The Literary Lion must read. This is a truism, its implications seldom drawn.
If you aspire to Literary Lionhood at all, you are already a person for whom reading is an unalloyed pleasure. Maybe even a chief cornerstone of your life.
But when you are a serious writer, reading is a job requirement.
As anyone who has ever had a job can tell you, there is some distance between an unalloyed pleasure and a job requirement.
Kinds of Reading
Let us consider the kinds of things you might read.
First of all, there is Unalloyed Pleasure Reading—any book or books you are so eager to read that you pick them up whenever you have a spare moment. You take such a book with you to the doctor’s office to make good use of your waiting time. You read it on the bus. Those are the books I’m talking about. For me, anything by John Grisham, John Steinbeck, or Jack Finney.
Second, there are Exemplar Books. These are either so well-written or so ill-written that reading them will help you become a better writer. You can emulate their prose, or avoid it, as you evolve your own unique and compelling voice. Such a book may or may not give unalloyed pleasure. Even if it’ s a chore to read, you grit your teeth and get through it. For me, the phrase “good writing to emulate” brings to mind William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries, among others. I won’t mention a specific example of writing to avoid. Suffice it to say, they are legion. You will discover them on your own.
Third are the books about how to write books. At least a million are in print, with hundreds more published every day. They are all above average. More than two-thirds of all writers who have written any book at all have also written a book about how to write a book.* (*Proceedings, Institute for Fabricated Statistics, Vol. X, pp. y-z.) In fact, many writers who have never written a book have nevertheless written a book about how to write a book. This could get out of hand. Take my advice: choose one or two of those listed below, and let it go at that.
Poetics, by Aristotle (No last name. You know: That Aristotle.)
Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
Story, by Robert McKee
Fourth are books about how to sell books. There are works about how to find an agent, how to get your book published, and how to sell lots of copies once it is published. It seems every writer who has written a book about how to write a book has also written one or more books about how to sell your book once you have written it; and every writer who has written a book about how to sell anything at all has also written one or more books about how to sell, specifically, books. As to recommendations: Even I, Dear Reader—your reliable Guru of Literary Lionhood, famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread—even I tremble to recommend any one of these volumes. If you are thinking of consulting any part of this 21st-century cornucopia of unsolicited-yet-pricey advice, consider this free bit of wisdom from the late Sir William of Goldman:
“Nobody knows anything.”
He was talking about the movie business, but it applies equally to all forms of publishing. This may strike you as dismal news, but consider it in this light: You know as much as anybody, so plunge in. Just do something. Or don’t do something; just stand there. It might work as well as anything.
Fifth are the Obligated Reads. These are books by friends or acquaintances which you have agreed—perhaps unwisely—to read and review. Some are beta reads, works in progress whose authors want useful feedback from you, so they can make their work better. Others are published books whose authors want your endorsement, in the form of a published review or a blurb for the book cover. When the author is a particular friend and the book is something you just can’t hack, then you are stuck with what our cousins across the Pond call a sticky wicket. If the book happens to be the second or subsequent installment of a series, you have an easy out. “Author Johnny Johnson has done it again!” Otherwise, you’re sunk.
Sixth are books you need to read, or at least skim, as research for something you are writing. For us historical novelists, this kind of reading is broad and wide-ranging. But almost any writer* will need to do some research.
*Well, not writers who are actually Artificial Intelligence programs. AI bots can just make something up that reads as if it is based on research, but it’s actually just pieced together with likely-sounding phrases stolen from thousands of real, and mostly starving, writers. But then, you’re not an AI bot. Are you? I feel like I should insert a Captcha box here.
Coping With the Deluge
All these reading demands can actually get in the way of one’s writing.
Upon becoming a Literary Lion, I increased my already liberal use of the South Central Wisconsin Library System. There’s something called LINKCAT, which is a wonderful thing. I can go online, find any book that exists anywhere within 51 included libraries, place it “on hold,” and it will be delivered to me at my local library, usually within a few days.
Because of the numerous reading interests noted above, books—those being read, those to be read, or those already read—reside in stacks all over my house.
I repeat, it’s getting out of hand. Last week, I realized these demands were forcing me to avoid reading what I most wanted to read, because I had to read something less pleasurable and, in the grand scheme of things, less important.
So I’ve drawn a line in the sand. From now on, I will only acquire books I actually look forward to reading, in the sense that I have a credible expectation of joy; or, those needed for specific bits of research. That’s it—only Unalloyed Pleasure or Necessary Research. Away with all other pesky categories! I hope that holds up.
A Final Word
I tell you as a bona fide Literary Lion: Get yourself a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
As Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have friends who aspire to be writers, give them The Elements of Style. Then shoot them while they’re still happy.”
He stood no more than five feet six, a bit of gray hair fringing the bald dome of his head. He must have been in his fifties, an old man to have sired my friend Ron who was 12, like me. He talked and acted old-fashioned.
He was our scoutmaster, Ralph Kirkpatrick.
No relation to the harpsichordist of the same name.
When we moved to Kenosha in 1957 and I joined Troop 27 at the Methodist Church, Mr. Kirkpatrick—none of us boys would have called him Ralph—still drove his 1950 Nash, the bulbous bomb manufactured locally. Behind the Nash he towed a trailer with a ten-foot green plywood box. That box held enough tents, cook kits, water cans, axes, and incidentals for our whole troop of nearly forty boys.
A funeral home sold him a huge old Packard for fifty dollars—on the condition that he would use it to haul Boy Scouts. From then on, it was the Packard that towed the long green box trailer, when needed.
In winter, we went on hikes, Klondike Derbies, and other tests of our ability to out-gruel any challenge. In summer, we did a troop campout almost every other weekend.
We went to Fox River Park or the Public Hunting and Fishing Grounds at Lily Lake. Each patrol of six to eight boys had an assigned space where we pitched our two-man explorer tents. We cooked on charcoal stoves some dad had fabricated from steel barrels cut lengthwise, with metal legs added.
