In This section I’m going to put various, blog-like essays and information by me and by others. I’m going to try to add things on a regular basis, just because I like writing small things in the midst of larger projects.

 

Why Writers Like to Hear From Readers.

 

Without wanting to sound too pathetic or confrontational...

 

 Writing is essentially a lonely occupation. Those of you who have real jobs are usually unaware of how much contact you have with the rest of the human race during your average workday. Writers, fiction writers in particular, spend most of their days alone in small rooms, locked in mortal combat with a computer screen. I work in a basement where the only outside light comes from a couple of window-wells and a distant door. That's the way I like it. In my youth, I once lived in Montana in a fine big house where I outfitted a writing room with bright white walls, a beautiful oak desk and a glorious view of the Bitterroot Mountains. It was fabulous. I was miserable. After two weeks I moved everything down into the basement to a dank, dark room I shared with an ancient furnace. Ahhh, much better.

 

The rewards of the writing life are few and thin. Dinner party conversations with civilians (non writers) often consist of variations of the following -- "Your sense of accomplishment must be huge when you see that new book fresh from the publisher or in the bookstore." "Just finishing a novel must make you feel great." "Working your own hours, taking time off whenever you please, it must be wonderful." "I'd love to have the time to write, you must have a great life." And on. As a writer, one learns to smile and agree, nodding one's head, tamping down the biting remark, the sarcastic quip, because to give in to these base urges only makes you look churlish and ungrateful. Here's the truth of the matter -- unless you make a lot of money doing it, professional writing is brutal work. And beware any writer who tells you anything different, who says he or she loves the act of creation, that doing the work itself is magic, that he or she writes because they are driven by some inner muse to do so, that they would write even if there was no monetary reward. That writer is either an amateur, a fool or bad at what he does. Probably all three. Writing is difficult and unrewarding (for the most part). Lawrence Kasden, the screenwriter, once said that being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. He's exactly right.

 

Most writers I know make very little money. Just enough to keep going in the hope that one day they will hit it big and start earning as much money as a gainfully employed carpenter or plumber or postal worker. They have long-suffering husbands or wives who, if the writer is lucky, share this distant dream while working to bring in the money that keeps their families in food and shelter. If a writer sells a project he might get an advance on future royalties, but by the time the money is parceled out it doesn't usually add up to much. But at least an advance shows some publisher interest, which is enough to keep most writers hacking away for years at a time. Hope, as we all know, springs eternal. And once a book is completed and off to the publisher there's no chance to relax and savor the moment because the next project has to be sold and work begun. And all the time, like a permanent wound, there's the knowledge that festers just below the surface that the book that is now in the publisher pipeline will quite probably come out in a year or so, hit the shelves and fail like the writer's other books. Like most of the other books on those same shelves. (Let me pause for a moment. Why am I continuing with this bitter screed? Because I know that buried here in this overly long and clumsy website it will probably be read by a total of 10 people in the next ten years. I can do what I want, rant on, and only a few will think me ungrateful. Is this freedom? Of a sort. Is this one of a writer's rewards. I guess so, though it's a poor one at best.)

 

You get the point. So what's the answer? What was the question? Oh yes, Why do writers like to hear from readers? Because it's usually just about the only encouragement they get. Even the letters from the raving lunatics who berate you for using the wrong caliber when describing a handgun are at least proof that someone is reading your work. But the nice ones are different. Here's an example:

 

Dear Mr. Appel. Im an eight grader in seward alaska where are middle school and high school were combined until recently so we are predisposed to all the books in the library. well last year when i read your book Time after Time I loved it, since I have read it once more. My friend Becky and I both love it, the whole book I was riveted and wanted to know more; the story just seemed so realistic. I read more than anyone youve probably met and I must confess that Time after time is one of my favorits. Sincerely, Name Witheld to Protect an Innocent Child.

