Category Archives: The Writing Process

Agents, Publishers, and Editors, Oh My!– Part IV

Seeking an agent is, of course, optional. Nevertheless, sending your work “over the transom” to publishing houses frequently lands it in their circular files. Publishing houses say they do not have time to review every manuscript they receive. But even finding an agent can be challenging. So what are ink-stained minions to do?

Various books such as Literary Digest exist with the names and locations of agents. These can be sought out and agents identified willing to review material from new authors as well as their expertise in the genre you write.

For me, I found two potential agents at the Harvard Medical Writer’s Conference. The conference had  distilled down the pool of agents to those interested in doctor stories. I submitted to these two and, to my surprise, both wanted to represent me. This represents the only time the time frame of the publishing process was shorter than anticipated. I know my ease in finding an agent is not the norm. Good luck!

I quickly learned from my experienced agent, Don Fehr, at Trident Media in NYC that publishers did not buy books, they only buy well-written and compelling book proposals. While I had labored mightily to complete my book proposal, Don with his knowledge had several suggestions that helped it. I lengthened the proposal to seventy-five pages, bolstered several sections (especially the comparative literature section), and cut off one sample chapter. An agent possesses knowledge about to whom the proposal should be sent. I didn’t have a clue about this and the fifteen percent fee charged by my agent seemed entirely reasonable.

My agent submitted the proposal serially in three lots. I learned from observing these acts of literary commerce that all publishers are not necessarily timely in responding, even from agents whom they know well. Months became years. The waiting time for me crept by like a caterpillar with sore feet.

The initial responses when they finally arrived consisted of “we do not have experience or expertise with this kind of book,” or “we are having to limit ourselves to only a few publications this year, or similar “passes.” “Passes”, hell, each and every one felt like a searing, bald-faced rejection, a real punch in the groin. So what if thirty-three rejections occurred before the final ACCEPTANCE? How sweet the acceptance.

Texas Tech University Press received my proposal with enthusiasm and asked me to submit the full manuscript. Another six months unfortunately slipped by when the then Director of Tech Press unexpectedly retired and failed to pass my book to a colleague or to even download it into their system. When eventually the error was discovered, my submitted book took flight, winging its way to two external reviewers. Both mercifully provided prompt and strongly positive endorsements.

My wonderful editor at Tech Press, Joanna Conrad, made several deft observations and tactful requests. I worked for three months responding to her requests that consisted largely of personalizing the manuscript more. What had been a combination memoir and medical narrative became a stronger physician’s memoir. After addressing her edits, the manuscript was re-submitted and was better for the extra effort.

A final editorial committee (you just knew there would be a committee at a university publishing house somewhere) gave the book a big thumbs up along with a positive recommendation from the Editor at Texas Tech University Press. Voila! I am at last to be published! Praise the Lord and pass the champagne!

At this point I thought my portion of the publishing process was largely completed. Again, my assumption would be proved wrong.

 

So You Want To Write-Part 2: The Early Days

I suppose for years I’ve harbored the desire to write for a popular audience. A strange visceral need to be sure, but after it strikes, it’s hard to deny.

While practicing medicine, I would cubbyhole an interesting case file or article to later return to for inspiration. Some dramatic experiences in medicine simply demanded more processing time than my busy medical practice would allow. These records, by the way, helped me develop the stories for my forthcoming book, Carrying the Black Bag: A Doctor’s Story.

Not long after retiring from neurology, I signed up for popular writing classes at the Texas Tech University Higher Education Teaching Site in Fredericksburg, Texas. A retired writing professor who had relocated from a faculty at Houston university taught these courses.

At the time I felt I had a reasonable understanding how to write for a popular audience. After all, I had edited some five medical books and authored over 100 scientific articles and chapters. Wow, was I wrong!

Not only did my scientific writing skills not help, in some ways they impeded my progress toward  writing for a popular audience. I would never have suspected this.

Scientific writing must be concise. The space available in scientific journals is precious indeed and editors are maniacal in their attempts to excise excessive verbiage. This results from more worthy articles being submitted than there is space to print them.