We worked on skills like pioneering, axemanship, firebuilding, knot-tying, and wigwag signalling with red and white flags. We tramped through marshes, orienting ourselves on a contour map using Boy Scout compasses. We searched out edible wild plants.
At night we ranged the woods in wide games, tagging one another in dark thickets and meadows. Afterward, around a fire of blazing logs, we sang songs, presented skits, and told ghost stories.
Ralph Kirkpatrick orchestrated our fun in minute detail. Everything we did notched points so we could advance in rank from Tenderfoot through Second Class, First Class, and all the way to Eagle Scout. Older boys were taught to lead and mentor the younger ones.
One Saturday in April we traveled south in the Packard, without the trailer, to hike the twenty-mile Lincoln Trail, a jaunt that led from the restored pioneer village at New Salem, Illinois, to the state capitol in Springfield. We stayed overnight in an old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks.
Sunday morning, we started in the dawn chill, wearing spring poplin jackets and Boy Scout caps. Snow came down in tiny flakes, blown by a whirly wind from the north. If you live in the Upper Midwest, you know the kind of snow I’m talking about.
At mid-point on the route stood a country store. We asked very politely to use their bathroom. Some of us bought candy bars while we waited our turn to use the facility, under the staid gaze of old farmers gathered round a pot-bellied stove. A radio played gospel hymns.
Back on the road, the snow blew straight sideways. A few boys had brought earmuffs or stocking caps. Those without gloves at least had pockets to jam their hands into.
We walked fast. Exertion generates heat.
We reached downtown Springfield in mid-afternoon. Mister Kirkpatrick awaited us with a hearty smile. The storm had moved on. Only a few flakes drifted down in watery yellow sunlight.
The Illinois State Museum stood close at hand.
“This is one of the great museums,” said Mr. Kirkpatrick. “You don’t want to miss this.”
We went floor by floor, viewing life-sized dioramas of prehistoric man and the tribal life of plains Indians. The walls were festooned with woven baskets, arrowheads, and old costumes. It was very thorough, archeologically speaking.
At sundown, we piled into the Packard and started back toward Kenosha. On today’s roads, it would be about a four-hour drive, but that’s because we have an Interstate Highway System. In those days it took five hours, in good weather.
Only the weather was not good. We were driving north into a major blizzard, the storm that had already brushed us with its fingertips.
At midnight, traffic stood still. The Packard halted in the middle of a busy intersection, the Yorkville Y (or Wye) in the Chicago suburbs. We sat idling in a line of cars as the lights changed from red to green and back to red, over and over.
Ralph Kirkpatrick shut off the engine, took off his cap, and went to sleep. He advised the rest of us to get some shut-eye, too.
There were I think eleven of us Scouts in the seven-passenger car. That was before seat belts and shoulder straps. Young boys being made of rubber, you could cram almost any number of them into a given space.
Some slept, but I stayed awake. I worried that our parents expected us home long before. No telephone booth was in sight, no way to get a message to them.
I also worried that traffic would start again, and we would be obstructing it, our driver asleep at the wheel.
After forty-five minutes, the traffic did resume its flow. At that very moment, our scoutmaster sat up in the seat, put his cap on, started the car, and drove forward.
Before long, we reached the portion of I-94 that had already been completed. The Packard slithered up the long curve of the ramp, its rear drive wheels slewing left and right on the snow-covered pavement. The rear end of the car slumped off the edge of the road. Mister Kirkpatrick touched the gas lightly, and the heavy beast—ballasted by one scoutmaster and eleven boys—regained the road.
I got home at four a.m. and went straight to bed.
When I woke Monday morning, Dad had already left for work.
Mom hummed contentedly as she fixed a quick breakfast.
“Weren’t you worried about us?” I asked, stacking up my books for school.
“Worried?” Mom said. “Oh, no, not at all. We knew you were with Ralph.”
September 19 falls on a Tuesday this year. Tuesday is the day I post each installment of this blog, and . . .
September 19, of course, is . . .
International Talk Like a Pirate Day!
So cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of mayhem.
International Talk Like a Pirate Day may be abbreviated to just Talk Like a Pirate Day, making it more wieldy in the mouth.
Since 1995, it is a day when those starved for amusement interject “Aaarrr!” into every other sentence. Lest that become boring, the day’s inventors, John Baur and Mark Summers, have provided a complete lexicon of pirate phrases. Conveniently, they all begin with the letter a—as in “ahoy,” “avast,” and so on. No sense wearing yourself out on the rest of the alphabet.
In this euphoric pursuit, one can’t help wondering where the very concept of talking like a pirate came from, can one?
Piracy, after all, is a crime. Its practitioners are known criminals. One might expect them to be unsavory characters, but—how, precisely, would they talk?
What about Long John Silver, the most famous pirate of all? He’s an invention of nineteenth-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Long John is the prime villain of Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island. Before he reveals his villainy, however, he talks like this:
See here, now, Hawkins, here’s a blessed hard thing on a man like me, now, ain’it? There’s Cap’n Trelawney—what’s he to think? Here I have this confounded son of a Dutchman sitting in my own house drinking of my own rum! Here you comes and tells me of it plain; and here I let him give us all the slip before my blessed deadlights!
Now, that’s more like it—a bit rough around the edges. Still, it’s hardly the slavering, bloodthirsty banter we might have expected from Long John Silver. For that, we must go to the man who became Long John Silver—actor Robert Newton.
Newton (1905-1956) first appeared as Silver in Walt Disney’s British-made film adaptation of Treasure Island in 1950. Two years later he played Edward Teach in Blackbeard the Pirate. He reprised the Treasure Island character in a 1954 Australian-made film, Long John Silver, and in a 26-episode TV series, The Adventures of Long John Silver, in 1955.
By March 1956, the hard-drinking fifty-year-old actor was dead. He left behind a varied and impressive catalog of important film roles. But he will always be remembered as the complete owner of Long John Silver. Today, almost seventy years after his death, it is Newton’s voice—an exaggerated version of the West Country accent of his youth—that today’s pirate talkers mimic.
