This month’s publishing article and book excerpt comes from Writing It Real member Rhonda Wiley-Jones. Kirkus Reviews summarizes her book Song of Herself, Atmosphere Press, September 22, this way:
Wiley-Jones packs her narrative with a plethora of captivating themes and images that expose Fiona and readers to India’s cultures, religions, and styles (Women “wrapped their silhouettes with sarees in every color from ruby red to sapphire blue, and marigold to lemon yellow”) as well as the building Indian resentment toward British imperialism. Then there is the chaos of Calcutta, which the author describes in vivid detail, capturing the city’s history, topography, sounds, smells, and foods. Fiona is a complex character who repeatedly turns to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for inspiration and guidance in her search for her own center. … readers watch her grow into an intriguing, formidable woman determined to chart her own course. … An engaging period drama overflowing with historical tidbits.
Here is Rhonda’s publishing story:
In my book Fiona Weston, an unconventional Iowa horsewoman, sails to India in 1906 to sell her uncle’s quarter horses to the British Indian army to breed with their Manipuri horse for polo. The themes in the book are:
- A woman gaining personal, psychological agency through travel experiences
- Cultural learning that typically accompanies travel to new countries
- Coming-of-age relationships between men and women
- The mentorship from her host, Ameera, a culturally astute new friend and a guide to the ways of men and women
The steps in my search and decision to publish the book were numerous. They were not clear-cut and linear, instead overlapped and bled into one another.
- FOUND WRITING GROUPS. The first thing in my publication process was to write the novel with the keen eyes of a writer’s group. I had several throughout the life of this novel, however, the two women with whom I spent the last several years of the writing cheered me on, told me where to tighten or expand, what could go, and repeatedly affirmed it was cinematic and they wanted to toast the premier on the big screen with me. They were brutally tough, caring, compassionate and encouraging.
- AGENT SEARCH FAILED. As I completed the final edit on the book (I took the book from 130,000 words down to under 100,000), I researched agents and agencies. After developing a list of them, a synopsis, marketing analysis, and whatever else each wanted, I contacted one to three at a time. I heard nothing from all but one. I pursued about ten or so agents over eighteen months. By the time I completed my final edit of the book, I was ready to try another route. I felt like I had been fishing in a water source that was so deep and vast that I did not know how to reach the fish, even by doing all the right things.
- SELF-PUBLISHING CONSIDERED. I had self-published my coming-of-age, travel memoir, At Home in the World: Travel Stories of Growing Up and Growing Away. I knew that publication process, but also knew I did not like or feel confident laying out the interior, designing the cover (I wanted something more sophisticated for the novel), and uploading the manuscript as a book and eBook. Those were things I would have to relearn and was not willing to do that.
- RESEARCHED HYBRID PUBLICATIONS. So, I researched hybrid publishers. I eliminated some because of price (one asked $18,000 to edit my book and $33,000 total, which seemed unreasonable), some because of reputation, and/or others because their books that I had read had too many errors. I narrowed it down and dug deeper into two.
- SHE WRITES PRESS. I investigated the She Writes Press (SWP) process, including contacting authors and Story Circle Network members I knew who were familiar with the press professionally. Their advice was gracious, generous, and stayed open-ended, not directive. I submitted my novel to SWP, and they accepted it. Then I learned my book would have to start the process with their next cohort the following year, and it would take a year to publish after that.
- ATMOSPHERE PRESS. I read three or four books from Atmosphere Press (AP). Some were full of errors, but I liked AP’s business model. I contacted AP authors directly to check their experience in publishing their books. I decided I could insist to the press to be careful with editing and proofing my book. I also knew I would be diligent with every round of reading, as well. I submitted my book and AP accepted it. The cost would be $5400. I had more to do before I was ready to start.
- EMPLOYED YELLOW BIRD EDITORIAL SERVICES. I enlisted Sara Kocek from Yellow Birding Editors and Writing Coaches, Austin, Texas, to “content edit” my book. She found lots of small stuff, but really drove home the lack of emotional resonance in the book and showed me examples of how to do it. I conducted a major editing, again, and learned how to recognize where I needed an emotional response in a scene and how to write it. It improved the novel remarkably. I was grateful for her editorial work. It cost me about $2,200 for a 100,000-word novel. It was worth it.
