History Is Not What You Thought, Part I

Our conceptions of history depart from the facts. 

Our brains are stocked with tableaus sketched for us by parents, by teachers, by Hollywood. These static visions are partly true. But they are oversimplified. They dull our sense of wonder.

When we get down to actual cases, something magical happens. History stretches forth as a varied landscape, vividly peopled by wayward actors who refuse to stay on script.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Scandinavian Shuffle

Nordic immigrants appear in the mind’s eye as quaintly dressed folk descending from a ship in New York harbor, then forging their way westward by wagon, oxcart, train, or even on foot, to reach Wisconsin, Minnesota, or the Dakotas—the paradise of a Scandinavian farmer’s dreams. 

The brig Lady Washington, photo by Miso Beno, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. The brig Victoria, in which Anders crossed the Atlantic, would have been similar.

We have read this story in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, or in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants. If you saw the Emigrants film back in 1971, your brain may show Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as the Swedish trekkers.

And if you happen to be descended from Norwegians or Swedes who did indeed follow this well-trod path, then you know the image is true.

Wait a minute.

What if I told you my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, took a ship in 1853 from Norway to NEW ORLEANS, not New York? How does that affect the picture?

A Different Story

It’s true. Anders landed in the Crescent City. He was far from the only one. Many Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes entered America through its second-greatest seaport. These people must have been stunned—if not by the warmth and lush vegetation, then at least by the bouillabaise of nationalities, tongues, and skin tones encountered on the wharf at New Orleans.

Steamboats at New Orleans wharf, 1853, painted by Hippolyte Sebron. Public Domain.

And if stunned by these things, they must have been shocked to see African American slaves, human chattel herded like livestock to and from the auction block. This was something their kinfolk taking the northern route would not witness.

But hold on. Why, you might ask, would Northern Europeans sail the long way round, to fetch up on America’s south coast instead of the northeastern seaboard? 

The U.S. railroad system was in its infancy. Modern highways did not yet exist. The broadest, swiftest, most sure-fire route to America’s heartland was the Mississippi River. Still, only a minority came through New Orleans. Most of the Scandinavians arrived at New York or Quebec and made their way by Great Lakes ships, canal boats, and the railroads just being built.

Many who came through New Orleans were recent Mormon converts. The Latter Day Saints began harvesting Nordic souls in 1850 and soon had thousands. Church doctrine required converts to gather in Zion—that is, Salt Lake City. In March 1853, a week before my ancestor Anders Gunstensen would arrive, a sailing frigate landed three hundred Danish Mormons in New Orleans. They took a steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where they caught another boat westbound up the Missouri, getting closer to their coreligionists in Utah.

But Anders was not a Mormon, nor did he emigrate for religious reasons. He wanted opportunities not available to him in Norway. So in February 1853, he sailed from Arendal on the brig Victoria. After arriving on the Gulf Coast, he traveled up the Mississippi and settled in Menard County, a place in the middle of Illinois, just north of Springfield. 

Huh? Aren’t Norwegians supposed to go farther north? 

Most of them did, but not Anders. He and a few fellow Nordmenn chose Menard County for reasons of their own—most likely following the lead of one Gunder Jørgen Nybro, who had arrived three years earlier. 

With only a handful of Norwegians, they could not publish a Norsk newspaper like Nordlyset, established in Muskego, Wisconsin, by Even Heg, James Reymert, and others. Nor could a Norwegian in Menard County burrow into a large Scandinavian community and spend months or years learning the American language and folkways. No: Anders, Gunder Jørgen, and their friends had to deal with Americans, in English, from the start. 

Itchy Feet

The Restauration. Public Domain.

Our first Norwegian immigrants, Cleng Peerson and fifty-one fellow voyagers on the sloop Restauration, came to New York in 1825. Norwegian immigration peaked fifty-seven years later, in 1882. 

In the 1850s, when Anders arrived, Norwegians were more footloose than they had been since Viking days. Decades of smallpox vaccinations had allowed Norway’s population to grow explosively. With only three percent of her land arable, something had to give.

Ole Bull. Public Domain.

