Storming the Heights

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. 

A literary lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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. 

Parisian mansards by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Public Domain.

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. 

Bennett Cerf. Public Domain

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.

Clarity

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:

T.S. Eliot. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Public Domain.
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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Birth of a Book, Part 2

You were regaled last week with the tale of how I became a full-time writer and embarked on a major work of historical fiction. (If by chance you missed out on this gripping account, you can make up for lost time here.)

My novel, Freedom’s Purchase, tells of a young man, Anders, and a young woman, Maria, who sail from Norway to America and settle in Central Illinois just before the Civil War. Those were years when our nation was in great turmoil, when slave hunters roamed the prairie looking for escapees from Southern plantations, or even for free blacks they could kidnap into slavery. It was inevitable that my characters, Anders and Maria, would come in conflict with Slavery and its minions.

Anders and Maria are based on my real-life ancestors—but they are wholly fictional characters. In other words, they are not the real Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro from whom I am descended. But there is some basis, you see, in the common usages of our common past

A Norwegian woman about to start for America bidding her people farewell. Stereopticon card. From Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Immigrant Saga

While starting to work out the plot for my novel, I attended the University of Wisconsin – Continuing Studies Program’s annual “Write by the Lake” conference; my breakout was a workshop on “Know Your Genre,” taught by Laurie Scheer. We learned what genres are: Mainly, they are categories that allow agents and publishers to know how to pitch your story, and booksellers to know where to shelve it. I told Laurie my idea for a historical novel about Norwegian immigrants in the time of the Civil War. 

“An immigrant saga!” she said. 

“Yes,” I said. “That’s it.” 

She encouraged me to write it. Because of her encouragement, I started to think, “Maybe I could.”

How to Be a Writer, in 1,672 Easy Lessons

I was finding my niche. I had taken T.S. Eliot’s lines as my watchword—

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. 

By the time I began writing the first draft of Anders and Maria, I had hooked up with a great writing critique group, Tuesdays With Story. We meet twice a month, under the leadership of Jerry Peterson—to read and comment on one another’s work. This task is indispensable to any writer who is serious about developing his or her craft. You need to hear just how your work strikes someone who does not have the big advantage you have—the advantage of living inside your own mind and already knowing what it is you’re trying to convey. It’s all too easy to write things that convey to readers something other than what you intended. The Tuesdays with Story Group is a valuable backstop.

Also, to be a writer in today’s market, you must become a Major Literary Figure on day one. Besides writing and revising your own work, you spend many hours reading and commenting on other people’s work. You do theirs because they do yours; one hand washes the other. 

But you also find yourself constantly immersed in many already-published books, both within and outside of your genre. The good, the bad, and the ugly. You can learn something from each one of them, Grasshopper.

And let’s not forget magazines—The Writer and Writer’s Digest—which are de rigeur, and conferences, such as “Write by the Lake” and the UW’s annual spring Writers’ Institute. A good writers’ conference brings together hundreds of people who share this creepy compulsion to put words on paper and have people read them. 

The first time I attended the UW Writers’ Institute, in 2018, I knew right away I had found my tribe. We are all different, yet all the same. We have to write. Whether or not we’re any good at it. Whether or not we can sell it. Whether or not we grab the brass ring of fame and fortune. 

Later this month I will attend my third Writers’ Institute. I will see old friends and make new ones. I will pitch my book to bona fide literary agents and learn new and better ways to navigate the literary marketplace. 

Standing on a Platform

Above all, experts say, “an author needs a platform.” But “platform” has no exact definition. Arnold Palmer, the golfer, had a platform, only it was called an army—“Arnie’s Army,” thousands of devoted fans who showed up and paid good money to follow Arnie across any golf course, in fair weather or foul, whether he was shooting well or ill. That is a platform. 

Say you’re famous. You’re Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Wayne Gretzky, or Ellen DeGeneres. You already have a platform. Just whisper a hint that you might write a book, and top publishers will give you a seven-figure advance.

If you’re a regular person and just hope somebody will read your book, a platform is harder to come by. If you’re already a published author, that’s a start. Readers who loved your cozy mystery The Chocolate Cake Caper might also buy The Apple Pie Fiasco. But if you’re not famous and have nothing in print, then all you have is friends and family. And—what else?—Social Media.

So, about the time I started writing Freedom’s Purchase, I added a “Larry F. Sommers, Writer” page to my Facebook presence. I didn’t know what I would do with it, and in truth, I have not done much. But I use it now and then to mention some little victory or struggle in my ongoing quest as a writer. Right now there are 227 followers on that page. I also have 611 friends on my regular Facebook page. What does that mean? It just means I have friends and followers. Which is good, right? (If you’re not already a friend and follower, I invite you to hop on the bandwagon at https://www.facebook.com/larryfsommers and https://www.facebook.com/LarryFSommersWriter/.)

Into the Blogosphere

Then, about a year ago, I decided to launch this blog. Let me assure you, Kind Reader, I did not do so lightly. 

Some folks told me, “Oh, a blog is so easy! No trouble, no time, a lead-pipe cinch.” 

Well, Gentle Reader, Your New Favorite Writer is not among those who just fell off the turnip truck yesterday. No, sir. I knew it would be a grind. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished without significant time and effort.

I decided to do it anyway, because: This blog—titled “Reflections” and subtitled “seeking fresh meanings in our common past”—is not just a promotional device for my novel. Rather, it is a way to relate directly with you and others who like to read about old times and ponder what meanings we might derive from them. So it is not only a way to promote my writing; it IS my writing, so far more than 50,000 words and counting.

Though I approached the project with trepidation, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy doing it. Especially I enjoy getting hints from time to time that my work has really connected with a reader. When I read a comment on my blog, or on my Facebook page, that just makes my day. Especially when that person says, “Your story reminded me of . . .”—and then proceeds to tell me a little story from their own experience and recollection. What I wrote stimulated their thoughts about their own past and its meaning.

That is why I am doing it, friends.

So I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll spread the word to others—by mentioning this “Reflections” blog at https://LarryFSommers.com, by sharing it on Facebook, by tweeting it on Twitter, or whatever. And I hope you’ll come back often. We’ll explore a diverse range of human experiences and try to puzzle them out together. And when Freedom’s Purchase—or my new novel, which is completely different—is published, you’ll be among the first to know.

Until then, happy reading, and 

Blessings,

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!)

Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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!)