 

Of course I wrote back to her. I respond to everyone who sends me a message. Most writers I know write back to everyone who bothers to write them. It's not like I'm Stephen King with a roomful of letters that I'm never going to get to. Besides, when I'm writing a letter to a kind fan, I'm not sweating blood trying to solve a plot problem, trying to come up with dialogue that doesn't sound stilted and stupid, trying to create characters that are compelling. For at least that moment I'm sitting at the computer typing and I'm not wrestling with the gorilla that I know is going to beat me in the end, beat me as he does time and again. But still, every day, I get into the ring with this great, cruel, smelly beast, because I can't really do anything else. I'm not good at anything else. I'm a writer, dammit.

 

And that, my friends, is why you should write to your favorite authors. After a day of gorilla-wrestling, a kind word is a soothing balm to an aching heart. You would be amazed at how much these messages are appreciated.

The Sea of Time: the Lost Alex Balfour Novel.

 

After writing Till the End of Time, I turned to a subject I had been thinking about for some time, the Titanic. This was several years before the modern movie came out, when most of the interest in the ship was restricted to history and maritime buffs.

The question that kept nagging at me, was, what would it take, if you knew what was going to happen when the ship met the infamous iceberg, to get you to walk up the gangway and board the Titanic? I knew the answer, at least if the person in question was Alex Balfour. He'd climb aboard if he saw the love of his life, and his link to the present, Molly, getting onto the ship ahead of him. That was the vision I had: Alex standing on the dock, watching the Titanic load, seeing the flash of Molly's red hair as she went aboard.

 

How could he not follow?

 

I presented a proposal for this the fourth in the series to Doubleday, which they bought. I wrote the book over the course of a year, during which time the editor who bought the book left the company, (this happens all the time in the book business) and I was assigned a new editor who, it was clear, didn't give a damn about the book. And now comes the interesting part of this cautionary tale.

 

I always do at least 7 complete drafts of every book I write. Sea of Time was no exception. But I have learned that you never delete early drafts as there may be material there that you need for later drafts or even another book. So files and folders abound, often with confusing identifying labels. Most writers have this same problem, so we end up with files with confusing labels like -- final.doc, final 2.doc, final final.doc, really final.doc, no shit really final final.doc, etc. No kidding. Ask any professional writer. So after a year, one late night I finished the 7th draft, and, exhausted, I printed out three copies, boxed one up and the next day sent it to my editor at Doubleday. Three days later I had a letter back from him saying the manuscript was unacceptable and they wanted half their advance back and they weren't going to pay me the rest of the advance. Stunned, I called the editor who was distant and rude, saying he hated the book. No rewriting, no further explanation, no appeals. I told my agent everything that had happened. He asked to see the manuscript, I sent it to him, he didn't like it either. He said not to send back the advance, but that we wouldn't press the issue of the unpaid advance because "we have to work with these guys in the future," so we didn't want to make them angry. Still stunned at the loss of a year's worth of work and the the advance that I was counting on, I reluctantly agreed, put the book on the shelf and set about trying to figure out what I was going to do next.

 

Most folks would just assume that I would go back to the book, try to fix what was "wrong" with it and attempt to sell it elsewhere. My agent suggested I just write another book, but not an Alex Balfour adventure because they hadn't ever sold very well anyway. This is when I turned to what became my successful series of parenting books, beginning with From Father to Son.

 

Years went by. I was gratified, slightly, to read an article in Publishers Weekly that explained that Doubleday dumped 200 other backlist, midlist authors from their rolls at the same time I had been dumped, which sort of explained what had happened to me. But it still rankled. Occasionally I would get a letter from a fan who had read all the Balfour books and wanted another, so I began sending out my one, coffee-stained copy of The Sea of Time. Readers seemed to appreciate it. Doubleday sent letter after letter demanding their advance back, letters that I ignored. One of the Sea of Time readers made a copy of the manuscript and I began sending it out two at a time. I paid the postage to send it, the readers paid the postage to return it. Just dealing with the mailing and managing the list was becoming a pain, so I thought about printing copies of the book and selling them or putting it up online. I had never actually looked beyond the cover page of the manuscript; one day I sat down to read it. With growing horror as I turned the pages, I realized what had happened. In the fog of exhaustion, years before, the night I had finished the book, I had printed out not draft number seven, the final draft, but draft number three. Neither the Doubleday editor or my agent had ever seen the final draft. By the time I realized this, the book was so old I had gone through several computers since I had written it. The original computer was an Atari, a company that had gone out of the computer business by then. I found a set of floppy discs that may well have been a final draft, but they would not run on my computer.