- SIGNED CONTRACT WITH ATMOSPHERE PRESS. I had spent time on the phone with several people from AP and told them about my concerns over the lack of adequate proofreading about some of their books, pointed to page numbers for them to follow up on. AP staff told me that some authors get galley proofs and did not make recommended changes. Their philosophy of the hybrid press was that authors pay for the services ($5,400) and have the last say, as a self-publishing author. Talking to one author, I learned that she had not followed recommendations from editorial and proofreading service—to her discredit. I submitted.
- ATMOSPHERE EDITORIAL SERVICES. When approved by AP, the manuscript started through their “content edit” process. AP staff assigned me an editor. She described herself as a mixed-race American (native American and African American). AP had assigned her to me not knowing her background. She became my sensitivity reader and gracefully guided me to see the world of my characters through her eyes as she knew their plight. I needed her background knowledge and experience to create my characters and have them become people true to their own experience. Therefore, my novel matured from both “content edits.”
- CHOSE AN ILLUSTRATOR FOR THE BOOK COVER. Even though AP provided the services of a graphic designer as part of my contract payment, I decided to go “outside” the Press to contract with another artist. I enlisted a watercolorist whose work I found online years ago and who was the illustrator of another book I liked. It would set my book apart from many other historical fiction covers and would include hints of what the book was about, a windjammer, horses, a nod to Calcutta’s ghats, and of course, my protagonist. I enlisted the art director, however, to work alongside me with my artist to ensure that her design met the specifications of the Press. The illustrator and I worked through four or five renditions of her original sketch, then she brought alive the sketch with colors we had discussed. I was not yet satisfied with the look of my protagonist, so we had several more rounds adding touches to the face in the illustration. Fortunately, I knew what I wanted and why. Hiring an illustrator added $1200 to the cost of publishing my novel. I was happy with my decision.
7. MULTI-TASKED SEVERAL THINGS. I completed the back-of-book copy, the acknowledgements, and author bio and photo to submit to Atmosphere Press. the content edits and my revisions. Proofreaders received my manuscript. At each juncture of preparing the manuscript, I repeated my concerns about proofreading the book to perfection. They gave my book to two independent proofreaders. I then accepted 98% of their suggestions. Simultaneously, I worked with the art director who worked with AP’s design team on the layout and design of the book. My guidance to the design team was a book that would be easy to read for older readers, my audience. When I received the first proof of the book, I liked the typeset and the “day/date/location” that began each chapter, as I had set up in the manuscript. However, I wanted some kind of graphic for each chapter. They cut an element from the cover design (the horses) and installed them in gray-tone, but we finally settled on full black ink. I also wanted “curlicues” to flank both sides of the page numbers, “Acknowledgements” and “About the Author.” It added an historical flavor that I thought was lacking in the design. I was very satisfied with the outcome. When I read the final proof copy, I found a few grammar and punctuation errors that AP fixed before going to print. As is always the case, when my husband read the book when printed, he found more errors. I have no recourse at this point without incurring more costs.
8. WHAT DID I LEARN?
- I learned how important it was to have a vision for my novel, both content and presentation. Looking at other books in the genre of historical fiction gave me an informed vision of what readers expected from historical fiction books, including colors, images, and appeal.
- I wish I had insisted to my illustrator during the drafting stages of the book cover that the face of the woman should be looking into the future, not to the side. I wanted the illustrator to draw a more realistic face for the cover. I tried but failed to convey my concern adequately. This is my only real regret.
- Later, outside the publication process, I read that every book should not have “orphan” words (single words on the last line of a paragraph) hanging throughout the book. That obvious problem in my book had bothered me when I did a final read but did not believe it was important enough to bring it up. I should have insisted that their staff and/or I conduct another copy edit on the book to rewrite paragraphs to cut “orphan” words. It would have enhanced the look of the text and saved pages but may have added to the cost of publishing the book.
Excerpt from Song of Herself:
Wednesday, April 18, 1906; San Francisco
There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me. …
I do not know it—it is without name—it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol. (Walt Whitman)
The silent tide from San Francisco Bay rose precipitously in wild, unnatural waves. The birds that had not yet stirred now erupted in chaotic chatter. The gas streetlights glowed in the pre-dawn fog and began to sway without a breeze. The horse-drawn wagons lumbered across the city’s cobblestoned streets carrying fresh produce; then the horses reared and whinnied, broke and ran while drivers fought for control. The earth grumbled, groaned, and gasped.
Fiona Weston’s feet hit the floor. “Get dressed!” she barked to her younger brother Will in the bed next to hers. “The horses. We’ve got to get to them.”
Still in nightshirts, they stumbled into trousers as the floor rolled beneath them and yanked on boots while ceiling tins crumbled. The door they had latched last night stood open. Fiona snatched the saddlebag with money and passports. Will nabbed shirts from the floor that had hung on the wall. The siblings staggered to escape, surrounded by a crush of others in nightshirts, long johns, or gowns, rushing to escape the sway and collapse of the building.
Will pushed Fiona ahead. “Go, Fiona! The horses.”
Uncle Louis, her father’s brother and business partner in years past, had arranged to send quarter horses to the British Indian military. Known throughout America for his quarter horse acumen, he stayed well informed enough to learn of a unique opportunity to sell his herd to pay for his retirement years. His quarter horse mares would be bred with the stalwart Manipuri horse in India. They used this breed for polo ponies, which the cavalry in turn utilized to train soldiers. Only Louis would have put two-and-two together for this business feat. He was frail now and unable to travel or strike the deal. Fiona would be his legal representative.
“Not without you, Will!” She shuddered at the thought.
Bar shelves shivered in the hotel restaurant below then glass shattered, next a grinding ended in a crash. Shards of ceiling tiles fell; Fiona breathed dust as the building gave way and she tumbled down the roiling stairs. Someone used her body as a steppingstone. She looked up behind her to see Will’s body sandwiched between a collapsed ceiling and the second floor.
“Will!” Fiona wailed. She scratched and clawed her way up. Strong from physical labor, but unsure she could pick up the ceiling single-handedly, she heaved and nothing budged. She moved to leverage her legs, gripped, and the ceiling eased its weight off Will.
Through clenched teeth she said, “Move.”
“I can’t. My leg.”
“Slide over—just your body.”
He slid sideways and screamed in pain.
Fiona moved to another part of the buckled ceiling. Jacob Enapay emerged from swirling dust at her side. She recognized him from their meeting last night, the shipping agent their uncle hired to go with them. He said, “Let me help,” and lifted the ceiling from Will’s body with her. They saw Will’s thighbone exposed and gave each other a knowing look.
Enapay said, “Pull his legs this way.” She managed to position her back under the ceiling as she reached to pull his legs and then his torso from the heap of debris.
Will shrieked in agony and lost consciousness.
Enapay said, “I’ll find someone to help. Stay with him.”
Fiona heard herself laugh at the thought of leaving Will. “Hang on. Stay with me, little brother. The horses can wait.” She stroked his hair, trying to console them both.
Enapay returned with two men and a wooden door to serve as stretcher. They managed to cross a brick-filled street and camped outside a building opposite the hotel fearful of continuing collapse. Parts of this building stood, while others all around crumbled. Aftershocks of the earthquake continued to throw Fiona and her companions comically into each other.
The three men quickly scavenged broom handles and rags from the building to splint Will’s leg. Enapay orchestrated setting the limb. Fiona studied the pain on her sibling’s face, as he groaned unconsciously. Sirens whined in the background. She sat willing her little brother to live. After setting the leg, the helpers vanished before Fiona could thank them.
Enapay picked up his jacket and knapsack, and said, “The two men will be back.”
“They’ll find food. Help get Will to a hospital. I’ll check the horses.”
The horses, Fiona and Will had arrived from Denver by train the day before, April 17—the mares lodged at port to await boarding ship, the Anya on April 18.
“Are you alright?” Fiona said.
“Careful, but hurry.” As he strode away, she said, “Do what you can.”
Alone, she prayed, fearful God could do nothing. How would she get Will to a hospital in his condition? She smelled gas, heard explosions, saw fires flare. Buildings lay decimated, so she could see blocks away. People in nightclothes dodged each other during aftershocks, running over obstacles, leaping gaps in streets. Dogs, cats, vermin scurried in all directions. Frenzied horses pulled driverless wagons. Smoke hung in the fog mixed with dust screening the day-breaking sky, offering no sense of time.
Would Enapay ever make it back? What could she possibly do for Will? Were the horses dead and gone?
The men enlisted by Enapay returned with newsprint, and introduced themselves as Freddie and Arlan. After removing his shirt, they layered newspapers over Will, then wrapped a pilfered sheet from the hotel around him to hold in body heat as shock set in—his bandages, a shroud. In silence, they watched a tremor course Will’s body. Blood soaked the sheet in no time.
Fiona remembered when Will was five and fell from the burr oak on their farm. A branch broke under his feet and he raked his little arms and legs as he attempted to cling to the trunk as he slid down. The rolled and rashed skin oozed blood, while he wailed in anguish. His mother carried him to the kitchen to repair knees and elbows with Mercurochrome, and ease his spirit with a sugar cookie. This was different.
Freddie and Arlan foraged and offered food for their only meal before authorities started arresting looters. She nibbled at scraps of sandwiches, cold fried potatoes, and meatloaf. Broken city pipes gushed in the streets, but she and the men could find no drinking water. Partial liquor bottles from the hotel’s restaurant bar provided sips of whisky to ease Will’s pain each time he stirred. The look from his eyes reminded Fiona of a prairie fox caught in a snare. She held his hand in hers—his body too shattered to be touched.
Later, the two men waded through perilous terrain to retrieve Fiona’s trunk left behind, scarred, but still locked. They then left to search for medical care.
Fiona slept fitfully throughout the morning, awoke in a panic each time—Will shrouded but breathing. The odor of gas built up from ruptured utility pipes burned her nostrils and ash clogged her throat. Her mind ran mad with questions—whether to go ahead, turn back, head out never to return home.
She sat unable to comfort Will. To touch him caused him pain, and her, guilt. As Will faded, Fiona fretted over the herd. Had they escaped or been injured or worse? Where was Enapay? Had he made it to port only blocks away? The higgledy-piggledy battle between the concern for Will and the horses crisscrossed.
A mass of people migrating flowed from city center toward the port. People dropped their effects as they wore out transporting them. An old man carried a woman with a lacerated arm. A keening woman lugged a limp child, while three crying children tugged at her skirt. An injured man with a gash on his head aided another hobbling on one leg, until both fell from another tremor. A waif, staring and wandering aimlessly, clutched a Raggedy Ann doll and dragged it through dust, ash, and mud.
Arlan and Freddie returned. An open hospital existed but to get Will to a facility would take hours. She would have to decide whether to try. Her papa and uncle had spent years teaching, training, and building her confident decision making to undertake the task of selling the horses. After this? Her confidence dissolved in hours.
Her younger brother’s leg continued to bleed. The shattered torso was red up to his throat, turning deep dark red, and finally purple. The capillaries on his face rose to the surface and burst into tiny webs, signs of the inevitable. She wanted to hold him close and ease his pain.
Will roused. “You … go … on.”
Fiona said, “No, you have to go with me.”
Will lapsed back into pain—his moans like prairie winds on winter nights calling through the planks of the house. Later, Will spoke his last words. “A Weston…never…tucks…tail.”
She saw a hint of a smile on his face and agreed with him. “Yes, just like Papa said.”
Later that afternoon, Will coughed, choked, and struggled for air. His body heaved several breaths, searching for life. He opened his eyes as if seeking his way into the next and then nothing came. He took his last breath April 18, 1906. The pocketwatch read 3:58.
She sat and rocked his limp body, knowing he no longer felt the pain. Reality of her loss seeped in and she raised her head to the turbulent sky to scream, swear, and sob.
Decision time. Arlan and Freddie urged her to leave Will’s body behind. She could not.
They had seen various fires raging farther into the city rampaging toward them. They had felt the heat from the flames bearing down in their direction. They had sensed the updrafts building to fuel a single inferno and the dwindling time before its arrival.
There was no time to think, to wire Uncle Louis, to bury Will’s body.
The two men stood Fiona up from her grieving position over Will. She pulled on Will’s shirt in a daze and placed his pocketwatch in her breeches. She would need the compass without Will’s keen sense of direction, if she spent time in India—and as a memento regardless. The men each picked up a handle on her trunk, watching Fiona. She threw the saddlebag over her left shoulder and carried Will’s valise in her right hand. The advancing fire made the decision for her.
Arriving exhausted and bereaved at port hours later, Fiona noticed the flood of homeless residents boarding ships as refuge, but not the Anya. Enapay greeted them with relief. “You made it. Come. This way.” He took the valise and saddlebag from her clutches. She drug her feet up the gangplank to the ship’s deck.
“The horses? Are they loaded?”
“Yep, ready to sail.”
“But I have to wire Uncle Louis. Let him—.”
“No time. We have to sail. Tide is right. If we don’t leave soon, they’ll enlist the Anya for housing the homeless.”
She turned to gaze at the glowing amber sky, parched and aching from lifting debris off Will. How had she ever thought of the trip as an adventure?
