Steve Dullum

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Odyssey of the Abecedarian – Part Three

Welcome back.  Sorry for the delay.  I didn’t think it would take this long for installment #3, but then I figured, well, despite the breathless anticipation and nervous excitement my legions of adoring fans are struggling with on a daily basis, they must certainly have other aspects of their lives which are keeping their minds occupied while they wait.  I can only hope the agony of expectation was not too great a burden for you to bear.  I will once again attempt to astonish with my insight.  I am aware of the distinct (albeit highly unlikely) possibility that you will be bored to death (again), but let’s not entertain such depressing scenarios at this time.

Writing a novel is a strange undertaking.  It’s a long, plodding exercise that can be both exhilarating one moment, and utterly frustrating and humbling the next.  One day the words will flow, the scenes will develop quickly, and your fingers can’t hit the keys fast enough to keep up.  That’s when writing is truly rewarding, even if what you’re putting down on the page isn’t very good.  The next day, your creative spark takes a leave of absence and the block of time you’ve set aside for work becomes two hours of typing sentences, then rapidly hitting the backspace key to erase them, and then repeating over and over until it’s time to do the laundry.  They say writing is a lonely endeavor, and on those “off” days, I understood why. 

Lots of writers create a chapter-by-chapter outline of their entire novel.  They have to know how the story ends before the first word is written.  Some also create detailed character profiles with complete backstories, physical descriptions, likes and dislikes, motives, etc.  For many, this is the right way to go.  For others, like me, it’s an exercise in futility, and the thought of doing such a thing is less appealing than dousing myself in Coca-Cola and swatting a hive of Africanized honey bees with a broom.  What I most enjoyed about writing my first novel was watching it unfold one page at a time, and experiencing each instance of heartbreak, laughter, and terror at the same moment as the characters.  Allowing the story to take unexpected turns kept the writing process interesting.  There was a certain thrill in sitting down each night at the computer, wondering what would happen next.

Making all the dots connect by the end of the story can be difficult when taking the “winging it” approach.  I scribbled my fair share of notes and spent many a night out walking, brainstorming how to make all the various subplots come together in a way that didn’t feel forced.  By the time I reached chapter 50, it was easy to forget little details from chapter 10.  There were plenty of “Oops, I forgot about that part” moments, some of which led to substantial rewriting.  But I eventually completed the first draft.  Yay, I’m done!  I’ll quick review it a time or two, but really, I’m pretty much finished.  Yay!  Ignorance was bliss.

I sent the first ten or so pages to Scott Nicholson, a horror writer I had only recently discovered, and whom I admired.  For a small fee, I would send him installments and he would edit and provide feedback.  I knew my story was a little rough, and a second pair of eyes is always critical.  His debut novel, The Red Church, was a Bram Stoker Award finalist, so I figured he knew a thing or two about writing.  He discovered that my entire ending didn’t work.  I had unknowingly utilized Deus Ex Machina, which is a fancy way of saying: “An unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, esp. as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.”  Ouch, that hurt.  But he was right, my ending sucked.  I had a minor character suddenly appear at the end to save the day.  Not good.  So I sat down, rolled up my sleeves, and completely rewrote the ending, adding several chapters.  The result was one of the most suspenseful scenes in book, and an ending that just felt right.  A valuable lesson learned.  Pays to have your work reviewed.  It’s also a time to grow some thick skin.     

So now I’m ready to start sending the book to literary agents, because at that time I still dreamed of seeing my book in print at the local bookstore (I still do, but have gained a better awareness of reality).  What is a literary agent?  Basically they serve as a buffer between writers and publishers.  Few if any book publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, especially from unknown authors.  If you want any chance of being published via the traditional route, you pretty much have to go through an agent.  If a literary agent likes your book, he or she will represent you, and pitch it to the publishers on your behalf.  They know the business and who might be interested in your story.  To put it bluntly, they filter out the trash so the publisher doesn’t have to.  Some will also offer editorial services and expertise in developing your career, although that is becoming less common.  If your book is purchased by a publisher, the agent negotiates the contract and royalty advance (if there is one).  Once your book hits the shelves, the agent earns a commission—around 15%—on each copy of your book sold.   Sounds great! 

Turns out, submitting to agents, and all it entails, is an incredibly confusing, frustrating, time-consuming, demoralizing and lengthy process.  At least it was for me, and I almost threw in the towel for good.  But I’ll save that enthralling narrative for installment #4, which will just about wrap up my little odyssey. 

As always, thanks for reading.  Oh, and if someone is now administering CPR because you nearly died from sheer boredom, I assure you one day, perhaps many years from now, you’ll look back and realize it was all worth it.  And if not, by then I will likely be very hard to track down.   

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