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Seasons past and to come

The summer ended, literally, overnight. One day we were in the 90s for about seventh straight week. The next day, September 21, the daytime temperature dropped into the 70s, and that’s where it’s going to stay for a while.

I will miss this summer, one of the most productive I’ve had in recent years. I mean, all summers are productive as far back as I remember. Just three years ago, I wrote the first incarnations of the book I’m trying to peddle today. Back then, I had a duo of friends tell me basically, I was writing crap. Of course, I wanted it to be easy this time. The first words, the first try, golden as treasure. But it was pure carbon, not yet squeezed and tempered. Diamonds I wanted, coal dust is what I got.

Two summers ago, I started querying agents about the book. In just a few short weeks, I’d queried 120 agents then ran out of gas. Other things intervened. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing. None of the agents responded positively. Since most agents don’t respond at all, I sat on a gasp of what I believed at the time was just good effort.

Last summer, I rewrote the book again. I took what I’d done and refashioned it into something worth reading, even if it was still in need of help. The rewrite rid the manuscript of thousands of words, redundancies, and awkward word choices. I made clear the images and defined the scenes. I honed the arc of the story. I made it into something decent.

It was a busy summer between school and work and family, but it was a good one for writing. Besides the book, I wrote something like 31 essays for my website and a spate of poems, most of which will go into my next book, due out in May 2019. I sat on the manuscript after I rewrote it. I don’t know why. I should have been at the work of selling it. It didn’t slip my mind, I just didn’t do it.

Then, this summer, I climbed back on the horse and started querying agents again. This time, I knew better what I was doing. The book grew a title, Ferment: Wine, Vineyard, and Manic Depression. Every week, I sent my letter out to between four and eight or ten agents. By the end of July, I’d queried 108 agents and small publishers. I’ve yet to hear from the publishers, though they will get back to me. I received three agent requests for a manuscript or further material. This is about average. I’ve read many places that if a writer can get a nibble one out of 30 or 40 queries, they are on target.

Now, two of the agents requesting material put me aside right away, saying, thanks, it’s not for us. One said she thought the work was well done but she just didn’t fall into love with it. The other basically gave the book to her young assistant, who didn’t make it past the first chapter. All right. I can stomach that. If I can’t keep a millennial’s interest, it’s probably not going to be a good book for the agent to represent.

One agent still has the manuscript. He’s had my material for two months. It’s standard practice to let the agent have the manuscript for three months before asking about where they stand. I will have to send him a note soon–in about three weeks. But that I have to send a note to find out about where my manuscript is with him doesn’t bode well for me.

At least in the agent-querying realm, the summer was good. It was hard work, but I am only to the Ps in the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. When I get back with this project again, I still have more possibilities before I have to reach for other sources for agents.

In the meantime, I sent my essays out to over 70 literary magazines for publications. I began the project of getting my essays out into the public about a year ago. My goal when I started was to land five publications in two years. Due to persistence and an understanding that it would take dozens of submissions to land a publication, I have scored twelve acceptances since the first of the year. Along with agent work, I continued to rewrite and submit essays. While I haven’t heard back from many of the magazines, I have a fair bit of work out there. I’ll hear back soon enough. If part of the writer’s work is schlepping goods, the rest of it is waiting.

Then, the agent and literary magazine work came to an end about the start of August. During the summer, one thing hung over all the other work. I had met an editor for a New York publisher who said he would like to see my manuscript. He took a couple of months to get to it. Then, at the end of July, he sat down with me over a cup of coffee. He said he liked what he read but had some ideas for a rewrite, things he wanted to see what I could do with before he took it on to his editorial committee.

I dropped everything else to focus completely on the manuscript. This turned out to be the most intriguing work of the long, hot summer. I wrestled that manuscript to the ground. I squeezed about 16,000 words out of it and added back 8,000 more in character, setting, and dialogue. Toward the end of the process, I began to feel the coal dust was turning into diamonds. It’s a much different book today than it was just six weeks ago. The work was heart-wrenching and mind-boggling. It took every inch of my skill.

This is what I wanted out of the manuscript from the beginning: The feeling I was taking something I’d written that was very good and turning it into art. I felt that when Canoeing the Great Plains. I wanted it with this manuscript, and with good guidance from a real book editor, I finally achieved it.

I finally sent the finished manuscript to him two weeks ago. He will take a couple of months to get back to me on what he thinks. I want you to know I don’t have a publisher on the hook, not yet. The book editor may not like what he sees or he may feel it’s not something he wants to take to his editorial committee. Even if he does, the committee may not feel I have enough of a platform—the ability to move books just by my presence on social media, speaking engagements, and other kinds of exposure. The committee may not think the book is right for them.

 So, I’m sitting on the change of another season. I look back on the last and thing, yeah, I did good. I look forward and see that the work is not complete. I want to keep getting my essays published. I may have to do another round of agent-seeking. Then, there’s the whole line of small publishers. But one way or another, maybe after another season or two, I will have completed my task and sold the book.

Meanwhile, I get to see the fruits of my work in the literary magazines. I have a personal essay about the Missouri River coming out in Traverse, the magazine of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State coming out before the end of the year. bioStories has accepted and edited a piece of mine about an ironworking job which should also be out before the end of the year. Gray’s Sporting Journal will publish an essay of mine about trout fishing in the spring.

The first full day of fall and everything looks good. I have done the groundwork. I accept that my work will never be complete, that I have to keep up this kind of writerly activity for as long as I write. But it’s work I’ve learned brings its own rewards, even if it doesn’t bring any notoriety, fame, or money. It’s as I tell my students: Head down. Do Work. Get the grade.

I’m glad I’m following my own advice.

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