And a typical Hollywood thing happened: Long John Silver went from fearsome villain to endearing rogue. He became the protector of, not so much a threat to, young Jim Hawkins. That’s how it had to be for a half-hour television series to be watched by the young people of the English-speaking world.
So powerful was Newton’s characterization that Long John migrated to center stage and become the hero of the piece. Thus he became not only the locus classicus of offically approved pirate speech but also the very embodiment of The Lovable Pirate.
Lovable, tender-hearted, heroic, or repentant buccaneers were nothing new. The nineteenth century gave us romanticized pirates in Walter Scott’s The Pirate, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
But Robert Newton stamped the worn-out stereotype with a twentieth century gloss, bringing it to life on screen with his memorable portrayals of Long John Silver and Blackbeard.
Former English poet laureate John Masefield, a lover of the sea, let slip something nearer the sad truth of piracy in his curiously schizophrenic poem, A Ballad of John Silver, to wit:
. . . Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded filled the chains, And the paint-work all was spatter-dashed with other people's brains, She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till she sank, And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the plank.
O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the poop) We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent chicken-coop; Then, having washed the blood away, we'd little else to do Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught us to. . . .
It was just one of those things,
Just one of those crazy flings,
One of those bells that now and then rings—
Just one of those things.
(words and music by Cole Porter)
Let me explain.
Soon after launching my writing career in 2016, I learned one must start building a platform right away. An “author platform” is an identifiable following. Many things go into a platform, but most authors feel a need to be present in one or more forms of social media.
I was already on LinkedIn and Facebook. I added a “LarryFSommersWriter” page on Facebook, linked to my regular “Larry F. Sommers” page.
In April 2019 I started a weekly blog, “Reflections,” at https://LarryFSommers.com. “Reflections” was both a form of social media and something else altogether. I hoped the blog would publicize my novel-in-progress, but I also hoped it would form a body of writing that readers might value for its own sake. To that end, I posted original articles on past and present, story and narrative, writers and the writing life, and other topics.
Now, since I want my blog to offer lasting value, I spend at least one day creating each week’s blog post. To attract readers, I routinely announce each post with brief publicity snippets on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. These own-horn-blowings also take a bit of time to generate.
That’s the full extent of my social media. In each venue, I have a modest following.
But social media are only part of the platform. I know a lot of folks in person, not filtered by the Web. Now that my novel, Price of Passage, is published, I go to bookstores, public markets, and book fairs to tout my book face-to-face. I love these real-life interactions. I also give book talks or speeches about Price of Passage and the process of becoming a Great American Novelist. All these activities are planks in my platform.
Then my friend Dan Blank spoke favorably of Substack. It’s a website that allows authors to post their writings and attract readers. It also allows those readers to pay subscription fees or voluntary donations to support the authors they like.
Dan Blank is a wise guru. When Dan recommends something, I pay attention.
I decided to go for it. But I didn’t want to write something completely different for Substack. Nor did I want to abandon my WordPress site—at least not until I decided that Substack could rerplace it. So I just added “Reflections” to Substack, making it available in two places now instead of only one. I chose not to require a subscription fee, but to allow readers to donate if they so chose.
So you see, I did not plunge into Substack but dipped my toe in the water.
Substack has been sending me emailssuggesting authors whose writings I might want to follow. Naturally. One of the best ways for a writer to gain a following on Substack is to follow other writers’ posts and comment favorably on them. Of course! That makes sense.
The problem is, I didn’t want to spend my time reading a lot of posts from Hamish McKenzie, George Saunders, or myriad other fine authors who appear on Substack. I had been thinking of Substack as a place where I could publish mywork. But it is at bottom a social medium. Social media thrive on reciprocity: You read my blog, I’ll read yours.
Meanwhile, I struggle to set aside productive times for writing my World War II novel and a Vietnam-era personal memoir. Alot of reading and research goes with these challenges. And I’ve got a tall stack of books to read for my own general education. Do you know Your New Favorite Author has never read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey? Well, I’m working on that.
I love to be generous with my time, but I do have a lot of irons in the fire.
Substack feels “fun and refreshing” to Dan Blank. To me it feels inauthentic and oppressive.
Thought experiments can be worthwhile. I abandoned Substack in my head. Boy, did that feel good. What a relief!
That got me thinking about all the artificial things I do to chase an expanding platform. Things like Twitter and LinkedIn.
Years ago, I worked in a semi-corporate setting, and LinkedIn’s professional networking opportunities were a boon. Now on LinkedIn, I’m just a troll hawking a product.
And I never had any desire to Tweet. I only did it to draw people to my WordPress blog.
After my book was published I started sending out a newsletter, using MailerLite. But lately I get the sense that few people eagerly await the next edition of The Haphazard Tiimes.
There’s nothing wrong with MailerLite. Nothing wrong with LinkedIn. Nothing wrong with Twitter.
For that matter, there’s nothing wrong with Substack.
But I’m a writer. I need to work on writing—both my weekly romance with the Great World-wide Blog Public, and also my novel, memoir, and short story projects.
The only social medium I have bonded with is Facebook. For all its faults—and they are legion—it is the place where I often interact with friends, 796 of them at the moment. Most of those are people I actually know. If I met them on the street, face-to-face, I’d recognize them, and they me. That’s not a huge number of possible readers, but it gives Facebook the one thing none of the other media has for me: Authenticity.
I don’t do Facebook primarily to promote my writing. I do it to keep in touch with my friends. Maybe for you that’s Instagram, and God bless you. But I’m sticking to Facebook.
Substack simply became the stack that broke the camel’s back.
Good-bye, Substack.One-too-many stack,Unlike Lot’s wife, I won’t look back.Good-bye, Substack.
Good-bye Twitter, LinkedIn, and MailerLite, too.
I will keep writing.
