I have to admit that I’ve been surprised that THE HAG RIDER is almost universally liked. It appeals to both adult readers and YA readers.
Yes, it’s about the Civil War and yes, it’s about a Confederate soldier, but it’s also about his struggle to come to terms with his conflicted viewpoints. And through it all, he is protected by a slave witch hired by his best friend and mentor, another slave. His allegiance is not to the South, it is to his soldier brothers for whom the war is camp duty and friendship.
Give it a try. It’s free May 18-21.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC. His next novel, Harmon Creek, is due out in June 2022 http://tfenske.com
Harmon Creek opens with a man sitting uncomfortably in court. We find out his name is Claude, and Earl Swanger is his attorney. Claude is a black man at odds with the world he lives in. He was arrested for petty bootlegging during prohibition and the sitting District Attorney is prosecuting him like a hardened criminal. Why? Because Claude is represented by his opponent in an upcoming election.
Claude is not part of the real story, at least as far as I know, but he’s based on a real person. My wife knew the real Claude much later when she’d visit the house of Earl’s widow, Lily May. He was a common presence in the house and on the property. The two had an interesting relationship. Well, relationship is probably the wrong word because there was nothing romantic here. He was a neighbor who had an uncommon devotion to “Miss Lily May” … he was more friend than a handyman and he certainly did a lot of work for her, but for the mid-Twentieth Century in a racially divided America it was certainly a kind of Driving Miss Daisy sort of friendship. Knowing this man was one of my wife’s fondest memories of her visits.
I have always been intrigued by this notion, so I endeavored to add Claude to the equation to perhaps inject some sense to it, at least in my mind. Also, the character Claude adds a great deal of depth to the story and creates a side-story that interweaves with the rest of the novel to make it more compelling, or at least I hope so. In most ways, it is as much Claude’s story as it is Earl’s.
Although the family thought Earl’s death was outright murder, after digesting as many facts as I could, I didn’t think so. I’ve studied murders and although some are cut and dried, most revolve around something quite different, more likely a misunderstanding that got out of hand.
Some of the later witness statements devolved into insinuations by the mysterious woman that Earl had perhaps been drunk or possibly had been behaving inappropriately with her. She apparently changed her story several times, with each iteration becoming more prone to the latter notion.
Please understand, I’ve read family letters both from him and about him, and this man was a nice guy, not prone to cheat on his wife, certainly not a drunk, and anyway, to do so in the middle of a campaign would be political suicide. I also didn’t think an incumbent would be so stupid as to assassinate an opponent. It’s too obvious.
Cheating? I mean, this was a small town, and Miss Lily May was out campaigning for Earl in another section of the district. It was getting into the final stretch. No, this was out of character for this guy.
Ah, but a setup…that would work. Even a somewhat dirty DA wouldn’t be above hiring someone to lure his opponent into the appearances of impropriety. Once I created this premise, the rest of it pretty much wrote itself. I had a backdrop of truth to paint my story against and the increasingly sordid tale meandered across several of the complications that naturally follow these types of crimes.
It’s an old motif. Witnesses who can’t keep quiet, or who you can’t trust completely, must be kept quiet by whatever means. And if the DA is dirty, he’s probably in cahoots with organized crime, which wasn’t just active in Chicago and New York; Huntsville TX sits within the range of a major organization operating out of Galveston at the time. Similar operations existed in Dallas and New Orleans. It makes sense that if there is unwanted attention in even a backwoods part of the operation, it is in these organization’s best interest to help smooth the waters and, if necessary, help each other in the process.
I don’t want to spoil the fun … you’ll just have to read it!
Thomas Fenske is a novelist living in North Carolina.
Look for HARMON CREEK in June 2022 on Amazon or ask your favorite bookstore to order it.
The basic premise of Harmon Creek revolves around the death of Earl Swanger, a Texas attorney seeking political office in 1930. His quest for the office of District Attorney was cut short when he ended up dead next to an under-construction bridge.
I first heard about this from my wife Gretchen. Earl Swanger was her great-uncle, he was the brother of her maternal grandmother. She grew up with stories about Earl, or Buddie as they called him. The family’s opinion definitely tended toward a politically motivated murder.
