When I was in college, I took a Poli Sci course from a short white-haired professor who was originally from Kentucky. He wore white linen suits, which were usually wrinkled. He looked and sounded a lot like Colonel Sanders, without the goatee. For the life of me, I can visualize the gentleman, but cannot remember his name.
When it came time for final exams which were in essay form, the professor told us that he would take all of the exams into his office and lock the door. He said that he handcuffed his ankle to a leg of his desk and then placed a bottle of Kentucky bourbon next to a glass and started grading the exams. I hoped that my exam was low in the pile, which it must have been because I got an A in that course.
The moral of this vignette from my younger life was that a challenging task could be completed if one sets parameters and commits to sticking within those boundaries. When I had trials, long hours were spent preparing the case to present to the judge or jury. Followed by 16+ hour days during trial; half in court and half again adapting the next day’s presentation. At the end, I and my second chair were exhausted, but the mission had been accomplished to the best of our abilities.
I have four grown children. When they were young and had a large project or other task ahead of them, they would hear the old man remind them more than once that they could stand on their heads for two days or two weeks and successfully complete the task. They probably thought I was just giving them some standard parental advice, but I have always applied the same rule to myself.
The Distractions You Don’t Anticipate
I started the second book in the Detective Mac Burke series late last spring. The story was broadly outlined and I had gotten about 20,000 words on paper, which came to 102 pages. Then I got sidetracked.
First, in early June I attended my first ThrillerFest in NYC, a five day writers conference sponsored by International Thriller Writers. It was my first visit to this prestigious annual gathering of writers (published and unpublished) with master writing classes, seminars on narrow aspects of writing and interviewing with prospective literary agents and publishers. The banquet on the last night gave Thriller Master awards (lifetime achievement) to Frederick Forsyth (Day of the Jackal was his debut novel) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series was hers).
I had scheduled an appointment with Bob Gussin of Oceanview Publishing, which had to be delayed as he was ill at the time of our scheduled meeting in New York. Oceanview specializes in mysteries. A week later, he sent me an email to reschedule our call in mid-June. Having acquired Bob’s email address, I sent him a two-page summary of my debut novel, Incentive for Death, and the first 30 pages of the manuscript, which it was obvious Bob had read before our call.
The conversation went well, we hit it off and I discovered that Oceanview was the publisher of a novelist whom I had known when he was still practicing law in Orlando. At the end of the call, Bob Gussin asked me to send the full manuscript. That is the brass ring a new author wants to grab, whether from a literary agent or a publisher. I sent the full manuscript to Oceanview by email the same day.
When I had heard nothing further two months later, I was about to send another email asking if I was still in the running. Before I got up the nerve to send that missive, I had an email from Bob and Pat Gussin (CEO and Editor-in-Chief at Oceanview) saying they would like to call me about my novel. I replied with my phone number and said I was available later that same day. That afternoon I talked to the Gussins for an hour about the book, things that needed to be improved and how the process worked. At the end of the call, Pat Gussin said they wanted to buy Incentive for Death. A contract followed shortly, and we commenced sending edits back and forth, which took about another two months.
Oceanview asked me my thoughts on a cover. My response was that I wanted something traditional, nothing like the cartoon covers on so many books. They culled the candidates and asked my opinion. The big publishers give the author no voice in the cover selection. Oceanview agreed with my choice, and I got a great cover.
At the recommendation of Lee Randall, the Publishing Manager at Oceanview, I hired Maddee James of xuni.com in Colorado to build my author website. They specialize in author websites. Maddee was great to work with and you can view my website here. Creating an author website involves the participation of the writer, i.e. getting a headshot, writing a short synopsis of the book and a brief background on the author.
Combined with marketing conferences with Oceanview and joining various social media platforms for the first time ever, I had now neglected my second manuscript for several months. My preference is to write each day.
To be honest, I was also distracted by three croquet tournaments. Croquet is like chess and billiards on a lawn the size of a doubles tennis court. Didn’t win the first two tournaments, but did win the Pinehurst Singles Championship. Undefeated through the whole tournament. I previously had won the same contest in 2010 and 2020.
Combine all that with planned visits to my four children in St. Augustine, Atlanta and Lexington, Massachusetts on three consecutive weekends in December. The Atlanta trip had to be postponed until January due to one of my sons-in-law being briefly hospitalized due to illness. So, I stayed home that weekend, which was a good thing because that is the weekend where some nutjob shot out two power substations in our county. Over 40,000 people were without power for four days and, of course, it turned very cold during that exact timeframe. Good thing I have a gas cooktop and a gas fireplace. Also, I still had to make Christmas cookies (14 dozen) as gifts to family and friends.
