February 17th, 2017

Drive On, Writers – Reasons to Keep Plugging

James Preston
I want to tell you a story. No, not one I wrote, one I lived. This story is an illustration of a lifetime of reading, and a story that I bet you read and say, “Why, yes, I remember a book like that.” This story illustrates the seismic changes that we have witnessed. And at the end, there are two messages of hope, one that you may not have thought of.

I want to tell you the story of this shirt. Guaranteed, if you follow this tale you will come out with hope for your chances of finding an audience.

When I was between the 6th and 7th grades my parents moved from Fullerton to El Segundo, CA. For those of you who are non-California readers, that’s right next door to LAX. It could have been an awful summer — shy kid who knows nobody, no school to provide classmates — but it was saved by the El Segundo Public Library, a city institution that was then and is now nothing less than wonderful. I devoured the YA (Children’s back then) science fiction (and I have to give a shout out to the librarian who did that book selection — Heinlein, Asimov, Alice May Norton writing as Andre Norton, all great stories). Anyway, after that was done one of the librarians said, “Here, try this. You might like it,” and handed me Hot Rod by Henry Gregor Felsen. I loved it and it started a lifelong love of hot cars. And parts of it stuck with me.

Fast forward to 1981.

I was reading Stephen King’s masterpiece It. In the part of the story set in the 1950’s, during a summer vacation, one of the kids who is new in town goes to the library in Derry, Maine. One of the librarians says, “Here, try this, you might like it,” and hands him Hot Rod by Henry Gregor Felsen. While reading King’s novel, absorbed in the story, it didn’t click at first, but a couple of pages later a chill ran up my spine and it hit me. Hot Rod?!? I flipped back and, yeah, same title. Could it be the same book? Now, for you younger readers the Internet was only a gleam in DARPA’s eye, so there was no easy way to check, so I basically forgot it until . . .

Fast forward to 1984.

In an interview King tells the story and, yeah, it’s the same book. When I read the interview I thought “That’s interesting,” which, while true, certainly misses the larger implications. 

One more fast forward, this time all the way.

The Internet has burst upon an unsuspecting world.

And the Net changes everything. As a bona fide car guy I’m on email lists and one day there it is, Hot Rod, by Henry Gregor Felsen. I show my wife, saying, “I remember this book!” And on my birthday, the book and the shirt show up. She went to the web site and ordered them for me. Hot Rod was reborn because publishing no longer requires a 100,000-copy press run and a huge advertising budget, and because Felsen’s daughter loved the book and is a talented artist who gave it a new cover.

So what does this mean to you? You who may be struggling with a novel that you sweated over but cannot find a home for. You who are thinking about a novel but wonder if it will sell.

It means two things, one that you probably know, and one that may not have occurred to you.

First, you can get your book published. It may be a very small, electronic-only press, but it can be done.

It’s possible to publish a book with a small budget. The gatekeepers of the Big Six publishing houses are not gone, but like Bud Crayne in Hot Rod, you can skip them, speed past on the highway. You pays your money and you take your chances. That’s the cliché of modern publishing.

Okay, that’s common knowledge but here’s the other part, which I think is at least equally important and which may not have occurred to you.

Your book never goes away. Once that electronic edition is done it can live on the cloud, on servers, on tablets, and on smartphones forever.

In case the importance of that hasn’t sunk in, I did some research on just how bookstores handle paperback originals by unknown writers. For starters, keep in mind that shelf space is like gold, so unknowns won’t get face-out so people can see the cover. And depending on sales, after a few weeks, the unsold books are stripped and the covers returned to the publisher. I clearly remember visiting the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore and seeing a large trash can full of paperbacks, all without covers, sitting outside. In the rain. I still feel the horror, the horror.

So here’s the other message. That won’t happen to your Kindle edition. 

It should be a message of hope. It’s not easy, but if you work at it you will find an audience. Felsen’s daughter correctly believed in Hot Rod and with its new, improved cover it found a new generation of readers. And the shirt helped promote the book.

Along with everything else, the digital revolution has changed publishing. It is possible to do it yourself or with a very small organization, and find an audience. And once it’s out there, your book will live, almost certainly longer than it would on the shelves of a bookstore.

“Okay, okay, I get it. There’s a path, there’s hope, my electronic edition will live forever. But what do I do next?”

Well, for starters you’re on the right track reading this blog. Part of this seismic change is the development of communities of folks with common interests, like writing fiction. You’re in the right place.

Look up Robert A. Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing. They are as true now as they were in 1947.

Want to read more thoughts on libraries? See the Writers In the Storm entry, For Love of a Library by Ella Joy Olsen.

For detailed tips on dealing with this changed landscape, see 7 Things Authors Must Do Differently in 2017, by Penny Sansevieri also in this blog. (And while you’re at it, stop a moment and marvel at just how effortless it is to find those sources.)

And . . . Write. That’s all there is to it.

As the hero of Hot Rod, Bud Crayne says, “Forget your brakes. The way out of almost any tight spot is power.” Just write.

And that shy kid who read Hot Rod? Why, his Surf City Mysteries are on the shelves of the same library.

I wanted to tell you a story. Now it’s your turn. 

We all have books that were important to us when we were starting this writing adventure, stories that we read that made us say, “I want to do that.” For Stephen King, Felsen’s tale of teenage speed influenced him. What was it for you? There’s somebody out there who will read what you say and go find the book and, just like Hot Rod, it will live.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About James

 Sailor Home from SeaJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.

37 comments to Drive On, Writers – Reasons to Keep Plugging

  • Loved the story, James. For me, that novel was Ann Patchett’s BEL CANTO. Her use of language made me sit up and pay attention and the story, with its hazy moral line between who/what is right and who/what is wrong, has stuck with me for the past twelve years, and through my first two published novels. As I write my third, I am still inspired to write like that.

    • jamesr403

      Kathryn, thanks. And thanks for sharing Bel Canto. It clearly made a great impression. And now other writers will see the title and think, “Bel Canto? Maybe I’ll look that up.” We live in an age of growing connections. Thanks for sharing.

  • For me, it wasn’t a traditional book, but rather a piece of fan fiction, and I was far from a youngster. I read the works by that particular author and said, “If I wanted to write, I’d like to write like that.” We struck up a friendship and it’s lasted ever since.

  • jamesr403

    Excellent! Terry that’s great, and a testament to the power of story, even if it is not distributed through a traditional avenue. Very thought-provoking.

  • The first writer who really fired me up was Louisa May Alcott. I just flat-out loved Jo from Little Women. I liked her zeal, her lessons and her life. I liked her through Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

    Other books and characters that come to mind: Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara and her stubborn resistance to anything except Tara. Pat Conroy fired me up as an adult with all his lyrical language and his tortured families. And The Bridges of Madison County made me sob with the sadness of a love that would never be.

    There have been so, so many books that touched my heart and never let it go. That’s the entire reason why I write. 🙂

  • jamesr403

    Jenny, wow. Yes, and yes again. I still remember finding The Complete Sherlock Holmes — (Of course in the El Segundo Public Library. I was in Junior High but the librarians let me have an adult card, for which I still owe them thanks.) — one day when my parents were away. I took it home that morning, started reading, and only looked up because it was getting dark. One of the really cool things about the times in which we live, and this blog, is that now some new writer will read your comment and think, “Bridges of Madison County? Maybe I’ll give that a try.”
    Thanks!

  • Marguerite Henry for me. Of course, it was the horses that drew me, but the world she created . . .that I lived in for a little while…sigh.

    King is a God. Long live King.

    Thanks for the encouragement, James.

  • Yeah! Right on, Laura! Oops, I think I just dated myself. You are right about King; I still remember the first time I read ‘Salem’s Lot. There is nothing like being transported to another world through a book. I can’t think who was first for me, maybe Norse mythology, Loki and company? Thanks for a good book suggestion; somebody will take notice.
    Okay, get back to work. Type faster.

  • Like Jenny, it was Little Women for me. Little Woman, Good Wives, Little Men – the whole series stole my heart and inspired me. As an adult it’s all about Terry Pratchett and his Disk World universe.

    • Fae Rowen

      Ah, littlemissw, a Terry Pratchett fan. I so love finding a science fiction compatriot! And, yes, I am also part of the Little Women early fan club. My mother gave me a beautiful edition for Christmas when I was in the seventh grade. Thanks for bringing back those memories.

    • I haven’t discovered Terry Pratchett and his Disk World series, but I can tell I’d dig those books. Thanks!

