I typically like detail work. I like precision. My eye is trained to see tiny variations in a pattern or errors that others might skip over. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes miss things or get things wrong. But I’m accustomed to settling down and doing careful, painstaking work.
I have to confess, however, that there have been times recently when I was ready to raise my hands in surrender as I have worked through the final intensive edits of my novel. I know how critically important this phase of writing is. I usually relish the final polishing. But after three rounds, I am exhausted.
Before I say more about that, however, let me first say how deeply indebted I am to the editors and readers who pored over the manuscript and alerted me to issues that, without correction, would have embarrassed me or confused readers. There is no question the book will be better because of their efforts.
But back to my numbing fatigue. I have written before about how writing is an infinite series of decisions: choosing the next conflict, the next scene, the next setting, the characters’ reactions, the syntax of the next sentence, the next word, a better word, and punctuation that is both consistent with convention and imbues the rhythm and music—and meaning—that you want to convey.
For someone who hates making decisions (that would be me), it can be torture.
In this late stage of the novel-writing process, everything is a decision. An edited page that appears to have two simple markups takes 30 minutes to revise. Shall I take that comma out or leave it in? Grammar rules say it’s acceptable, but the short clauses make it optional. Does it change the emphasis if I remove it? Does it change the rhythm? Why did this editor suggest taking it out? Read it with the comma. Read it without the comma. Repeat. One more time. Which option relays what I’m trying to say? Will any reader ever give a damn? Is it time to walk Lucy?
Chicago Manual Style or AP Style? Arabic numerals or all numbers spelled out? Spaces between the dots in an ellipsis or use of the ellipsis symbol?
And the comment I now dread the most: Is this phrase too modern? Since I started putting words on the page three years ago, I’ve recognized the importance of getting the language right. The bulk of the novel is set between 1921 and 1942. I wish I had a dollar for every phrase I have looked up to see when it came into the lexicon. “Pratfall”? “Down payment”? “Hang with”? “Have my back?” Even with the convenience of the Internet, those searches take time.
Once I’m satisfied that the words on the page are the best they can be, there’s the book design to consider. A few weeks ago, I told an interested party that I was starting the page layout process. It was clear that she couldn’t imagine the decisions that requires. A novel has a simple layout, so even I thought that part of the project would be relatively straightforward. But I found a way to agonize over the font size, the line spacing, the margin size, the Table of Contents.
Tonight, however, I am celebrating. I am done. I’ll request one final proof. Complete one final read-through. Pray that any remaining issues are tiny and easily remediable. But, mostly, pray that I find them before my careful readers do!
Peggy Cooper, of northern Kentucky, introduces Clearing the Fog readers to Celebrate A Community, soon to be reprinted by Murky Press. More about this exciting project coming soon!
The stars spread across the sky as they do only when you live on a dairy farm acres away from the nearest neighbor. The milking was finished and I walked with my father, hand in his, from the barn to the house. At the sidewalk to the milkhouse, he suddenly paused and sat on his heels, his scratchy bearded cheek against mine, one arm around me holding me close and the other pointing into the sky, guiding my gaze to the Big Dipper. It was there at the end of his finger, the Big Dipper, over the milkhouse. Who knew that there were pictures in the sky made of stars, and over our milkhouse?
When I started this book project, my husband would tease me about “the Center of the Universe,” the little town I was writing about, Fayetteville, in Perry Township, Ohio. He was making fun of my attachment to this little one-stoplight crossroads.
My father lived his entire life on the farm where that milkhouse stands beneath the Big Dipper. My brothers are farmers tilling the same land farmed by five generations of our family. That milkhouse is now on the cover of the book that is filled with photos and memories of the community around that milkhouse, and many of my father’s stories are within the covers of that book.
Who knew that there were pictures in the sky made of stars, and over our milkhouse? Indeed, who knew that Fayetteville and Perry Township really are the Center of the Universe?
For many, writing is a solitary pursuit. I prefer a host of collaborators.
The novel I’ve been working on for a number of years would never have been completed without my “support team.” It started nearly 10 years ago when my then-neighbor, Chuck Camp, while chatting on my back patio, took an immediate interest in the story of my mysterious grandfather. Within hours he had begun to discover the path my grandfather had taken after abandoning my mother and grandmother. Over the next few years he continued to unearth amazing details about Lyons’ early life and his military service. I owe the story, in all its richness, to Chuck.