Norwegians have never been daunted by ocean waves. They headed for America, filling old-fashioned sailing vessels in the days before widespread use of ocean-going steamships. Even as early as 1853, travel to America was no strange thing. 

In March 1853, besides Anders Gunstensen and three hundred Danish Mormons, New Orleans hosted violinist Ole Bull, who performed a series of “farewell” concerts in Odd Fellows’ Hall, with nine-year-old singing sensation Adelina Patti. Bull was no stranger to America, having visited first in 1843. In 1852, he had founded a visionary colony called New Norway in Pennsylvania but soon gave up on the endeavor, which was not an agricultural success. 

Norwegians were exploring the world, particularly the United States. They found it inviting. And they did not all settle in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Next Week—The Black Experience.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23.

Price of Passage

What does it take to make a story?

Timothy Eberle on Unsplash.
In 1856, on the Illinois prairie, Norwegian farmers ANDERS and MARIA encounter DANIEL, a young fugitive slave. Will they do their legal duty by turning him in? Or will they break the laws of their new country and put their lives at risk to aid Daniel in his bid for freedom?

Peasant Farmers, by Julien Joseph. Public Domain.

That’s not really a story. It’s more like a situation, a setup. But it’s a start.

In historical fiction, an author wants to pay attention to the underlying morality of the situation. But you have to build on that. The story of Anders, Maria, and Daniel, as mentioned above, is incomplete without some sense of where Anders and Maria have come from, to be newly-arrived Scandinavian immigrants in central Illinois. 

The Captive Slave, by John Philip Simpson. Public Domain.

One also ought to sketch Daniel more fully. What kind of slave life is he trying to escape from? What are his chances? What will he do with his new freedom, if he makes his escape good? 

There are more questions than answers.

John Brown.

It’s notable that Anders, Maria, and Daniel all arrived at the same place in 1856—just when the nation’s quarrel over slavery was starting to come to a head. John Brown was murdering pro-slavery men in Kansas about this time. The Dred Scott decision, which gave iron force to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, would come along in early 1857. Lincoln and Douglas would contest for the Illinois Senate seat in a series of debates in 1858. Brown would show up again, this time raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in 1859. The pot was coming to a boil.

How would these events affect Anders? Maria? Daniel? 

It’s all there in Price of Passage—A Tale of Immmigration and Liberation, coming August 23 from DX Varos Publishing. 

Sign up for my free newsletter, The Haphazard Times, above right, to be kept fully informed.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Perils of Progeny

I am pregnant. With a book. 

Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation is due August 23. It is expected to weigh eleven ounces and be seven and fifteen-sixteenths inches long. 

Congratulations are in order. But pity me carrying it through the hot months!

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Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash.

It’s a funny thing, Dear Reader: One stroke of a pen and you go from writer to bookseller.

One hundred percent. Instantly. 

On February 17, I signed a contract with DX Varos Publishing for the publication of my historical novel The Maelstrom.Things started happening. 

  • The publisher and I agreed to change the title from The Maelstrom to Price of Passage.
  • We added a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
  • The publisher sent me an advance check to seal the deal.
  • We settled on a cover design, which was swiftly executed by the publisher.
  • The publisher revealed the cover and announced the publication with an exciting blurb teasing the contents of the book.
  • I upgraded my website, www.LarryFSommers.com
  • I acquired Mailerlite software, learned its rudiments, and launched an occasional newsletter for my loyal fans, The Haphazard Times (currently undergoing refinement).
  • I attended the Chicago Writers Association’s annual conference, where I received much kudos and encouragement from fellow authors.
  • I applied for a Wisconsin Seller’s Permit.
  • I sent for a Square Reader so I can process people’s credit card and Paypal purchases at author events such as signings, readings, and book clubs.
  • I started “going to school” on my friend Greg Renz, successful author of Beneath the Flames. I’m studying what he does to beat the drum for his book, and how he does it.
  • Oh, yes. I am ordering custom bookmarks to give out with copies of the book.

Take a Breath, Buster

It’s been just over a month. Price of Passage will not arrive until August 23. 

I stand presently under a Niagara of marketing, sales, and bookkeeping concerns. I don’t understand half of what I’m doing but plunge ahead anyway. Learn by doing, the saying goes.

Meanwhile, I have a second completed novel a mere whisker away from being ready to start sending queries to publishers. It only needs two or three good days of last-minute polishing, plus the drafting of a good synopsis and query letter. But all that will have to wait.

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.

I have a great idea for a short story to develop for the literary journals. Quite a bit of work. And it will have to wait.

There is the beginning of a personal memoir. It needs to keep going. But it will have to wait.

Opportunity Knocks

Blacksmiths of yore had a saying to cover this situation: “Strike while the iron is hot.” 

Shakespeare, more verbose yet pithy, said

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…

Rodeo cowboys are more terse: “Let ’er buck!” 

No matter how you say it, now is the time to sell, even though I’d rather write. We can pick up the pieces afterward.

The Book Trade

Why is it this way?

Maxwell Perkins. Al Ravenna, New York World-Telegram and Sun. Public Domain.

Maybe you think when an author finishes a book, he sends it to his publisher—one of the Big Five—who assigns the manuscript to a top-flight editor, a Maxwell Perkins type in a three-piece suit, then takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times and calls the appropriate committees (Pulitzer, Nobel, etc.). Oh, yes, a book tour of the major cities might be needed, with the author accompanied by two or three publicists and cossetted in luxury suites in four-star hotels. And then the dollars roll in, followed by movie contracts, more dollars, etc.

Well, Gentle Reader, let me assure you: 

That is NOT, unless you are Stephen King, How It Works.

Publishers do not sell books. Mostly, they can’t even spare a publicist.

But publicists do not sell books, anyway.

Editors, of course, would not be caught dead selling books.

Even bookstores do not really sell books. They merely conduct the transaction. People come into the store looking to buy books. All the store needs to do is have some on hand.

Amazon? Even more so.

So, you ask, who does sell books?

Authors.

Authors sell books.

So next time you see me, Dear Reader, I will have my foot wedged firmly in your door. And a great book in my hand. You should definitely own a copy or two. And all the members of your extended family should, too. It will make a very thoughtful Christmas or Hanukah gift.

Wish me luck.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Tip-Top in Chi-Town

I finally made it to the Cloud Room. A divine ascent, after all these years.

Taiwan map by Uwe Dedering, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

It didn’t look promising back in 1967, when I was a 22-year-old airman. We worked at midnight in a windowless compound on northern tip of Taiwan, straining to hear the calls and responses of Chinese pilots and controllers, just across the Strait. 

Some nights, however, the MiGs were quiescent, inactive. On those nights we listened to commercial radio programs relayed from the States and rebroadcast by Armed Forces Radio. 

In the depths of night an announcer boomed, “It’s Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club! Coming to you from the Cloud Room of the Beautiful Hotel Allerton on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile!”

The McNeill Experience

In the murk that enveloped the Pacific Rim in the wee hours, we heard sunshine in the voice of ever-chatty Don McNeill, who had brightened America’s mornings for thirty-five years. He was the pioneer of the concept that people coast-to-coast would listen to idle chatter interspersed with music in their waking hours. 

My mind’s eye pictured the Cloud Room of the Beautiful Hotel Allerton with walls of gleaming jasper and pillars wrought in 24-karat gold. 

It must be some swell place, judging from the staff announcer’s enthusiasm. And it was.

Ethereal Realm

Photo by Tony the Tiger, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Cloud Room, on the stately Allerton’s twenty-third floor, had been called the Tip Top Tap until it was renamed in 1963, just before McNeill’s long-beloved show took up residence there.  “TIP-TOP-TAP” in giant letters remained emblazoned across its upper stories for all Chicagoans to see. In recent years, the old name has been restored to the room itself.

Despite the “tap” in its name, the twenty-third floor has no permanent functioning bar. These days the elegant space is reserved for meetings, such as last weekend’s “Let’s Just Write!” conference sponsored by the Chicago Writers Association, which is what drew me there, after my fifty-five years of forlorn pining. 

