one of them taught by Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit).  I also participated in a couple of weekend writers’ seminars in D.C. and elsewhere.  I worked for a year on a National Endowment for the Arts project focused on the life and works of John Dos Passos, and had an article about Dos Passos printed in a Richmond VA magazine.  I also entered a poetry contest, winning first place.  A boost for the ego indeed.  It’s a good poem, no doubt the best I’ll ever write.  By then I was also in the early stages of rewriting the original chapters of what I eventually titled The Sound of Caissons.

Then one day in the mid-1970s curiosity, happenstance, and an historical marker along the roadside I had passed many times, caused me to turn off a county road and drive down a rutted dirt lane, at the end of which I was to come to the ruin of Menokin.  Built circa 1769, according to the roadside sign, it was the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. When large chimneys came into view through a heavy growth of tall trees, I had to leave the car and walk if I was to get any closer.  Through high grasses and weeds I picked my way carefully until I stood before the old house.  Nature had done its best to encase the building.  A dead tree lay across a corner of the roof, the windows were gone, the interior was devastated, littered with debris and so unsafe I dared not enter.  Walking around to the back, I saw tiny violets peeking through the broken stone of the back steps.  A cheerful omen, I thought, amidst the wreckage of what once must have been a beautiful home, the home of a man of considerable prominence.

In the lonely silence, I stood, imagination running wild, a hundred questions bouncing through my mind as the seeds of a second novel began to sprout.  Who were these people?  What had it been like in the 18th century to live way out here in the wilderness, distant from everything human? the horse the only means of transportation over land.  Did they have slaves?  Who was Francis Lee anyway, and what had he done during those revolutionary times?  The ruin of Menokin so fascinated me that soon I was thinking of little else, returning many times over the next months with family, by myself and sometimes with a friend.  Needless to say, this new obsession soon drew me back in time, far away from my story about a 20th century army family.

I began serious research into the life and times of Francis and Rebecca Lee.  Unfamiliar with this type of historical fact-finding, it took me over two years to collect material because this was research the old-fashioned way, before the internet, before Google.  It turned out that Lee letters and papers were scattered far and wide.  I gathered information from libraries and historical societies across the country, spent countless hours behind a microfilm reader, and scoured the local Richmond county court records.  I had hundreds of note cards and a file by date of events significant to Revolutionary times, another file alphabetically listing names of people and places.  My labors, which I thoroughly enjoyed, eventually resulted in my first completed novel—The Lees of Menokin.  Upon reaching the end of it, the final chapter, I felt devastated, lost without Francis and Becky Lee, whose personalities I had brought to life.  I didn’t want to part with them!   I’ve since learned that’s a common thing with authors.  It’s difficult to “give up” our now familiar, comfortable characters.

As you may guess, the creative part is ever so much more fun than the promoting of a book!  And although I sent many query letters, sample chapters when requested (there’s a whole learning curve to this process), and received a few positive responses and suggestions, I could not seem to connect with anyone willing to take a chance on my historical biography of Francis Lee.  Then, on a whim, I entered the Menokin book in a contest at Cornell University, posting all four boxes of the double-spaced manuscript to Ithica, NY.  A response came back with compliments on the fine research, followed by a question: “Why didn’t you write about Richard Henry Lee, Francis’s brother, who was a much more interesting and influential political figure?”  What could I say?—it wasn’t Richard Henry’s ruin of a house I had discovered on that cloudy afternoon!

While continuing to try to market Menokin, I finished the first draft of The Sound of Caissons.  Over time and through several rewritings, I received some very positive responses to queries for this lengthy, five-generational story —whose characters, members of the Crockett/Morgan family, are involved in four of America’s 20th century wars, from WWI to Vietnam.  In fact Bantam Books requested the entire novel — that was in the early 1980s and I had my first computer by that time, a Kaypro, so I was able to print a copy easily.  Once again I mailed off an entire manuscript.  I was assigned a contact person at Bantam who had suggestions for making changes, which I did, twice, more or less rearranging the entire story—but after several phone conversations, I finally realized she was pushing me to turn Caissons into a romance novel.  And I said “NO.  This is my book and I’m not changing it any more.”  On that note, we parted ways.

There’s a side story to the Bantam experience — a year or so later while reading a novel on the beach in Aruba, I came across a character named Harrison Crockett—it jumped off the page at me!   That was the name of the lead-off character in The Sound of Caissons!  Very carefully chosen after much thought was given to the year and the circumstances of his birth.  And guess what?  It turned out, after some inquiry, that the author of that novel, a well-known writer of many books whose name I shall not mention here, had apparently worked at Bantam when my novel was being reviewed!   While we all pick up ideas from each other’s work, sometimes not even realizing we are doing so, I wouldn’t have thought a thing of it, had not the given name Harrison been paired with the surname Crockett.  I did not take that well and came away from the experience feeling somehow betrayed.

