The scene at Sonman Mine in Portage, Pa.
When most people sit down to write a book, I suspect, they have images of how they will look with Mr. Stewart on TV and how it will play in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. But that’s not what happens. Well it might if you are one of the few authors who gets to write under an imprint like Random House or Times Books or someone who actually picks, edits and publishes books.
I had no such illusions about my book, “A Measure of Justice,” (Should be on Amazon in January) which presents a mystery in the coal fields of Pennsylvania in the 1930s. Its has death, romance, justice for evil doers and more than anyone but me could know about digging bituminous coal. I have been told by agents and publishers that it is not a marketable book, the kiss of death in publishing. Would that I had been a Hollywood star with an eating disorder, a drug problem and desire to change my gender. That book would have a whole world of interest in the modern publishing market.
But it you are writing a book, you have to keep your eyes open about who is going to do what for you. It’s unlikely you will get a major publisher to take on your work unless you have a name that everyone already knows, for whatever reason. That being the case, you will most likely not give up on the project and eventually decide to self-publish. This used to be called vanity publishing, a bad name that implied no one was interested in your work. Not any more. Self publishing companies are popping up like mushrooms in the forest after a rain, each of them responding to a reality you are going to have to face: They make their money by taking your money to publish your book.
Your book then, is best viewed as a business investment on your part. You will put from $4,500 to $20,000 or more on the table to buy a collection of very important services you are not likely to be able to produce yourself. It’s important to recognize that. Some of them are things you don’t think much about. All the big sales companies have formats for creating the pages of your book, and they are not all the same. I suppose if you are so functional at technology that you can work in a couple of different formats to achieve a couple of different important things, you could do it yourself.
The most clever pitch for marketing came from a publishing company that offered marketing services for a lot of money that had Basic, Silver and Gold options, each of them packed full of things you don’t want to do yourself. I was tickled by the one that offered what it called “Best Seller” levels of service. That one ran for a year and cost $20,000. There were no guarantees, just a lot of rhetoric about getting eyes on your product and creating book reviews and getting your product into media markets, whatever that means these days.
But my thought about all of this is writing the book is hard enough.
You don’t want to take on the burden of all the technologies involved in publishing unless you really know what you are doing. Most people don’t. So you pay the price and the publishing company does the gritty marketing work involved in just getting your book into the right formats for e-publishing, publishing on Amazon, publishing on Barnes and Nobel and an array of other places that market books on line.
You want a contract that offers a “print on demand” option, which is very important unless you want a garage full of books you have to package and mail yourself. Other people do a much better job at that very efficiently. I made the wrong decision on this with some CDs friends and I made. I have maybe 400 of them in a box in the basement. This is no way to do business. A contractor can help on this front. They take a cut of the price to do that kind of scut work, but nowhere near the cut a traditional publisher would take for a standard hard cover book. You also have the option of selling it on Kindle.
These are not decisions you made back when you first conceived of what you intended to write. But they are decisions you will have to contend with before your book can land in anyone’s hands. I knew all of this was coming when I decided to self-publish. But I put it off, I think wisely, until I was done with my book. I believe that is crucial. Nothing can distract you from the task at hand, which is telling a long-form story that makes sense, is compelling and is professionally edited and printed.
This may be the most important part of what I have to say. Find your theme, find your objective, get to know your characters and how they talk and act, know the scenery, know the roads, know the wildlife in the region you are writing about. The more you know about those things, the more fluid your story will be.
Where do you start with that? Not with fantasies about book tours and author interviews. Where you start is looking at a computer screen that has nothing on it, and filling it up again and again with what will become your story. There are no good writers, someone once told me, but there are great rewriters. That is what you need to be, a determined rewriter.
A better and more vague question is where did your idea come from? If you are writing fiction, any kind of fiction, it has to come from some aspects of your experiences. From your research. Everyone has had a broken heart, of course, but what is it about your broken heart that is universal? That’s something you can make your challenge. I can tell you what I had to do to develop my theme. It was not easy and it started with an education in something I never thought I would be considering:
How do you make a coal mine?
I am not going to bore you with a lot of details. I rounded up the best collection of books I could find on the business of coal mining. I read them. I read about the markets for coal in the era I was looking at. I visited the Pennsylvania history museum in Harrisburg and spent days reviewing the records created by hundreds of mine disasters, big and small. I came to understand what was the most common killer in the mines (roof falls) and how gas worked and where it came from. I reviewed many texts that explained who did what job in the mine. I read “fire boss” reports that listed conditions in he mines. I studied the flow of air in big mines and came to understand why that was so important. I learned how to roll my own black powder charges in newspapers. I talked to people who had mines in their back yards. Saddest of all, I read the records listing the deaths of hundreds of miners over time, each of them noting whether language was a complication in the disaster and how many family members were left back home.
I read roughly 25 years worth of Portage Dispatch newspapers on an old microfilm machine in the Portage Library. I went to Johnstown’s library to follow up on the legal cases spawned by mine disasters. I found revealing stories about the lives of miners. One that grabbed me was about a man who ran out of black powder at the coal face and went home to get some. When he opened the big can he kept at the house, a spark from his carbide lamp fell in and created an explosion that took out four houses, three families and left him vaporized.
It was a very dangerous business to work in.
At Northwestern University’s library in Evanston, I found an archive of United Mine Workers journals that were full of information about disasters (and very badly kept. The pages crumbled in your fingers).
Then I stopped, packed all of this information in my head and waited for a ghostly image to form, an image of the bad things that happened underground, the things that took lives in an instant. I could not forget the image of my father running down the hill with the stretchers, or my grandfather bathing all those dead miners to make them presentable for their families.
I thought about it.
Next: A story forms