Four Part Harmony, Part II- How I Became a Writer

        The old adage you can’t get published until you have some published articles on your resume is true. It’s like the classified ad for a job, “Only experienced workers need to apply.”

       So how do you get experience if you have no experience?

       My answer is “write about what you love.” It will take time but after a while someone will pay attention. For me, writing came through music. As a kid I played guitar to meet girls. Once I met my wife there was no need to chase girls and I put it aside except to play for her. I used to sing to her but she married me anyway. Later that same voice would put our kids to sleep at night. It worked without fail!

        After I heard Tommy Edwards and “The Bluegrass Experience” and met Dr. Peter Temple in med school, I fell in love with bluegrass. I gave up rock ‘n roll (for the most part) and sat in on Dr. Temple’s Wednesday night front porch bluegrass sessions. Soon I took up banjo. After I got out into medical practice I became a mandolin player when ours left for Nashville and we couldn’t find one. I was a sensitive boy and the doc gig could be hard. I worried over the patients. I began to write. Most of it was focused on the music I loved and that had saved me from going too crazy under all the pressure.

        A funny thing  happened. I wrote an article in the local newspaper for a band, and they liked it. When people showed up at the concert because of my article, the band liked it even more. I got some gigs doing liner notes and CD reviews. I developed a bit of a regional reputation as a guy who knew the genre and would write articles for a modest fee. (try free!)

        One day we were on a trip to the mountains to see my son. I saw an article in an Asheville publication for a Mr. Howey who advertised his services as an editor. I was already at work on “The Mandolin Case,” and took him some excerpts. His fee was reasonable and I learned a lot for those early edits. I asked him if he thought it would ever be published. I recall his wry smile. “Patience my boy, patience,” he said.

       Mr. Howey was a veteran of the newspaper biz and editor of a magazine called the Laurel of Asheville, and also wrote an award-winning book on Freckles, the famous pet therapy dog. He counseled me that writers can’t get in a hurry. I figured he’d been around a while and was a survivor in the writer biz, and that he knew. I listened.

       About this time I started a search for an agent. My daughter gave me a book called “How to be Your Own Literary Agent.” The author made it clear he did not accept unsolicited queries, so I sent him one right away. I wanted to go ahead and get a rejection under my belt. I’ve still got it somewhere in my files. I wrote back to thank him for his time and that I’d appreciate it if he’d hold onto my resume.

        After that with every query letter I informed them I was unsigned at the moment but some of the biggest houses in New York had my file under consideration. (The man never wrote back to say I didn’t, and besides I was in training to be fiction writer. ”Show the truth, tell no facts.”)

        I sent some out queries without enough research. One told me they liked my work but were looking for writers of romantic fiction with a chick litty voice. I have not one thing against romance writers, but my wife got a big laugh out of that one. “Honey, you’re a lot of things but chick-litty isn’t your gig.”

        The one wrote and said they liked the MS but hadn’t taken on any fiction in a while because they lost money on their last two projects. They recommended another person who turned out to be out of the biz, but they knew someone who knew somebody who they thought they knew another guy who might have interest. After a series of e-mails, I had a contact e-mail address. I wrote him.

        He looked over some of my work, had me edit a few stories and then assigned a book report on “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.” I was good at book reports as a kid. I remembered all the little blue ribbons. I summoned up the best I had from deep in my gut.

        He agreed to an interview.

        I met with him and showed him some early drafts of “The Mandolin Case.” He liked my work, but knew it was still rough. Looking back, I think he saw me like an inner city ball player. I could run, shoot, and dribble, but he had no way to know if I’d take to coaching,

       “Any advice?” I asked.

        “Yes. Start a blog.” he replied.

        “Whats’ a blog?”

        The agent went on to explain. “Your readers will teach you how to write. Besides, if you can’t attract an audience of readers there is no reason for me to represent you.” He didn’t sign me but I was sure he had at least some interest.

        I started the blog in 2007, and it began to grow. As my potential agent predicted, I learned from my readers; folks like the Lehmann’s, chili, Cindy, slightly, Felix, Jel, and many more.

       One day Mr. Howey called from the Laurel. His music writer had just resigned.”I need an article on “Bluegrass First Class” by Monday. Are you up to it?”

