Success in any endeavor is defined by the doing. The act of doing. The skill in doing. The manner of doing. The time and place of doing.
Most of all: the dedication and constancy with which the thing is done.
Seven years ago, I set out to become a serious writer.
I had retired once and then retired again. By January 2016, I was free to do what I had always wanted to do: Write.
Hardly knowing what I was about, I had set my course to become a Literary Lion.
(Gentle Reader, you may have heard me sing this song before, but it’s worth a reprise in a different key, if only to get newcomers up to speed.)
How to Build on Small Victories?
In 2016, Fetch! magazine published (and paid for) a whimsical essay I wrote about our old Siberian husky. In the same year, and again in 2017 and 2018, the Saturday Evening Post web-published three of my short stories about Izzy Mahler, a boy growing up in the 1950s. Light reading, yes—but chosen for publication over hundreds of competing submissions.
I began to think of a big historical novel based on my great-great-grandparents who emigrated from Norway in the 1850s. By early 2017 I was ready to start writing chapters.
It takes perseverance to write a novel. How could I sustain my purpose through this lonely quest?
Some writers may thrive as solitary artists, scratching out stories by midnight oil in a Gothic mansion, or under a gray mansard in some bohemian arrondissement of Paris. But I am not one of them. I can’t work in a vacuum. I need the stimulation of other minds and the encouragement of those farther along the path.
The University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies Writing Program, now defunct, was then in fullest flower. I attended its writers’ conferences in 2016, 2018, and 2019. At such events you can learn craft.
You learn about marketing. You befriend others who, whatever their topic or genre, share a great obsession with you. They are writers. You have found your tribe.
I also joined two smaller groups, mutual critique groups. With regular meetings in a more intimate setting, members of such a group read and critique one another’s material. You learn how your work strikes readers. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And again, you form friendships.
To Blog or Not to Blog: That is the Question
In our critique sessions, we sometimes discussed marketing. Most writers love writing—or, at least, feel compelled to write. We tend to approach marketing, however, with loathing and trepidation.
Yet, marketing is unavoidable. You want people to read your work. That means it must find publication. And, once published, it must find its audience.
No fairy godmother—no genie with the gentle smile of Bennett Cerf plus angel wings and a magic wand—is going to swoop down, pluck your manuscript from obscurity, and add it to the Modern Library. You, the writer, having gone to the trouble of filling the pond with water, must also round up the horses, bring them to the pond’s margin, and cause them to drink.
We have little clue how to do this. But the notion that gnaws at our hearts is that social media equals marketing. To a geezer like me, that concept represented a dreadful imposition. Once I set foot on the slippery path of social media, how many hours of writing time would be devoured by constant, compulsive tweets, posts, and links?
Of all web-based avenues, blogging seemed the wisest, if only because it was a longer form. What could I say, worth saying, in 140 characters? Or even 280? It seemed I would need to invest a day or two each week to write a blog post that anybody would want to read.
But how would I come up with topics? And even if I found things to blog about, why do it at all? How would this help me sell my REAL writing—my great American novel?
In our Tuesdays With Story writing group, Jerry Peterson, a great mentor, said something I did not expect. “If you think you’d like to blog, you could give it a try,” he said. “And consider that blog posts are one part of your writing—not just a gimmick to sell your other writing.”
So I plunged into the blogging world on April 12, 2019.
I had little idea what blogging could do for me.
One thing it did immediately was to impose a clarity that had been lacking before.
My friend Dan Blank is an apostle of clarity. He uses a simple exercise with index cards, which he calls “Clarity Cards.” He urges creators to assess their goals and purposes at frequent intervals to gain clarity on their main channels of endeavor. It is, as billed, a clarifying thing to do.
Just to design the front end of a WordPress blog site, I needed to clarify my thoughts about what I am trying to do as a writer. I knew it was all tangled up with the past, since I always want to write historical fiction.
I had a sense that history is not just dead events, inexorably receding on the conveyor belt of time. History, though consigned to the past, also lives in the present. We live in the midst of history. We never get clear of our history.
T.S. Eliot wrote a brilliant definition of what I want to do:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. —from “Little Gidding”
I want to take readers into the past with me so that we may return having learned something that helps us be ourselves in the present.
So I came up with the title “Reflections” for my blog—because it’s a reflective endeavor—and the slug line “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
We all have individual histories, but there is also a collective past—a background we all own together. The more fully we know this, the more human we will be.
Dedication and Constancy
Since beginning this blog in 2019, I have published my debut historical novel, Price of Passage. Diane Donovan, senior reviewer for Midwest Book Review, called it “just the ticket for an absorbing tale of evolution and enlightenment.”
I have completed a middle grade historical novel, Izzy Strikes Gold!, and have begun querying agents on its behalf. When I read it aloud recently to the members of my grandson’s fifth-grade class, they were engaged and asked lots of questions.
I am now writing early chapters of a Word War II historical novel (for adults), as yet untitled, about two brothers with an intense rivalry. My writing coach, Christine DeSmet, Distinguished Faculty Associate, UW-Madison Continuing Studies, thinks my plot outline has enough substance to support a good book.
And oh, by the way, I have added 193 posts to the blog, for a total of about 200,000 words. You are reading post number 194. My fear of not having enough material proved groundless. It turns out the more you write, the more you can write.
Laurie Scheer, former director, UW-Madison Writers’ Institute 2010-2021 and co-founder, New Nature Writers, has called it “one of the best writer’s blogs on the planet.” And Christine DeSmet agrees, saying, “Sign up, people! It’s an amazing blog.”
So Jerry Peterson was right. This little endeavor, far from being a sales gimmick, has turned out to be a worthy endeavor of its own. For this reason I have begun to publicize Laurie’s and Christine’s kind comments about this blog. That publicity has gained the blog some readers.
But know, Kind Reader, that you are still among a select few. In a good week, my blog is read by a hundred readers, many of them repeat customers. EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD does not know what they’re missing.
About the “Reflections” Blog
If you’re new to this blog, you may wish to sample a few previous posts. You can navigate there using the “Search . . .” box at upper right, or via the ARCHIVES, organized by month, farther down the right-hand menu.
The posts are not all of one kind.
- Some, like this one, speak of my writing journey.
- Some address writers’ concerns more generally, such as “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
- Many are family stories, or personal recollections of the past, like “Life on the Vermilion.”
- Some focus on traditional historical content, for example “General Grant.”
- Some are literary, for example my very popular review of Where the Crawdads Sing.
- There are some writing samples, like the short story “Encounters With Monsters” and the poem “Blood Quarrel.”
- Some can only be called general commentary on our times. These are not exactly political, but they may raise political topics or questions, as in “No. We’re Not.”
- A few are overtly religious, such as “A Meditation.”
- Some few posts expose the haps and occasional mishaps of my old friend Milo Bung, a third cousin of Slats Grobnik and direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready.
- Numerous others, no doubt, elude easy classification.
If, starting today, you went through the archive month by month and read one post a day, you would be up to date in less than a year. Now, that would be dedication!
I hope you enjoy these posts. If you do, spread the word. And buy Price of Passage. Thank you kindly.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)