I will promote my writing on Facebook, a world populated by friends of mine. Only now my Facebook posts won’t have to meet the format needs of three social media outlets simultaneously. Maybe I can make the Facebook outreach more personal and unique.
I will continue to sell my books in markets, bookstores, festivals, and elsewhere.
What is all this for, if not to leave some lasting literature behind me?
So the first thing, and the hardest thing, is to create some great stuff.
Even if that great stuff is not “discovered” in my lifetime, I’ll still be one up on van Gogh. At least I have both ears.
Dear Reader—You’ll know from last week’s post that wonderful things can happen when you’re a Literary Lion.
One example is that I discovered Steve Fox’s debut short story collection, Sometimes Creek. I heartily recommend it. You may just be captivated by Steve’s unique slant on stories that in other circumstances—for example, if I had written them—would be ordinary.
The stories in this book are far from ordinary. Here’s my review:
by Steve Fox
It’s real life as lived in the Upper Midwest on those days when the air is numinous and reality must be seen on a slant to be viewed at all.
The seventeen stories in Steve Fox’s collection Sometimes Creek are regional, populated by folks you know from down the block. They are also universal tales where things happen, in the plot but most of all inside the characters, that stand your expectations on end and make you think about the human condition.
In “The Butcher’s Ghost,” a man and woman slip, separately, into a clifftop bistro with a haunted past—each taking refuge from world-woundedness. The two lonely souls seem like ships passing in the night, but you realize gradually that something more is going on.
The title story, “Sometimes Creek,” gives us a father and daughter in the grip of overpowering grief, who must relocate their household into a neighborhood crazed with its annual Halloween rituals. The neighbors welcome their healing hearts with a mix of help and hindrance, which may or may not make things come round right in the end.
Each of the stories in this collection is multi-layered, dense with nuance and surprise. They are stories that will repay a second or even a third reading. You notice something new each time around.
If you’ve been captured by such masters as Jack Finney and Stephen King, these stories may transport you to similar territory. Two thumbs up, but only because that’s all the thumbs I’ve got.
Another part of the world has been heard from regarding Peco Yeh’s extant paintings.
Peco Yeh is a Chinese artist who plied his wares in Taipei in the latter half of the last century. Your New Favorite Writer had the opportunity to meet him, and I bought a painting from him for a scandalously low price. I have written about that painting, a waterscape, and the experience of acquiring and owning it, in this very blog, here and here.
In the latter post I also mentioned Earline Dirks, who emailed me that she owns a Peco Yeh painting—an interesting study of two figures, one a young boy, examining a lantern.
Now another collector steps forth. Joshua Lowe of Beckley, West Virginia (“Right in the middle of the Appalachian coal fields”) wrote me as follows:
“It was 2012 maybe 2013, a friend of mines uncle had passed and his house was scheduled for demolition. I was asked if I would come to the property with my metal detectors, he wanted to scan the property before the dozers arrived. We scanned found some coins nothing notable. The home was dilapidated and the family had split and taken all the possessions that they where fond of or deemed valuable. I was asked if I would like to “tour the home” and was told anything I like just take it, because everything else would be left in the home during demolition and hauled off. We went room to room thru the home nothing notable or out of the ordinary for an abandoned home. There where dishes and faux silverware scattered thru the kitchen, magazines and stacks of readers digests lay scattered in most of the living areas!
“We came into the den and a stack pictured laid against the wall, most where nothing more than everyday prints that you would find in any cut rate motel, Home interior or pier 21. As I went thru the stack of pictures, it was there. It jumped out ! It was something did not belong in this stack! I had no idea who Peco Yeh was! But, that did not matter, I knew this one was painted and framed by hand, I knew this one had some age and it grasped my attention and knew that it did not belong in the trash! I took the painting with me that day. I still appreciate and admire it as much now as I did then! I was told that the original owner was military and was stationed in Southeast Asia many years ago. Thru the little research I have done I have no doubts that this was bought during his tours in Southeast Asia maybe even from Peco Yeh himself.”
Here is a photo Joshua Lowe took of his Peco Yeh painting:
On the face of it, it’s a simple urban scene, a narrow street or alley vanishing into the distance in a classic perspective drawing exercise. Right at the convergence point is a small white-clothed figure—male or female, impossible to tell. In my view, it’s that human figure alone who gives this scene a spark of interest. Unlike the boatman in my painting, who is clearly a boatman: or the young boy in Earline’s painting, who is clearly a young boy: this person is a mere sliver in the distance—enigmatic, mysterious. The alley is ordinary, but the person—is he, or she, coming or going? Is he, or she, carrying something on his or her head? The legs, vague and spindly though they are, convey a feeling of motion, dynamism in a static setting. Wouldn’t you like to know who it was that Peco had in mind? I sure would.
I have no reason to think Peco was a great artist. Yet here are three paintings—mine, Earline’s, and Joshua’s—that lead the eye to explore a bit beyond the deceptively simple surface of things. For that, I thank him.
I never aspired to be Longfellow. Or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Or Marilynne Robinson.
I just wanted to write something.
And to have it read by somebody.
Who would be moved by it.
To achieve these aims, I found it necessary to become a Literary Lion first.
After years of storm and struggle, I retired in 2009 and found the perfect part-time job to entertain me in retirement.
I was the husband of a good and loving wife, the father of an outstanding daughter, and the grandfather of two sparkling cherubim.
Our house was paid for and had a large backyard with plenty of shade in which one could lollygag to one’s heart’s content.
And my heart, Dear Reader, was content.
At age 70, I was a success.
Only: I had not yet written the Great American Novel.
Back in 1953, I wrote a story—a private-eye saga on two sheets of lined paper in my Big Chief pencil tablet.
I wrote it at my third-grade desk, when I was supposed to be doing something else. But I had already finished doing that other thing, whatever it was, and some of my classmates were still toiling away.
In those days, most teachers did not go out of their way to encourage creativity. But dear old Mrs. Winders, as she walked the aisle looking over her pupils’ shoulders, chose to look elsewhere as she walked by me. So I finished my detective story.
