Category Archives: Giving Birth to a Book (That’s Why I’m Screaming)

What I’m writing at the current time and how it’s going.

Start Climbing

stone wallWe’ve had this quiz before, but let’s do it again. What are people called who “help” writers get published? They are literary agents, the word “literary” in many cases being more of a job description than an indication of the type of writing. A literary agent could, for instance, only handle books by sports stars who didn’t actually write their own autobiographies. And OK, such books do use the alphabet, so maybe that is a kind of literature.

How does a person obtain a literary agent? I just wrote that question there as if I were going to follow it with an answer, but a better answer would come from someone who actually knows how to obtain an agent. I apparently do not know, though I think I can say with some confidence that if you want to ease your path in this regard, do not write literary novels.

I write literary novels. I don’t choose to do that, it’s just what I write. I also did not make up that phrase “literary novels”—that’s official publishing terminology that comes closest to describing my writing, given that I don’t write thrillers or children’s books or romance novels. Etcetera.

For a couple of years I’ve been trying to market a novel called The Invention of Colors. When I use the verb “market” I mean I’ve been contacting literary agents to see if one of them will take the book, and thus become my agent, then try to sell the book to a publisher. If you aren’t familiar with the publishing industry—and industry is probably the right word at this point—you might reasonably ask why I don’t simply talk to publishers myself. Why not, Davy? Huh? The problem is that quite a few publishers have decided that even though they depend on writers for their very existence, they absolutely will not talk to writers, but only to literary agents.

Did I mention that the publishing industry is run by Satan? If I did, I was only spreading gossip, because I don’t know that for an actual fact. Evidence is not definite proof, as we learned back in logic class.

So I’ve been marketing a novel, a process that has involved going to a writers conference several times to talk to agents who were attending, and it has involved sending query letters and writing samples to agents by email. Years ago I made up a list of possible agents, with just over 200 names on the list.

The information is far out of date, however. Before I send query letters out, I research every name, and such research really is critical. You find that a person has moved to another agency, a particular agency has shut down, another agency has changed the way they want submissions done, and so on. In doing the research, I discovered that almost half of my list is no use to me, for various reasons, including people who died and others who only handle Christian writers.

don’t rush with bright eyes and a gleeful cry into this agent-hunting process, not because I’m sober and careful, but because I hate it so incredibly. Nevertheless, after many months of slowly working through the list, I have finally made it to the end, sending a letter to every possibility. Afterward, I counted how many agents I had talked to, and between the email submissions and people who I talked to in person at the conferences, I seem to have contacted just shy of 120 agents.

At which point, I ask myself how much more I am willing to do with trying to market this book. Someday, The Invention of Colors will be published, after I figure out how to get past the wall of agents who are determined to stop me. It will be published. But for now, I’ll let it sit. I will wait a while, maybe six months or so, and then I’ll start marketing again, but with a different novel, as I have another ready to go. And if the wall of agents continues to block that one, I’m beginning to write another.

Someday, that wall will come down.


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Mule Camp Springs

Downtown Gainesville

Downtown Gainesville

Last Saturday I was sitting in a bar ordering a beer, because I was doing research. And as long as I needed to do the research, I had a nice little IPA, the kind of beer I really like these days. The bar was called Mule Camp Tavern, and my research went on for a while, so I had a second beer.

This research took place in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour from where I live. In the early days of the town, it was named Mule Camp Springs, and thus the name of the bar. I was passing through the town with my brother, who is always up for glass or two of research, so he offered to drink a couple while I made notes and walked around the bar to see what it looked like. To the left of the bar was a room with green walls and three pool tables, which had red felt surfaces.

I was thinking about whether to use this bar in the new novel I’m working on, so I had to visit to decide whether it would work for me, and if so, I needed to make notes. I believe I will indeed use that bar, so if it can stay in business until this book is published 80 or 90 years from now, this should boost their sales.

For the last few months as I’ve worked on the novel Moonapple Pie, I’ve mostly been expanding the outline, adding details, trying to see that the plot will flow smoothly from beginning to end, and thinking about whether dramatic tension is maintained. I’m trying to do that. I would not confidently declare that I am achieving that goal, but I’ve put months into thinking about it before seriously beginning to write.

Gainesville is my home town, where I was born, got baptized, joined the Boy Scouts, and graduated high school. I also did some other things that were waaay more fun, but which a baptized Boy Scout does not talk about. When I was very young, however, we didn’t live there, but moved back to the town when I was ten, and after high school graduation I left (like a bat out of hell, I have to admit). So I lived there about eight years.