I had also mastered the unfortunate but well ingrained habit of using jargon and passive voice. I had earlier been discouraged by journal editors from using popular writing devices such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration. Colorful description in scientific articles was absolutely verboten.

This painful lesson I learned early on from a irritable editor. (In an earlier draft I used the term dyspeptic editor, resorting again to a term not commonly understand. Over learned writing habits are hard to break as I just proved.) The jargon impedes communication to a popular audience to be sure, although it shortens the description necessary-a cardinal requirement for scientific writing.

When writing for a popular audience, I found having to monitor my word choice closely to avoid this insidious habit of using jargon. Lets face it–scientific writing is dull reading and impenetrable if lacking the professional jargon.

Scientific writing also follows on from studies for which data and methods exist. Popular writing has less rules and demands greater creativity. The guideposts are less obvious for popular writing. Any of you with an MFA in creative writing feel free to differ with me on this point.

I remember one day in class being given a general topic to write on and having a devil of a time being creative enough to write a story about it. The idea seemed to come out of no where and lacked context. There had been no experiments, no case file to review, and no scientific literature from which to begin. Ah, the terror of a blank page reared its ugly head! Needless to say, my class offering was short in the extreme.

Naturally, I became most comfortable writing about topics about which I knew something–experiences from medicine and my new found retirement to a Texas cattle ranch. Nevertheless, i have over the years learned to dabble in fiction and occasionally to venture further afield from my comfort zone. While my fiction is of poorer quality than I desire, my attempts as they have unspooled at least have loosened me up.

At the conclusion of my writing classes, I realized I was having such a good time that I did not want to stop. I suggested to several of my classmates (old friends at this juncture) we form a writer’s critique group. Just because our instructor had decided to stop teaching did not mean that we had to stop meeting. This venture soon proved a helpful exercise about which I shall write next. Critique groups are extremely useful but certain precautions are needed. My opinion springs from having experienced both positive and negative outcomes. More later.

So You Want To Publish: The Urge To Write

I plan to write a series on the writing process.  By necessity this will be personal, detailing my own circuitous pathway leading away from scientific writing to a more popular style. I hope these posts will prove helpful for others who find in themselves a need (a compulsion?) for putting ideas down on paper. “Ink Slingers” arise!
The genesis for my wanting to write lies deeply buried in the past. I doubt that it comes as a Eureka moment for others; it certainly did not for me. I recall always enjoying writing themes in school, and I soon came to appreciate a few of my efforts and those of my classmates were better written and more interesting than others. This development of a critical attitude seems to be a necessity for writing.
I owe much to my H. S. English teacher who encouraged me to write. I also owe much to my mother who would have been an excellent writer had she not been such a dedicated wife and mother of four active children. These two women gave me permission (in the psychological sense) to take a few risks in my writing and try different approaches and styles.
At my undergraduate school, Texas Tech University, I enjoyed honors English. The advantages were smaller class size and excellent professors. Even though I was a science major (Zoology) and science minor (Chemistry). I loved my humanities courses, especially literature. Had it not been for my all consuming desire to become a physician, I likely would have majored in one of the humanities.
The posts to follow will describe the corruption of popular writing wreaked by scientific writing and furthermore how bloomin’ difficult it is to break these ingrained habits (passive voice, overly exacting verbiage, humorless and tortured phraseology, scientific jargon, and brevity to the extreme).

I will also share thoughts on the advantages and challenges of workshops, seminars, writing courses, and critique groups. Each had their impact on my writing, and as one of my former partners used to say, were all “good butt flattening exercises.”

Needless to say, once a book is conceptualized or even written, the real challenge comes in getting it published. My own experience in this journey through this forest of despair will be described- landmines, craters, heartbreak and all. And then the soaring elation of acceptance. I suppose if writing and publishing were easy, everyone would be doing it. Self-publishing nowadays does provide an  outlet for everyone to publish but is this the best pathway?

I hope my own effort to learn popular writing (metaphors, similes, and alliteration really are acceptable in the English language) might prove helpful. Persistence can pay off or as the mock Latin phrase says, illegitimi non carborundum (translated: don’t let the bastards grind you down).

