On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.
I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.
I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around.
So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.
Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.
Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.
I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future.
What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.
Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:
In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase—a historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.
It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.
Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.
Ups and Downs
It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript.
Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)
I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:
I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.
It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.
Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:
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.
Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.
What to Do?
A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.
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. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.
Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. 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.
The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.
So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?
Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read.
It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t.
He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.
“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns.
Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.
Today we resume our series, “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
Step Five: Submit
Previously, we urged you to embrace your role as literary lion, to write something, to seek honest feedback from readers that you can use to improve your text, and to form supportive friendships with fellow writers and others in the literary community.
But sooner or later, you will wish to submit your work for publication.
So here, in Step Five, we offer tips on getting your work accepted and published. Of course, you may choose to publish it yourself, as Walt Whitman and others have done. However, we shall leave self-publication for others to address.
Here we will focus on traditional publication, a process in which you need somebody—most likely a stranger, and often more than one stranger—to say yes.
Fiction and nonfiction take somewhat different paths to publication, but in all cases there are certain overarching principles you should observe.
Submit only your best work, in its most polished form.
Research the publication, publishing house, or agent to make sure you are submitting an appropriate piece.
Address the editor, publisher, or agent by name, not “Dear Editor.”
Find the applicable submission guidelines and follow them. Every periodical, book publisher, and literary agency posts submission guidelines on its website.
Communicate cordially, courteously, and professionally. Never whine.
Now let’s look at the submission processes for fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction is usually written before it is sold. You have an idea and you develop it into a manuscript that says what you want it to say. Then, with completed work in hand, you begin to shop around for a publisher.
If you have written a short story or a short-short story (“flash fiction”), the process is simple. You seek out magazines or literary journals that publish fiction, or contests that award prizes for short stories, and you submit.
Pay close attention to submission guidelines. Usually they’ll want the complete manuscript with a cover letter stating something about yourself. Most contests, and some publications, charge a small reading fee, but plenty of others do not.
Some journals and magazines pay money for short fiction, but many highly respected literary journals pay nothing. You write for the prestige of publication in their pages. But that feather in your cap may pay big dividends later.
With a whole book—a novel or novella—the process is more complex. You will pitch to a publisher, usually to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house; or you will pitch to a literary agent who might agree to represent your work to publishers.
“Why do I need an agent if I can submit directly to publishers?”
Almost all books accepted by the Big Five publishers and their many subordinate imprints come to them through established literary agents. The only practical way to sell your book to Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, or Macmillan is through an agent. That’s why you need an agent.
But here’s the Catch-22 of the publishing industry: It’s difficult for an unpublished author to get an agent.
Not that you shouldn’t try.
But while you are pitching agents, you can also pitch directly to many smaller publishers—independents, regional publishers, and specialty publishers. These presses are just as real and legitimate as the Big Five. They are more numerous, and they may be more responsive. Many books, perhaps yours, naturally “belong” with a smaller publisher.
Note: Make sure you know whether you are dealing with a traditional publisher, who will own the publication rights and pay you a small royalty on each book sold, or with a fee-based publisher who charges you money up front to publish your book.Either arrangement is okay, but a publisher who tries to take money at both ends may not be your best partner.
Whether you pitch your book to an agent or directly to a publisher, follow the submission guidelines. You will need three well-honed documents:
A one-page query letter, briefly and powerfully characterizing the contents of your book and telling a bit about yourself as author.
A synopsis of your book’s plot, about one page single-spaced—no more than about four hundred words.
The first part of your manuscript. Most publishers or agents will want to see the first ten pages; or they will ask for the first chapter or the first two chapters.
Some agents and publishers want to see only the query letter. On that basis alone, they will decide whether or not to ask for more. So make sure your query letter is great.
Some want you to send the synopsis along with the query letter. Some want the query letter, the synopsis, and the first ten pages. Send what they ask for—no more, no less.
Do not throw these documents together casually or on the spur of the moment. Put as much work into their composition as you gave to the manuscript itself.
It will seem unfair that, having spent a year or more writing an 80,000-word book, you must now encapsulate the same story in a synopsis of 400 words! But remember, Dear Reader, life is not always fair. And a great 400-word synopsis may get an agent or editor to read your 80,000-word book. So get to it.
Since agents and editors may take their first impression of your work from its first ten pages, you might think it’s a good idea to go back and revise the first ten pages one more time, to make them as compelling as possible. If that’s what you think, you would be correct. Make it so.
Oh! And then, by the way, go back one more time and make the rest of the book as good as the first ten pages.
Remember, we said these steps to literary stardom were simple. We never promised they would be easy.
What if you write nonfiction?
If your nonfiction is of the special kind known as personal memoirs, the submission path for most agents and publishers will resemble that of fiction.
All other types of nonfiction follow a different path.
The model for nonfiction is: Pitch the work first, get a deal—or at least an understanding—and then write it.
If you’re thinking about a short piece like a magazine article, send the editor of the magazine a brief query letter—usually by email—describing the content of the article you hope to write, pointing out its timeliness and likely appeal to readers, and stating your qualifications as its author.
Give the editor a fair amount of time to respond—at least a couple of weeks—before following up with a cordial note reminding her or him of your original query.
If the editor says no, say “Thank you” and move on.
If you get a positive response, it will come in one of two forms. You may receive a definite assignment, which is an offer to buy the article, provided you write and submit it by a given deadline. The editor will specify a “kill fee” to be paid if you deliver the piece as promised but for some reason it is not published.
