Numbers to Words: My Journey from Engineering to Writing
In Elmore Leonard’s book Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing one of the rules is, “Never open a book with weather”. Well, the weather plays an important role here, but this isn’t a book and I’ve already opened with Elmore’s rule about the weather so I’m covered. I will also try my best to break some more rules as we go along, such as the one about no backstory.
The summer of 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee was a hot one, with a stretch of 28 consecutive days – June 13 to July 10 – having warmer than average high temperatures. The day we all almost died was June 29, when the high temperature topped out at 107°F. (For reference, on that day the average high temperature is 88°F.) That type of heat, combined with a job as a Senior Service Tech for the steel industry, took its toll on this old man, who had always lived, worked and played hard, and whose body was showing the signs of his lifestyle.
Backstory: September 27, 1977. Location: Interstate 85 north bound, north of Newnan, south of Atlanta. Age: 17. Event: Honda 350 versus tractor trailer carrying a tanker full of peanut oil. Winner: tractor trailer. Injuries suffered in defeat: left leg suffered traumatic injury. The tibia and fibula suffered compound fractures. The tibia was ground down two to three inches by the asphalt as I skidded up the pavement. The fibula, when it snapped and shot through the skin, removed half of the left calf muscle. The left ankle was broken and crushed. The impact of the front bumper and fender of the tractor trailer severed the left leg four inches above the ankle. Three inches of skin was all that was holding the left foot to the leg.
I spent the next 8 months flat on my back in a hospital as they reattached the foot and let the wounds heal. Over the next several years I went through reconstructive surgeries that included bone grafts, rods and, later, a plate to hold everything together in my lower left leg. I had toes pinned and a wedge of bone removed from my left foot. Now I wear a size 11 right shoe and a size 9 left shoe – that foot never caught up with the right as I continued growing, but thank God I still have it. While I was being repaired I finished high school, went to tech school and college.
Back to the summer of 2012: I love the summer, the hotter the better. The heat doesn’t affect my joints like the cold does. I function better in the warm months than I do in the winter, point blank. That’s the reason I knew something was wrong; as hot as it was, I shouldn’t be limping around so badly, and my knees and ankle shouldn’t be giving me fits. The right knee, which had taken all the weight while the left leg was being reconstructed, had already been repaired once. I decided it was time to go see an orthopedic doctor. What I had suspected was true: the right knee had torn cartilage and tendons, the left knee needed to be replaced. Then I got the shock of my life. Before they did any type of surgery they wanted approval from a heart doctor, since I had a scar that ran down the middle of my chest from open-heart surgery.
Backstory II: Heart attack #1, 1993, aged 33. Heart attack #2, 2003, aged 43. Quadruple bypass. Heart attack #3, 2009, aged 49, Stent. That bring us up to date with what this blog covers, but wait, there is more. May 2014, cardiac cath, diagnosed with 37% left ventricular ejection fraction. Heart attack #4, 2015, aged 55. Removed clots and inserted stent.
With my heart history, the heart doctor decided that before he would give his approval he needed to do a stress test. Well, like all tests, I flunked it. He put me on some new medicine to try to fix the bigeminy and other issues that I was unaware I was having. The heart and orthopedic doctors consulted and came to the conclusion: no need to put new wheels on a car when the motor is going out. Their consensus: I needed to find and pursue something I was passionate about, within the next couple of years, to avoid any further damage to the leg. If the ankle fusion gave away then it could not be repaired and the foot would have to be amputated; this would also save wear-and-tear on the knees until they got the heart condition under control. The heart doctor interjected that, whatever I chose to do, I should stay away from stress. I had been juggling several projects for the previous 35 years. That and stress was all I knew.
I took my summer vacation to think about what the professionals had told me; I don’t always listen to doctors. Nina the Kat and I crunched some numbers, she concluded I could retire, I decided I had to find a way to beat this. I had to work as long as possible. So I sat down and decided to write a blog about the ordeal. I had started Am I The Only One Not Insane? Mind over Matter: My Mind is the Only One that Matters in 2009. When I pulled the blog in 2013 (at an editor’s suggestion: you don’t want your personal opinions offending someone who may buy a book), I had 3,000 plus followers. I wrote about controversial issues that included politics, sex and religion – you know, the three things you never discuss on a date – plus other topics. While I was writing the blog on my health I realized something: I loved to write, even though I couldn’t spell a lick. I thought what the heck and decided to write a novel.
I continued to work, as I needed to eat, and began my writing journey. I spent my vacations, holidays, weekends and other spare time I had in front of my computer screen, writing my masterpiece. To me the process was easy. The book went through many titles: A Bullet Mends a Broken Heart, Noon Judgement, West on the East. It wound up going to the editor’s under the title West on the East – Noon Judgement.
The basic plot follows the life of Levi West a young man who suffered sexual abuse as a preteen, along with his best friend Elena, at the hands of the ranch nurse Charlotte. Levi has lost all his family – mom, dad, grandma and grandad – to freak accidents that he is sure were in fact murder. To top all that off, he suffers panic attacks along with showing signs of mental disorders, paranoia and schizophrenia, all while dealing with paranormal activities at the ranch. Since Levi is a minor, Carven Smith, the cornerstone of the ranch and Levi’s confidant, asks the lawyer John Basham to allow him to be Levi’s legal guardian until he turns 18, at which point the trust, which Carven is also in charge of, will make Levi a billionaire. Levi’s job is to take over the ranch, but he bucks at the thought, wants no part of it and would rather be a cowpoke with a real job. That is when the story begins.
