Confessions of a Literary Coward

John Clark being completely honest about my fear of publishing today. I’ve been writing for at least twenty years, covering numerous categories and styles. I’ve written for professional publications in the library and social sciences field, contributed to a book on mental health libraries, written human interest stories about interesting people for newspapers, done several weekly columns for other newspapers, one running for five years. I’ve been in several of the Level Best anthologies and have had a couple mystery stories published in online magazines. I was a regular contributor to Wolf Moon Journal. In addition, I’ve written seven books and have four more in varying stages of completion, but only one has ever been published and that was in ebook format. There’s also an anthology of YA stories with a novella as a possible centerpiece called Hardscrabble Kids, that’s close to prime time.

Taking that next step can be scary.

Taking that next step can be scary.

So what’s stopping me from getting the rest of them out there? Well, that’s why I’m writing this today and if it sounds whiny at times, so be it. In partial defense, I will tell you that most small town librarians work about 15 hours more that they’re paid for and that’s what I’ve done for most of my writing life. Even so, I know that plenty of published/successful authors work full time and/or are parents of kids who need a lot of time if they’re going to grow up healthy and happy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my five book series that took sixteen years to write and then I pretty much walked away from it. Who is crazy enough to do something like that? I hope that by blogging about it, I can get a better perspective and go back to doing something about getting the other four books out there.

Not exactly Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

Not exactly Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

First a bit of history about the series and a quick bit about each book. The impetus to write fantasy came as much from my early years as anything. I read everything Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote when I was between ages nine and thirteen. Most think of Tarzan when his name comes up, but there were plenty of others. His John Carter and Carson of Venus series, the Moon books and ones like The Mad King, The Mucker and The Bandit of Hell’s Bend were my friends at a time when the real world was neither real or very friendly. Add in A.E. Van Vogt, Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague DeCamp, Harry Harrison (The Stainless Steel Rat series) and my love of fantasy and Sci-Fi continued until college demanded that most of what I read be course related.

Shortly after Beth and I got married in 1977, a new series of fantasy debuted by an author named Stephen Donaldson. By the time he finished the second trilogy in the series, he had written some 2700 pages, created one of the most amazing worlds I’ve ever encountered and hooked me. However, Donaldson was so unsparing of his protagonist, Thomas Covenant, that I gave up reading the six books, not once, but twice. It took twenty years more or less, for me to finally read the last book (Donaldson has since written four more books in the series, but they weren’t published until 2004-13). I remain in awe of his ability to maintain consistency in such a complex world with many locations, races and myths. It is a series I will read at least one more time before I die.

When you're not sure where your story is going, it's good to trust that you'll stay on track.

When you’re not sure where your story is going, it’s good to trust that you’ll stay on track.

The day I finally finished White Gold Wielder I was sitting in the woods, ostensibly hunting deer. I found myself crying unashamedly as I closed the book and it was that moment which really got me started on the writing path.

The writing part began in a very odd way. At the time, I was actively involved in the Association of Mental Health Librarians (AMHL) as well as section chair of the mental health library group in the Medical Library Association (MLA). The two groups were involved in programs to be presented at their respective annual conferences and that, along with frequent postings on the Maine Library listserv-MELIBS, meant that I was sending out a lot of emails. By that point, one of my claims to fame was my email signatures. Sometime, not long after finishing book six, I began creating bits of dialogue that were attributed to a book called The Berek Chronicles. No such book existed, but it was fun and fairly harmless. Then some librarians, mostly in Maine, tried to get their hands on a copy of the book, but couldn’t find it. I was confronted at a meeting of librarians here in Maine and when I mumbled something to the effect that I was thinking about writing it, some of them politely said get my thumb out of my butt and do so.

In my series, Sennebec Lake was the model for Simonton Pond.

In my series, Sennebec Lake was the model for Simonton Pond.

I probably broke every rule of writing along the way, from posting every chapter online (they’re long gone now), to printing out a copy of the manuscript and circulating it at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library (It was helpful in terms of getting feedback) and shopping it to agents when it was nowhere near ready for that level of evaluation. It was also way too long, close to 360,000 words at one point. Even so, I can still remember the amazing feeling that came over me when I completed the story. However, it wasn’t the ending, just part one because my protagonist, Berek Metcalf, a shy sixteen year old with an extra finger on one hand, woke up back in his bedroom on the farm, watching the love of his life’s sad face dissolve in a crystal pyramid that was the only thing he had to prove he’d really been on another world instead of having run away because other kids at school beat the snot out of him.

The first book

The first book

I jumped right into book two, Hither We Go, in which Berek ends up in a mental hospital because his mind not only can’t accept the emotional pain of what happened, but he feels used and betrayed as well as devastated because the way to Ballicore, the place halfway across the universe where he landed, has been destroyed. After getting discharged, he and his younger sister Kylin, have to figure out a way to save the family farm and once that’s done, Berek has a conversation with a field spider while raking blueberries. The spider (spiders in the series are able to communicate across vast distances) tells him that Elspeth, who he fell in love with in book one, has been kidnapped and in order to get back to Ballicore, he will need the assistance of two seemingly flawed companions. In hindsight, I think this might be the best book in the series.