Formal assignments usually go to established writers. The next best thing is a general statement of interest, such as, “Yes, we’d like to see it.” Such a statement does not guarantee your piece will be bought and published, but it means the editor would like to publish a piece like the one you have proposed, if it’s well done.
If an editor says, “Yes, we’d like to see it,” your best move is to get back to the editor right away to seek further guidance. Is he or she looking for any particular angle? What is the preferred length? Is there any sensitive area where you should tread lightly? When the editor answers even one or two intelligent questions of this nature, you now have a blueprint for the piece. Write the article as specified in that conversation, and how can the editor say no?
What if you want to write a whole nonfiction book?
The same approach applies. You pitch the general idea and get a commitment before you write the work.
Instead of a magazine editor, you will pitch to a book publisher or a literary agent.
And instead of a simple query letter, you will submit a book proposal—a multi-page document outlining the book’s scope, organization, potential audience, and marketing possibilities. The publisher or agent may give you a very specific format for submitting this information. If not, there are good books and articles readily available on how to prepare a book proposal.
A successful proposal will result in a publishing contract. You will then need to write the book and turn in the manuscript by a date certain. Contract provisions will cover what happens in the event of non-performance by you or the publisher or in the event of creative differences with respect to your execution of the work.
“Can I submit the same material to multiple publishers or agents at the same time?”
Yes, or no.
Pay close attention to what you read on the publisher’s or agent’s website, and use common sense.
Agents receive thousands of queries. Even the most conscientious agents are sorely tasked to respond to all of these queries. Many say, right on their website, “If you do not hear from us within eight weeks, consider that a pass.” If you are an unrepresented author sending a cold query, you need not wait for an agent’s rejection before querying another agent. However, do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.
Some journals want to have time to read your short story before you submit it elsewhere. They don’t want to invest time and effort evaluating your work, only to learn someone else has bought it. So if they promise to respond within a period you can live with, submit the piece and respect the editor’s prerogative.
Other publications are okay with simultaneous submissions, asking only that you let them know promptly if the piece is accepted elsewhere.
Book publishers live in a world of simultaneous submissions. In fact, some agents, when in possession of a great manuscript, will try to start a bidding war between two or more publishers. If you’re querying publishers directly, you may do the same.
Keeping track of what’s okay with whom is part of your job as a writer. Let your conscience be your guide. Treat others as you would like to be treated, but remember that you and your work work have value.
A Final Thought
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short pieces or books, the process of seeking publication is frustrating because (1) there are thousands of worthy manuscripts seeking publication and (2) the market for literary content is highly specific and differentiated.
Each agent or editor has a particular list of wants and preferences, which your piece may not match. That does not mean your work is worthless.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times before finding a publisher. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance scored 121 rejections. Both of these books became classics and sold millions of copies. Persist. You only need one agent or editor who lights up when reading your work.
But here’s something to think about. If it will take 300 submissions to get your work accepted, what would happen if you went back over your query letter, your synopsis, and your manuscript itself, and made them even better than they are now?
Maybe you would cut that down to 100 rejections. Just sayin’.
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.
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 soeasy! 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.
Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?
All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write.
Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter.
I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey?
Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.
I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.
Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold.
I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.
I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started.
For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life! . . . . . . but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things . . . .
New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?
A New Chapter
There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.
The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:
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.
Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.
I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.
“Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016.
But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.
A Novel Obsession
My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award.
Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”
So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois.
Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.
I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!
We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War.
To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences.
Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway.
He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.
What a novel this would make.
The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast.
Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?
Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!
On page 153 of wildlife scientist Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, nineteen-year-old Kya Clark—the “Marsh Girl” of a certain section of the Carolina coast—recalls a poem by “a lesser-known poet,” Amanda Hamilton:
Love is a caged beast,
Eating its own flesh.
Love must be free to wander,
To land upon its chosen shore
Bits of Amanda Hamilton’s poetry recur throughout the book; and though the fictitious poet does not play a large part in the story, the six lines just quoted could well stand as the Marsh Girl’s personal manifesto. For Kya Clark’s story is one of isolation, of love frustrated, and of a huge conflict between hoped-for relation and indispensable freedom.
Abandoned by parents and siblings, spurned as “swamp trash” by the larger community, possessed of tenuous alliances with a handful of individuals, Kya raises herself. She marches to her own tune, responds to Nature in all its variety. She collects feathers, shells, leaves, and other wild things; eventually she builds a catalog of her collection. She delves ever deeper into her wetlands environment to go “where the crawdads sing.”
Crawdads (which you may know as crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies) do not actually sing. But an imagined place where crawdads do sing is the author’s symbol for mystic union with Nature. The quest for that union turns out to be, after a host of disappointments in her relations with the human race, Kya’s only constant chord of survival energy.
Along the way she learns a great deal, becomes an acknowledged authority on the life of the marsh, and forms romantic relationships with two men (yes, a sort of love triangle)—one of which works out better than the other. However far life takes her, however, it is the quest to go where the crawdads sing that defines her.
Much else in this book will entertain and delight the reader: sudden death, mayhem, police procedures, courtroom drama, and the verses of Amanda Hamilton and others. At its heart is the story of the Marsh Girl, a remarkable woman who remains an enigma to the end. Speaking of which, do make sure you read all the way to the end. Even at that point, you may be surprised.
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.
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.
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.