It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, just as Aristotle recommends. There may even have been a reversal of fortune or two. It was pretty good but, alas, has been lost to posterity.
I always meant to follow it up with more stories—and books, lots of books. But stray fortunes led me down a different path. You know how it is. (If you don’t, check with Robert Frost.)
So here I was, at threescore and ten, not yet the author of a major work of fiction.
You know how, when you get an itch, you need to scratch it?
At the end of 2015 I retired from my retirement job with a respectable church magazine to become a full-time fabulist. Editing The Congregationalist was the best job I ever had. I enjoyed it well and could have kept doing it for a long time. But sometimes you have to choose one thing or another.
Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I reckon he was right. Look what happened to Lot’s wife.
I wanted to write fiction. I did not know what fiction to write, but I figured it would come to me.
And so it did.
I wrote a few stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I submitted them to the Saturday Evening Post and they published two of them on their website. They honorably mentioned another in their Great American Fiction Contest and published it in the 2018 contest anthology.
Chalk it up to beginner’s luck.
As I groped for a topic or theme for a novel, my wife brought forth genealogy on Anders Gunstensen, my great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Norway in 1853. Based on her research about Anders and his wife, Johanne-Marie Elizabeth Nybro, a fictitious story flashed into my mind—one that could be wedged into the wide spaces between the few known facts.
So in 2017 I started to write a historical novel in which the main characters, Anders and Maria, move from Norway to America and become involved in a black slave’s escape from slavery.
I had attended the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s 2016 “Write By the Lake” conference. There, the great Laurie Scheer had led me to believe that I could actually write such a book and that somebody might read that book.
So on I wrote.
Meanwhile, I joined a local writers’ group, Tuesdays With Story, a twice-monthly gathering for mutual critique, moderated by the great Jerry Peterson. I submitted raw chapters of my novel for comments by fellow writers. My mind stubbornly resisted many well-meant suggestions from these colleagues. Eventually—when my original approach left me stuck with nowhere to go—I came to understand what my Tuesday night friends were telling me about narrative structure. Aided by these generous critics, I trudged up the Fiction Writers’ Learning Curve, which turns out to be a lot steeper once you are climbing it than it looked from the bottom.
I attended the 2018 UW-Extension Writers’ Institute and suddenly realized the writers gathered there had become my tribe. Though they wrote different kinds of stories and took much different approaches, they shared my affliction. Many of them were presenting more advanced symptoms.
I was the new kid on the block, yet welcomed freely into their midst.
They warned me it is hard to get a book published and hard to sell copies of it once published. You need a “platform.” Now, if you happen to write nonfiction and are already a known expert in your field—perhaps you make lots of speeches and presentations around the country—then you already have a platform.
If you’re a mere fabulist—a writer of fiction—then you need to build a platform from scratch. It takes connections, relationships, and social media. Don’t wait till your book is published to get started.
One of the best things to pre-sell my writing was to write a blog, they claimed. That sounded like a great deal of work. I would have to rent space on the Internet and post new writings regularly. What could I think of to write a blog about? And, thus occupied, when would I find time to do my real writing?
It preyed on my conscious thoughts. My Tuesday night mentor Jerry Peterson said, “Well, you might try writing a blog just for its own sake. Don’t think of blog posts as just a way to promote your writing. They might actually be your writing—or at least, part of it.”
I launched a blog in April 2019. I called it “Reflections” and defined its focus as “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
You see, I had figured out by then that all my writing is about plumbing the depths of the past. My genre preference of historical fiction might have been a clue.
I soon found that, keeping that focus in mind, I do find topics to blog about, week after week. It can take a whole day or more out of my writing week to do the blog. But I enjoy it, and people read it.
Thus far I’ve blogged for more than four years, for a total of perhaps a quarter of a million words.
Jerry was right. Blogging is writing. It stands on its own.
This post—a particularly long one—is titled, “Confessions of a Literary Lion.”
Pause a moment to reflect, Fair Reader.
I set out, in January 2016, to become a writer of fiction. In pursuit of that dream, I found I had to do several things:
I had to write fiction. Not sporadically, but with regularity and dedication.
I had to attend conferences and classes to learn how to write fiction.
I had to join a writing group and learn how to use astute critiques to improve my work.
I had to spend quite a bit of time reading other people’s work and crafting astute comments to help them improve their work.
I had to plunge into social media to build a platform.
I had to write a blog—yes, to boost my visibility (platform), but also simply to spread my writings abroad. To reach people who might never read my historical fiction.
Oh, and besides all that: To learn the art of fiction, to learn the trade of marketing, and to better grasp that past which I am so eager to share with those who inhabit the present—I had to read a great many books. Books of well-written fiction. Books of poorly written fiction (learning what not to do!). Books on how to write. Books on how to get published. Books on how to sell books. Books of history and biography, surveying the terrain of the past. Books that zero in on specific past events and settings that relate to the story I’m writing. And by the way, books read for the sheer joy of reading, which I have always done.
I have become one of the leading customers of the glorious South Central Wisconsin Library System. I’ve become a patron in good standing of Amazon and local independent bookstores.
All the pursuits mentioned above, in the aggregate, are so sedentary that I find I need a determined effort to get regular exercise. Yet I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
However, one must face the fact: I’ve become a Literary Lion.
I considered it a public service to writers. If you know you must become a Literary Lion even before you have any tangible sign of literary success, it puts things in perspective.
The main thing it puts in perspective is that, if you’re serious about writing, you give it your all.
You will soon be neck-deep in drafts, revisions, critiques, reviews, conferences, events, relationships, and books. You may as well buy an ascot, a smoking jacket, and a briar pipe, because you’ve become Mister Writer (soon to be Mister Author)—or Miz, as the case may be.
At any rate, you may stop asking people, “How do I know if I’m really a writer?”
Just suck it up and get on with it.
When this Buddha-like moment of Enlightenment came to me, it was on the whole a good thing, because it prepared me to dig in and take the next major challenges in stride.