I must say the Allerton, now the Warwick Allerton, is looking good as it approaches its 100th birthday in 2024. The twenty-third floor is divided between the Tip Top Tap on one end and two smaller, but still large, meeting rooms—the Michigan and Huron rooms—at the other. All have large, wrap-around windows affording a lordly view of downtown Chicago.

Kristin Oakley teaches Chicago writers. Larry F. Sommers photo.

It was nice to be there, especially on a sunny day. And the meeting was great, too.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23.

Get One Early–Avoid the Rush

Once upon a noontime soggy,
While I dithered, stunned and groggy,
Over many a curious item of social market lore—
As I boggled, nearly dizzy,
Suddenly I wondered, “Is he—
Is he really knocking loudly on my chamber door?
Some old kibbitzer,” I muttered,
“Knocking on my chamber door: 
Milo Bung, and nothing more.”

Here I opened wide the chamber door.

In stepped, with many a flirt and flutter, my old classmate, a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik.

“Milo!” I complained. “What brings you here?”

“Fine way to greet an old friend,” he harrumphed. 

“Well, look, old friend, I’m really busy.”

“You—busy?” He said it like it was an oxymoron.

“Trying to dope out which buttons to push in my email server to set up automatic delivery of my reader magnet through the double opt-in gizmo.” 

His eyes grew wide. “I arrived in the nick of time. You could hurt yourself on stuff like that, without supervision.”

“It’s the price we artists pay.” I sighed. “Was there something you wanted?”

He grinned and nodded. “An autograph. It’s not every day a guy knew a famous author from way back.” 

With a becoming blush of modesty, I pointed out, “Price of Passage won’t be published until August 23. We’re not even taking pre-orders yet.” 

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You know,” I said, “so I can sign your copy.”

“Oh,” Milo said, “don’t bother yourself about that.” He rummaged in his ratty old Sorbonne hoodie and pulled out a wrinkled cocktail napkin. “Just put your Hancock right here.”

I gave him the fish eye. “What about the book?”

“I’ll tape this to the inside cover,” he said. “Gotta strike while the iron is hot. If I wait till August 23 and stand in line at your launch party, I’ll get an inferior specimen.”

“How’s that?”

“Writer’s cramp,” he explained. “Just sign here.” He thrust the napkin and a black Sharpie into my hands.

In a moment of weakness, I complied. 

“Thanks,” Milo said, and skedaddled.

#

Now I can get back to banging my head on my laptop. One must suffer for art.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, due on August 23, Lord willing.

What’s in a Title?

A lot can happen in from one week to the next. 

Two weeks ago, I announced that my novel, The Maelstrom, would be published July 26. One week ago, March 1, I announced that no, it would actually be August 23. And with a new title.

As of today, the August 23 release date is still good. 

Now here is the new title: Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

And look! Here’s the cover. 

A book’s cover is key. Sometimes, the cover even drives the choice of title. 

When I first started writing this book, I just called it “the Anders and Maria book.” Eventually, I settled on Freedom’s Purchase. I did not like Freedom’s Purchase much. It seemed hyper-inflated. But it fit, because throughout this story, characters pay high prices to secure their freedom. They must give up precious things to be free and prosperous. 

When I re-wrote the book I changed it to The Maelstrom. I was thinking of a great whirlpool, like the Moskstraumen off the Norwegian coast. It seemed to capture the vortex of looming disaster that was the pre-Civil War United States.

DX Varos Publishing bought the manuscript. Publisher Daniel Willis wanted to add a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation. This would give readers more information about the nature of the story. So we were set to publish The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Several people had previously said things like, “Maelstrom? Huh?” “What’s a maelstrom?” “Is this a book about some ocean current?” In my wisdom, I had ignored such minor quibbles.

We’re Covered

A good story often has a last-minute twist, and here it is: The publisher sent me the cover art. 

It showed a railroad track in foreground, a breaking chain overhead, and a distant sky full of clouds and sunshine. The track could suggest immigration; the broken chain, liberation; the half-sunny sky, a brighter future. 

