Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 1, 2023

Stories "Once Removed"

by James R. Preston

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In Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder in the title role finds a book called How I Did It by Victor Frankenstein. Needless to say, he’s pretty excited. 

As writers, we are about books. Let’s step back and talk about some of them.

There are stories. And there are stories about stories, sort of "stories once removed."  This is a collection of the latter. My hope is to encourage you to read other writers’ struggles so you can say, “Why it’s not so bad that my novel is taking a long time to write." 

This is of necessity a personal collection since I am not crazy enough to begin a literature search on “Introductions to books,” and I felt it was important to avoid spoilers, which eliminated many modern novels. Also, we are absolutely buried in text, swamped with posts and comments on posts and comments on comments, all about a particular story. 

Campfire Chat

No, this post is sort of like a bunch of writers sitting around a campfire and one of them turns to his neighbor and says, “Hey, Irv, how did you come to write The Prize, and Irving Wallace says . . . “

I pulled these references out of my own collection because they illustrate important principles about our art and craft, sure, but mostly because they’re fun. You can sit with Barbara Tuchman when Barbra (yes, that Barbra) comes calling. We’ll do that and we’ll walk through cotton fields at midnight with Thomas Harris as the dogs sing to the full moon. 

And this is homework. If I do this right you will go out looking for certain books, because that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Books. Hold that thought. 

Singing dogs, movie stars, what more could you ask for?

Finally, for one more story about a story, I’ll tell the one about how I sold my first novel and sold my first novel . . . and sold my first novel. More on that later too. 

Persistence Pays Off

Irving Wallace, The Writing of One Novel. 

Wallace started work on The Prize in 1946 and finished it in 1962. He tells the story in a book called The Writing Of One Novel. This is an excellent “story once removed,” full of information as valid today as it was when it was written.  “No one writes as well as he would like to; he only writes as well as he can.” Thanks, Irving. If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it will say. Wallace also provides step-by step procedures — Notes, Outline, Scene and so on, and illustrates them with his own notes. 

He was devoted, he stuck to it, just like... 

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

Look for an edition with the Forward by the historian Robert K. Massie. He talks about how Tuchman worked, “four or five hours at a stretch,” writing longhand, then typing, and how when Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand wanted her to write a script she told her daughter to tell them that "no, she was working."

The result of this effort was a history of the first month of World War 1 that is as readable today as it was when first published. 

Massie includes a swipe at reviewers and I feel compelled to include it here. When The Guns of August came out Tuchman was described as “a fifty-year-old housewife, mother of three, and the spouse of a prominent New York physician.” Right. Like in between picking the kids up from soccer practice and cooking dinner she dashed off one of the truly great works of modern history, and won a Pulitzer. As if she hadn’t written Bible and Sword and The Zimmerman Telegram before Guns of August

As Massie points out, "she has a gift for making the people come alive."

And when your characters come to life sometimes they won’t go away. 

He Made Me Do It

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Short stories. 

LeGuin was a fantastic science fiction writer in the 60’s - 80’s and in one of her stories she encountered a minor character named Rocannon who would not go away until she told his story. She’s part of this list because in the Introduction to The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she talks about how he simply would not leave her alone.

If you read about writers and their craft you will encounter this over and over again — one of your fictional creations jumps off the page, grabs you by the throat and says, “Tell my story! I want to be heard!” The LeGuin collection is kind of a bonus in that not only is there an Introduction, there’s also a short introduction to each of the stories. It’s well worth a look if you want to hear a talented writer talking about her work. 

He Might Be Watching Me

Thomas Harris, Red Dragon

Speaking of characters that demand attention . . . In Forward to a Fatal Interview, Thomas Harris describes how he wrote Red Dragon, mostly at night, in a small house in the middle of cotton fields. He often walked at night, accompanied by a pack of stray dogs that had attached themselves to him, and who would sing to a full moon. If you’ve guessed who Harris thought might be watching him, why, yes, it’s that gourmet cook Hannibal Lecter. Harris’ essay is a great read and illustrates the writing process, but I don’t recommend it for late at night. 

Girls Don’t Do That

Robert A. Heinlein, Red Planet.

This early Heinlein juvie (a YA in today’s terminology) was nearly edited to death. Among other things, Alice Dalgliesh, the editor, said girls don’t shoot guns. Oh, yeah? My mother, born the same year as Heinlein, learned to shoot first with a shotgun and later with a deer rifle. ‘nuff said. Also, Willis, The Martian pet, sleeps in the same bed as his “owner” and that’s not cool either. Heinlein gave in, accepted the changes, but years later a new publisher brought out an “unexpurgated” edition.

If you want more information look for an essay called “Red Planet, Blue Pencil.”

Podkayne of Mars - Girls don’t do that redux.

Podkayne wants to be a spaceship pilot <fill in the resistance>. But this book and its Introductions — there’s more than one — make this list because they are unique. In this case, the publisher changed the end. Yep. Years pass, new publisher. Restore Heinlein’s original end? Maybe. How about a vote! Readers contributing their thoughts and indeed the end . . . Well, I promised no spoilers. I also promise that reading this “Story once removed” is well worth it. 

How I Did It

Ok, the hour is late, the campfire is down to glowing embers and we all need to slide into those sleeping bags because of course we will get up in the morning and write. But I promised so here it is, one more story. 

I broke into selling fiction with a science fiction story called, “Law of the Instrument” that I sold to Analog Science Fiction. I started a non-sf thriller called Leave A Good-Looking Corpse, and about that time I went to a writers convention in San Diego, where I saw a flyer for a contest that was part of a convention in Seattle. Send in the first chapter and an outline, win a prize! Well, my father had recently relocated to Olympia, Washington and if I went to the convention I could visit him. I didn’t have a book, but I had enough so I entered. 

And promptly forgot about it. Until I got a letter saying that I was a Finalist. Yow! Frantic rush for plane reservations, hotel reservations, talking to my Dad, and so on. 

I won. And an editor said, “Tell me about the next book in the series.” She wanted it. If I could keep it up she wanted the whole series.

Twists and Turns

A few months later my agent called to say the editor had left the company, but she had passed my book on to another editor. In short order, I was back on the street. 

My agent said not to worry because a friend of hers was an editor at an even better publisher and she wanted to see the book. That editor liked it! She liked the series! Then she left the company. I was back on the street. 

Then my father was diagnosed with bone cancer. The book is dedicated to him.

I was out of time. A traditional publisher would take a year or more to get the book to market and I didn’t have a publisher yet. So I self-published and my dad got to hold the book and read the Dedication

Then I was picked up by a West Coast publisher and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“If you cannot read all your books . . . fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”

— Sir Winston Churchill 

A Great Book that didn’t make the cut. 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Look for a new edition with all three volumes presented — correctly — as one novel. This one was eliminated from this Writers in the Storm essay because the lengthy introduction is more about the history of the book than writing.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us a story about a story down in the comments. I really want to hear from you; we don’t get to “talk” very often.

* * * * * *

About James

James Preston

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The sixth, called Remains To Be Seen will be launched at Men of Mystery in November. Kirkus Reviews called the Huntington Beach background in Remains "sparkling." His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

Top image from Depositphotos by artursz

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21 comments on “Stories "Once Removed"”

    1. Hi, V. M. I'm glad you liked the essay. I had a good time writing on it -- it allowed me to revisit some old friends that I hadn't taken off the shelf for quite some time.

      Do you have a favorite "story about a story" that you'd like to share? C'mon, we're all in this together.

      All kidding aside, thanks for commenting.

  1. “Why it’s not so bad that my novel is taking a long time to write."

    Because the whole thing, a single story, will be as long as GWTW - about a half million words - when it's finished, but it's taken 23 years to get the first two volumes out, and I'm struggling to get all the events in the third to line up on the calendar in the necessary order.

    My mentor on this is Flannery O'Connor, who wrote through the ravages of lupus, and died at 39 of complications of the disease. I'm MUCH older, but I'm faced every day with finding a way to make my brain do what I need it to do - and many days it simply won't.

    But the story came as a whole - I say it was vouchsafed to me - and I'm going to finish it if it takes forever.

    And then I'm going to take the huge set of notes, and all the interactions over chapters with my beta reader, and write a book about the Writing of Pride's Children, because I'll easily have 5 million words to choose from.

    Meanwhile, it has garnered some darn nice reviews, and the first volume was named 2021 Best Contemporary novel by Indies Today.

    Never thought it would take this long.

    1. Alicia, wow! Let me say again, WOW! That's a great story and a real accomplishment. "Never thought it would take this long." I certainly know what you mean!

      It's good that you have kept all of the notes and comments; after you have finished you will find them very useful when you are asked to talk about the work.

      Thank you very much for sharing your story and congratulations on the Indies Today award!

      1. Thanks - it's like getting praised for my stubbornness. I'll take it.

        As for 'The Writing of...', no one will care nor will it be worth the effort - unless I'm famous FIRST, which we all hope we're working on, right?

        Then Stephen King's 'On Writing' acquires the glow of success, and people want to bask in it.

        1. Excellent, Alicia. The King book is really good.

          As far as no one being interested, I'd say establish a relationship with your local library. You just might be surprised.

          Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great stories. Thanks for sharing.

    My first fantasty book (Eldala) came to my brain and wouldn't let go. I wrote it for me and my sons. My husband thought I should self-publish (back in 2007 when self-pub wasn't the norm) so I would have one copy to prove I'd written a novel. I ended up telling my friends about it and most of them bought it. Pretty good, considering I wasn't going to sell it at all.

    So far, I've spent fourteen years working on Eldala's sequel. In the midst of it was a major move from Arizona to Montana, homeschooling my kids, and now a grand baby to take care of. I'll get there eventually because this story won't let go of me either.

    1. Well, Rocannon wouldn't leave Ursula K. LeGuin alone, either, so you are in good company. And you should be proud for continuing -- keep it up and that sequel will see the light of day, and Indie publishing is out there waiting for you.

      Michelle, your story will help other WITS readers. Thank you for sharing it with us.

      Keep writing!

    1. C'mon, Lisa, tell us a little about the first story, at least the title. SF, thriller, romance?

      Sequels can be difficult; believe me, I know. Analog did not accept His is the Hand, the sequel to Law of the Instrument so I sold it to a smaller sf magazine. Oh, well.

      1. HA! Fantasy - Dominion of Darkness is the title of the first book. The second and third ones are drafted. But ooof... it is a struggle to get my drafts into the shape where I'd publish them!!!

        1. Oh, boy, do I ever know what you mean! But take heart, you are not alone. Tolkien wrote all three volumes of Lord of the Rings, sent them to his son who was a pilot in the RAF, and then rewrote all three volumes -- from back to front! Can you imagine?
          Oh, and this was pre-word processor. No cut and paste, no find and replace.

  3. I've always been fascinated by those books that "almost didn't make it." Dune. Harry Potter. A Wrinkle In Time. To Kill a Mockingbird. The world would be so different without these books.

    One of my favorite stories is about Stephen King's "Carrie." Here's the way I heard it: It was originally supposed to be a short story, but King threw the first pages in the trash. His wife convinced him to finish it as a novel, and it was his big break. After dozens of rejections, CARRIE sold a million copies the first year.

    What if it was in modern times when everything is electronic, or if his wife hadn't fished his pages out of the trash??

    1. We all owe a debt to Tabitha King for that. He might have decided he liked teaching English enough to give up on fiction. We never would have made the acquaintance of The Gunslinger or walked through the deserted hallways of the Overlook hotel in The Shining.
      Thanks, Jenny.

      1. And don't forget The Stand. I loved that book. My friend from New York said when that came out and everyone was reading it on the subway, someone would sneeze and EVERYONE would startle and/or move away.

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