Book three, Married With Familiars, finds Berek and Elspeth having to leave Ballicore very quickly because of the reason Berek was expelled at the end of book one. They are faced with finding a new place and decide to see if they can find a way to get to Senbec, a remote planet where Berek’s Uncle Leland found himself after being killed in the Maine wilderness by a falling tree. Berek has been able to communicate with him telepathically at intervals in the first two books. In Leland’s last message, he indicates that terrible things are happening on Senbec and he needs his nephew’s help. Easier said than done because Berek and Elspeth have to figure out where the planet is and how to get there. To do so, they must travel on the funkiest locomotive ever created through intergalactic space to COTU (The Center Of The Universe), an artificial planet that functions as the transport hub of intergalactic travel and is a cross between the city in Blade Runner and Diagon Alley. It also is where the Library of the Universe is, a way cool place run by the holographic image of a long dead and extremely sarcastic female librarian who takes an interest in the couple and goes the extra mile to help them The book ends on a really sad note.

When I started book four, Like A Thief in the Night: the Further Adventures of Kallista Wolfblood, I needed a break from Berek, so I focused this one on a delightful, but completely amoral thief and magic user who had been part of Berek’s cadre in book one. Her greed lands her in a most unusual situation that not only vexes the heck out of her, but forces her to examine everything she believes in. Most of the players in the first two books are reunited in this one which involves pirates and seriously evil folks from across the galaxy who are after something unique to Ballicore.

There was a gap of several years between the finish of book four and my beginning the last book in the series. That was in large part to how deeply my mother’s death hit me. I had no gas left in either the emotion or creativity tanks. Still, I knew I needed to wrap up the series if only to satisfy myself. That book, In My Father’s Footsteps, starts sixteen years later in a New Zealand rainforest, moves to the small town of Simonton, Maine and then jumps to Ballicore, but to a continent that Berek never explored. The protagonist rescues Gilraen, an Elven girl, and falls for her hard. However, even though she looks like a typical teen, albeit with pointed ears, she’s 110 (adolescent for her species), something that Josiah, the protagonist in this book, has a really difficult time wrapping his head around. Many of the earlier characters appear in this one, including the holographic librarian and Kallista. I haven’t gone back to editing it and know it’s clunky and needs a few characters deleted, but it does wrap things up nicely.

Wrapping up another day.

Wrapping up another day.

In the early days of writing this series, I created a website about the series that includes things like the history and geography of Ballicore. That link is below.

http://personalpages.tds.net/~berek/geography.html

What’s next? I have no clue. I’ve given some thought, based on subsequent writing efforts as well as reading a ton of YA fiction, that Berek might be better served if I made him brasher and more hip as well as moving it ahead a decade or so, but to do so would book five into the future as well as require rewriting close to a million words and I’m not that crazy or ambitious. Since book one is out there in ebook format, another dilemma is whether to release all of them (once I’m satisfied they’re as good as I can make them) as ebooks or try for getting them in print. Frankly, between my innate laziness (It’s a hell of a lot easier to sit on the back deck and get lost in one of the 100+ books from my TBR pile, than to put BIC) and my analysis paralysis, making decisions some days drives me crazy. Anyhow, this is an honest attempt to get stuff out of my head so maybe, just maybe, I’ll do something constructive with the series. In a perfect world, I’d lock myself in this room with a giant IV in the attic and simply edit all winter. I suspect a more moderate plan will emerge.

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5 Responses to Confessions of a Literary Coward

  1. Barb Ross says:

    John

    Well! That’s a daunting story. Here is my two cents.

    1. You must do what is in your heart. You’re at an age where doing any of this doesn’t make sense if you are not having fun. Working hard, yes. Getting occasionally frustrated, yes. But you must be having fun.

    2. This series sounds like a prime candidate for self-publishing. Fantasy is very big in that world. There is an audience. All of the terribly innovative things you did like posting chapters and circulating an unedited book have been done in that world. It’s all about community and you seem to thrive on that. And on learning and figuring out new things. The book is a natural and you are a natural. Since that universe feeds on frequent publication, I’d look at how I could break the books into smaller chunks (100-150 pages) and roll them out more frequently as you edit.

    That’s what I think. But it is way more important what you think. Good luck whatever you decide to do!

    Like

    • Sennebec says:

      Thanks Barb,
      One thing I know is that my books tend to be long. The one I’m writing now is at 93,000 words and still has a lot to go before it’s done, I’m hoping that a logical split point appears so I can have the option of making it a two book deal.

      Like

  2. Monica says:

    Thank you! You pay homage to so many of my favorite SF and fantasy authors in your synopsis of your series.

    Also thanks for saying how hard it is to continue when you’ve lost one of your guiding lights. My mom just died two weeks ago, but she was failing for several months before. I find myself unable to write or edit as I sort out who I am without the mirror of my mother.

    Like

    • Sennebec says:

      Boy do I know that loss. Mom and I used to be mutual sounding boards and I had no clue how losing her was going to affect me. I hope your recovery is shorter than mine was.

      Like

  3. Nice to meet the ‘real’ Berek. Shared your post… Happy reading, writing & publishing!

    Like

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