  • Wonderful post, James! Like Laura, I loved Henry’s books on the Chincoteague ponies, read and reread National Velvet and Black Beauty, and probably a hundred other horse books. Therein lies my lifetime love of these beautiful animals. As a one-time children’s librarian, I couldn’t help but steer the kids to these books. My hubby is into hot cars, Mustangs (to keep that horse theme going), so I’m going to check out Hot Rod for sure!

    • jamesr403

      I have not read National Velvet, but Black Beauty, you bet. And you made me think of Call of the Wild. So many great stories that shaped us as writers and people. Your husband will not be disappointed with Hot Rod or the other Felsen books. In the new edition, Felsen’s daughter includes correspondence, giving a sense of the history of the book and the response it generated, and continues to generate. And the new cover is awesome. (See shirt above.)
      And the koala in your picture is great!

  • jamesr403

    Ooooh, good one, LittleMissW. Disk World, one I haven’t thought of for a while and worth going back to. Interesting, we have two votes for Little Women. Anybody? Anybody? Anybody for some Lord of the Rings? Now there’s a world!
    Thanks!

    • Fae Rowen

      I didn’t hear about Lord of the Rings until the eleventh grade, when a fellow chemistry lab assistant, told me about Middle Earth. He lived the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and we were geek-buddies, so I had to read them.

  • By first grade teacher told my parents that I would “never be a success in life, because I did not have the ability to learn to read.”
    I almost proved her right. In the summer of my fourth grade, I was sick for two weeks. No TV in those days. An aunt had sent me a book for Christmas, that year. Getting a book was almost as exciting as getting a pair of socks. But, I was sick and couldn’t ride bikes with my friends. The Lone Ranger didn’t come on the radio but once a week. I picked up this book: Red Randall over Tokyo by Sydney Bowen. I struggled with the words and finally finished it. My mother was wise enough to let me order another in the series, one at a time. I recovered from my illness, but was hooked on these war stories. Billy Tamichi who was a grade ahead of me said, “You ought to read the Yankee Flyer series. He shoots down more planes.”
    I did. By high school I was reading Shakespeare. In 1960, I taught my first class of fourth graders who were designated remedial readers. Thirty-five years, later I was teaching art and literature to middle school students. One of the most satisfying remarks I still get from ex-students is “I got to pick the stories that interested me from our library. You were my favorite teacher. We had fun in your class.” I had fun in my classes.
    When I retired in 1995 my wife, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, said: “I didn’t go into your art room and rearrange your cupboards. You don’t come in my kitchen and rearrange my cupboards.” Take a class in anything…writing maybe. I write; she edits. We’re still having fun.

    • Sam what a great, great heartwarming story! One summer I was supposed to go to camp but got bronchitis and couldn’t. While I was in bed my Dad brought me an Amazing Science Fiction Stories magazine and started my lifelong love of SF. My wife taught middle school for 38 years; I can’t wait to show her your comment. I take it you’re writing. Do you have a work in progress? Thank you very much for sharing.
      PS. Here’s some free advice: stay out of the cupboards.

      • My site is http://www.tobecontinuedbysam.com I’m still learning about websites and WordPress. Somewhere, there’s a picture of my wife and me. PJ and I have written two volumes of self-help books for Parents who have experienced the death of a child. This Might Help, a chapbook: A Tanka Road Trip; and two novellas: Listen and Blue which are paranormal romance. Maybe they are par-AB-normal romance. All Indie pubs. This WITS site is an extraordinary blog. I have learned much from it. Thanks for your reply.

        • jamesr403

          Sam, you have a good-looking website, and you clearly help a lot of people with your blog. It looks like you have done a great deal of nonfiction and are now branching out into fiction. I’m glad you liked my contribution to WITS and keep writing. Thanks again for the kind words!

  • Two books that immediately come to my mind because I thought how wonderful it would be to write books like them are Centennial by James A. Michener and Roots by Alex Haley. I’m self-editing my first historical novel manuscript. It won’t hold a candle to Centennial or Roots, but it will have my name on it as the author and that will be a dream come true. Thank for your encouraging blog post.