I had never written fiction before, and I had a lot to learn. I depended on classes and instructors at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning for teaching me the nuts and bolts of the craft. I’m still an unabashed novice, but they helped me understand what was important to readers and how you put together a story that will keep them engaged.
There were numerous times over the last three years when I felt I wasn’t up to the task. I started and restarted and reimagined how to construct this story. I tried a variety of different approaches. Even when I felt I had a solid half of the book complete, my determination waned. It was just too hard. Too time consuming. I had no idea what I was doing.
That’s when my intrepid readers and editors stepped in to shore up my confidence. My long-time friend and former boss, Roi-Ann Bettez, was my first beta reader. She is an enthusiastic reader of all sorts of material and an acute editor who has applied her talents to her husband’s award-winning books about the First World War as well as to nonfiction books produced by her friends. She offered honest critique of what worked for her and what didn’t. She helped me focus on what the reader needed from the characters. And she let me know what parts of the story she found satisfying. She’s still working with me, offering encouragement and insights at the very end of this process.
Readers of this blog know that Tim Cooper took on the role of nearly full-time mentor and coach after retiring from teaching in 2018. A voracious reader and former writing instructor, Tim and his Minnesota buddies are competitive readers who know more about contemporary literary fiction than anyone I know. He patiently coaxed me to go where I wasn’t comfortable. I was able to lean on his academic interest in history for creative ways to keep the novel firmly rooted in its times. Tim and I have spent hours in his living room poring over chapters and paragraphs and arguing about specific words. He pushed me. He encouraged me. He wouldn’t let me quit.
My cousin Bob McWilliams loaned me his family scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clippings, which were invaluable in putting together the stories of our Marrs ancestors and their McWilliams contemporaries. Rogers Bardé, my cousin through my grandfather Lyons’ family, was the original impetus for seeking information about him. Her voluminous genealogical research into that branch of my family helped me understand my Paris, Ky., roots a little better.
As I approach the final publication phase of the book, I am once again relying on the talents of Barbara Grinnell, whose cover design for The Last Resort perfectly captured the book, its author, and its historic period. I’ve pulled in yet another former colleague and expert editor, Jo Greenfield, as my final proofreader. I’m delighted to have her as part of this process.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Mr. Vice President of Everything, my husband, Rick. He does battle with the print store managers, hobnobs with local authors, shares his creative marketing ideas, opens his wallet wide for the next class or the next production expense, and is an incredibly helpful commenter on the novel itself whenever I can convince him to sit quietly for an hour and read.
This project would not be coming to fruition without the unselfish contributions of all of these folks. I offer them my heartfelt gratitude, and I hope the final product is worthy of their efforts. I’ll be satisfied if I learn that the novel offers a little entertainment, a little illumination into our human contradictions, and a little distraction from our contemporary afflictions.
You already know that I love words. I love to play with their meanings and their sounds. I take pleasure in creating musical sentences that sing to readers. I want to get the rhythm and the beats just right.
I also enjoy laying out the words on a page. I want to create a page that draws a reader in with an appealing typeface and plenty of white space. I understand that, in the early moments when you’re trying to hook a reader, the look of the page may be as significant as the very words themselves.
In 1985, Aldus Corporation introduced PageMaker, the original desktop publishing software for Apple Macintosh computers. I started using the software shortly afterwards, and I’ve been fascinated with page layout and design ever since. I’ve read books, taken classes, and sharpened my layout skills at nearly all the jobs I’ve held, designing user’s manuals, restaurant training materials, marketing flyers, annual reports, and tourism books. Some years ago I moved on to Adobe’s InDesign, but I still enjoy the process of laying words on a page.
After I decided that Murky Press would publish Next Train Out, one of the first decisions I had to make was what font I wanted to use. For The Last Resort, I chose Garamond, a classic font commonly used in books. That would have worked fine for the novel, too. However, I did a little research to see what fonts were popular in the burgeoning self-publishing business. Most I was familiar with, but one I wasn’t, and it piqued my interest.
What drew me to Bembo was not necessarily its whimsical name, although that may have tugged at me just a bit. (I learned that Pietro Bembo was a 15th-century Italian poet and cleric.) What caught my eye was the font’s lightness, its simple clean lines and the beauty of some of its individual characters. It is an “old-style” font, based on Venetian designs from the Renaissance. When I learned that Monotype created its commercial version of Bembo in Britain in 1928-29—key years in the novel—I decided it was perfect for my purposes. When I saw that Penguin Books and Oxford University Press use the font, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
Acquiring Bembo for use with my page layout program required a small contribution to Monotype Corporation, but I have already reconciled that expense. After creating some sample pages, I can’t imagine using anything else.