I was underwhelmed by this cover. I surfed the web frantically and found an image that embodied the dynamic tension of “maelstrom.” It was a blue-green ship in a stormy ocean, a large whirlpool churning in the foreground. I sent it to the publisher. 

He said, “Well, yes, but everybody’s going to think they’re buying a sea story.”

Curses! 

A cover is not just about symbols and metaphors. It should give the reader a clue about the actual contents.

It’s true this book includes an ocean voyage, but it’s a minor part of the story. Everything important occurs on land, in the middle of North America, far from any ocean. 

Bowing at last to common sense,  I accepted the publisher’s cover. But the title, The Maelstrom, did not match the cover image. Rereading Chapter One, I stumbled on the phrase, “price of passage.” It relates to the purchase of a transatlantic ticket to America, but it’s also a good metaphor for the costs incurred in “freedom’s purchase.” 

We ran it up the flagpole, and everybody saluted.

So now, with pride, DX Varos Publishing and Larry F. Sommers give you Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation–available for pre-order in late spring.

I’m glad to be partnered with somebody who knows what they’re doing in this business.

And that’s not all

I hereby announce the inaugural issue of The Haphazard Times, a very occasional newsletter, by email, intended to apprise you of only the most significant developments in this writer’s life.

Why should I  trouble your Inbox on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just to meet an arbitrary deadline? The Haphazard Times will appear in your email only when important events or milestones occur. Events like the opening of pre-orders for the book and other key milestones for the book or for me as a writer. Other than that, I won’t bother you. 

All you need to do to get on the mailing list for The Haphazard Times is fill in this form:

I hope you will.

Note Well: This “Keep Up!” signup is for the newsletter. The other signup, at right under “Share My Journey Week to Week,” is for email notification whenever this blog is posted. If you already receive such notices, they will continue. If you do not, but would like to, just enter your email there. But that will not get you the newsletter. I recommend taking both.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Teeny-weeny Corrections

Last week I announced in this space that my novel, The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, would be published on July 26. 

The good news is, the book is still going to be published.

The other good news is, it will have a better title. Better as in, not as confusing. Better as in, more harmonious with the art on the book’s cover. Better as in, making clearer to the reader what’s inside the covers. 

An additional piece of news is: The publication date is moved back to August 23. This is not the publisher’s fault. It turns out that the original July date coincided with a long-planned family trip. And I, the author, wanted at least to be in the country when my book came out.

Please excuse these minor confusions, Dear Reader. I have never been an about-to-be-published book author before, and I seem to be mishap-prone. It will get better, I’m somewhat sure.

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One way to keep up with the dizzying pace of developments will be to sign up for my electronic newsletter. 

“What electronic newsletter is that, O New Favorite Writer?”

I refer to the newletter I am about to launch. Once it is up and running, you may rest assured I will publicize it unmistakably on this blog. So keep on tuning in, at least once a week.

I thank you; my publisher thanks you; and this wonderful story—which highlights the contributions of immigrants and slaves to the development of our country—this wonderful story thanks you.

Until next week,

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Taking Stock

Maybe, Dear Reader, you’ve been wondering what Your New Favorite Writer’s quixotic quest for literary lionhood amounts to. 

Let’s take stock.

Just over six years ago, in January 2016, I undertook to be a full-time writer of fiction, after a lifetime of doing . . . well, other things. 

In that six years, what have I accomplished?