  • Well put, janetsm. Yes, your name will be on the book, and if you make it the very best you can, that’s all you can do and you should be proud. My historical novellas, Crashpad and Buzzkill, convinced me that historicals are an enormous amount of work, and I lived through the period I’m writing about! Welcome to the club, and like we always say to each other — type faster! And those are two awesome books to be inspired by.

  • Fae Rowen

    Hi James! You touched on almost all my loves in this post—writing, fast cars, science fiction, and libraries. And my “first” book—Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. Yep, the first book I checked out of the library as soon as I got my “adult library card” in the eighth grade. (Thank you, Mr. Townsend, my English teacher, who called my parents and said I really was capable of reading more than Sue Barton, Student Nurse books.) And thank you for the second note of hope. Last June I decided that I didn’t want to trust my books to New York’s tender mercies. This June I’ll enter the Indie world with my first book. Yes, there is hope.

    • I never read Captain Blood, Fae, but I loved all the pirate-filled bloodthirsty books as a kid. I’d have totally dug that one too, I’m sure.

      • jamesr403

        Interesting, Jenny. I was never into pirates; for me it was always space ships, ray guns and aliens. I did read Treasure Island. I think it’s wonderful how many people have responded with stories of how libraries got them interested in reading. i remember a bookmobile (now that’s dating myself) and a summer reading program with challenges like, “Read a blue book.” They were sometimes silly, but they made you branch out & try new things. Thanks for sharing!

  • jamesr403

    Thanks, Fae. Captain Blood, huh? I think libraries are vastly underappreciated; that particular one made a big difference to me. Isn’t it great when you get that adult card and get to check out anything out want? In King’s novel It, Ben gets seriously beaten up by bullies, but his big concern is that they damaged his library books — that’s the worst thing!
    Glad you liked the essay and congratulations again on blog # 1,000. Writers in the Storm is doing a lot of good for struggling and not-so-struggling writers. Keep it up!

  • I got my eighth graders hooked on the Pern-Dragonflight series by Anne McCaffrey. Well…We got hooked with them. Great fun.

  • just reading and writing in general. the love of books and writing from an early age. I loved doing it. still do.

    denise

    • jamesr403

      Sometimes we get lost in the noise of deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise) and don’t stop to think about how important writing and stories are. Good comment, Denise. Thanks!

  • Sue Simonich

    I love the imagery written by C. J. Box. He puts you right there. Looking forward to his newest next month

  • jamesr403

    Sue, you’re right. I was one of the writers at a recent Men of Mystery event, where C. J. Box was the Guest of Honor. Really an entertaining speaker! If you ever get a chance to hear him, don’t miss it.

  • I am enjoying all the posts on this blog, especially when the guest writer engages personally with readers. Thanks James – from an insomniac with constant dialogue running through her head. 😀

    • You too? I use a CPAP for my Apnea. I don’t have any trouble GOING to sleep. It’s the waking up at 0330 or 0400 with stories that have to be written immediately. On the plus side, the Sunrises are a welcome sight.

    • jamesr403

      Sue & Sam — Yes, something I think about frequently is how important the contact with other writers is. It’s new, and I think there are still many who aren’t getting the full benefit. i know about the dialog running through your head, er, I mean my head, I don’t know about yours, Sue. Anyway, yeah, I usually give up & write. Sam, sorry about the apnea. I have a friend who suffers from that — no fun at all.
      I had an interesting experience last night that relates to what we’re talking about. About 12:30 am I got a notice that I’d been mentioned in a tweet; when I looked it was a nice comment so I replied that the writer was a night owl like me — only to get a response that it was 11:00 am in South Africa. It is a small world and getting smaller.
      Thanks for sharing, both of you.

  • […] Drive On, Writers – Reasons to Keep Plugging […]

  • thebookdoctorisin

    What a great article, James! Thank you for sharing this story with us. For me, I’ve always loved books, from the time I was a mere toddler. But perhaps a pivotal moment was when I received The Chronicles of Narnia box set at age seven. I immediately started reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and BAM! I was whisked away into that world and completely captivated. As an adult, I feel equally whisked away into other times and places by Fannie Flagg, with her endearing and quirky characters, mostly living in the South. I laugh, I’m touched, and I get to escape for a little while, which is always a delight. And now, being an editor/book designer/publishing partner, I have the immense privilege of shepherding authors through the book production process myself, which is a joy all its own. 🙂

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