After the longest summer in memory, we’re finally transitioning to winter. A little snow this week offered a taste of my favorite weather: bright blue skies, snow balancing on the tree limbs, and temperatures in the 20s keeping the ground hard and the mud at bay.
One sign of impending colder weather at my house is the dry-docking of our metal johnboat. In our case, this simply means hauling the boat out of the water and leaving it to rest upside-down on the nearby shore.
I came back from an event last Sunday afternoon and saw the boat was missing from its slip. That always makes me a little sad. Although we rarely take the boat for a spin on the lake these days—lightweight kayaks are just so much easier—its mere presence suggests the possibility of a lazy summer day fishing on the lake. It evokes nostalgia for a more tranquil time when bobbing on the water was an acceptable way to spend an afternoon.
But we have found that ice tends to build up inside the boat in the winter, and harsh winds can then heave the extra weight against the aging dock and pull hard at our makeshift mooring. Removing it from the water this time of year eliminates one thing we have to worry about. When it’s missing, however, I feel the void, the absence of something significant.
I’m in the middle of another transition that could also symbolize a sort of loss, if I allowed it to. But I prefer to see it as an empowerment, a taking control of a situation that could at times feel hopeless, a situation that made me grapple with my own worth and the value of the work I’ve chosen to do.
This is familiar territory for every writer who wants to see work published. I’ve spent several months reaching out to literary agents and small publishing houses searching for someone who might be willing to take a chance on my novel. Like so many writers, I now have only an inbox full of rejections to show for my efforts. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process that I still find interesting, but I’ve decided it’s just not how I want to wile away my hours. I’m ready to accept defeat and retake control of my project.
It takes a certain self-assuredness—or even cockiness—that I don’t normally possess to assume that my book has value even though no legitimate enterprise agrees. What’s at stake, however, is small: personal embarrassment, acknowledgment that my talent and skills are limited, shunning by those with legitimate claim to the title “writer.” I can accept that. I have no other literary aspirations. I’m ready to take the chance.
So I’m getting excited about designing the book that I want to offer to willing readers. I’ll be able to title it what I want, include the front matter I want, and rely on my talented graphic designer, Barbara Grinnell, to create a cover we both love. Of course, the final editing and proofing will now fall on me, or on other professionals I enlist to help. But I think I have a course mapped out, and I’m excited to be going down this road.
It’s freeing sometimes to let go of dreams that are only weighing us down. Sometimes we have to turn a corner, move in another direction, accept a transition to an imperfect state of things.
I’ve written a story that I want to share with friends and family who are interested, and I have a path for accomplishing that. That’s what’s important. And that I can do.
Two years ago, I took an eight-week essay-writing class with the irrepressible Teri Carter. At some point, she alerted us to a call for essays from a North Carolina writer and editor who was putting together a compendium of brief pieces by emerging writers. The theme of the collection was “facing adversity and making do”—more specifically, overcoming challenges as Daniel Boone had done 250 years ago when he was trapped by an early snowstorm in Kentucky during a hunting trip.
At the time, I was accustomed to writing short essays, both for Teri's class and for this blog. I didn’t have an inspiring story to share, one where I had faced danger or personal calamity or had demonstrated unusual courage or forbearance. But I was working through how to construct a novel-length narrative based on my maternal grandfather’s life, and one evening I dashed off a tongue-in-cheek reflection on what I had in common with him.
On a whim, I submitted the essay to the project editor and coordinator, Randell Jones. And then I promptly forgot about it. I devoted the next months to figuring out how to write fiction. Sometime that spring, Jones alerted me that he planned to include my piece in the book Bearing Up.
When I finally received a copy, I read through the other submissions and felt a little sheepish. The best pieces were short stories—something my contribution definitely was not. I ended up being mildly embarrassed by the whole thing. And I once again forgot about it.
Until a few days ago, when I received notice that Jones has now included my essay in the series of podcasts he is releasing. I admit I was surprised. When I rustled up the nerve to listen to his rendition, I liked it. He captured precisely the tone I had hoped to convey.
So I offer you Mr. Randell Jones’ 7-minute reading of “Adieu Encore,” my public admission that my “rapscallion grandfather,” as Jones calls him, and I have much in common.
Submit an essay for the 2020 Personal Story Publishing Project!