Soon thereafter I attended a book festival event in Richmond where Thomas Fleming was launching his new book, a novel titled The Officers Wives.  Dying inside because with this new book about military life already in print, I deduced that mine was burnt toast.  I had yet to read The Officers Wives, but I couldn’t help feeling defeated.  A week or so later, well into the book, I was seething over Fleming’s crass depiction of the group of women to which my mother, my two sisters and I all belonged.

Thoroughly disheartened about the whole business, I packed away my two completed novels and three others, unfinished, in a box where they would remain for 25 years.  I went to work as Publications and Publicity director for a private boarding and day school for girls.  There, for eleven years, I produced and edited the school magazines, newsletters, some admissions material, and sent weekly news releases to area newspapers.  During this period I wrote two articles which were published in the local historical magazine, one about Francis Lee.  There is no doubt these experiences advanced my writing skills.  They certainly boosted my confidence.

I seriously returned to writing after my husband’s death when, following a friend’s advice, I pulled out The Lees of Menokin and began another rewrite in 2008.  When finished, edited, re-edited, and finally satisfied with the results I faced the big challenge again —how to get it published.  Now there was email and the internet, and websites that provided all kinds of help to newbie writers,  But I was wary, not at all certain or trusting, especially of the ones that offered to publish your book.  There was so much to learn and it took time, a lot of time to catch on to the new lingo, the terminology in a constantly developing digital world.

For a while I pursued the query route again, trying to find an agent who would represent me.  I’d already learned how virtually impossible it is to go directly to a publisher.  Even if you’re lucky enough to find one who will look at your work, better be prepared if they show an interest, to make the changes they call for, accept their ideas for the cover, and get ready to travel if they agree to publish.  You will be expected to give talks in bookstores in towns up and down the coast, frequently far from your home turf.  None of this appealed to me.  So, after about six months of querying carefully selected agents, those who exhibited an interest in historical fiction, and following the rule of waiting for response from one agent before making contact with next on the list, I was again discouraged.  The times they were a’changin’ indeed.  It seemed everywhere I looked, everything I read indicated that independent publishing (no longer referred to as self-publishing with a silent sneer) was coming into it’s own.  The Kindle and all those other epub readers, like the iPad, Sony, Nook, Kobo, and a host of others were behind the indie movement.  (see previous 02/2013 post, Beware Newbie ebook Publishers).

I stumbled upon a series of articles by Joel Friedlander, who was a contributor to Amazon’s self-publishing arm, BookSurge, now called Createspace, and found his suggestions very helpful.  I decided to take the plunge and contact Createspace.  And I never looked back.  Signing on, I opted for almost the full list of services for the Menokin book.  The process is lengthy and requires significant effort on the part of an author.  However, the day a proof was delivered to my door and I held that beautiful paperback copy of The Lees of Menokin in my hands and saw my name across the bottom of the cover was something special.  I can tell you there are no words to describe that feeling!

I learned a lot with the publication of that first novel and spent considerable capital doing so.  With this new knowledge, I published Caissons with far less expense.  By the time I finished my third book, Turn on No-Bridge Road, I had learned to format and assemble the  manuscript myself by using a free template offered by a member of the Createspace Community page.  Through this community forum I also found someone who designed my cover at less than half the cost Createspace charged.  And a fine cover it is!

There you have it.  You can see how I have become addicted, addicted to writing, to creating characters and deciding what to do with them —until, if all works out right, after I really get to know them, they begin to take over, telling me what they’re going to do and say!  That’s what’s so exciting about fiction writing.  I’ve spent a whole lifetime getting here, learning not only the skills of writing, but everything I could about how to turn a manuscript into a printed book.  It’s my hobby, a joy, and why, so long as my muse continues ticking away, I’ll be sitting at this computer doing exactly what I’ve been doing today—writing.

This post is based on a talk I gave recently on my lifetime journey from neophyte “wanna-be” writer to published author.  It is my first posting in almost a year.  I’m hoping to blog at least bi-weekly in 2014.  I will soon post some info on my new novel (working title The Widow Darling), a sequel to Turn on No-Bridge Road.

Those interested in the fate of Francis Lee’s Menokin house today, see www.Menokin.org to learn how a foundation is working to save it.  It’s a great website.