When I delved into the case by looking for existing newspaper accounts of the incident, I was surprised at the apparent flurry of these articles. The first headline that caught my eye was from the Bryan Daily Eagle, July 10, 1930:
HUNTSVILLE ATTORNEY, CANDIDATE FOR DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOUND DEAD UNDER BRIDGE, WAS STABBED, AUTOPSY SHOWS
That’s interesting enough, but let’s take a look at the accompanying article:
HUNTSVILLE, July 10 AP
An autopsy performed on the body of Earl R. Swanger, 37, candidate for district attorney, found beneath his wrecked automobile, under the Harmon Creek bridge, revealed three stab wounds, officers announced late Wednesday.
Dr. J. L. Martin, who conducted the investigation, said one of the wounds was in the chest, one above the collar bone, and one on the shoulder. He said a large blood vessel had been severed by one of the cuts and that Swanger had bled profusely inwardly. Dr. Martin said the wounds could have caused Swanger’s death.
The coroner’s verdict was withheld pending a further investigation in connection with Swanger’s death.
Swanger, who was formerly county attorney of Leon county had been electioneering in Trinity county and was en route home when he was killed, officers believed. At first, it was thought his car had plunged from the bridge accidentally.
HOUSTON, July 10 AP
A woman who left Huntsville Tuesday night with Earl R. Swanger in his car for Trinity was questioned late Wednesday at her home in Trinity by Sheriff N.L. Speer.
Swanger’s body, with three stab wounds, was found beneath a wrecked car near Huntsville this morning.
She said she had been to Huntsville on business, and had accepted Mr. Swanger’s invitation to ride back to Trinity with him.
She said that en route to her home a man who she knew drove up behind them, and that she decided to complete the trip with him instead of Mr. Swanger. She said that she got out of the car and that Mr. Swanger proceeded to Trinity.
She did not even know that Mr. Swanger was dead until informed by the sheriff, she said.
The county attorney’s force, headed by County Attorney R.T. Burns and Justice of the Peace R.J. Camp, in addition to Sheriff Speer and his deputies, are conducting a probe into the candidate’s mysterious death.
You can see that this story was pulled from the Associated Press news feed. I found many similar articles from small-town newspapers in the Texas area. The death of a political candidate was big news. It even got a huge headline in The Houston Post-Dispatch: TEXAS CANDIDATE MURDERED ON ROAD.
All the early articles had the same basic information: apparent stab wound along with a mysterious woman and man. By the next day, it was reported that the sheriff overruled the other county officials and pushed for the official explanation of the death to be ruled an accident. I think this was when I first started to realize that things were very fishy with this story. His reason? He said the wounds were caused by nails from the construction. This ruling was less than forty-eight hours after the death.
There were other details, to be sure, but they were inconsistent throughout the stories. In a couple, the woman claims she “didn’t kill him but if she could have she would have.” There was also a mention of a possible previous altercation with a man from Houston. I know enough about journalism to know that newswire articles were often embellished, especially at the time.
The most intriguing aspect of the story was how quickly it faded from the public eye. The story disappeared from the news less than two weeks after it was first reported. I mean, gone, disappeared, kaput, nada.
I’ve written murder mysteries, and this seemed to me to be a fertile ground to be explored. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a true story in there too, but I’m a novelist, not an investigative journalist. So, I dusted off my plot generator and percolated all the known facts into what I think is believable crime fiction: Harmon Creek.
More next time!
Thomas Fenske is a novelist living in North Carolina. Look for Harmon Creek in June, 2022.http://tfenske.com
Today at 12PM EDT my friend and fellow writer Staci Morrison will be hosting an event on Facebook to celebrate both the one year anniversary of the inauguration of her MILLENNIUM epic fantasy series AND the publication of the fourth volume in that series, Sword OF THE SPIRIT.
Congratulations to Staci … four books in one year is quite an accomplishment!
I’ll be participating at 1PM EDT with some information about my own books … You can join at 12 for Staci or you can join at 1 to see what I have to offer. Other authors will be participating. There will be drawings for free books and some other stuff as well. I’ll be giving away a copy of THE HAG RIDER!
First things first. I realized after pushing out my last post that I neglected a few things about web site development. I’m trying to remember the first web site I created, but it was way back. 1992 or 1993. You read that right. I had a web site before most people knew the wide wide world of webs even existed. I created it by hand. I remember a colleague who I shared it with asked me “what book did you use?”
I blinked. “Book?”
