9-24-17 Long Layoff

As infrequently as I update this poor thing, I’m not sure I can call it a blog anymore. Some Words or Intermittent Opinions, perhaps… I blame June’s lack of productivity on a trip to Costa Rica, but all the weeks and months since are on me. With a work in progress (a WIP to the cool kids), I figured my time was better spent editing rather than pounding out Deep Thoughts on Denver’s soaring real estate prices or whatever else was bugging me; hence, I haven’t blogged much lately.

Hallelujah. Except for one last copyedit, Novel No. 2, Widowmaker, is DONE (Segue: I learned the hard way with Novel No. 1, Glorieta, that you simply must have Someone Else do your copyedits/proofreading. I’m a hack independent: everything I do costs me my own money. I’d already worked with two story editors, one good and one bad, and was unwilling to shell several thousand dollars for a copyedit [when you write long stories—120K+ words—that’s about what you can expect]. Figured I’d do it myself. Well, five rounds of edits/changes with CreateSpace later [on top a project I was already sick of], I received one final proof—which I initialed and returned having only skimmed it. Well, I allege CreateSpace subcontracted their formatting that week to 8th graders drunk on Robitussin and Mt. Dew because between the second-to-last proof and the version available to you, Dear Reader, several new mistakes appeared: words run together, an epigraph taken from one chapter’s beginning and appended to the previous one’s end, etc. All of these mistakes were new—none appeared in the second-to-last proof—but I didn’t fuss soon enough and once I finally did, I decided I didn’t want to pay for yet another revision. Someday I’ll go back and fix all that but for now, I’m treating Glorieta like the first pancake in a batch: the poor thing is doughy in the center, burnt on the outside, and nothing to brag about—but it’s done and for now that’s enough).

As with Glorieta, I plan to query Widowmaker widely, but because 1) Widowmaker does not feature vampires, 2) I am thoroughly obscure, and 3) long manuscripts by unknown writers aren’t highly sought after, I’m not expecting much traction. I queried 30 agents with a shorter version of Widowmaker late last year and received one request for a full MS (subsequently rejected), a dozen form-rejections, and a whole lot of nothing from the others. Not to worry. What’s that Toni Morrison quote?

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I’ve done exactly that, which is something, I guess, and at least this time I’m not sick and tired of the whole thing. I like this one much better, in fact. I think I have enough left to say, too, that I plan to write at least three more books featuring Widowmaker’s protagonist (saying this, I should apologize in advance to my wife. For me, writing is a thoroughly solitary venture resulting in a lot of time sequestered in my office. Or maybe that’s preferable to having me underfoot, I don’t know).

In any event, I’ll see if any of the big shops are willing to publish it and if not, I’ll put it out myself. I have to say, I like not giving an agent any of the (small) monthly payments Amazon currently sends my way—wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, keeping that train rolling.

One question writers (and creatives, generally: painters, sculptors, musicians, etc.) hear a lot is “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is, of course, anywhere and everywhere: something seen, done, read about, or overheard. A perceived injustice, unrequited love, or simple curiosity. Writing is thinking on paper. Plus coffee. The idea for a story can be compact—a single event or conversation—or, like Widowmaker, from several sources at once. If I had to list three, I’d say: 1) an interest in Western (U.S.) history, especially mining; 2) accidentally “discovering” the Philippine portion of the Spanish American War [which led to, most crucially, a conversation with an old college friend still serving in the armed forces and subsequent research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as it affects veterans], and 3) personal experiences living in and traveling around the Western U.S., Nevada in particular. I’ll write about all three of those things here over the next few weeks. Feel free to publicly scold me if I don’t.

