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.
This fait accompli of Lionhood became clear to me in mid-2020, with the Great American Novel still unpublished. I posted a blog series titled “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
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.
But it’s how I’m doing it.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer