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My First Novel

I give my mother credit for putting this notion of writing a book into my head. In 1976, at age sixty-three, she sat on a stool in a narrow hall closet of our home in Ohio and slowly typed a short memoir on an ancient black Underwood typewriter. My father had her manuscript professionally typeset and printed as a small pamphlet. Mom and Dad then distributed her memoir to the extended family and friends. It was her only real writing effort, and as far as I was concerned, it was an impressive achievement, full of warm reminiscences of growing up on a farm and some signal events in her life. I thought, “One day, I could do something like that.”

I had long been a reader, but in fits and starts. I remember a high school English teacher telling the class that young people our age shouldn’t read Ernest Hemingway. It was best to wait until we were older. I promptly started reading Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Stienbeck and Faulkner. In college, during the early ‘60s, I preferred the beat writers to the Victorian literature required in a course I took on English Literature.

More active reading came with work and air travel. I was in a business that required a good deal of my time in the air, moving from place to place, and as the years advanced, this involved long international flights, which included as a matter of course, waiting in airports, and numerous evenings in hotel rooms. I occasionally read business books, but that was work. I mostly alternated between mysteries or popular novels and much heavier fare. Over time, I devoured many of the books that John D. MacDonald, Loren Estleman, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Larry McMurtry, and Elmore Leonard wrote. At the other end of the scale, I read books on philosophy and religion…which reminds me:

Many years ago I was on an airplane next to a gentleman who, noticing that I was reading a book on Taoism, asked if I taught at a university, to which I said no. He told me that he taught religion and philosophy at some university (I don’t remember) and asked me what I did. I told him that I ran the sales and marketing department for a global manufacturing company and gave him some brief details. Then he asked: “And you’re reading Tao Te Ching?” I answered the obvious. He then went glassy eyed. He evidently figured that there was no benefit in continuing the conversation with someone engaging in “commerce,” in spite of my choice of reading that day, so he returned to his book, never to speak to me again. Since I have never had the desire to develop three-hour friendships on airplanes, I did likewise.

During the late ‘80‘s and beyond, I wrote for pleasure—essays to myself, and, for a time, I kept a daily journal. This was on top of the letter writing, memorandums, and reports required at work.

I began writing my novel in 2004 and became so enamored with character development, that I forgot I needed a plot. I thought the “muse” would take me there. It didn’t. Also, I was still employed and busy with work so I set the effort aside with the idea that I would return to it later…without any notion of a fixed date. I retired in November 2005 and moved from Southern California to the foothills above Denver, Colorado. And I thought about the book.

In August 2008, I had a rough plot outline in mind, a whole cast of new characters to play with, and some important underlying themes—important to me anyway—some blatantly obvious, and one subtle and unresolved. I began writing in earnest and every so often I had to stop to do research— when I went into an area that I knew little or nothing about. So I read two books that helped me with very few paragraphs, and I read a wonderful memoir called Breaking Clean, recommended by a woman I know who grew up on a Montana ranch, which is germane to the story. I interviewed a retired emergency room surgeon I know about protocols in a specific crisis. I met with the editor of our local weekly paper who led me to a book about small town papers and who gave me great insight about the plight of the newspaper business. (He guessed that the local paper wouldn’t be here within ten years.) And I had a meeting with an experienced psychologist I know who was very helpful in understanding the psychological impact of a certain traumatic event as well as the nature of sociopaths.

My first rough draft was completed about a year later and my wife was my first editor. While she reads a great deal also, I never anticipated her editing skills or her sensitivity to an author’s fragile psyche. To paraphrase her summary of my early draft, she told me, “You need to eliminate several sections. If I were reading this off the shelf, I’d quit about thirty pages in. You’ll put the reader to sleep. Some of these sections may be interesting to you, and they might be useful for another book, but not this one. They don’t carry the story!”

So I worked on a major rewrite and slashed forty pages.

I then found a content editor, a lovely hard working woman, who until recently taught creative writing. She read a hard copy of my second draft, marked it up, and offered a four-page summary of what I need to do regarding point-of-view, plot, character development and areas to expand along with those that needed to be reduced. We discussed it at length.

I rewrote the book again, she read it again, and we met again. I tightened it more with another rewrite—a little easier this time.

Then I found a line editor, another lovely hard working woman, who took my digital copy and made numerous changes using the tracking feature on Microsoft Word. I had never seen so many red marks when I got the manuscript back a month later. She also sent me a four-page summary of what she did and why. I dawdled over this a while—I’m also writing a nonfiction book—but eventually accepted about ninety-five percent of her changes.

To say the least, I learned a great deal from these two professional editors. But I have one more edit to complete—I need to read it out loud. I am told that much will be revealed when doing this, which will result in further tightening the narrative.

All along this process of writing the book, my goal was to to work at it religiously, get it properly edited by people that know what they’re doing, and most importantly, be happy with the final product. Then, I would delve into what must be done to get it published. I kept telling myself, and anyone that was interested, “The truth is that I have no grand designs on being a published author and making money at it. I’m writing this for me, not the world. And I want to share it with family and friends. Hopefully, they’ll like it. That’s all I really care about at this juncture. So if publishing by the traditional route never happens, so be it. I’ll self-publish a hundred copies and offer them to people I know that may who want to read it. I’ll simply consider it a very personal achievement of no great importance in the grand scheme of things.”

It turns out that what I kept telling myself was a lie—maybe not early in the game, when staying focused on the writing process was paramount—but it’s a lie now.

On August 28, 2010, I attended a workshop of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) in Denver and met authors, agents, editors, publishers, printers, book shepherds, self-publishers, and consultants. I spent most of the day there listening to speakers, watching a panel discussion, and talking to people in a very welcoming environment. When I asked one gentleman why I should join CIPA, he said, “Because this is your tribe.” If I learned anything, it was this: “Writing a book is a creative act. Selling the book is a business.” And I have to learn how this particular business works.

Now a whole new journey begins.

Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2010 James Ament

2 Responses to “My First Novel”

  1. Linda Castle says:

    Jim – I really enjoyed reading about how you started your journey and your progress so far! Want some advice from a character in a book I just finished reading?
    “Put one foot in front of the other.” I’ll be following along until you reach our destination. Good Luck!

  2. Terry Limpert says:

    Is the whole writing process about the journey or the destination? Or both? In either case, as you came up with the lie you were telling yourself, I cringed. I thought: our lives are filled with encounters with painful reality and how we grow from engaging them. Judge yourself less harshly and forge ahead. You have fans pulling for you.

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