Widowmaker’s tone—Three-Fourths Noir, if I had to name it—is a result of several factors, too: everything from the film L.A Confidential,  to HBO’s Deadwood, to Michael Punke’s Fire and Brimstone, a nonfiction account of the North Butte (Montana) mining disaster of 1917 (2006, Hyperion Books, http://amzn.to/2ymZrpJ). Nonfiction, mostly: mining reports from the 1900s, historian Sally Zanjani’s book(s) on Goldfield, NV (1992, Swallow Press, http://amzn.to/2xsLKWN) and Hold High the Torch—an account of the Marine Corps’ “small” wars of the early 20th Century, among many others.

It is also, in a way, a reaction to another book on labor strife in a mining camp: Ivan Doig’s Work Song (2010, Riverhead Books, http://amzn.to/2y15x2P). First, all the caveats and qualifiers: I revere Ivan Doig. I’m not even one-tenth of the writer he was (Mr. Doig died in the spring of 2015), neither as prolific or profound and I honestly like Work Song. I just happen to think that given the book’s subject and setting, he got the tone wrong—not for Work Song, itself, but wrong for what I would expect on the topic.

“If there’s a book that you want to read…”

Look, I’m not sure Widowmaker has the “right” tone, either, but it works according to everything I’ve absorbed on the subject of labor conflicts in Western mining camps. Example? Whereas Work Song’s company enforcers seem Keystone Cop-esque, easily distracted by thrown rocks and a naughty street urchin, Widowmaker’s are hard boiled and occasionally awful (irredeemable or not, I’ll let readers decide). In fact, one of the things I kept telling myself as I edited was: make it meaner. Meaner, both to heighten the conflict between who my protagonist is and who he wants to be, and also to ring true in terms of all I discovered during my research.

Just to keep today’s bibliography short, I’ll refer again to an episode from Mr. Punke’s Fire and Brimstone. On August 1, 1917, in Butte, Montana, masked men almost certainly employed by the monopolistic Anaconda Copper Mining Company lynched a labor organizer named Frank Little. Abducted from a boardinghouse, his leg in a plaster cast, Little was beaten and dragged behind a car until his kneecaps were “scraped off,” and ultimately hung from a railroad trestle. A note threatening his fellow unionists was found with his body. Now, Mr. Doig’s protagonist, Morrie Morgan, is a schoolteacher and decent human being, so for him to behave terribly or to find himself surrounded by the kinds of people who tortured and murdered Frank Little would’ve been wrong for Work Song, just as it would be for Widowmaker’s protagonist to pull his punches.

I didn’t write Widowmaker as a retort to Work Song—I merely wanted to read a harder-edged story. Whether I got anything “right” remains to be seen—no doubt some readers will set Widowmaker down and scowl, wishing I’d written something more like Work Song.

From Goodreads’ Website:

“Work Song (Morrie Morgan #2)
by Ivan Doig
3.77 · Rating details · 2,247 Ratings · 448 Reviews
An award-winning and beloved novelist of the American West spins the further adventures of a favorite character, in one of his richest historical settings yet.

“If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point,” observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and inveterate charmer last seen leaving a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee, the stage he stole in Ivan Doig’s 2006 The Whistling Season. A decade later, Morrie is back in Montana, as the beguiling narrator of Work Song.

Lured like so many others by “the richest hill on earth,” Morrie steps off the train in Butte, copper-mining capital of the world, in its jittery heyday of 1919. But while riches elude Morrie, once again a colorful cast of local characters-and their dramas-seek him out: a look-alike, sound-alike pair of retired Welsh miners; a streak-of-lightning waif so skinny that he is dubbed Russian Famine; a pair of mining company goons; a comely landlady propitiously named Grace; and an eccentric boss at the public library, his whispered nickname a source of inexplicable terror. When Morrie crosses paths with a lively former student, now engaged to a fiery young union leader, he is caught up in the mounting clash between the iron-fisted mining company, radical “outside agitators,” and the beleaguered miners. And as tensions above ground and below reach the explosion point, Morrie finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one.”

2017-09-29T19:41:01+00:00 September 24th, 2017|History, Writing|0 Comments

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