 

And still, more and more requests came in for a new Time Travel adventure. Finally, I wrote a letter to the original publisher, Carroll and Graf (which by now had been sold to Avalon Publishing) and asked if anyone there had any interest in a new Alex Balfour adventure. To my surprise, the new editor at C&G, Philip Turner, answered my letter and said he was interested. Rather than resuscitate the Titanic book, I suggested I write a Civil War book, a period I had always been interested in. Philip agreed, and so was born In Time of War. (For a more in-depth discussion of that work see the essay in the Thoughts section entitled In Time of War: The Last of the Series?)

 

Now that I realized what had happened, I stopped sending out Sea of Time. After all, it wasn't a finished draft. Several years went by and still more requests came in to read the unpublished manuscript, so I started sending it out again with an explanation. As long as everyone understands that it's not a finished book, (there's a character in who struts onstage at one point and then disappears forever) that there's stuff that would never had made it into the final draft, well, then they're welcome to read it. Especially since there will probably never be another in the series. But that's another story. (See above.)

 

So I'm still sending out Sea of Time (Third Draft), only now it’s on a disc or I send an electronic copy. Send me a note and I get you a copy if you're interested, but you have to remember this is not a finished novel, it is a curiosity, meant for hard-core Alex Balfour fans only.

 

And remember: Always check your hard copy before sending it out. I think Doubleday would still have dumped me even if they'd had the final draft of my manuscript, they were just looking for an excuse. And yet...and yet...

 

 

 


In Time of War: Last of the Series?

 

There was a time when I thought I would write this series of books forever. I never envisioned massive sales, but I thought if people liked the books, if they continued to be well reviewed then readership would grow with each addition until they made enough money to keep everyone involved happy. That didn't happen. The first two were published by Carroll and Graf as hardbacks and Dell as paperbacks. Doubleday did the third in hardback. There was no paperback. The story of the fourth book is chronicled in the essay above.

 

For years after the manuscript of Sea of Time was deep-sixed, I received very nice letters from readers who all asked the same question: When's the next one coming out? These letters would arrive three or four times a month, year in, year out. Finally, I sent a letter to Carroll and Graf asking Kent Carroll if he was interested in any more in the series. I received a reply from Phillip Turner, the chief editor at C&G, telling me the company had been sold to Avalon Publishers and Kent was long gone. (See above essay for more on this.) But he, Phillip, was interested in publishing another in the series. I wrote a proposal, he approved it and I went to work.

 

18 or so months later, a finished novel popped out of the pipeline and hit the shelves of the nation's bookstores. It stayed face-out at the front of the store for two weeks, moved to the regular shelves for a couple of weeks more, then disappeared for good. About 1,500 copies sold, making it a financial failure by anyone's standards.

 

And why did it fail? Well, there are several reasons, though no one can ever predict, except with a few authors, failure or success in the book business. There was virtually no marketing campaign; Carroll and Graf is a small firm and doesn't have much in the way of extra money for that sort of thing. Phillip Turner, the editor, was/is an excellent editor and a stand-up guy, but as much as he would want to he can't singlehandedly make a book a success. Books in general have the shelf life of Mayflies, pulled and pulped in a few weeks if there's no immediate groundswell of sales. The much-vaunted "word-of-mouth" buzz that publishers long-for never happened. I suppose my loyal readers made an effort to get the word out, but in the end it came to nothing. This is common in the business and has very little to do with the quality of the work. It's almost all luck, and this series just didn't have enough to make it a success.

