A Writer’s Journey

At the Memorial Weekend alumni barbeque in Willow Springs, I was enormously grateful for the numerous positive comments I received about this column. The curiosity about my other writing efforts, however—particularly the children’s books—surprised me. How long have you been writing? How did you get started? Do you draw the illustrations? A retired lawyer writing books for children? Did you always want to write? I’ll try to provide some insight into the journey.
From an early age, I had an intuitive notion that I could write, but college convinced me that English majors and journalism school graduates had esoteric skills I did not possess. However, twenty years ago that notion began changing when I read a short story in Missouri Life magazine about a boy’s experience playing in a haybarn. I thought smugly to myself that I could write an article like that. 
By the way, on the subject of haybarns, as a child if you never got to play “king of the hill” in a barn full of alfalfa, your childhood experience is missing a first-rate memory. During my Montier days, Larry Stover, Elmer Melton (my visiting urban cousin), and I walked three miles to Paul Reese’s barn, which had a loft full of haybales, to play with his two sons. As an adult, Elmer often recalled the fun we had that day. On the other hand, as a teenager hoisting haybales and dodging spiders in dusty barn lofts during Ozark summers didn’t seem so pleasant at the time. 
After reading the magazine article, I submitted a story to Missouri Life about an Ozark memory from my childhood, and to my surprise, they accepted it and actually paid me for it. The article and a color copy of the check are framed and hang in my office. At the time, it seemed easy, but now I know it involved a bit of beginner’s luck. Over-the-transom (unsolicited) queries often result in form rejection letters or end up in what publishers call the “slush pile.” 
Working with the magazine editor trumped getting paid, and convinced me I had much to learn about the craft of writing. Long pretty sentences laced with modifiers—adjectives and adverbs—that I learned in high school needed to be replaced with strong nouns and verbs. And certainly, the notorious tautology (needless repetition) of legal writing needed to be tossed. J-school grads and English majors did have skills I needed to learn.
Armed with my one publication credit, I traveled 300 miles to the Midwest Writer’s Workshop at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I registered for a 30-minute session with Karl Largent, a techno-thriller author, who was on the workshop faculty. With simplicity, he summed up the process. “Never have your protagonist running quickly when he could be sprinting.” Now, my business card has a quote from Mark Twain: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”
Before the proliferation of journalism schools, aspiring newspaper writers apprenticed and learned to use Rudyard Kipling’s proverbial “six honest serving men”—what, why, when, how, where, and who. My apprenticeship involved numerous writing workshops, coaches, contests, conferences, queries, submissions, and rejections. 
After the publication of a half-dozen magazine articles and several short stories and some success in contests, a writing instructor challenged me to write a novel. With a time-consuming day-job, it would be nearly five years and countless drafts before I finished the manuscript and found a publisher for my first novel, Geese to a Poor Market. I was honored it won the Ozark Writers’ League Best Book of the Year award.
Even a modicum of success in writing often results from networking. Attending workshops, conferences, and participating in writing organizations can improve skills and present opportunities. A workshop facilitator, who was the editor of a literary fiction anthology, “Stories from the Left Hand of God,” invited me to be an associate editor. Reviewing the work of some uber-talented writers opened my eyes to different styles and methods of writing. 
The publisher of my original novel expanded into different genres and asked me to join as a parttime acquisition editor. For several years, I reviewed manuscripts from across the country and determined which would be accepted or rejected. Having experienced my own share of rejections, I cringed whenever I declined a submission, but I always tried to include a note of encouragement or a helpful suggestion. I’m proud to say I shepherded three novels to publication.
As I attended conferences, hawking my novel, I noticed other writers had their display tables covered with children’s picture books. My table seem bare by comparison. Since it would be a few years before I completed my next novel, it occurred to me in the interim I could write a children’s book to fill up the space on my table. I thought writing a children’s book ought to be easy, but smugness is a precarious perch, and the road to publication proved to be a winding one.
Nevertheless, I sketched a storyline about a rescued tomcat, who liked to eat Texas-style chili, and his adventures with two poodle puppies that he called Poodlums. Again, through luck and networking, at a conference in Arkansas, I found a publisher from Maine who had an excellent illustrator in Texas, and Mulligan Meets the Poodlums became a published reality. My initial motivation to fill the gap between novels has become a series of children’s books that is personally rewarding and fun.
At the same conference a few years later, an editor for Five Star Press, a publishing company specializing in Western literature, invited me to write stories for two Western short story anthologies. My submissions, “Coffin Nails in Callaway County” and “Grogan’s Choice” (readers may recognize the name), were published in the 2018 and 2019 anthologies. 
I enjoyed the challenge of writing in the Western genre, but the research, while interesting, can be tedious. Western editors, writers, and readers are often armchair historians and sticklers for authenticity. If the nomenclature of a Colt Dragoon revolver is incorrect, it will not go unnoticed.
The literary trail is littered with partial manuscripts and scribbled thoughts of would-be authors. Those who made it to the trail’s end, or even to the next watering hole, didn’t arrive without assistance. My boosters are too numerous to list, but one from the Ozarks warrants mentioning. In 1998, I met Sam Jones, a judge from Lawrence County, who, on learning I wrote stories about the Ozarks, told me his mother Chloe M. Briggs, had written two books set there.
A few weeks later, his mother’s self-published paperbacks arrived by mail. The first book was printed in 1983 and the second in 1991. The first wasn’t typeset, the paragraphs didn’t have proper breaks, and the dialogue was written in regional dialect. I became an insufferable, beady-eyed-editor mentally wielding a red pen as I read.
Forty pages later, however, she described the remorse a man felt after beating a horse, with such poignancy, that my heart sank as I read it. My haughtiness faded, and she had me hooked. I finished both books, impressed and inspired. I told Judge Jones, if his mother had the luxury of an agent and an editor, her work could have been an Ozark equivalent of Charles Frazier’s historical novel, Cold Mountain.
Mrs. Briggs finished her first book when she was eighty and her second book at ninety—in a nursing home. Not long before she passed away, she lamented to her son, “If only I had known what I could do.”
When I need inspiration for writing, or I’m otherwise whining about some limitation, I recall her words and picture the photograph of gray-haired Mrs. Briggs sitting in front of her vintage IBM Selectric. 
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