It Takes a Marathon
Bottom line is I ended up with no specific commitments for the last two weeks of December and the first week of January. Which brings us back to my intro. Book two (which has a working title of I Used to Care) had languished untouched in my computer for several months.
Being compulsive about certain things, I had to bring my second manuscript back to life. I decided on a self-imposed three-week writing marathon. To avoid distractions, I set up shop in the office at the back end of the garage. The house is 107 years old, and this 7’ x 10’ space was originally a maid’s quarters until the 1920s and then became the home of assorted garden and yard tools for several decades. We renovated the space into an office in 2012. Nothing on the walls to distract me, except for a fold-out Rand-McNally street map of Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas in Virginia and Maryland. I had to use an illuminated magnifying glass to read the microscopic print. I turned down three invitations for Christmas dinner. The only distraction was a squirrel which ran up the cherry laurel tree outside the left window and kept going in a hole in the tree searching for something edible. There never was anything, but he kept going in that same hole about five times a day.
No handcuffs were lying around the house, so I had to skip that portion of my professor’s routine. I also did not indulge in a bottle of bourbon. I figured three straight weeks of sipping on Kentucky’s finest all day, every day, would (a) probably turn me into a full-blown alcoholic and (b) turn the writing to pure drivel (that’s another story about me trying to write a novel my sophomore in college which did involve bourbon, but that’s a story for another time). Instead, I stocked up on Diet Coke, Hershey’s Miniatures and Marlboros. The three main food groups.
It was time to stand on my head and begin my writing marathon. I started on Thursday, December 15th. And I cranked. Most days I wrote for five to seven hours. After opening my gifts from the kids and grandkids on Christmas morning in front of a toasty fire and then calling each of them, I went out to the office and wrote for five hours. On New Year’s Day, I wrote for eleven hours (all of the key bowl games were being recorded for viewing that evening). My least productive day was January 2nd. Think I overdid it the day before and found myself starting to doze off sitting upright in my old wooden desk chair after only four hours. That afternoon I took a two-hour nap.
When I started to fade each day, I would check my progress on the word count to gauge my progress. Sometimes, I peeked at the word count during the day. I use some form of Microsoft Word (it keeps getting upgraded every two years or so). In case you don’t know, the tool bar at the top of the page has a box that says Tell me what you want to do. The dropdown box has a number of options, which include word count and page count. A great creation.
Some days I wrote 2,000 to 3,000 words. On a lesser number of days, I achieved 5,000 words. Once I even beat that number.
You’re probably wondering why I am focused on word count, as opposed to the number of pages. I am in a small writers group on Monday evenings called Authors Syndicate. We meet by Zoom call. More than once I heard from the others that both agents and publishers were saying the sweet spot for length was between 70,000 and 90,000 words. In my first conversation with Pat and Bob Gussin of Oceanview, they said the same thing.
My debut novel was 105,000 words when it went to Oceanview. Both Pat Gussin and I did end-to-end edits. After two rounds each, we got it down to 98,000 words, which was about 415 pages. That’s where it ended up.
I kept an eye on the word count and the remaining portion of my outline with an eye to keeping within the preferred range on the second book. Near the end, it became apparent that I would be near or a little over 90,000 words.
Two weeks and six days into my writing marathon I had finished the manuscript of I Used to Care. One day ahead of schedule. I felt good about the writing and the story. The novel has 92,000 words (392 pages).
It was a major relief. I no longer had to stand on my head and took the following day off. I didn’t touch the book the entire day. Instead, I packed a suitcase for my delayed trip to see my two daughters in Atlanta for a long weekend.
While I was in Atlanta, Pat Gussin emailed me the typeset PDF of what would become the Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of the first book, which both Oceanview and I had to proof before it was sent out near and far for reviews. It is really cool to see your first book in print.
I came back to Pinehurst and spent the next four days making a line-by-line proof of the ARC. When I compared the ARC to the last edit copy I had signed off on, I found about a dozen minor errors. All but two were my fault. Despite editing Incentive for Death many times, I still found some flaws and took the blame.
I then jumped into a stem-to-stern edit of I Used to Care. Five long days improved it. I cut some parts that weren’t advancing to the story and cleaned up the usual mistakes. Book two is now in the hands of my beta readers with instructions that I want no kudos, only criticism of the story and the flow. The early feedback has made sound suggestions for improving the tale. After considering the comments from the beta readers, I will take another crack at it and then send it off to Oceanview for consideration.
Enough about me. Hope your new year has started off well. Always a time of renewal. This is my first attempt at a newsletter. Probably too wordy. Hope you enjoyed the recap of a novice writer’s journey over the past several months.