 

Would I like to write more of them? You bet. Anyone who reads In Time of War knows that Alex is still vulnerable, as is the rest of his little family. His father is still floating around in Time, waiting to pull his grandson away from Alex and Molly. In fact, I had originally planned to write two Civil War era books in the series. Alas, I fear it will never be. Publishers just don't publish books that have failed financially, no matter how good they may be, no matter how well-reviewed, no matter strongly the loyal fans may feel about them.

 

Unless I can get famous writing some other book, then publishers will flock around making grand offers to pick the series back up. Will it happen? I keep trying. Those of you who have read this far in these pages will be the ones who could make it work. Look for me, friends, on the shelf. I've got a hell of an idea for a new series which I have now finished and is being shopped by my agent. In fact there are two complete novels making the rounds. Who knows, if either or both of them gets published, if they sell, then maybe, just maybe, we'll see Alex Balfour again. And find out just how his story really ends. 

 

A Few Short Tips For a First-Time Novelist Friend Who Just Got a Nice Advance, Quit Her Job and Moved Away.

Don't buy a boat. I know you're now flush (well, flush may be too strong a word) with advance money, but put it in the bank and don't rack up credit card debt in expectation of the second half of the advance if that's the way your contract reads. I have a hideous story about doing just this. (See above essay entitled Sea of Time.) Except it wasn't a boat. I have no interest in boats.

Make your bed every day as soon as you get up and dressed in the morning. No matter what.

Join a gym. For some reason I've been having some fabulous ideas for my new novel as I'm driving home after a workout at the gym. I've always said the most creative spots were Bed, Bath, Beach and Bus, and now I've added Gym. Even though it's screwed up my alliteration thing.

When you work at home no one ever thinks you're really working. In the evenings keep all general lighting in your workroom off with just one light on your desk. For some reason this deters people from bothering you. I don't know why.

Do not set up your writing room in a "nice" room, especially one with a good view, as tempting as this may seem. Down in the basement near a furnace is best, for a lot of reasons.

Get a good, dowdy sweater, cardigans work best, and call it your "writing sweater." Wear it because you've got the heat turned way down to save money.

Find or form a writer's group. Make sure it's for published writers only, or writers with contracts, even if there are only two of you. Don't let unpublished folk in, if you do you're swamped with amateurs and wannabes and their agenda is different from yours. They should have a writing group as well, but the purpose of theirs is different than yours. Go out to eat with these writers one Friday evening a month. The main purpose is to have a lot of laughs and buck each other up.

The genesis of a novel, especially one with an advance, goes something like this: The first hundred pages are a snap. Between one and two hundred is the "I suck" period. Persevere. It is true that you suck, but so do most other writers. After you hit two hundred pages you realize that the project is actually doable. Then it's just hard work. When you get to 400 pages the adrenaline kicks in and the last hundred or so are as easy as the first. Rewrite the entire book seven times. After the last re-write you'll be so sick of it that the idea of looking at it again will make you physically ill. Four or five years after publication you will be able to read the book and you will think you were/are a pretty damn good writer.

Listen you your editor, they usually have good suggestions.

You are allowed two exclamation points per novel. Better not to use either of them, but if you must, use them wisely.

Short paragraphs have a lot of punch.

Don't give your manuscript to friends or loved ones to read unless they're in the business and you really really trust them or need something specific from them. They never read it fast enough and this will always piss you off. Give the work to someone in your writer’s group.

I don't know what kind of novel you're writing, but if you're looking for popular success you can't beat Al Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Your friends will make fun of you if they catch you reading this book but pay no attention to them. If I'd followed Al's advice earlier I'd have done a lot better than I did. Another excellent book to read while you’re working Is Robert’s Rules of Writing by Robert Masello.

Persevere.

Persevere.

Remember that writing a novel is the most difficult and time consuming of all the arts. You are a hero to actually finish one. Compared to normal people, you are a God.