No matter how profound those youthful years were, I only had eight years of my long life in Gainesville. Since then, the town has become 40% Hispanic, gained some very good restaurants, and has its own local brewery. Not at all the same town where I helped my grandfather deliver a pickup truck full of corn to the farmer’s market. When I write Moonapple Pie, I want to give a sense of the town as it is in 2018 (when the novel will take place).

For every book I write, trying to capture a feeling for the setting is extremely important for me. The place is always a part of the book, not just background. Our Boy Scout cabin in the woods is long gone, and the church where I was baptized now has a sign out front in Spanish. On the lively square downtown, you can sit at tables outside, look at the trees that surround the space, and drink very good beer.

After working so much on my outline, I feel like I’ve done all I can with it, and the pondering has to move into scribbling. Of course some research will continue. I still need to visit Gainesville to check some things out, like deciding where one of my characters will have her farm, or I want to visit the arts center to see how how they offer classes, and I’m thinking about whether to attend part of a herbal medicine conference that will happen in the mountains in October.

Still, I am more than ready to write, I can feel the words in my blood, wanting to get out. So soon I’ll be in that zone of watching reality appear on the page. In the meantime, next week I’m going with my girlfriend on vacation to Miami, where I’ve never been, and where I hear they have pink and turquoise buildings and plenty of Cuban food. I’ve also found an interesting looking Peruvian restaurant down there, selling Peruvian beer. One of those beers looks quite good, and I think I have to go try it. That will not be research.

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More Like a Towering Granite Wall Than a Block

a mad girl wearing a straight jacket in front of a typewriter

I’m sure you’ve heard of writer’s block. It’s when… when you, um… oh, I don’t know what I was going to say. I’m kind of stuck here.

Anyway, you’ve heard of it. Even people who wouldn’t know writer’s block from a salt block have heard the phrase. I have a T shirt that makes a joke: Writer’s Block—when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.

I’m here to question whether there is such a thing as writer’s block. I’m not questioning the fact that a writer can have difficulty and be unsure of what to write. I think that’s quite common. In fact, I know it’s a basic fact of normal writing. Ignoring my personal thousand years of experience, I used to teach college freshman writers, who illustrated over and over that not knowing what to write is the human condition.

Taking into account my personal thousand years of experience, I maintain that trying to write can bring feelings of strain, struggle, neurological dark and stormy nights, and existential despair at the vast and vacuous emptiness of all attempts at creativity. Sure, I’ve done that.

I wonder why some people think that’s special and needs its own name. “This is hard. Writers’s block!” Who thinks you’re not going to feel lost and struggle when you write? Who thinks it’s supposed to be easy? Suppose, for instance, you had a blog that you posted to every week, and every week in order to write you needed a few glasses of whiskey, a large bag of peanut M&Ms, and half an hour of sitting in the dark hugging the stuffed dog you still have from childhood?

I mean I just, you know, created that scenario out of thin air, but I’m saying some people could struggle to write a blog. And how much more difficult would it be to write something people were actually going to read?

On the other hand, it’s… it’s… it’s… damn. I was sure I had an idea here. Oof. OK, I can do this. The trick is to keep at it, to write something, anything, it doesn’t have to be good. It can be edited and made better, unless it’s for a blog.

When I’m working on a novel, for the most part it’s a constant struggle. Occasionally someone will say something to me about how I must write because I enjoy it. That’s not exactly how it is. Seriously, writing is not easy. But it’s something I do, so I put on my big-boy pants, I acknowledge that this will be real work—not just a phrase, not just a metaphor, but real work—and I sit down sometimes with a sigh and a determination that I will sit there and do it.

What is writer’s block? I guess that’s when you thought it was going to be easier than it is, and you’re shocked and dismayed by reality. At this point, I might offer some crafty hints from my thousand years of experience to help you overcome those moments when you feel stuck. I thought about doing that—I mean, it was kind of a thought. It went by pretty quick, but I’m sure that was what I was thinking.

Then I reverted to my real self and thought, “If you need help getting over the difficulty of writing, stop writing.” Nobody’s making you do this. If you have writer’s block, go watch TV.

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Maybe I Could Buy an Outline

woman writing

Should that be in chapter one or chapter two?

Think of how big Jupiter is. That’s how big the difference is between writing as a process of putting words on paper—you know, actual writing—and “writing” as a process of thinking and making notes and doing research, blah blah blah oy.