You see, while undergoing a Gregor Samsa-like metamorphosis into something both fascinating and repellent (note the high-class literary allusion there, Gentle Reader?), I had been diligently pecking away at the Great American Novel.
I finished the first draft—“finished” in the sense of typing “The End” at the bottom—in late summer of 2019. After a period of extensive and exhaustive revision, I felt it was ready, under the title Freedom’s Purchase. So early in 2020 I began querying agents and publishers to see if they would read it and publish it.
Here’s how the publishing business works: You don’t just send somebody the whole manuscript of a book. That’s asking them to commit hours or days of their time to reading something they never heard of before. All agents and publishers receive hundreds or thousands of queries a year.
So the procedure is to send a brief query letter giving just a brief description of the book’s contents and your own qualifications as a writer. Some agents and publishers want a one-page plot synopsis in additon. Some want an author’s biography or resumé. Some want to see the first ten pages, or the first three chapters, of the text. You send them exactly what they ask for, and then you hope they will ask to see the whole manuscript.
Mostly, they don’t. On those rare occasions when they do, it’s cause for rejoicing.
But be prepared to receive a rejection.
Among the rejections I received for Freedom’s Purchase were two that included a sentence or two of explanation why they passed on the opportunity to publish my book. One said the story “just didn’t feel big enough” to succeed in today’s very competitive book market.
The other said, “I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assuming the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.”
When you have been in labor for years to give birth to an 80,000-word manuscript based on a furtive gleam in your mind’s eye, it can be hard—I mean, disappointing—to read such words.
However, they can be very much worth reading, because it can be just what you need to know.
A light bulb went on in my head.
All I had to do to make the story publishable was take it apart completely, throw out most of the best passages, reinvent the entire structure of the plot, make a minor character into a major character, ignore previously-received advice about the need for a unitary protagonist, invent oodles of new plot developments, and rewrite the whole thing from the ground up.
That’s all that was needed. And, Gracious Reader, you must understand—on account of the two informative rejections, I could see how to do it, except for all the details I would have to make up as I went along.
It would be the work of a year or more. It was disheartening. I felt defeated.
But I was now a Literary Lion. The Lionhood membership card came to my rescue. Becausethis latest twist in the saga of my novel begged to be blogged. I wrote,
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. . . .
I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
What was I to do? Upon reading my blog post, the great Christine DeSmet, book coach par excellence, sent me an email. I did not save her exact words, but they were to this effect: “You can do this, Larry. Don’t give up.”
Being a Literary Lion, I confess, has its burdens; but there are great benefits as well. One of them is the opportunity to receive precious encouragement just when you need it.
I did not give up. I spent the year that it took to completely remake Freedom’s Purchase. Christine not only encouraged me, she helped me with many valuable insights about story, plot, and narrative methods. When I was done, I had a book that was at least 500 percent better than before, and a new title: The Maelstrom.
The first people I queried were the two publishers who had given me the informative rejections. I explained that although I sent them something before, the Maelstrom was a whole new book, and wouldn’t they like to read it?
One of them declined. The other, Daniel Willis of DX Varos Publishing, a traditional small press publisher in Denver, Colorado, said: “Send it.”
Dano read it, he bought it, he published it August 23, 2022. A year ago tomorrow. With a new title: Price of Passage.
We had a wonderful launch party for the book at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison. Lots of hoopla among my friends and confidants.
The next day, I was once again just a struggling writer. Yes, a published author, with a book to sell. But the state of publishing today is that the author must do almost all the selling. While working on other literary output. And balance it all.
I already had another book—a middle-grade historical novel about my old short-story hero Izzy Mahler. Children’s books are not in Dano’s wheelhouse, so he declined the opportunity to look at it. I’m still trying to find an agent or editor who is interested.
Meanwhile, I’m working on another book. A World War II novel. That’s all I’ll say, because it’s not very far along.
So here are some things that have been added to my Literary Lion duties:
Book fairs. On certain weekends, I pack up a box or two of Price of Passage copies and go someplace to pitch my sales canopy and hawk my book, one copy at a time, to interested readers. I sold seventeen copies last weekend to people in Middleton. New Glarus, Waunakee, and Verona are coming up.
Bookstore visits. Sometimes I just pop into a local independent bookstore and pitch Price of Passage to the owner or manager. They don’t always agree to stock it, but sometimes they do, and I’ve sold some copies that way.
Speeches. I’ve appeared at the Sun Prairie Public Library and a Norwegian-themed women’s book club called Gudrid Circle. I’m scheduled to speak September 30 in Stevens Point at the Central Wisconsin Book Festival. These speeches are also opportunities to sell books.
I’m still a member of a writers’ mutual-critique group—two of them, actually, one meeting monthly and the other biweekly. By default, I have become the convener/moderator for both of them. I guess because I’m a Literary Lion.
Recently, I added Substack.com as a venue where my blog appears, in addition to my own site at LarryFSommers.com. It’s an experiment. I don’t know if I’ll gain readers or not, but at least people who read my posts on Substack will have an easy way to sponsor my writing with a cash donation. We’ll see what happens.
I’m considering finally reading The Iliad and The Odyssey. In translation, of course. I need to understand heroes better.
There’s always something new and different in the life of a Literary Lion.
I’m pretty sure this is not how Shakespeare did it. Or Walt Whitman. Or Agatha Christie.
There is no responsible alternative; they really don’t know better.
I believed, as a callow U.S. airman in 1967, that haggling was de rigueur in Asian cultures. To get the best price was the name of the game, and no holds were barred. It was normal and expected.
So when a soft little man stepped out on the sidewalk in Taipei and asked what I thought of the monochrome painting I was gazing at, I replied with sappy disdain. “I suppose it’s all right, if you like that sort of thing.”
It was a moody waterscape with a Chinese boatman sculling his craft between a larger boat and some timbers jutting from the river. A gray hill or mountain hovers vaguely in the background. One can feel a wisp of fog and hear the slip of water streaming along the strakes.