       I jumped at the opportunity. ”Sure, Mr. Howey. I know the promoter and all the bands. I won’t have any access issues. But I gotta be honest, I’m not a pro writer yet. I might need some help.”

       “Son, that’s why you’ll have an editor. That’s me.”

        The article was success. BGFC sold out. (Not just because of me I assure you; it’s a great show every year.) Suddenly I was a published and paid writer; my definition of an author.

       I figured up 15% of my check and sent my potential agent that share even though I was not signed yet.

       He called. “What is this check for?”

       “I landed a paying gig. I read where the standard fee for a Lit agent is 15%. That’s your share. I’m gonna send you 15% of everything I make as a writer until you tell me you won’t be my agent.      

       The sigh was audible. This guy has no quit in him. He gave up and sent me a contract. I took it to an intellectual property rights lawyer in the city who found it 100% legit. I signed it, had it notarized, and returned it, then told my new agent the same thing they told Bill Monroe when he joined the Opry. “If you want to leave you’ll have to fire yourself.” I added, “And if it ain’t good for you it ain’t good for me. We’re in it together.” He’s been my agent ever since.

       We were on our way. Next Monday I’ll tell you how I got my book published.

       It takes a long time to get started but once you become a writer it is a gift for life, just like playing the mandolin or the doctor gig. Once I experienced the birth of that first book, I never wanted to quit, and now have more projects in progress. Birthing a baby is very hard, (my wife is the expert on that, not me) but getting there is so much fun folks keep doing it, which is why the world is unlikely to run out of babies or books any time soon. (God had all this figured out; humans made a mess out of it.)

       One last word of wisdom. In every relationship I get into, and this includes being a writer, I try to think why it might be good for the other party and do that. (If I write will someone’s life be better for what they read, will folks enjoy a music show, will a publisher sell more magazines, will my agent see a few dollars etc) I never worry about me. It comes back to me anyway. God and my wife and kids always look after me so I don’t have to worry about myself. If you figure out how it will help someone else and you are confident as to why it will do so, it’s mighty hard for people to turn you away for long. If they do reject you, once they realize you are helping someone else they often change their mind.

       Talk to ya next week.

Dr. B

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9 Comments on “Four Part Harmony, Part II- How I Became a Writer”

  1. Felix Miller Says:

    “This guy has no quit in him.” Your agent was right. That is the indispensable characteristic in any person who accomplishes worthwhile things.

    As soon as I purge myself of quit, there begins something good.

  2. Pam Warren Says:

    Your blog was certainly relevant to me today. I’ve finished writing and editing my novel and have started looking for a literary agent. Although my book would probably be categorized as romantic fiction, some of it is based on my own experiences singing with a country rock band in the 1980′s and later on as a bluegrass mandolinist. It’s been a fun process and certainly helped with the cabin fever this past winter.

    • drtombibey Says:

      Pam,

      Bluegrass books are all the rage now, so I hope yous finds some traction and gets published. As my blog post today shows, if you hang in there long enough, odds are it eventually will.

      I bet I went thru near thirty revisions of “The Mandolin Case” before it got there.

      Dr. B

      • Pam Warren Says:

        Happy to hear that bluegrass books are all the rage. I just tried to write something that I would like to read.

        Pam

  3. drtombibey Says:

    Pam,

    I was kinda kidding although “The Mandolin Case” has done for more than I ever dreamed. You are correct; you gotta write about whatcha love and see what happens.

    Dr. B


  4. I loved this story. I loved your dogged determination and the incentive to pay that agent before he signed you. I’m not sure if that’s reckless abandon or downright bold thinking, but either way it worked for you, and it was fascinating to read.
    Thank you for sharing it. It gave me a laugh, made me smile and made me think about my own writing. Great blog this week.
    p.s. enjoy Merlefest! :)

    • drtombibey Says:

      Patricia,

      In the early days someone said a fellow who had been a doctor all his life couldn’t turn himself into a fiction witer.

      I remember when my wife heard that. She was reading the morning paper. She sipped her coffee, rolled her eyes, and said, “I wish they’d talk to me.”

      She knew I’d get it done somehow.

      Thanks for your comment; very perceptive.

      Dr. B


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