Obviously, you need both writing and thinking… Hmm, I say obviously, but I recall plenty of students who at least didn’t seem to understand that second part. Anyway, obviously you need both, and while the research and thinking can be interesting, actually writing is to enter into a world of creativity with words. That’s the Emily Dickinson world. I don’t think she was doing research, she was just being creative. That’s the part I like.

Perhaps in the past I’ve felt compelled to hit the page running before I was ready. Or rather,  no “perhaps” about it. I always did that. I wanted to write, I wanted to be writing, ah! ah! ah! I wanted to have words flowing. Thus I wrote mass quantities that I later threw away. Now maybe that’s just how it goes, and I’ll discover that no matter what I do, that’s how I write.

However, I’m trying, for a change, not to first write 100 pages in every possible direction except the one I’ll use. With the current book, Moonapple Pie, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want this book to do, and how to work out a plot to achieve that. This process involves having an outline of sorts, divided into probable chapters, with details on each chapter.

For the last few weeks, the time I’ve had for writing has been spent on the outline, which began, actually, as a table. In my job as a medical editor, I spend a great deal of time working with tables, so creating a table felt natural to me. The table rows showed my major characters, and the columns represented chapters. In this comfortable symmetrical context, each character had their own set of boxes, and they seemed to like that.

For what I wanted at this point in creating the novel, the rows and columns seemed like a useful approach, as I could quickly (and on one page) look across or up and down, to get a feeling for the overall flow of the book. I could see, for instance, where one chapter had several dramatic points and another chapter was fairly quiet. As an additional benefit, I had not written 100 pages to figure that out.

From the table arose the outline, which I’ve continued to add to. Maybe because I feel every one of my previous novels woke up one day asking for, demanding, vast revision (the bastards), I’m moving cautiously. I keep looking at the flow of the plot, at the movement of dramatic tension, and I’m still not sure it’s right. Just a few days ago I found some notes in my writing book that made me think, “Ah, my God, maybe I need to reconsider what I’ve done.”

I’m also looking at subplots and how they interact with the main plotline. I’m not sure, though, that it’s possible to really know how it will go until the writing happens, as things get discovered in the writing. In addition, one can do things with style and so on to make a book interesting, even in the parts of the book where no one is jumping out of a plane dressed as Elvis and holding a torch and a pistol.

My outlined chapters are also full of notes on the characters, so that I can see some character development. Thus one person goes for morning jogs, and another is so obsessed with painting that he won’t stop to eat, and another insists on cutting his own Christmas tree on his land. Plus the attempted firebombing, but that’s a plot point.

It would be more fun to be writing, but I’m still holding back and working out ideas. Part of the process.

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Words That Wake and Walk Around

old train stationIt’s one thing to think about writing a book, picturing the characters vaguely in your head doing….something, and won’t it be great when they do? It’s another thing entirely to think seriously about the book, to take paper and make notes, to do research and make further notes, perhaps talk to people about what you’re working on.

But the actual thing itself, putting down a word and another and another until you are creating a place and time and people who were not there before, this process of writing is so different from thinking or planning or making notes. When writing, you not only use your tools (knowledge of grammar and punctuation, vocabulary, etc.), but now there must be coherent sentences that make sense, and each sentence should reasonably follow the one before it in a way to tell things.

Even if you have the ability to make all this work mechanically, such ability does not necessarily make the writing interesting, or beautiful, or meaningful. And yet, at some point, if you really are going to write, you have to sit down and do it. At that moment, you realize how profoundly different writing is from planning to write. All along you may have said, “Oh, I want to begin with the old woman in her garden remembering previous years working there,” but what exactly is that first sentence supposed to do? Describe the woman? Describe the garden? The sky? Should she start in the house and then walk outside?

In the past week I began working on some sections of the next novel, sections that will be inserted into the book at various points. They are all flashbacks in time, so they aren’t directly in the flow of the main narrative, which made me think I could go ahead and write them separately. They concern a character named Wanda who will become a temporary cook for President Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve made notes on Wanda, and I drove down to Roosevelt’s house in Warm Springs and made notes there, but how to actually write this? So far, here is the first sentence of the first section: “Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn.”

I decided to open the scene with Wanda traveling down to the town of Warm Springs, to show that she is not from there, and opening with a train also helps to create a feeling of a time when you could actually travel on a train in the United States. In that opening sentence, in addition, I tried to give some sense of the rural setting, which has a certain importance for the place, and I wanted to use a bit of evocative detail, so I mentioned the cotton and corn. And of course, the cotton goes along with a rural Georgia setting, particularly in 1937.