Write a personal story (780 words or so, 800 max) about "that Southern thing—living, loving, laughing, loathing, leaving the South. No fiction. You may share a story of someone close to you or an ancestor whose story you know well."
Deadling for submission: December 15, 2019
Click for more information.
This part isn’t supposed to be fun.
But, for some reason, it is. Perhaps it’s only because I’m on the front end of the process, and it’s still fresh and new. The rejections haven’t started rolling in yet, overwhelming my inbox.
At this stage, at least, I’m finding it fascinating to research literary agents and small independent presses, trying to discover that perfect fit for my novel. The whole publishing industry seems like a giant corn maze: I just need to take my time, peer around each corner, decide whether to go this direction, or maybe that direction. I expect I’ll find something interesting—even if not useful—either way I go.
It’s an extraordinarily complex business, or so it seems to the uninitiated. There are so many layers, so many ways you could get tripped up. In fact, it may be because the odds seem so long that it feels more like a game than anything of serious import. It’s like playing Monopoly or Risk, where you can go all in without suffering any real consequences. I’m some anonymous sad sack submitting my first-born to a sophisticated, highly literate, beautiful person in New York or Chicago. What can I possibly expect?
They say that the writer-agent relationship is like a marriage. You look for someone you trust, someone you like, someone who shares your taste, someone who has your best interests at heart, someone who will stay with you for the long haul. That seems much more interesting than looking for a business manager. And it shifts the emphasis away from that piece of writing—which can make you morbidly insecure—to the human being who is going to share this journey with you, who will take your hand and guide you through the impenetrable process.
Recently, at the 2019 Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Ky., I was buoyed by award-winning author Chris Offutt’s approach to this phase of writing. When he was a young man, a graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop—someone with talent and credentials and well-known mentors—he struggled to submit his stories to literary journals. His peers prodded him, but he just didn’t think he could face the ego-busting rejections. To flip the script, so to speak, he decided to set a goal for himself: 100 rejections in one year. He was ecstatic as each one arrived in his mailbox. He kept a careful tally. The rejections stacked up. Then one day, the mailman delivered something unexpected: an acceptance letter from the Coe Review. He was crestfallen. Having amassed 86 rejections, he had just missed the goal he had set for himself.
At the same conference, I attended a panel discussion that included a successful young writer and her equally young agent. (I’ve heard the average age of agents is 27, a real obstacle for a woman of a certain age who has written about a middle-aged couple who lived nearly 100 years ago.} The writer revealed that she had searched for an agent for eight years. She kept writing, undeterred, and she kept looking for someone to give her a chance. She and her agent have now enjoyed a 10-year career together. It was clear they have a supportive, mutually beneficial relationship. They poked mild fun at each other and finished each other’s sentences, just like an old married couple.
I can promise you I won’t be that dogged. I’m highly suspect that my lifespan will even extend another eight years, let alone my determination to publish a novel. I’ll be swept away by some other shiny object long before then. Another project. Another hobby. Another way to test my mettle.
But, for the next few months, I’ll do the necessary research. I expect I’ll send scores of query letters and receive an equal number of rejections. I’ll keep Chris Offut’s approach in mind, just to maintain my equanimity. And if something positive happens, I’ll remind myself that finding an interested agent is just the initial step. Then you typically endure another grueling editing process. Then agonize as your book is submitted to publishing houses for new editors to scrutinize. And if you’re really, really lucky, then you get to go through lengthy contractual negotiations and watch helplessly as the publisher’s creative team comes up with a new title and a book cover you’re not sure about. Then it’s time to pore over that final proof, looking for any remaining errors or typos while you secretly fret that the book is no good after all.
Yeah, I’d better grab my fun while I can.
As we were preparing The Last Resort for publication, I had one nagging frustration: I wanted to include a map of the area around the camp on Salt River, but I didn’t have the skills to realize my vision. I imagined a map that would help the reader locate Pud’s favorite fishing holes and river paths as well as the farms he and the other boys traipsed across to get to the camp. I had in mind something similar to the hand-drawn map of Port William at the back of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow.
It was not until after we had published the paperback edition of the book that a friend suggested the perfect artist for the job. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought to contact her before. She is a friend of many years, a former work colleague, a recognized artist in multiple media, and a musician. As chance would have it, she was also another college chum of mine. Having her join our creative team—which already included college classmate David Hoefer, the author of the book’s introduction; Barbara Grinnell, my friend and former colleague at Transylvania University; and my husband, Rick Showalter—upped the talent level and increased my joy amidst all the hard work.