  • Wrote a character profile of my superannuated Siberian husky and got it published in Fetch! magazine.
  • Wrote three “Izzy Mahler” short stories published by the Saturday Evening Post. The first two were published online as part of the Post’s New Fiction Friday series (here and here); the third won Honorable Mention in the 2018 Great American Fiction Contest and was published in the e-book anthology for that year’s contest.
  • Joined a monthly writers’ mutual critique group, Tuesdays With Story, and became a regular contributor in its proceedings. This interaction with my writing colleagues, more than anything else, has helped me learn to write fiction.
  • Attended the 2018 and 2019 University of Wisconsin–Extension Writers’ Institutes, fabulous conferences where I learned a great deal about writing, the publishing world, and the writers’ tribe. I signed up for the 2020 Writers’ Institute as well, but then COVID hit, deep-sixing that very valuable annual event for 2020 and ever after. On the bright side, I plan to attend a similar conference in Chicago soon.
  • Wrote an 83,000-word historical novel, The Maelstrom, which is being considered for publication by two different independent publishers. I plan to continue querying and submitting this work until I find a publisher.
  • Wrote a 41,000-word middle-grades novel, The Mulberry Rocket Ship, on behalf of which I am about to begin querying agents and publishers. 
  • Have begun the first draft of a book-length personal memoir—tentative title: Reconnaissance: A Debriefing. I’ll keep you posted on that, Dear Reader, as it develops. 
  • Have written more than a dozen short stories, which I consider “not ready for prime time.”
  • And in April 2019 I created this blog to share my thoughts, aspirations, struggles, whimsies, and literary creations—all around the theme of “seeking fresh meanings in our commmon past.” I have usually posted once a week, with only a few misses. 

So, as you can see, I have been busy the past six years with my new writing career. And I have accomplished a great deal.

In case you’re wondering why there is not a published book, or more than one published book, to show for all these efforts, I must say: Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. 

Rome was not built in a day, nor Parnassus climbed in a similar timespan. Six years is but the twinkling of an eye in the Lit Biz.

You may know people who have already published their novels. Chances are, most of them are self-published. That’s wonderful. It means you can read their work earlier. 

Self-publication is a great thing. It allows authors to get their work in print sooner by skipping the traditional publishing industry process.

Van Gogh

I have chosen a different path, because there are only so many years ahead, and I have a lot to say.

The task of learning to write well and getting some things into decent form is so all-consuming that I cannot take time off to become a publisher as well. 

I will just have to write the best I can and try to connect with a traditional publisher. 

Remember, Emily Dickinson’s poems were all published after her death. Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. All of his critical and popular success were posthumous. If I should shuffle off this mortal coil before any book is published, at least I will have written as much, and as well, as I can. And I, for one, will still have both ears.

But fear not, Dear Reader. You may yet get a chance to purchase a deluxe edition of my works for yourself, not to mention extra copies for all your friends and family members. They will make excellent Christmas gifts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Izzy Mahler Finds True Gold

A sweet little secret of the Lit Biz—which I am about to let you in on, Dear Reader—is this: 

After giving months, or maybe years, of your life to writing an 80,000-word novel, you must then tell the story again, accurately and with zing!, in one page.

That’s only if you want anyone to have a chance to read it.

“What, one page?” I hear you cry. “Dear New Favorite Writer, that’s hardly possible.” 

You’re quite right. It’s flat-out IMpossible. Nevertheless, it’s mandatory.

The situation is not quite as bad as it seems. You can single space.

Why Is this Trip Necessary?

Agents, editors, and publishers want to see a one-page synopsis to decide whether there is any point in reading your whole manuscript. An agent or independent publisher receives a thousand or more queries a year—a query being a proffer of a new fiction manuscript the author hopes will get the green light for a traditional publishing contract. 

The agent or publisher can represent, or publish, only a handful of titles a year. A dozen, or two dozen, perhaps. So barriers are built, like the steep waterfalls and boiling fish-ladders of the Pacific Northwest that keep all but the strongest of salmon from reaching their spawning grounds and scoring the Darwinian reward of posterity.

Salmon try to leap a waterfall. Photo by Marvina Munch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain

The Synopsis

The synopsis is one of those barriers. Does it tell the whole story? Does it tell the story clearly? Is the story interesting? If not, fuhgeddaboudit.

Unlike the marketing blurb on the back cover of the book, which will give enticing hints of the story while gingerly avoiding spoilers, the synopsis—meant for publishing industry eyes only— must reveal the whole plot, including the ending. If it does the job well enough, the author’s reward is a request from the agent or publisher to send the full manuscript for review. 

Thus, you have made it over the first waterfall on your way upstream. The next waterfall is steeper. After they read the whole manuscript, they may pass. But at least your synopsis has earned you a chance at success. 