Anyway, using tools to build websites is a new thing. And moving to a single page format like my cheap new web hosting site requires a bit of tweaking to get it right. But I can use things through links. Like it links this blog just great. And I have a perfectly good Amazon Author Page out there, listing all of my books. They pay developers six figure salaries to do a better job than I could ever do with my multiple book pages on my old site.
Enough about that. Here I am a little more than five weeks out and I am slowly gearing up my massive marketing machine. That’s how it feels sometimes. I often tell people that writing a novel is hard, revising the manuscript is harder, and marketing the sucker kicks me in the ass. Yet, with this being my sixth novel, I’ve learned a few things.
There are plenty of people waiting in the wings just dying to take my hard earned money and help me market my new release. I call most of them “preaching to the choir” services. They prey upon authors and, sadly, most of their focus is to other authors. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that in order to be a good author one must read a lot. But in my experience, most newer authors don’t read very much in the realm of other newer authors. Some do, (and I love you very much) but most don’t.
Then there is the whole eBook/print book thing. My small press is geared primarily toward eBooks, although print books are available and, more recently, available at places beyond Amazon. More on that later. I still don’t understand the aversion to eBooks. I’ve actually read more since I embraced eBooks than I had for years. My Kindle App is loaded on both my tablet and my phone, and it keeps my place on both. If you’ve ever been stuck waiting some place and wish you had something besides a two year old weathered magazine to read, well, pull out your phone and you can just start reading.
Anyway, the key to actually making money in the book biz focuses on getting your books into bookstores. It’s a tough nut to crack for unknown authors. I worked in scholarly publishing for 20+ years and can tell you this: you have to be able to carpet bomb them and that takes capital. See, when bookstores order twenty copies of your book in the hopes that it will sell, they expect that they will be able to return the unsold stock for full credit if the books don’t sell. Huge publishers absorb this cost of doing business. For every best seller they likely have dozens of not-so-best-sellers. Small presses and Indie authors can not compete on a national level so we have to resort to … well, whatever the hell we can.
Here. Now. Me. This. This is what I am doing here, trying to entertain you in a lame attempt to get you to remember my name and even better, my new release, HARMON CREEK. See what I did there? I put in a link. New authors take note. EVERY TIME YOU MENTION YOUR BOOK, put in a link. I don’t have a sales link yet, so I put in a link to a book page I set up on my old website. I have lost count of the book tweets and Facebook posts with authors mentioning “my new book” and they will say “available at Amazon” … yet NO LINK! I should already be navigating there. I guess I should search for you or your book? Really?
Another thing that helps is catchy graphics. Believe it or not, that was originally the purpose of this post, to illustrate the importance of catchy graphics. I’m a writer, not a graphic artist. I do, however, have visual representations that pop into my punkin haid from time to time. All of my book covers were first conceptualized by me. Thankfully, all but one were actually designed by someone who knew what they were doing. The lone cover I designed myself is my free cookbook (companion to my adventure mystery series) and it shows. But I think it matches the cookbook itself, which was designed to mimic the type of local self-produced cookbooks one might find in a rural cafe in the 1980s. I collect vintage cookbooks, I know that genre well. What I came up with, in my lame and crude attempt at design was this:
My book cover, surrounded by true life headlines relating to the primary subject matter of the book itself. Not too bad but I knew it could be better. Enter my awesome and talented daughter Audrey. Dancer turned social media expert that she is, she took my photoshop file and made it into something truly inspiring:
Same cover photo, same headlines, but she knew how to do things I did not and she made it both visually stunning and, well, amazing.
So, basically, what I wanted people to know was that the book is based on a true story. It’s personal to our family as well, the subject was her great-great uncle, her mother’s great uncle. I’ll be sharing more about the back story in coming posts, so stay tuned.
Thomas Fenske is an author living in North Carolina. More information here: https://tfenske.com
I just finished what I call the galley reviews for my June release, HARMON CREEK. Some people might call them the page proofs. What that means is that the book is in the pipeline and it will be foisted upon an unsuspecting public come June 1, or thereabouts.
My media savvy daughter reviewed some materials of mine (I’ve been book marketing for going on seven years now, but still consider myself a rank amateur). Two things she pointed out were my “yahoo” email address (been using it for over twenty years), and my book’s web page domain (thefensk.com).
I’ve used “thefensk” as a marker for a long time. I think it was originally a suggested username on some web site and I liked it. It is flippant and fun, but it doesn’t convey a sense of professionalism. With my new book coming out I want to embrace professionalism.