“We will be out to sea before we get your bunk built. Until then you will bed down with the mares. I hope you can live with that.”
“I’ve slept through the night with lots of mares ready to foal.” He led her down below where the horses were lodged. All her girls, as she called the mares, encircled her. The ship had been equipped for the cargo of horses, in addition to its standard loads of rice, oats, and cotton. A double row of five stalls faced each other, with a passageway between them used as storage for gear and supplies. The nine mares faced each other, as typical in any stable and with the stalls simply roped at their tails, not typical.
Each broodmare’s box measured about six by five feet and constructed with room for a horse to lie down, and small enough to contain swaying with the motion of the sea. The mares steadying themselves all day provided sufficient exercise to keep them healthy.
Fiona had not yet acquired her sea legs and doubted she would. She desperately needed to regain her inner equilibrium without Will. The voyage required two to three weeks, depending on weather. Time to distance herself from the horrors of leaving her little brother behind.
Night arrived after an endless and brutal day. She lay between the two set of stalls on a bed of straw, using the saddlebag for a pillow. With no porthole that faced the city, she saw no moon, no stars, no reflection, no sense of adventure. Just darkness.
Only seventeen, Will was too young to die. Yesterday he was a robust young man. Last year, he roped calves at the local county fair. Now, gone.
How could she ever go home without Will to face the old men who ceaselessly had taunted her, the old biddies who did not care for her unconventional ways? Town folk had refused to conduct business with Fiona, only Will. Whether selfish or self-protective she did not wish to return without Will to their home in Spirit Lake, Iowa.
Tonight, here she was in the hull of a ship with the only semblance of friendship being a shipping agent she had just met.
Last night Fiona and Will had stepped into their hotel restaurant. Her eyes searched the tables for Jacob Enapay. A man stood, beamed a reserved but welcoming smile, as he waved them over with his hat.
They started across the floor when two corseted women’s eyes fell to Fiona’s trousered legs and booted feet. She felt a familiar “tsk-tsk.”
Enapay greeted Will with a nod from three tables away, then turned his gray, deep-set eyes on her. Her heartbeat outpaced her boots landing on the wooden floor.
“Hello, you must be the Westons? I’m Jacob Enapay with the Western Shipping company. Your uncle employed me to accompany you and the herd—pave the way for all your dealings.”
Will exchanged a handshake with the man and introduced himself and his sister.
Fiona raised her eyes to meet his and said, “Please to meet you.” She wanted to smile, but was too self-conscious. Enapay stepped forward to shake her hand unexpectedly, too, then pulled out a dining chair for her. No one had treated her so fittingly.
She noticed, but told herself, It’s his job. Enapay placed his leather hat on the table, then thought better, and moved it to the fourth chair brim down. He paid attention to little things.
As they sat down, he said, “I’m pleased to be attending your horses and aiding the quarantine arrangements for your herd and the sale.” He looked from Fiona to Will and back, speaking to both of them, not just Will. “Whatever I can do to make this journey and your business transaction successful, that’s my job.” He was all business, but relaxed and friendly.
Will, the gregarious, curious one of the two, asked the shipping agent, “So what kind of name is Enapay?” Fiona wondered too, but would never have inquired.
Sitting taller and stiffer, he said, “Enapay is Lakota, member of the Sioux tribe as you know it, native, here before the others. I grew up on a reservation in northeastern Colorado.”
Will simply said, “I see.”
Because Fiona didn’t know how to follow knowing his Lakota name, she changed the topic.
“We arrived in Oakland yesterday with the herd.”
Will followed. “We transported the horses to San Francisco today. After loading the horses onto ship tomorrow morning, we’ll be ready to sail.”
Enapay listened and replied. “That’s great. I’ll help with the transfer tomorrow.”
Directing his gaze to Fiona, he said, “Hank Best is a tough, but reasonable shipmaster. Fair warning, however, he won’t be happy to have a woman sail on his ship.”
Fiona bristled. “I know how to handle myself.” She did not know if Enapay was concerned about her welfare or his convenience. One thing was sure: a man’s voice, hands, the candor of his gray eyes had not affected her like his.
Enapay changed the subject. “Who’ll be handling the sale?”
Fiona spoke authoritatively. “I will.”
Will added, “I’m along to serve as her protector against loathsome sailors.” He laughed. “My sister here, she is the best horse handler and deal cutter I know.”
“Between the three of us, the sailing should be easy—so to speak,” Enapay said.