Which brings us back to the impossibility of writing your whole novel in one page. But trying to do so is actually a valuable exercise. An amazing number of characters, phrases, and plot twists must be left on the cutting room floor. What remain are only the real essentials, connected causally in whole different way from what the meandering course of the book itself required.

Izzy’s Novel

Now, Gentle Reader, I’m going to do something that’s almost never done. I’m going to give you a peek at the one-page synopsis of my new middle-grade novel about a boy named Izzy Mahler. You will see it before any agent or publisher sees it. 

WARNING: If you hope to read the book after it is published, if your memory for plot details is good, and if you can’t stand reading a story when you know what’s going to happen, AVERT YOUR EYES NOW.

For those who remain, here is the synopsis, preceded by a one-sentence logline. 

Synopsis

In 1957 Illinois, class runt Izzy Mahler just wants to become a regular kid as the world falls apart around him—but can he shield America from Sputnik, and will a secret gold mine save his struggling family?

It’s 1957. IZZY MAHLER, 12, youngest and smallest of eighth-graders in Plumb, Illinois, longs to be respected as a regular kid, not battered by bullies like LYLE HAYCOCK,13. Izzy and fellow Space Patrol afficionado COLLUM GUNDERSON, 14, find a shiny gold rock in the woods near their homes on Wry Lane. Collum swears Izzy to secrecy, because the discovery is their special thing, which Collum’s three half-brothers must not share. Emerging from the woods, they meet IRMA RUGER, 12—Izzy’s third-grade flame. Izzy keeps mum, the gold rock safe in his pocket. But the secrecy irks Izzy. If the gold is real, it could save his parents’ marriage, which  is foundering over money. He visits the public library to learn about gold, but all he garners is a couple of cool space travel books. On his way home from the library, he inadvertently goads the MORIARTY BROTHERS into a baseball game: Court Street versus Wry Lane, to be played in two weeks. Izzy recruits players for the Wry Lane team, filling out the roster with physically impaired and oddly-named MUTT-MUTT CORNER.

Izzy’s underemployed DAD, a war veteran with a science degree, goes into a part-time upholstery business with PATCH PAGELKOPF, a wise old jack-of-all-trades. Izzy interrogates a pawnbroker and learns that even a little gold is worth a lot of money. But he prays Dad’s extra cash from the upholstery sideline, on top of his night-shift job at a glass bottle factory will be enough to keep the family together, so Izzy can keep the gold secret. Time comes for the Big Game: Lyle Haycock, playing for Court Street, shoves and harries Izzy mercilessly. The fey Mutt-mutt Corner makes an oddball play to win the game for Wry Lane, closing out Izzy’s summer on a high note. In the fall, heart-stopping Irma Ruger is once more a schoolmate, adding spice to life. Things are going swell!

Sputnik. NASA photo. Public Domain.

But the glass factory lays off the midnight shift. As Izzy’s family reels from Dad’s job loss, the Russians launch SPUTNIK, the first man-made satellite—which Izzy, furious, takes as a personal insult. Now suddenly, America wants young scientists. Izzy can easily see himself as a space opera hero. He and Collum, advancing America’s space program, launch a skyrocket over the local brickyard, but a night watchman calls the cops and the boys must flee through the woods. With his parents’ marriage on the rocks again, Dad vanishes. Izzy wonders whether he’ll come back. At a science expo for young students, Izzy learns that Irma has a brighter future in science than he. MOM tries to explain to Izzy that Dad was damaged by combat, but try as he might, Izzy cannot picture Dad as a war hero. 

Dad comes home. He’s been up North and landed a new job that will make use of his science degree. Seems Dad’s wedding ring is all the gold the family needs. But Mom, Izzy, and kid sister CHRISTINE must move to Pikeport, Wisconsin—Dad’s new work site, after Christmas. Izzy is devastated. Just when he is fitting into kid society in Plumb, he gets yanked away. Walking home from the town’s Christmas pageant, Izzy ponders his improved status as a kid among kids. Lyle Haycock waylays him and starts a fight, which becomes a conversation—one in which Izzy learns the facts of life in a truly broken family. Only Dad’s new job up North can spare Izzy from sharing Lyle’s crummy fate. After Christmas, the Mahlers move to Pikeport. On their way out of town, Izzy gives his new baseball glove to Mutt-mutt Corner, wishing him a good 1958 season. Up North, Pikeport is a hard place to adjust to, but Izzy finds a couple of new friends. His morale improves when America finally manages a successful launch of its own satellite in January 1958.