Sadly, I just renewed my current web provider for two years and also renewed the domain. But that’s too long to wait. They also charge a lot extra for an email address in that domain. So, my other option was to find a good intro deal for a new host, and one that would be more cost effective in the coming years. I was successful on both fronts … so although I’ll still update what I call my legacy site for the foreseeable future, I also have a more forward-looking NEW SITE located at https://tfenske.com!
I’ll be using the new site for most promotion aspects and I could certainly use a lot of help getting it established in search engines, so please click on the link!!!! Yes, this link: https://tfenske.com
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC … look for his new release, HARMON CREEK in June. More information on this and his other books can be found by starting here: https://tfenske.com
I was in new territory. I had a contract with a small independent press. Very soon I received the edited copy, which meant I had to do something I’d never done before. Now you should know that I had worked with personal computers since, well, since the very beginning. I cut my teeth on WordStar on an ancient CP/M machine. If you don’t know what that is, it’s not surprising. We’re talking old, old stuff. But it was a good intro into word processing and I’ve progressed in that regard since then. I’ve used probably a half dozen word processors. There is no secret that Microsoft Word is the apparent standard, it’s the best overall. Cost is an issue, I know, but you should understand that IT is what the publishing world wants to use. Sure, there are converters and such, but when you get that edited copy back, IN WORD, you’re going to want to be able to work IN WORD.
The edits are embedded in the text using a built-in feature. I knew this was there, I’d been using Word for twenty plus years, but I’d never used it, so I had to teach myself to do so, like yesterday. I was under the gun. They had given me, a fledgling, less than one month to devour all of the prerequisite steps and jump out of the nest. I’m a quick study and I quickly ran through the edits, approving suggested changes or altering as I went along. You have to alter in the edit mode, so the editor can in turn approve your changes. It’s a partnership at this point. The process is tedious, but after a couple of quick back and forth operations, both the editor and I agreed on the manuscript.
Then I waited. Well, not completely. Then I hastily filled out a form from the publisher. It contained a lot of things I’d never even thought of and I tell you this now. Think about these things before you are ready to submit. You should have a few ideas about cover elements before you ever get to the publishing step. You should also be well-set in your concept of genre, something I sort of glossed over. It is surprising to see aspiring writers with no sense of genre. Literary fiction? That’s like setting up your friend with a blind date and saying they “have a good personality.”
I concocted a dedication and “acknowledgment” mention. You also need to come up with meta-tags. If you don’t know what those are, do some research and think about them NOW. Then the dreaded tag lines and descriptions and blurbs. They also want review quotes, but that’s just like rubbing it in for a new author. Reviews? It’s not published yet. Anyway, these short descriptions are the bane of many an author. We can slam out 90,000 words but are stumped by conveying the gist of the story in a mere 200. (Hint: practice the elevator pitch, you are trying to convince someone to read your book while going up a few floors in an elevator). I struggled but completed the task.
A rushed cover design was submitted to me. Early on I had figured I’d be self-publishing and had secured the rights to an awesome photo, taken in the same general area where the action of the novel takes place. The cover was presented to me. It looked good. I approved. Another step was complete.
While all of this was taking place the copyeditor was going over the text. In a short time, I was soon sent a PDF of the actual book, with the cover, a title page, copyright page, dedication, and then the book itself. In publishing terms this is called a galley. It looked great. I was flush with a sense of accomplishment. Then I read the fine print. I had to review it. Quickly. Time was short. Earlier I mentioned that the edits were tedious. They were nothing compared to the galley review. Line by line, page by page, chapter by chapter. I found perhaps 40 or 50 errors, all of which I detailed in a separate Word document called an errata, copying the line as it appeared, followed by a new line with the correction. This was my first time. It took me almost three days because it is brain numbing work the first time (takes me less time now).
I made a big mistake in this process, compounded by another after the fact. One, I didn’t know one should review EVERYTHING. I reviewed just the manuscript portion. Trust me. Review everything. I’ll tell you why in a moment. The second mistake came when I received the corrected galley as an attachment. As it happened, I was working full-time and I got really busy at work, so I felt confident that all was done and the book would be published on time. Here’s a word of advice: ALWAYS CHECK THE CORRECTED GALLEY. Go through your errata list and make sure each and every correction has been made. Even now, after five published books, I know to review the corrections, and with every book I find a few minor errors were made in applying the corrections, usually one or two. This re-check takes a few minutes and it is well worth it. But this first time, I didn’t know that. I skipped it. More on this soon.
Publication day came and that was when it finally dawned on me that the most daunting task of any author had come to a head. These days I describe authorship this way. Writing a novel is hard. Revision is harder. Marketing the sucker kicks me in the ass. It’s as true now as it was then, except then I had absolutely no clue on how to proceed. See, with a big trade publisher, they’ll shepherd you through the process. They spend money on it and do a lot of background. They invest in the product. But even then, YOU have to do a lot yourself. With a small indie publisher, it’s pretty much up to you. First timer? You have to build from the ground up. So I did what anybody would do in 2015. I googled it. Oh, a web page? I can do that. I had a web page before most people knew they even existed. Facebook book page? Easy. Slowly I built an infrastructure, even this blog was part of that process (although I’ve changed the name a couple of times).
Still, sales were slow, mostly friends and family. Then I got the first bad news. My name was misspelled on the title page (but thankfully not on the cover). I was in horror. It was actually my mistake or two mistakes. In my rush to fill out the author form apparently, one pesky key had stuck and omitted itself from my name. I hadn’t read it over. Then, in the galley review, well, remember when I said check EVERYTHING? I should have caught it then. Yes, we can hope that others will catch things down the line, but ultimately, the blame comes down to me for not completely reviewing the galleys. Guess which thing I check first now? Anyway, if you bought one of those early paperbacks you have a collector’s item. The publisher agreed to fix it. Luckily with Print-on-Demand paperbacks, the damage is minimal and ebooks are easy.
Readers were reporting more errors. Lots of errors. Familiar errors. This time it was the publisher’s fault. In their haste they had uploaded the wrong file, the UNCORRECTED galley. Again, if I had checked the galley after the corrections, I would have seen it immediately, page one. This one was trickier. They didn’t believe this could have happened. I spent a week convincing them. They had already corrected the name and they had a policy of not wanting to correct every little thing. After all, they had new books for the coming month to work on. In the meantime, I had ceased my lame marketing attempts waiting for the corrections. Finally, they took a look at what I was sending them and realized I was right and it had been their error. Double-checking the galley is not even suggested, that’s my own new rule. Finally, 3 1/2 weeks in, I had the corrected book in print. There were a few other hiccups with the book, but from then on, I considered myself a successful author.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. You can find information on his books here: http://thefensk.com
Oops, there was a longer break than I intended due to a computer issue. My new system is up and running, so now I’m back. Last time out I left off with the thought that I started in again on THE FEVER after taking a break to write another draft. That draft was shelved for five years until it became my fourth published novel, THE HAG RIDER, but that is another story. Now, let’s get back to THE FEVER.
I began yet another revision process on THE FEVER and I felt very confident in it. As I mentioned before, previous revisions had ballooned the story to over 130,000 words, but I now had it down to a more manageable 95,000. In late January I felt confident enough to submit my work to a small publisher recommended by one of my NaNoWriMo writing buddies. She’d suggested it the year before but I hadn’t felt confident enough to try, plus that publisher at the time concentrated on their own PDF eBooks. Now they had joined the mainstream and published through a wide range of platforms.
Nothing for a month. Then I got a phone call from an editor. It seems I hadn’t answered her emails.
“What? I didn’t receive any emails.”
I checked my SPAM folder and saw nothing. She finally determined that the problem was on her end. She was calling because she was interested. BUT …
Ah, the dreaded “but” we all hate to hear. There was a major problem. Too much narrative, especially in the section where the main character is preparing for his biggest ordeal. Now understand, THE FEVER is about a character’s singular adventure. It’s a one-person show for the most part. There are minor secondary characters but his lone quest is the entire point of the story. She considered the necessary changes to be fairly trivial and gave me specific chapters to concentrate on.
I had shared the story with a few beta readers and one had complained about the narrative problem. I should have listened to them (listen to your beta-readers!). Another complaint was a minor interaction with a woman he had during one crisis point. It wasn’t believable, several had said. As these thoughts percolated through my mind, I concocted a significant plot revision. I reworked the encounter into a love interest, and the character had someone to work with him during his preparations. This change also facilitated an added twist later in the story, which was also a suggestion of the first beta reader.
It took two more complete revision passes, one to put the changes into effect, and one to make sure all the transitions meshed with the current prose and worked, then I waited for the same beta readers to respond. I’ll never forget the response from one of them. They sent a one-word message. “OMG!”
The editor had almost given up on me, but I explained that in effecting her changes, I had concocted some new plot elements that added a lot to the story while solving the problem she had mentioned. After reading, she said she was impressed. She offered me a contract. It was late May 2015.
Now there are four major paths to getting published. One is the traditional path, where a writer interests an agent or more rarely directly interests a major publisher. For most writers this is just about as accessible as getting a contract to play in professional sports. It is a preferred way, but it’s a long, slow, uphill climb. Second is succumbing to the lure of the vanity press. Big mistake. Don’t do it. You pay and pay and pay and end up with boxes of books in your garage that you have to move to high ground every time it floods. Lately vanity presses try to hide behind a rebranding, calling themselves hybrid publishers. Third is self-publishing. In many respects it costs as much as vanity publishing but you have full control over the end product. You are basically your own general contractor, subcontracting your editing and design efforts. Some do it themselves and many of those give self-publishing a bad rap. Most often your print books are print-on-demand, which isn’t as bad as it sounds and it is good for the environment. The fourth is making arrangements with a small press. Sometimes these seem like vanity presses, but the real key here is that you should never have to front any money. If they want money up front they are a vanity press. A small publisher generally provides editing/cover design/and book design (including uploading for eBooks and print-on-demand), but for a small percentage of the eventual royalties (they use contractors for this). This is what I went with, a small publisher.
The biggest advantage of this was that I didn’t have to front any money. Here’s a dirty little secret in publishing. No matter which one of those four directions you take, your book still has to go through the same journey to publication. It has to be edited and by that I mean not by you. You might be the best editor on the earth but our pumpkin heads don’t work that way: our mind is already translating familiar material and thinking about the next line. Traditional publishers and small publishers use their own people, as do vanity presses, but vanity presses charge you for the effort. In self-publishing you find your own third-party editor, and pay out of pocket as well. This pattern repeats with every other process, including proofing, cover design, and book design. Book design for print has differences from book design for kindle which had differences from other eBook formats. In short, there are a lot of hands stretching out. Traditional publishers bank on you making enough money for them to make it all worthwhile. Small press contractors depend on making a small amount from a lot of books to make it worthwhile. The other two? Well, you pay up front. The thing the traditional presses and small presses know is that you use experience and skill to come up with a good end-product. Vanity presses have your money, they don’t care. Self-published authors, if they are willing to pay for the privilege, can have a good end product as well, but they are prone to skip steps. You can’t skip steps.
So, it’s late May and I have a contract. At first I was told August or September as a publish date, which seemed very soon to me. The contract said July. I called the editor and she confirmed. They had an author pull out and had a hole they needed to fill. For a first-time author, this was definitely going to be a case of throwing the fat into the fire. Stay tuned … more to come (hopefully the computer issues are all in the past. =======================
Well, to get down to the nitty gritty basics, before you can get published or publish your own work you have to write something. And it isn’t good enough to simply write it, after you develop a concept you need to create a structure, then figure out characters, situations, and locales. You need conflict and resolution. You need one or more protagonists and also, ideally, an antagonist. It has to all work together. Your characters need to talk, feel, and be alive within the pages.
I took quite a bit of creative writing in college. Part of it was laziness, if any part of writing can be called laziness. The course applied toward my English degree as an advanced level course and it could be repeated. The coursework was primarily short stories. It taught me one thing: a good short story, and I mean a really good short story, is harder to pull off than a novel. A vast majority of short stories are just that, stories that are short. They can be entertaining, even enjoyable, but most never of convey a complexity that only the best achieve. Still, it’s a good training ground and a novel can be perceived as a huge undertaking that seems insurmountable.
My debut novel. THE FEVER, began as a two page treatment, written on some hotel stationery in the summer of 1986. All of the rudimentary details of the plot are there. Over the years, I started to write it at least four times but I never got more than a few pages in. Once I actually wrote about ten pages. I like to say, “Life intervenes” and I’m sure that is part of the case, but in reality, I just had no idea how to write a novel and I would put it aside out of frustration.
Then one day (for perspective, in late November 2010) I picked up a book, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! by Chris Baty. He was the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). One could, he said, write an entire novel in thirty days. Nice trick, I thought. But as I read through it, I realized, “You know, I could do this.” As I read about NaNoWriMo, I was mortified to learn that the real event took place in NOVEMBER. I was too late for 2010. But I kept reading. I realized, it isn’t the event, it’s the process. I finished the book in early December and again resolved to myself, “You know, you could do this.” Simple math indicated that all one needs to do is try to write a little less than 2000 words each and every day. I decided to prepare myself and dig in January 1.
The process is simple: you shouldn’t expect to have a fully completed novel in 30 days, but you’ll have a completed rough draft in that timeframe. One of the main things Baty emphasizes in his book is that you can’t edit as you go along. As he says, you have to send your internal editor on vacation. Bogging down on a sentence or a verb or a pronoun is what drives most fledgling writers into the weeds. Don’t get me wrong, it works for some, but it never worked for me. For them each sentence is a masterpiece, carefully place one after the other until you have a … well, like I said, I tried that four times with THE FEVER. Bogged down every time. I endeavored to give this different process a good try. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I don’t know how you can get chapter two just perfect when in reality you have no idea what’s really going to happen in chapter 23!
It was my New Years Resolution for 2011, to have a rough draft by the end of January. Oddly, I decided NOT to write THE FEVER. This was, after all, a test. I figured THE FEVER was my best idea, but I had other ideas. Even though I had worked out a lot of the plot and different elements I wanted to explore in that story over the years, I didn’t want to waste my best idea on this process if it didn’t work. I couldn’t bear another failure. So I picked a harmless project I had bandied about. I had less of an idea of what I wanted to do, but according to Baty, it really didn’t matter. “Pantsing it” he called it; flying by the seat of one’s pants. I had a locale based on some autobiographical journaling I had done earlier that year, a marvelous old building where I used to work in an older area of downtown Houston. The gist of the storyline was somewhat autobiographical: write what you know.
Get this: I found the process incredibly creative. I created bullet points of a rudimentary outline but as the story progress, I left that far behind as I hammered out sentences intent on making my daily word counts. The story told me where it wanted to go. I became consumed with it, and woke up each morning with a fresh new desire to find out what happened next. When I reached the end, I was elated. I’m still proud of that manuscript, set in 1972 and populated by the hippie-types I knew in my youth. Oh, it’s pretty awful and needs so much work, although I did a little revision work on it later that year, I’ve never completed the revision work. But it still has a soft spot in my heart. One other plus: I actually achieved my New Year’s Resolution!
I turned around and did it again in November, with yet another story idea. I still avoided THE FEVER, I wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke. I had similar results. Both of the first two manuscripts were written in first person. The original actually works in first person, but the second one should have been third person. I’ve been thinking about picking it up and working through it. It will be a lot of work.
By the next November, I was ready to dive into THE FEVER. I was so pleased with the result, I turned right around and started revisions after I finished the draft. I loved the story. This was when I found out one minor detail: I didn’t know how to revise a story. Oh, I knew I needed to clean things up, expand character development, and add more details. In the first couple of revision passes I did way too much and added extraneous details and descriptions that had little to do with the story. My 50,000 word draft ballooned to 130,000 words. It was bloated and heavy. It had lots of good stuff, but many things didn’t apply to the real story and true to the first two manuscripts, far too much autobiographical information. Some of it applied to the core storyline quite well, but I realized 130,000 words was far too much for a debut novel, so as I got better at reviewing my writing, I cut and honed. I call this crafting the story.
I eventually allowed a few trusted souls to read the drafts and got some valuable feedback. I kept plugging away. I basically skipped the next two NaNoWriMos, well, I cheated and worked at revisions one time and worked through my journaled autobiographical info another time. But NaNoWriMo is fun, you can buddy up with other writers, track each other and encourage each other. Picked a few long term friendships there. One of those contacts suggested I approach her publisher. I didn’t at first, because I didn’t think it was ready and her publisher seemed to be mostly interested in Romance books.
I was coming up on the third NaNoWriMo since I’d written the draft and, to be honest, I was burned out. One of my NaNo buddies strongly suggested I just dive in on a new project to clear my mind. It almost seemed like I was cheating on my novel, but I did it. Totally fresh idea, completely different story. I hammered out the word counts just like the other three and before the end of the month I had another rough draft. I liked it, and thought it had a lot of promise, then I shelved it and dug back into THE FEVER. My mind was ready to take it all the way.
I’ll leave off here. Next time, I’ll relate the next stages of getting it published.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC. More information about him and his books: http://thefensk.com