This painting stood among flat Taiwan street scenes bristling with shop signs and telephone wires.
“Is the boat picture by the same artist who did these others?” I asked.
The little man hooked a thumb toward his puffy chest. “Me. I did them all.”
“Really? Because this one looks nothing like those.”
His eyes gleamed, black agates behind their epicanthic folds. “I paint many different styles. Peco Yeh.” He shook my hand and gave me a card.
We haggled a bit, and I walked away with the painting, framed, for about three American dollars—equivalent to maybe forty bucks today. The work was worth far more, by any rational scale.
I gave the painting to my parents. It hung in their living room for decades. Later, it came back to me and now graces my wall.
Peco Yeh, it turns out, was a painter of some note. An apocryphal biography from an unknown source on the Web puts an exotic gloss on his life:
“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”
Whether any of that is true, who can say?
I do know that for three dollars more than half a century ago I acquired a painting by a true artist. My only excuse is that I was young. I didn’t know the difference between a hodgepodge of paint on canvas and a work of art.
The boatman painting has grown on me over the years. My own taste has developed, of course, but more to the point: Peco Yeh’s work stands the test of time.
There are others of his paintings out there in the world. You can find a few for sale on the Web at prices in the four-hundred-dollar range. If you look at them, you can see for yourself that what the artist told me is true: He did paint in different styles.
A few weeks ago came an email from a woman named Earline Dirks who buys and sells old paintings. She is in possession of a Peco Yeh canvas, much different from mine. She wrote me because she happened across my blog post of 28 May 2019, which mentions the boatman painting.
The work Earline acquired shows two people, a young boy and an older person—perhaps a mother, grandmother, or servant—holding a Chinese lantern. The older person is kneeling, her face somewhat obscured. The boy’s face is clear, gazing intently into the lantern’s light.
Are we seeing a young Peco? Is this a memory of his own childhood?
Earline was kind enough to share the image with me, so I share it with you.
Recently I mentioned my correspondence with Mac McMorrow about Pan Am’s Anzac Clipper, which my Uncle Ed flew into Hilo harbor on December 7, 1941—where they encountered, in an official capacity, Mac’s father, the chief public health officer on the Big Island in those days.
First Mac, now Earline.
Isn’t it wonderful the acquaintances one can make by blogging?
So this is what I do. Why am I suddenly doing it on Substack?
First and foremost, to expose my work to a wider spectrum of readers.
Secondly, to offer readers the opportunity to support my work with cash. You are not required to do this. You can read everything I post for free. But if you want to support and encourage my work, Substack offers a convenient way to do it.
Why do I mention this second point? The writing life is not remunerative. There are conferences to attend, websites to maintain, software to update, books to buy, manuscripts to print. Most book fairs and festivals charge a fee for a booth or table—a fee which may or may not be recouped by sales. My subscription to Publishers’ Marketplace, an essential tool for writers, costs $25 every month.
In the seven and a half years since becoming a full-time writer, I have spent $9,000 more on the project than I have earned in book sales and other income. I persist despite the dollar cost, because I have something to say, and I will not live forever.
For every James Patterson or Stephen King there are thousands of us who never receive enough for their writings to break even, let alone make money. Substack is offering a different paradigm, in which readers can support writers by paying them.
From my point of view, it’s worth a shot.
Whether you pay or not, I hope you’ll enjoy reading my posts. And if you do, tell others.
Here’s a small story of the publishing world. It includes hope and anguish, heroism and tragedy. If you read to the end you may be touched, as I have been, by the goodness that surfaces from time to time in human affairs.
In December 2020, mystery writer G.P. Gottlieb sent word to book coach Christine DeSmet that Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing, Inc., would be open to new submissions in January. Noting that historicals were among the genres Dan published, Christine passed the information on to me.
I sent a query, and Dan asked to read my shiny new manuscript, Freedom’s Purchase. Trembling with hope, I sent him the file. After only a few weeks, he replied:
Hi Larry, Thank you for the opportunity to consider to consider your manuscript for Freedom’s Purchase.
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Best luck to you!
Daniel Willis, Publisher D. X. Varos, Ltd.
Sigh. Another rejection, par for the course.
But this was the best kind of rejection—a personal note telling me what was wrong. Combining it with one received from another publishing house and triangulating: BAM! I achieved a sudden blinding insight.
I spent a year rebuilding my book from the ground up, gave it a new title—The Maelstrom—and asked Dan to read the new version. He agreed to read it and then agreed to publish it.
So on August 23, 2022, I became the author of a published novel, now titled Price of Passage. This is the proudest accomplishment of my life, after my daughter and grandchildren.
Think of my world as a great room in which nervous writers shuffle about, bumping into one another, smoking endless cigarettes (real or metaphorical), while riffling the smudged and bruised pages of manuscripts that are getting old. The vast floor of that room, Dear Reader, is knee-deep in jagged shards, the remains of shattered dreams.
My book, Price of Passage, would be among those dead fragments of once-bright literature, had not Galit Gottlieb shared key information; had not Christine DeSmet passed that information along; and, especially, had not Dan Willis agreed to read my manuscript—twice!—finding, on the second read, some of the value I had struggled so long and hard to put there.
That’s exactly how gritty and how personal the book publishing business is.
Nearly a year has elapsed since my book was launched. Dan Willis has been my partner in the tough job of selling books. Neither of us is flush with money for advertising. Both of us have struggled, persistently. Dan has been in this struggle not only with me but with about thirty other authors DX Varos publishes.
Dan Willis died July 9.
Dano died of natural causes. He was a comparatively young man, I don’t know how old exactly, but he had not been healthy for some time.
His demise has thrown the future of DX Varos Publishing, Inc., and the future prospects of more than fifty books, by about thirty authors, into uncertainty. That’s because DX Varos has been virtually a one-man operation.
