Volume XXI, Issue Two | June 2021
It’s a hard lesson for first-time novelists: Writing is the easy part. It’s publishing that’s tough.
Getting published is Catch 22: Without an agent, it’s almost possible to find a publisher. But you can’t get an agent unless you’ve been published.
I was lucky. I’d had a number of nonfiction books published before I wrote my first novel. And I worked for Business Week, a respected national magazine. I got my agent by a fluke. At a BW conference, a colleague turned to me during a dull presentation and said, “Let’s get out of here. I’ll tell you about a book I just sold.” The colleague was Pat Wright, and the book was On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors. It was one of the first popular business books, and it was a great success. “If you ever need an agent, I’ve got a great one,” Pat told me. So with his recommendation, I contacted Jane Jordan Browne at what is now Browne & Miller Literary Assoc. She took me on and although my early attempts were duds, she stuck with me and eventually sold my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café. I’ve been with the agency ever since.
You can contact a publisher on your own, but many won’t take manuscripts over the transom. Even with an agent—and a published novel under your belt—it’s not always smooth sailing. The Persian Pickle Club was turned down over and over again before St. Martin’s took a chance on it.
Of course, you can self-publish, but I don’t encourage it, unless you’ve written about something local that’s too narrow to interest a publisher—a guidebook to your town, for instance. Newspapers and magazines rarely review self-published or vanity press (a publisher you pay) books, and bookstores generally won’t sell them. You can end up with a basement full of moldering copies.
After a book is accepted, there’s a long road ahead. At the least, it takes a year to bring out a book. Often it’s much longer—a year-and-a-half for my upcoming novel, Little Souls, which is about the 1918 flu epidemic. The manuscript was accepted last fall and won’t be published until next April.
There’s plenty of work to be done before you hold the finished copy in your hands. Shortly after the novel was acquired, I began working with my editor. I know some writers who resist editing. A writer friend once told me, “I won’t let them change a single word in my book.” But most of us need editing and are grateful for it. I’ve been lucky to have had superb editors who understand my writing and work with me to make it better. That means cutting and rewriting, strengthening the plot and sharpening the characters. We don’t always agree. My editor didn’t like the title, for instance. I wanted to keep it. We finally agreed that I had to do a better job of explaining it in the text.
Once the rewritten manuscript is finished, it goes to a copy editor. I thought I knew punctuation. It was embarrassing how many errors the copy editor caught. She identified some factual errors, too. I referred to Manhattan Café, an early eatery on Larimer Street. She changed it to Manhattan Restaurant. When I went to a 1918 Denver directory to check, I found she was right. (Darn it!) Of course, I don’t have to agree to everything a copy editor does. She changed “Give hell” to “give ’em hell.” I changed it back, because “give hell” was used during World War I.
Next step is to go through the printed proofs of the book for errors, corrections, and rewriting. Then there’s the back-and-forth over the cover and getting endorsements from other writers. This summer isn’t too soon to start planning promotion—advertising, publicity, reviews, blogs, speaking engagements, book signings. Will publishers have in-person signings and book tours? Who knows at this point? It’s all to be decided.
So once the novel’s written, that’s just the beginning. There’s a lot more work involved. Is it worth it? How can you even ask!
A Friend From The Past
My daughter Dana, historians tell me, was the only child born in Breckenridge, Colo., in a hundred years.
She wasn’t supposed to be. We lived in Breckenridge, but I’d planned to deliver the infant in the nearest hospital, in Leadville. (I should have known my labor would be short. When Mom went into labor with me, she called her neighbor, a midwife, to accompany Dad and her to the hospital. I came within seven minutes of being born in front of the White House, delivered by a midwife named Daisy Dove.) My labor was just as quick. The doctor said it was false labor. “Go back to bed.” By the time Bob convinced him it was the real thing, we couldn’t make the 40-mile drive. We met the doctor at his Breckenridge office which was an old bank building that had later served as a post office. (I remember staring at the post office boxes during delivery.) The doctor called Ginny Cope, a nurse and wife of the Breckenridge pharmacist, for help. Dana was delivered shortly after Ginny arrived, early in the morning of Nov. 20, 1963.
The doctor’s office was located just across the street from where the school bus stopped, and somehow the kids figured out what was going on. When we emerged with Dana, they ran to see her, and later, one child announced in school, “A baby was borned in our town today.”
A few days ago, I received an email from one of those kids. She was Ginny’s daughter, and she sent me a picture of her mother dressed as Raggedy Ann for Ullr Dag, the town’s winter festival. So now we can add to Dana’s story that she was not only the sole child born in Breckenridge in a century but that she was delivered by Raggedy Ann.
I was a judge in the contemporary fiction category for the Western Writers of America 2021 Spur Award. There were about 35 books entered in that category, which meant some pretty good reading (and some not so good.) The richness and variety of the entries was impressive. I can’t tell you the winners—I don’t know myself. The majority of books were about cowboys and ranching, which may not interest you. So I’m not including any of those here. But there is one I want to recommend—The King of Taos. It’s written by the late Max Evans. I never cared for his work before, but I found this one charming and funny, and it’s set in 1950s Taos, a place I love. And I love that the book is politically incorrect, poking fun at everybody.
The Girl Who Dared to Defy
By Jane Little Botkin. University of Oklahoma.
Shortly before World War I, Jane Street, a young mother with a checkered background, set out to organize Denver domestics. An Industrial Workers of the World enthusiast, she recruited servants, who filled out cards detailing their employers, then launched a placement service for housemaids, cooks and others. Her goal was to raise wages and improve working conditions, and for a time, she was successful.
Labor historian Jane Little Botkin gets credit for bringing to light this little-known chapter of Denver history. Street was a stenographer and single mother, divorced from her charlatan husband, when she organized her Domestic Workers Industrial Union. With few ways to support themselves beyond housework, Domestic workers had no defense against harsh working conditions and sexual abuse. At one time, hundreds of house maids joined the organization.
Street’s eventual downfall was not so much due to the city’s housewives, who opposed the union, as it was to white slavers, who used fake employment agencies to snare unsuspecting girls, and to men who were jealous of Street’s success. Among them were members of the IWW, who tried to take over the fledgling union.
Botkin’s seminal work highlights a long-forgotten time in Denver. Although the union attempt took place a hundred years ago, it resonates today as domestic workers still face abuse from employers.
Bless the Birds
By Susan Tweit. She Writes Press.
Toward the end of her husband’s two-year battle with brain cancer, Susan Tweit told him, “I want you to know you can take your time letting go. You don’t need my permission, either.”
“What a beautiful benediction,” her husband replied.
“Our love will last when we don’t,” she told him.
Anyone who has lived through the long and painful death of a loved one is tempted to write about it. The idea is to give death—and life—meaning. Rarely do those accounts rise to the level of poetry. Tweit’s does. Well known for her essays, Tweit turns the story of her husband into a moving tribute.
Tweit’s husband’s cancer battle began when he saw birds, hundreds of them on trees and grasses and distant mesas. Only there weren’t any birds out there. In the midst of the battle, the couple embarked on the honeymoon trip they hadn’t taken when they married 30 years earlier. With Susan at the wheel, they drove nearly 4,000 miles to the Northwest and down through California.
They returned home to live as normal a life as possible. Sometimes all you can do in a crisis “is “simply keep living with as much composure as we can summon,” Tweit writes.