The book was packed full of characters, major and minor, protagonist and antagonist, and alongside the main plot I had written in several minor subplots. It was a complicated tale I had woven.
Once it was finished in late October of 2012, my search began for a publisher. I was visiting a good friend, John Cannon, a local artist here in East Nashville, when I noticed a bookstore in the Idea Hatchery complex into which John had moved. I walked down the way a piece and stopped in the shop called East Side Story, where I meet the owner, Chuck. He explained that his shop only sold books by independent authors that were located in the Nashville area. I explained to him what I needed and he pointed to a flyer that had pull-off tabs on the bottom of it. My excitement was growing; I had found a place to sell my book and someone to edit it. I had taken the bull by the horns and was well on my way to author status and living the good life. Back home I called the number on the tear off. A deal was struck: this company would do a manuscript review for 100 bucks. If they liked the book they would edit and publish it, taking a percentage of the sales until the publishing fee was paid. I sent the manuscript to them and waited. With the holidays over November and December, it took a while.
The first week in January 2013 I got the reply I was waiting on. I eagerly opened it. The email gave me some pointers that I needed to follow, which are listed below.
- Most new authors don’t start by writing a novel that is over 100,000 words. Reasons are as listed: with that many words it’s hard for new authors to hold the reader’s attention, as they have not learned the art of showing instead of telling. Your plot, although strong, was overshadowed by some of the subplots, which were also strong, taking away from the main plot. This manuscript had too many subplots; it would have worked better with one main plot and two to three subplots – no more than that.
- Your manuscript was written more like a screenplay than a book. Once again, we feel this comes from telling the story instead of allowing the reader to visualize and feel they are in the story by using the five senses. The below suggestion should help in this area.
- Take a creative writing course to learn the basic principles of writing.
- Like your plot and subplots, your characters are strong, but there are too many of them in this book.
“Mr. Clay we believe you have some of the traits that good authors have. This manuscript proves that. However, until you hone your skills we must reject your manuscript at this time due to the above, and due to the sexual content that borders on pornography. We have made suggestions throughout the manuscript, highlighting your strong points and weaknesses, along with suggestions. Please contact us if you have any questions on those mark-ups.
“We have an idea that you may want to consider. Since the characters are strong, we suggest you hang on to this manuscript, pull two of the characters out of it and write a short story around those two people. We would make it a standalone story, fewer than 50,000 words, that doesn’t have anything to do with this manuscript. Once you have penned that story, come back to this manuscript, pull two more characters from it and write another story with a word count no more than three times the first story, 150,000 words maximum. Once that is complete, once again return to this manuscript. Divide it up into two, three or maybe four books and make it a series.
“When doing this, keep in mind to use only one major plot and no more than three subplots. Sexual scenes are OK in a book, but they must be limited, not one after the other, or your book will get tagged as erotica, which will kick you out of the mainstream market. We suggest doing some research on the difference between erotica and pornographic material. If your book gets labeled ‘pornographic’ it can only be sold on certain internet venues and in print at adult book stores and truck stops. The reason we bring this up is that some of sexual scenes were written well, and with some modifying of slang words they could be used in a story that would pass in the mainstream marketplace. Also, one of the biggest selling genres on the internet is erotica. You could pull the sex scenes from this manuscript that are not used in the series of books or the two previous stories, and write in that genre. Once again, you would need to tweak the wording a little. We have pointed these areas out in the manuscript critique. Thank you for giving us a chance to review your work and good luck in your endeavors.”
I pondered their suggestions for several months, trying to decide whether this was really what I wanted to do. I still had my day job and I hadn’t planned on hanging it up till the end of 2015. I discussed it with Nina the Kat; we both asked ourselves, what could it hurt? I decided that I wouldn’t give up, but that I was not going to spend all my spare time writing or worrying about it. During my summer vacation that year, 2013, Nina the Kat had a brainstorm to get me on track; you can read about her writing exercise in the blog ‘Birth of the Demons’.
If you refer back to Backstory II, you’ll see that I wasn’t able to continue working to the end of 2015. In May 2014, the same month that my first e-book, Demons of the Jungle, was published, the heart doctor highly suggested that I change careers, as my line of work and environment were not doing my heart any favors. I continued till August of that year before hanging up my hard hat and pursuing writing full-time.
Below are some excerpts from the West on the East – Noon Judgment manuscript critique. They are funny now, but back then they pierced my heart like an arrow.
- “Everything needs to be broken up into paragraphs and the dialogue needs to have quotes and attribution. ‘Blah blah,’ he said.”
- “This could all be its own chapter and told from the point of view of Remington as a child.”
- “This reads like erotica. That’s fine if that is your intention. You will have limited options for publishing if you keep this in, but there are online options for erotic literature.”
- “You’ve switched to Bethany’s point of view, but the rest of the novel is from Remington’s point of view. Need to pick one and stick with it. Or each character can have a chapter.”
- “If you want to refine this to publish as erotica, some of the slang would have to come out. Otherwise it’s really more just pornographic.”
As you can see from the above, there was really nowhere from me to go but up.
Thanks for stopping by, and never give up. I can attest that doing something you love really isn’t work.
Blog edited by Clare Diston @ Human Voices.