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There you have it, Dear Reader—my latest book, soon to join the crowd of manuscripts battering their way upstream in the world of publishing. 

When it comes out in paperback, do yourself a favor and read it. Especially because of all the ’50s reminiscences included, it’s a fun book for grown-ups as well as kids.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood: #9

Do you recall, Dear Reader, when I said that to be a Literary Lion you must write?  Or words to that effect? Yes, that’s right: Step Two in my Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I may have neglected to mention that, even when you go on to other steps, such as getting feedback, hobnobbing with other literary lions, and submitting your work for publication, you still must continue to write.

Case in point: Your New Favorite Writer.

State of Play

At present, I am juggling multiple balls. Besides posting this blog, I have a finished historical novel manuscript, The Maelstrom, being considered by more than one traditional publisher. I am polishing another historical novel—a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Izzy Mahler, in the 1950s—and will soon begin seeking a publisher for it. I am always, of course, on the lookout for likely places to submit some of my completed short stories and poems.

But while all this is going on, I must keep writing.

Which brings us to the current project.

Memoir

Lincoln Steffens. Photo by George G. Rockwood. Public Domain.

I am writing a memoir—have written only a few thousand words of first draft so far, and I don’t know where it’s going. This in itself is odd—because you would think I’d know the story. Writing a memoir is like writing a novel, except that you generally have some idea how the novel ends. In the case of a memoir, you know the whole story in great detail but can’t figure out what parts make it a story, and what parts make it an insufferable catalog.

How does memoir differ from autobiography? They could be the same—but not always.

I like to think of an autobiography as a document written by a person of note. (That would exclude Your New Favorite Author.) Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography. Lincoln Steffens wrote an autobiography, but it’s arguably more a memoir. Harry Golden wrote many memoirs or autobiographical pieces, but they might better be considered miscellaneous collections of reminiscences. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading, but they are a different genre. 

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is a great autobiography as well as a great memoir.

Confused yet? If you’re not, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Consider: “What makes Larry F. Sommers worthy of an autobiography?” Absolutely nothing—in the sense that I’m neither Hillary Clinton nor Jon Bon Jovi. 

On the other hand, if you’re talking memoir, well—I’ve lived a long time, learned a lot of things, and have something to say. Memoir-writing guru Marion Roach Smith says memoir is about what you know after what you’ve been through. 

I’m only now beginning to understand it’s not as simple that. Maybe I’ll sign up for her course.

Structure

The structure of a memoir is crucial. I’ve got a slam-bang, surefire opening chapter—a riveting account of a reconnaissance flight from my time as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But what comes after that? How do I integrate the opening chapter with all the other things I want to include?

RC-135M reconnaissance aircraft, 1969. Public domain.

“All the other things I want to include” is a big fat hint. The trouble is, I want to leave in way too much.

In seventy-six years, one may accumulate a lot of experiences and quite a bit of wisdom. But good writing, a book you would want to read, depends on selectivity.

Every bit of my life seems tremendously significant. To tell it all would take millions of words. Even if I live another thirty years, there may not be time enough to write it all down. And then—who would read it? 

Martion Roach Smith also says that all non-fiction, memoir included, is an argument. To wield the razor effectively on one’s own narrative, one starts by knowing what the argument is. Then you only leave in that which supports it.

So here’s where it gets tricky: I don’t know what I’m trying to say, and I won’t know until I write it down. My writing is not the triumphant display of certainties already discovered but a stumbling exploration of what the past may mean. 

So in tackling a memoir, I’m being forced to change from an outliner to a pantser. I’ve got to just write, until I get a glimmer of the path forward. 

The only comfort is, you can tell is when it’s not working. You can feel when your prose is floundering. Then you need to back up and do something different.

I call this “living the dream.”

Thanks for listening, Gentle Reader.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer