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 firstname.lastname@example.org.