So “Ink Slingers” arise! Pick up those pens as they are said to be mightier than the sword.

My Writing Process

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One frequently asked question  readers have since publishing Carrying The Black Bag is about my writing process and any efforts utilized to foster creativity. I’ve decided to add some thoughts here on my blog to answer my readers more fully:

Yes, some authors do goofy things to stimulate their creativity. i’ve known some and read about others. The superstitious may choose to sit only in a specific chair or drink only one brand of tea. Others play up-tempo music or stirring classical works. Admittedly, I’ve been known to don a cap (my Greek fisherman’s cap’s my favorite) to prime the creative juices. But the goal for each author, no matter what the idiosyncrasy, is to achieve a creative fervor whereby the characters take command of the story and  fingers simply race to keep pace with surging thoughts.

For me I appreciate sitting before my word processor with a clear mind, a comfortable chair, and an exciting idea. I usually outline the story before beginning it. This isn’t an absolute but generally I find outlining helpful. I try and determine what the chapter requires for plot or subplot and then with trepidation shove off into the unknown.

Nothing inspires fear more in writers than a blank page or screen. Once immersed in the story, my pace inevitably picks up. Usually after the first draft I simply hate it. I often think what I have written is not fit for bathroom walls. It is not until  many more drafts later that I begin to like it even a little bit.  I then put it “in the can” for awhile. Usually after a week or so, I am able to spot additional flaws and weaknesses. I then adjust the story, much like adjusting a recipe to taste, substituting stronger verbs, adding apt similes/metaphors, and creating further descriptions.

The next stop for me on this literary journey is my writing group. Our group of five writers has met for many years and by now has developed a sense of trust. While we possess vastly different styles and genres, the feedback never fails to benefit my story. Soon thereafter I make the additional changes. After a final read through with minor edits I may write THE END. If the writing project is particularly important I may ask a beta reader for his/her thoughts. These are extremely valuable folks who must like your writing and be anxious to share their precious skills.

The question among writers that repeatedly comes up is whether the spouse should act as an informal editor or serve as an alpha reader. The usual response and one to which I hardily agree is NO, absolutely NOT! Having said that, almost every author I know or have read about uses (abuses) their spouse in this way, so long as he/she is halfway literate. I fully recognize this marital extortion is totally unfair to my spouse. In general the writer’s wife or husband feels torn between being supportive and being honest. To this I say, “tough.” No one ever said marriage would be easy!

So yes, Trudy regularly reads my stories. I ask her to do this when I am simply written out or else in need of a fresh eye. She also is good at word choice and grammar. Sorry Trudy. Such editorial services I’m sure must have been hidden in the fine print of the marriage contract.

My inspiration often springs from my surroundings and experiences. I love to tell stories. I love to watch people and animals and try to figure out what makes them do what they do. I love seeing people in extraordinary circumstances do extraordinary acts (this is the watermark underneath my patient stories  in Carrying The Black Bag). These stories show real people demonstrating courage and perseverance that, in some instances, they never knew they possessed. They tell us something good about the nature of our humanity.

Animal behavior also strikes me as overlooked for the substantial insights it provides for human behavior. I love animals. Maybe that is why in college I majored in Zoology. It wasn’t simply because it was a good Pre-Med major, and Chemistry, the other option, held for me no allure.

Much has been written on the creative process. I’m convinced creativity steals into the picture and cannot be forced. When it hits me, it does so unexpectedly much like a pigeon dropping. A rested mind, a beautiful scene, and a tickling of intellectual stimulation all enhance my potential for creativity.

Since the writing process per se is language-based, it is is strongly left brain. However, sudden insights like solving a problem or flashes of intuition come from the right brain. This  ability to perceive a solution requiring synthesis is right hemispheric and cannot be arrived at verbally. To write well, both sides of the brain need to work together. To paraphrase and alter the old Greek saying, we need a strong left hemisphere and a strong right hemisphere. That is, the brain must process verbal material, but also be able to discern some broader interpretation in order to tell a good story.

I believe this to be true, and try to put this into practice. And now so much for superstition or goofy acts. Now where was it I laid my Greek fisherman’s hat.