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ET EXTRA: An Engineer Writes A Novel…

29 Jun

…And What You Can Expect If You Write One, Too.

NEXUS
A psychological drama/mystery with a touch of the Twilight Zone

As a student I veered briefly into the literary realm, but finally settled on engineering as a profession. My writing skills, such as they were, have been subsequently used to create The Design Analysis Handbook, author/edit the Design/Analysis Newsletter, and more recently, write posts for this Engineering Thinking blog. No, I have not won any literary awards, although a good  number of Handbooks have been sold, and the newsletter did get mentioned once in a congressional hearing.

But this was not enough. Several years ago I realized that I wanted to write a novel of the type that I read many years ago, but which is hard to find today: edgy, suspenseful, Twilight Zone-ish, but more grown-up; i.e., no car chases, no brawls, but with realistic relationships and adult dialog. I also yearned — as an engineer — for plots that were believable, logically structured, consistent, and that portrayed real people with imperfections.

I particularly cherished the novels whose content was absent the plethora of f-bombs that contaminate much modern literature. Call me quaint, but in my view one of the major purposes of art is to elevate, not degrade. Only in modern times has vulgar language, along with the “guys-chatting-in-adjacent-urinals” scene, become obligatory parts of novels and screenplays. If that’s elevating, then I’ve been living in the basement.

As if to satisfy my craving, one night after dinner, out of the blue, an idea for a novel struck. It had a very offbeat plot that I thought would be quite intriguing, and I was somewhat obsessed with it. Appropriately, in fact, a major part of the plot line is about obsession. So I went to work. However, even though I had previously written a non-fiction book, I soon realized that a novel was completely different. Therefore I decided to educate myself by having my original rough manuscript reviewed by a professional book editor.

Despite the tactfulness of the editor, it was a mortifying and humbling experience, and confirmed my lack of skills. In other words, it was well worth it. In fact, after reworking the novel, I obtained the services of yet a second book editor, and again received expert guidance, and again received a literary kick in the pants. And again, it was well worth it. After my third pass, after more polishing and review (by those who shall remain blameless and nameless, at least for now), I decided it was time to try to publish.

Unfortunately, I discovered that approximately 99% of the population had the same idea.

It seems that if you possess a crayon and a brown paper bag, this makes you a novelist. Publishers and agents are continually bombarded with the unsolicited manuscripts of first-time novelists, most of which contain grammar and spelling errors, shallow characters, trite prose, and all-too-predictable story lines. And these submissions are by those authors that have some talent; most of the rest do not rise to the level of tripe. Only a very small percentage of submissions are considered acceptable.

Nonetheless, publishers and agents by and large are polite, and — on the rare occasions when they discern a flicker of talent — they may send back a word or two of encouragement along with the rejection notice.

More importantly, I also learned that agents as a rule do not handle first-time novelists; they recommend that you go directly to a publisher. If you can find one who will publish your book, come back and see them and they will be happy to represent you. But there’s a catch: publishers as a rule will not look at your manuscript unless you first have an agent. Hmmm…

I don’t blame the publishers or the agents. The available supply of manuscripts is so huge that it is simply overwhelming, forcing them to use draconian screening methods to whittle down submissions to a manageable size. They admit that they can miss out on some promising new talent, but the logistics of the business leave them no alternative but to quickly screen and reject the great majority of the incoming deluge. They will also acknowledge that the selection procedure does not guarantee that the authors they do publish will become successful, and as a final irony, they will also sheepishly admit that many best-sellers click with the public for no fathomable literary reason.

So what’s a budding novelist to do?

Self-publishing, through the traditional “vanity” press (publishers who will print your books for a fee, regardless of whether you can string two coherent sentences together), is one option. Typically this is a dead end for a new author, although there have been some very rare exceptions.

The advent of ebooks (e.g. Amazon Kindle), however, which bypass traditional paper-based publishing, offers a second alternative. The process is simple: upload your ebook manuscript and related info (description, cover art), and you’re published. A very few first-time authors have taken the ebook route and sold quite a few copies, and even caught the attention of the mainstream publishers. So ebooks offer a teeny but finite possibility of reaching the reading public.

Therefore, after a few years of writing, learning, polishing, re-writing, learning, polishing, re-writing, and finalizing, I published Nexus as an ebook. I truly do not expect to make any money on the endeavor, but I do believe that those who have a yearning for an offbeat and somewhat retro-style novel will find Nexus worthwhile.

I also believe that if you have a novel inside you, and are prepared to invest in the effort required to bring it to the page, you will likely find the effort to be very fulfilling, even if it’s read by only a handful of family and friends. There is simply something quite indescribably satisfying about being able to convey the ideas, images, and feelings that are important to you, and to share them with others. And if you can actually sell your vision and make a living at it … well, that’s really one for the Twilight Zone.

-Ed Walker

 

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