In the second sentence, I brought Wanda herself in, and I began doing the little things that you use to build a character, such as indicate her emotions, show a memory, give some of her background. By the end of the first paragraph, I brought her to the town of Warm Springs and implied further action with the man waiting. I might instead have spent longer on the train, given more description, used more of her memories, but this is what I’ve done.

I can’t say I won’t change things in revision, but for now I decided to go for a faster opening and jump into action more quickly, and thus I had the man waiting for her. Below I give the first paragraph and a few lines after that. I will also say that this process, the writing part of writing, as difficult as it is, is 10,000 times more fun for me that all the rest of it.


Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn. Wanda Reed watched the fields pass by, trying to draw calmness from them, to still her anxiety. Out the window she saw a man sitting in a wagon pulled by a horse down a dirt road. The sight reminded her of her own father, several hours earlier, who had taken her from their farm in Mule Camp Springs to the train station in Gainesville, riding in a similar wooden cart, though theirs had been pulled by a mule. When they had arrived at the station, a ticket had been arranged for her, to ride to Atlanta, change trains, and head further south. From stopping at so many stations, the trip had seemed slow to Wanda, but at last the train pulled into the small town of Warm Springs, where she got off. Standing on the platform nearby was a white man in a dark suit, who saw her and said,

“Miss Reed?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m Jack Brewer, of the Secret Service. I came down to the station to pick you up.”

She nodded, not sure what she should say to him. This kind of attention from anyone, much less from a white man, seemed strange to her.

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Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie

Recently I got an email from a friend now living in Israel, originally from Russia, and she was telling me about reading Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace (in Russian, obviously). About a year ago I read that book myself, so I was very interested in what my friend was saying. It was her opinion that Tolstoy was not the world’s master in creating characters who have distinctive voices. She made the argument that most of his characters, other than the soldiers, all sound rather alike—they sound like Tolstoy. I see her point.

The distinctiveness of characters for me is one of the most important aspects of a book. All readers are different, and well-developed characters may not be what you look for, but I’m interested in the human aspect of novels. For me a novel, whether I’m reading it or writing it, is an exploration of human existence. More than once I’ve laid a book down in irritation, thinking, “That person would not do that.”

Let’s say the author has created a character who never goes anywhere, never does anything, and appears to be content with this life. If that character suddenly agrees to accompany someone on a dangerous cross-country trip, I’m not buying it without a good explanation. It is not rare—for bad writers—to have a character do something only because the author wants it to happen. That action moves the plot, even when the character has been created as a person who would not do the thing the author wants.

Character development all about illusion, of course. There’s not really a person there, it’s just words the writer chose. And yet, if done right, the people in the book can seem to rise off the page, take a breath, and wink at us, saying Sure, I only exist here, but I’m REAL here. We think about those characters, carry them around in our heart, and our own lives seem touched, as though we had met a living person.

I understand how incredibly, almost freakishly, difficult it is to make real characters in a book. No blog entry could possibly get into much detail about this process, but I’ll talk about working on one character I intend to use in Moonapple Pie. At the moment I’m doing a little background work on character development for the four main characters of this book (at least that’s how the book is developing so far).

I’m using a technique I’ve used in the past, of writing down random potential facts about the characters, but as I’m working, I notice that it’s not entirely random, and I’ll illustrate this with a character named Elliott, one of two twin brothers. In what at first appears to be a random process, I gradually find myself making notes on three types of things: (1) information necessary to the plot, (2) information important to the mental development of the character, and (3) trivial bits and pieces. Here are examples for Elliott:

(1) In 2018, when the novel will take place, he is 43, born March 4, 1975. This kind of stuff I try to be careful with and use a calculator, so that someone thirty years from now doesn’t say “Oh, look what this dumbass writer did.” Also as plot information, Elliott graduated from Georgia Tech as a mechanical engineer and got a job in Wilmington, Delaware, where he met his future wife. She’s from Glassboro, New Jersey, which is very close by (which I know because I lived there). This type of information is what I need for the mechanics of the plot, but in fact I don’t have to tell the reader all of it. Maybe it will be things I know that will never be mentioned.

(2) The most difficult thing I’m trying to do is figure out who the character is and what motivates him. Some of the notes I’ve made in that regard are that while he was in Wilmington he made a trip to Ireland, as it’s part of his family background, and he wants to go back and take his sons. Also while he was living in the north, he was sometimes teased about being from the south. While the teasing wasn’t much, it made him slightly defensive about being southern and about things from the south. On a different point, Elliott and his twin brother took art classes in high school, and even though Elliott eventually followed his “tinkering” side to become an engineer, he is still interested in art.

