How I Came to Write

I have compiled a list for my heirs, to be revealed at my death, of things I consider important. It’s not a profound list. The big things, faith, family and country are at the top, but the lower part of the list mentions lesser items, things that work and make life enjoyable or productive. In a way, a list is silly and exclusionary, because each day always brings observations or events which make the day worthwhile. Nevertheless, my list includes things on which I’ve always relied: a sharp ax, a Stihl chainsaw, my wife’s homemade bread, a gold Rapala Shallow Diver fishing lure, short meetings and reading to children.

I mention reading because ultimately the survival of our culture will depend upon the education of our children. I’m not speaking just of formal education, but also those times when a kid hears a story told by an adult. The process is an ancient one – begun when everyone sat by the campfire to hear the oral histories – and continues refined by all of the modern media of which our civilization is capable. As a child, the best part of reading, for me, was sitting next to an adult listening. Despite all of the fancy media available today, I believe that kids still respond best to time with adults to hear stories. Give me a good book and a room full of chattering kids, and within a brief time, they will be gathered around. Kids won’t abandon their electronics, but they will put them aside to hear a good story.

Recently, at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, I found some of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of children’s literature. My mind immediately flashed back to the days when I sat next to a parent, listening. The illustrations, whether the clever drawings in Beatrix Potter’s classics or Wyeth’s swashbuckling scenes in adventure books, always enhanced the story line.

By high school, I was inspired to respect literature by my junior year AP English teacher, a recent graduate of Denison University. At the beginning of the year, she asked each of us to pick an author and to write a paper about that author. I chose Ernest Hemingway because I had read and liked The Old Man and the Sea. That year, in addition to all my other assignments, I read Hemingway’s entire body of work. (That was a time before electronic distractions or playing sports required organized practices 365 days of the year.) When I went to college (Denison of course) I took several English Lit courses; but my favorite, outside my major, was Creative Writing, taught by Paul Bennett. He described my work as “interesting” but not good enough for the college literary journal. At the conclusion of the semester, after reading my short story assignment, he encouraged me to keep writing. He assured me that, someday, I would “get published.” He didn’t tell me that I’d have to pay for it myself.

During my career, I wrote a lot, but mostly nonfiction stuff related to my occupation. A few years before retirement I resolved to write fiction more regularly. A professor at Denison suggested I seek out some on-line courses to get started.

If you are like me and want to write, but have no formal training, you will soon learn that it is virtually impossible for someone without credentials to get published, or even noticed in the literary world. I’ve collected a nice array of rejection slips from literary journals and have watched some of my friends (who have credentials and are very good writers) fight their way through the slush piles. One writer, Marcy Campbell – see her blog at www.marcycampbell.blogspot.com  - has actually finally connected with an agent after some ten years of trying. I hope the doors blow wide open for her because she is a great writer who is dedicated to her craft.

At my age, I have neither the inclination nor the time to crack the publishing cabal. Enter CreateSpace. I have been impressed and pleased with their service and now we’ll see how it comes out in the end. Like all things, characterization is important. “Self-Publishing” is a curse in the literary world, but “Indy Publishing” seems to be okay, even though I haven’t found much difference in the process. I recognize that some Indy Publishers are picky about what they publish, but most want the business and will take on any decent work that comes their way.

CreateSpace is a self-publishing vehicle, but it seems poised to crack the walls of the publishing realm. It offers several advantages over other publishers: (1) the price is right; (2) the company uses electronic media to operate efficiently; (3) you can publish virtually anything, without editorial comment; but if an author wants editorial comment, their editors are experts; (4) the work gets to press quickly; and (5) they hook you up with their cabal smashing partner, Amazon.

I’m confident that, unless my book is a best seller, I’ll never have an agent, even if I continue to produce other work. However, my first major project is finished. There is some satisfaction in that completion, although it will be even better if I sell enough books to pay for my investment.

There are a couple more important steps one should follow along the way. Now that CreateSpace provides a quick and easy vehicle to achieve publication, one should still worry about the quality of the work. I suggest several things:

(1)   Find some friends (including other writers) who will read and critique your work. Some of my best critical comments came from avid readers. A writer cannot skip this step. If you’re working with other writers, you must also be willing to respond in kind by reviewing their work.

(2)   Hire a professional editor. In my case, I used Kevin Anderson and Associates -  see http://ka-writing.com/.  Margaret Wright, of their staff, pulled no punches with me. Her critical comments helped me make huge strides in the completion of my book.

(3)   When I thought I was ready to go to print, I also engaged the editorial service at CreateSpace for a second look. My editor there, Victoria Wright, also provided some extremely valuable analysis and comment.

My final advice: (1) Get a day job to support your writing habit: and (2) Go to your local elementary school and volunteer to read to some kids. As the rejection slips flow in, you can still pay the rent while leading young minds to appreciate a good story.