Monthly Archives: August 2023

Long and Winding Road

The amazing Valerie Biel invited me to write a little something for her blog. Advice for prepublished writers or some such thing. Anyway, here it is. When you,re done, head over to to check out her other content.

Like many writers, I started as a reader. At some point I learned to be a critical reader, drawn to books that were both interesting and well written. When I decided to write my own stories, I figured I oughta learn how ta write gooder, so I did three things: I analyzed the writing I admired. I went back to school to learn the rules of storytelling (earning a Master’s Degree in the process), and I joined a critique group with writers I trusted to hurt my feelings. Then I honed my new skills by writing dozens of short stories. Most of them went into the crap file, but several were published in literary journals, and three sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Now I was ready for the big time—writing and selling a novel. I did exhaustive research for the historical and technical details I wanted to use to tell the story. I mixed outlining with spontaneous writing (pantsing). I designed an interesting three-tiered plot device. I sought feedback from Beta readers. I wrote draft after draft. Finally, I had a marketable novel, and I was ready to shop for an agent and/or publisher. I’d been at it a long time. I was proud of the hard work I’d put in. Now I just had to decide to whom I would gift this gem. So what advice would I give to my pre-published self? Slow down, pally.

Back then; I had no clue what the publishing world was like. Rejections from agents and publishers flooded my Inbox, and every one of them stung. Most were form rejections, but the few that explained the whys made it clear that there are a lot of roadblocks in publishing. Some agents weren’t interested in taking a chance on a new novelist. Of the agents that were open to new writers, many wanted them to be from specific societal demographics. Some wanted books that were exactly like books that had sold well, but were just different enough. Huh? A few small press publishers said they wanted authors with an established social media following. That first novel, “A Trace of Gold” (originally titled “Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold”) takes place both in present-day Chicago and the Chicago of 1930s gangsters and gun molls, weaving two stories into a whole. One publisher told me this would just confuse people. I guess he thought readers weren’t very smart.

I couldn’t believe it. All my brilliant efforts to arrange twenty-six little glyphs into an exciting and insightful tale was just sitting, dormant, on my hard drive alongside tax documents and pictures of my dog. Sooooooo, I jumped at the first publisher who offered me a contract.

A very nice woman ran this small indie company. She had a backlist of historical mysteries and cozies. And she really liked my novel. I didn’t ask myself if I thought she was the right publisher for my book. I didn’t ask her what her marketing strategies were, though it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. I didn’t know anything about selling books. I just thought if it was in a bookstore, people would see it, and some of them would buy it. And I thought libraries would be clamoring to add it to their collections. My publisher arranged for a book signing at a local Chicago bookstore, and, for some reason, we did a signing in a suburban furniture store that had a small book department attached to it. She had a table at a couple of summer book fairs. To her credit, she got the book several really good reviews in the trades. She also got me an interview on public television during one of their mystery marathons. It was fun, but I don’t think it sold many books. The one thing she couldn’t do was get the book into bookstores or libraries.

I started reading articles on book marketing. I sent postcards to libraries all over the world and managed to get over a couple hundred librarians (my heroes) to order a copy. I hired a well-known publicist to get online reviews. He charged me two thousand dollars up front and got only one review, and that was from a woman who also reviewed dish soap and cosmetics on her website. I ran a Goodreads giveaway and gave away some books. That didn’t seem to move the needle either. I did an interview with a college radio station. The only time “A Trace of Gold” ever got into a Barnes and Noble or a Borders Books (remember them?) was when I talked my bookseller friends into ordering it, and then they would order too many, and my publisher would have to pay for the returns. Returns make publishers unhappy.

That first novel didn’t earn much money, but a couple thousand people have read it. One thing the book accomplished was to open my eyes to a few important truths about writing and publishing. First, the path to getting your book in front of readers is as complicated and time consuming as writing it, so learn as much as you can about the process. Learn what agents want (and don’t want) in a query. There’s plenty of information available about that. Short, to the point, and professional is a good way to formulate your query. No weird typefaces, hyperbolic claims (This book will make us both rich!), or gifts in the mail. Agents hate having to call the bomb squad to check out suspicious packages. Learn which agents represent books like yours. “Poets & Writers” and “Writers Digest” magazines publish interviews with agents. Websites like Duotrope and Publisher’s Marketplace are chock full of information. If you decide to go with a small press or an indie publisher, find out up front what their track record is and talk to them about their marketing plan. The same is true if you decide to hire a marketing professional. There are a lot of “professionals” who have discovered writers are an easy mark, er, I mean income source. The same is true in the world of self-publishing. I retained the rights to my first book and now self-publish both my own books and the annual arts magazine I edit, “Litbop.” In order to produce a professional-looking product, self-publishers need editing, design, and marketing skills. There are companies, contractors, and freelancers galore who offer these services. Many are legit but some are not, so do your homework. One obvious information resource is Valerie Biel’s Lost Lake Press (hint, hint).

The most important thing I would tell my pre-published self is to savor the writing process. Writing is a deeply personal activity that often involves a good bit of introspection. We writers tend to imbue our characters with our own traits, philosophies, and personal histories. In learning this craft, I’ve grown as an artist and as a person. It may be a corny cliché, but the real value in writing isn’t the destination; it’s the journey.

Is All Art Political?

Ellen and I recently saw the Barbie movie (more on that another time), and some of the comments I’ve seen online reminded me of this piece I posted a year ago on the Blackbird Writers website.

Do artists have a responsibility to speak to the human condition? Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks so. In his December 2019 article in The Atlantic he writes, “Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it.” He goes on to use The Sound of Music as an example. The story of the singing von Trapp family, he points out, isn’t so much do re me as it is an indictment of fascism.

Examples of political novels for essay by Tim Chapman

Toni Morrison takes the idea a step further. In a 2008 feature in Poets and Writers magazine she calls out her fellow authors. “Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

Are Miranda and Morrison right? And what do we mean when we say something is “political.” Is politics merely voting every few years for the yutz who might inflict the least amount of harm on the world? Is it community involvement? Is it culture? At a time when people are voting for or against book bans, censorship, teaching uncomfortable histories, and recognizing issues of sex and gender, I’d say that culture is as political as it’s ever been.

Are stories in the detective canon political? Sherlock Holmes? Phillip Marlowe? Maybe. Conan Doyle’s and Chandler’s sleuths often traveled between the classes, touching on the economic disparities of their times. Or, as Freud may have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

There are, of course, plenty of people who don’t want artists to comment on politics or culture. In 2003, the country group Dixie Chicks voiced their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and were told, ironically, to “Shut up and sing.”

So what, if any, responsibility does the artist have to acknowledge the political in our lives? One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, is famous for infusing his fiction with criticism of humankind. He doesn’t charge his fellow authors with this responsibility, but, as a witness to, and survivor of, the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, felt it was his personal duty. In a 1973 interview in Playboy magazine he states, “Mainly, I think (writers) should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change.” He would have agreed with Spider-man creator Stan Lee that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

But what makes us purveyors of little amusements think our opinions are worth foisting on our readers? Most of us aren’t political scientists or economists. We’ve simply learned to arrange groups of letters in ways that tell stories. Isn’t it hard enough to keep an audience interested for two or three hundred pages? My own writings are attempts to entertain, infused with small takes on subjects like bigotry, class, and greed. Putting up with a little pontification is the price (along with a few bucks) my readers have to pay. I often wonder if these are the parts where they skip ahead. ;^)