Dan’s friend Karen Morrisey, secretary and co-owner of the publishing house, is trying to sort things out. It will be a while before we know what the future holds.
What we all do know—we authors have been commiserating via Facebook and Zoom—what we all know is that we have lost a great friend and champion.
Dano was a man of many parts. He was an accomplished genealogist with a deep and abiding interest in the royal families of Europe. He was an author, who published several works of fantasy or speculative fiction plus authoritative nonfiction works on the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Windsors, and other royal lineages.
And, oh yes, he was a publisher for aspiring authors like me. In the halls of Random Penguin Publications, he would pass unnoticed. Hidden behind a water cooler. Swamped under piles of digital press releases. Perhaps relegated to the AI department. Who knows?
But at little DX Varos, in Denver, Colorado, Dano was a giant.
Dan didn’t make money as a publisher. He always had to supplement his income with a day job. But he discovered authors, gave them a chance to shine, and brought out a lot of worthwhile books that otherwise would have been just the fragments of shattered dreams.
His contract was simple, clean, and unambiguous. He responded promptly to emails and was, according to all his authors, a delight to work with. Amid financial and business pressures that must have been gigantic, Dano always found time to pay attention to our questions and concerns. And he was an important part of the volunteer machinery of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association.
We are finding out that Dan, fearing his life might be cut short, had taken special care to set up his files and busines operations in an orderly way so that Karen, his executor and successor at the helm of the publishing company, will have a fighting chance to keep it going, sell it advantageously, or wind up its affairs in a sound way.
We mourn the loss of a wise and patient man who helped us all navigate the problematic world of book publishing.
The Big Five publishers—the ones we all wish would look at our books—have their own way of doing things. A profit-oriented way.
On December 7, 1941, Uncle Ed was enroute to Honolulu from San Francisco, flying as first officer on Pan Am’s Anzac Clipper. That Sunday morning, radio signals made it clear Pearl Harbor was under attack. Captain Harry Lanier Turner changed course and landed at Hilo, two hundred miles away.
My rambling January 2020 post told about Uncle Ed’s experience that day and in the days following. I also mentioned the near-simultaneous attacks on several Pan Am stations in the western Pacific.
The post drew several Facebook comments and one on-page comment at the time of its posting. Then three and a half years passed.
Suddenly, three weeks ago, a long comment was posted on the page by Mac McMorrow, a lifelong resident of Hawaii’s Big Island. In the late 1930s, dengue fever and bubonic plague were common in the Hawaiian islands. As a result, McMorrow’s father, the first graduate of MIT’s public health engineer program, was hired to suppress the disease-prone rat population near Hilo.
Though Mac McMorrow was a two-year-old toddler in 1941, Honoluolu Star-Advertiser columnist Bob Sigall reached out to him recently to comment on a note from one Alvin Yee. Yee had written:
“On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 an unscheduled Pan Am Clipper flying boat [the Anzac Clipper my Uncle Ed copiloted] landed in Hilo Bay after eluding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and [Mac McMorrow’s] father tried to go on board and inspect everyone for disease but some haughty State Department official wouldn’t allow it saying the passengers were VIPs.
“I happen to know the passengers included the young Shah of Iran and the Premier of Burma and their travelling parties on their way back to Asia. . . . Check with Mac to see if I got this story straight.”
McMorrow, in his reply to Sigall, stated: “I can’t confirm very much of his story based on what was passed down to me by my father. I doubt it was my father who was confronted by the State Department official. I think my father would have mentioned that kind of incident to me. My father was the senior Territorial Health Officer on Hawaii Island and he would have had the plane quarantined if the regulations were not followed.”
He then adds a tantalizing tale:
[W]hat I remember my father telling me was that a passenger on the plane was a US diplomat. He had to return to the mainland on the Clipper. However, accompanying him was an attractive Asian/Eurasian woman who was not an American citizen. She was not allowed to return on the flight. She was left in Hilo when the Clipper took off the next day. One of our handsome family friends quickly took her under his “protection”. He escorted her around Hilo for several days until she could get to Honolulu. You can imagine the gossip little Hilo would have enjoyed, even under martial law.
Gracious Reader, this is the first whisper of this attractive Asian/Eurasian woman to reach Your New Favorite Writer’s ears. Or eyes, actually. It’s downright titillating.
One can easily imagine a diplomat traveling sub rosa with an attractive woman to whom he was not officially attached—even in the innocent 1940s. In fact, if we were enjoying a novel or a screenplay, you could count on it. A living informant telling us he heard it as fact from his father certainly adds credibility.
As to Alvin Yee’s assertion that “the young Shah of Iran [Mohammed Reza Pahlavi] and the Premier of Burma” were passengers on the plane: That’s not far-fetched, since the Boeing 314 Clippers were the ultimate form of transportation at the time, a natural choice for the rich, famous, and powerful. But the only other place I have seen this specific claim was in a 2016 article by Korea Times writer Nam Sang-so. I have emailed Mr. Nam a couple of times to find out where he got his assertion, but thus far have received no response.
This leaves me wondering whether Alvin Yee’s information came from Nam Sang-so’s article or from some other source.
Robert Daley, in An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, says, “The Clipper [was to] be refueled here at Hilo and flown back to San Francisco as soon as possible. Passengers were welcome to ride back [or else] they could stay here and make their own way to Honolulu or Mauir or wherever they were going.” He says all the passengers opted to stay in Hawaii but makes no claim that any of them were VIPs. He mentions no Iranian royalty, Burmese politicians, or mystery women. But a lack of evidence that they existed is not necessarily evidence they did not exist, if you see what I mean.
So for now these things must remain intriguing mysteries.
But I do thank Mac McMorrow, now evidently a very active 84-year-old, for adding to the mystery.
Even more, I thank him for honoring one of my posts by responding. You, too, Fair Reader, are welcome to add your comments to this or any other post on my “Reflections” blog. Or you may email me with comments. My address is email@example.com.
Safe and happy travels to you all—whether by flying boat, magic carpet, or pickup truck.