(3) The third category of notes I’m making is for things that are actually unimportant in themselves, as they could be almost anything, but these are the kinds of details that make a human being. It doesn’t matter so much what they are, but you need to have them. Thus, Elliott loves dogs and has three named Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie (named after Allman Brothers songs: Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, Hoochie Coochie Man). All three dogs are beagles, and he trains his dogs, is very disciplined with them.

I also know from extensive past experience, in novel after novel, that no matter how much I make these notes, no matter how detailed I decide to get with this process, no character ever opens their eyes and breathes until they are actually in the book. Only when I can see them move around and hear them speak do they start to become a real person for me.

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Start With This

The Master and Margarita book cover

The Master and Margarita

Being, as I be, in the bedeviled state of beginning to write a new novel, I must decide how to start the book. I heard on the radio that you should begin by commencing, though I’ve also heard contradictory advice on that. My long centuries of writing experience, which include many words splattered onto otherwise innocent sheets of paper, followed by the reactions of some readers and the occasional flicker of bemused interest from a literary agent, followed by the inevitable curled lip of negation, have given me much cause to ponder book openings.

From talking to literary agents and reading their blogs, advice, and appalled emails of rejection, I have come to realize that the ideal book opening contains these elements:

  • time travel
  • a car chase
  • oblique references to something godawful in the past
  • a mysterious young man with a pistol, looking for the meaning of life

The best books, of course, will contain these things in the first paragraph. If you’re a writer of secondary capacity, such as myself, it may take as long as two pages to mention all these things.

Of course the beginning of a novel should make the reader want to read more. That’s a basic fact of psychology and biology—we try things briefly to see if we’re interested, like tasting food, but we aren’t going to live for hundreds of years, damn it, so we need to pick and choose. What is the magical opening that will pull a reader in? There are people who will tell you how to write fiction, but usually such people do not say just who they are writing for, which makes all the difference in the world.

In pondering how a novel might begin, I went looking for some examples that I could quote here (without being sued). I’ll quote the opening sentences of three books, to give a feeling of the writing, and then I’ll summarize what happens in the first few pages of the book

Return of the Native

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

[Several pages of description of the landscape follow: by Thomas Hardy, published in 1878]

Alice in Wonderland

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?”

[Suddenly a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows it down a hole: by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865]

The Master and Margarita (I’m doing my own translation here from the Russian)

“On a hot spring evening at Patriarch’s Ponds two persons appeared. The first was around forty, dark-haired, chubby and balding, and he was dressed in a light summer outfit. In his hand he carried an elegant hat, while unnaturally large glasses in black horn frames graced his face.”

[Someone falls onto the tracks in front of a streetcar, and his head is cut off: by Mikhail Bulgakov, written between 1928 and 1940, but because he lived in the Soviet Union, writing about society under Stalin, the book was not published until the 60s]

What can we see from these openings? One thing we learn is that in 1878 you could write a book that began with landscape, then did more landscape, and was only getting warmed up in describing the landscape. Could you publish a book today that began that way? The literary agents would hurt their hands in the speed with which they would throw that back at you.

Alice in Wonderland was intended mostly for children, so of course it was going to do something more immediately entertaining than a novel by Hardy. It has almost no description, but goes immediately to action. It occurs to me as I sit here that since a requirement of modern novels is to immediately grab the reader’s attention with action, does that mean that modern readers are being addressed as children? A difference between the two books above is that Hardy was comfortable spending a long time setting the scene, while Lewis dropped the reader into the middle of the action.

Bulgakov’s novel opens with a famous scene that certainly grabs the reader’s attention. This 20th century novel seems to do the kind of thing that is demanded of novels here in the early 21st century, jump in there with something exciting. It doesn’t have a car chase, but later in the book, it does have a witch fly across Moscow.

For the book I’m starting to write (so far called Moonapple Pie, here are the first three sentences (until I change them sometime in the next few years):

The village of Mule Camp Springs sat silent below the lake. In the middle of the street, down in the dark waters, lay a boat that had tragically gone down one Fourth of July, drowning two brothers who were drinking beer and fishing. The sunken boat had come to rest next to the disintegrating remains of the Mule Camp Methodist church.

I’m still working on the obligatory car chase, which I guess will have to end up in the lake.


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