Well, dear reader, you are in for a treat. This map is my small gift to you, to thank you for following this blog and sharing interest in this project. If you have read The Last Resort, I think you will appreciate Laura Lee Cundiff’s representation of “The Last Resort and Environs.” You will recognize most, if not all, of the landmarks on the map. Look closely and you will find Thomas the Model T pickup and Mike, Pud’s Wire Fox Terrier. Of course, all of the important fishing gear is in plain sight.
If you do not yet own The Last Resort, you may want to purchase a copy of the new hard cover edition, which will include this fanciful map. Books will be available through your local bookseller by early December. (Simply ask the proprietor to order ISBN 978-0-9992540-1-1 through Ingram book distributors.) It would make a great Christmas gift!
As the season of thanksgiving approaches, I am so grateful for everyone who has helped bring this second release to fruition. Each time I dive into a new publishing project, I am amazed at the amount of labor involved. Thankfully, I have a supporting team that never lacks energy, inspiration, and encouragement. No matter how unreasonable my demands or how zany my requests, they have responded with patience and dedication.
Who knows what the next chapter will be?
I spent some time this afternoon thumbing through a printed proof of The Last Resort, and it’s hard to describe the sense of satisfaction that brings. I’ve nervously anticipated its arrival for two weeks, as we tweaked the final formatting for the publishing process. Now I have tangible proof of all of our labor over the past two-and-a-half years, and I am overjoyed.
I began working on The Last Resort in earnest in early 2015 after leaving full-time employment. The first task was simply typing the handwritten journal. Even that had its challenges, I learned. Reading my father’s handwriting, in pencil, after more than 70 years was difficult at times, especially for someone (like me) whose vision is badly compromised. Then there was the issue of all the taxonomic identifiers in the text—all those genus and species names that I was not familiar with. I tried to verify every one as I typed. That really slowed me down.
Once that step was behind me, my collaborator, David Hoefer, urged me to annotate every reference that might be unfamiliar to today’s readers. That included people, places, colloquial expressions, historical references, etc. That phase required contacting a lot of Anderson County natives and spending time at the current site of Camp Last Resort. David did a massive amount of research into disparate topics like old fishing lures, World War II-era firearms and airplanes, and the geography of the area.
Then I turned to reading through other materials my father had left behind, including some correspondence from World War II and the second journal from the 1950s. Those also had to be transcribed and annotated. Eventually, we wrapped up the difficult process of choosing excerpts to include in the final book.
After a nine-month interruption, during which David and I both dug into other projects, we picked back up with fiery determination in May, with the goal of publishing by the end of the summer. These last few months have been an intense period of proofreading, verifying facts, designing the layout, selecting photos, and polishing the final product.
I am proud of the book we have produced, and I can’t wait to make it available to you. Stay tuned for news of publication dates and launch parties!
A good designer sometimes proves how misguided you are. Oh, not in a blustery, arrogant way, but in a quiet, effective way.
And I was lucky enough, when it finally was time to have a cover designed for The Last Resort, to hook up with one of the best.
For two years I thought I knew exactly how I wanted the cover to look. I had a photo in mind that would be perfect. It would relay both the passage of time integral to the story as well as the eternal hope and beauty inherent in the natural world.
But I was wrong. Oh so wrong.
Nonetheless, I confidently relayed my ideas to Barbara Grinnell, designer extraordinaire. She listened closely. She faithfully rendered the very idea I had in mind. And then she created the perfect cover for the book.
She presented them both to me simultaneously. When she did, she wisely numbered the one I had asked for “1,” so I looked at it first. I loved it. It was everything I wanted. Then I looked at her second offering. And I was blown away.
It was so simple, but it was exactly right. I had convinced myself that the cover had to be bright and colorful for the book to be noticed. But it’s a quiet little book about an era long ago. It’s filled with black-and-white photos from the 1940s. I immediately understood that it needed a cover that evoked those qualities, not a braggartly, ostentatious cover that would attract readers looking for something other than what was inside.
I shared the cover options with a small focus group of friends, relatives, and strangers. Everyone agreed that the choice was clear.
The cover of The Last Resort is authentic to the material inside. And I have Barbara Grinnell to thank for leading me in the right direction. By creating both the cover I wanted and the cover I needed, she made me see how wrong my initial instincts were.
If you have a design project you think Barbara could help you with, I hope you’ll get in touch with her at email@example.com.