The 40-Year Novel, or 5 Rules for Writers

(Awkward photo of Arabus’s first cover created by Solstice)

Arabus Drake came to me in a dream in March 1983. I remember distinctly. It was two months after my youngest was born, right around the time I had my tubes tied. Now knowing I would have no more than three children, I gave birth to a vampire. The dream was a love story with me falling for this handsome and incredibly sensual guy who then latches onto my neck and stays there, It was a brief dream, so brief, really, but so vivid. I can remember it even today. I felt he looked Greek, much like Armand Assante, who’s actually Italian. I wasn’t a big fan of Armand at the time, or of the Greeks, but somehow that’s the idea I got.

So I started researching Greek vampirism to develop who he was/is. I still have a folder of all my early research, and once gave a presentation but without PowerPoint. I should have used photos. Anyway, I began crafting short stories. The first was contemporary, set in a hospital because, you know, I didn’t want him to be a total villain. And no, I never heard of Anne Rice to that date. At least, I know I didn’t set out to consciously imitate her.

Of course, in 1983 I’ve got three kids to raise, and in 1984 helped form a local theater group. So these stories were spare time things. I also helped out when needed at my husband’s family’s golf course. All my writing throughout my life have been when and as I could fit them in. The first short story I ever wrote was while working a temp clerical job where I had nothing to do but answer phones. That was a short thriller before Arabus was born, and has never been published. I got an Alfred Hitchcock magazine and though “I can write better than this.”

If you’re looking for writing lessons learned, #1 — unless you can dedicate your entire 12-hour day to your art, expect it to take time. Unless you’re a born natural. Some are. I’m not. I hoped I was, of course. We all do.

I think the first fully fleshed out short story must have been “Reawakened,” the first short story in Journal of an Undead: Love Stories. I’ll tell you why I think so in a minute. But you have to have a character’s back story so you can fully flesh out his undeath, or so I figured. From there other stories rapidly developed and I really can’t say now in what order. I do remember working on his Vietnam story while taking a college history class on Vietnam.

Finally, though, I had the five stories put together in the first marketable edition of Journal of an Undead in 1993. Only ten years later, right? But in the meantime, I had been sending short stories out to magazines. I remember a magazine that focused on vampires — she was so incensed by my vampire breaking rules like not sleeping in coffins at night that she told me never to send mine again.

And then there was Anne Rice. Yeah, she finally became famous after I started working on mine. So then I became frightened that I was going to be called a copy. But there have been so many “copies” since that now I don’t worry. For one, I know there are no similarities, although mine is meant to be a sympathetic, anti-hero kind of guy. A guy you love to hate, or hate to love.

In 1994 I got the dream response. Llewellyn Publishers wanted to see the full novel. I was over the roof! They were and still are big publishers in the “new age” world and do very little fiction. Their first response to the book was that it was too short, to add another 100 pages. Good idea! That helped a lot. I then waited a month for that big contract to come, and finally asked if they received it okay. I got a rejection a week later.

A week later, a form rejection!? After all that? I was so devastated that I wrote a short writing essay, “Patience is Hell,” only a week later. In ten minutes. Sold it for $72. Best money I ever made. (I’ll have to share it here next time.)

Llewellyn did send me a number of comments because I asked why. (Never ask why is #2: I did that second time later and was told they didn’t like my writing.) One of the reviewers said it seemed I was channeling an aged spirit and that I was “not a capable writer for this kind of material. Not capable. That has stuck with me ever since.

Around this same time, however, I’d gotten David Dortort’s response to my Bonanza writing. I started those short stories in 1992 and it helped me stop smoking. I also did tons of research on those, so that became the focus of my work, with “Felling of the Sons,” my first published novel once David authorized me. He was the series creator and I got to meet him in person in 1996 (I’ll post that on my Facebook Cartwright page). I also, still with various part-time jobs, went back to college. I had one year in back in 1972, for acting. Thought maybe, with Llewellyn’s at first encouragement, that I could get some kind of writing degree. That quickly changed to history but it took me until 2000 to earn it.

I also started writing “Bloodlove,” a contemporary full romance novel with Arabus and Keri, who’s name was destined to change multiple times throughout (I’ve finally settled on Theodora Louise), and culminated in Journal of an Undead: Climax, now in submission. Rule #3 – Don’t let rejection stop you, unless you expected to be one of those immediate great writers.

In 1999 I got an agent for my Bonanza novel, through sheer luck; she’d taken over an office of a publisher I’d queried. She asked to represent me and queried everyone. But there had been a series of Bonanza books by “Stephen Calder” that didn’t sell well. Calder was actually the made-up name of two guys who wrote westerns, but if they saw more than two episodes, I’d be surprised. I lived the series. I raised my kids the Cartwright way.

But another Bonanza novel on a bookstore shelf? Wasn’t going to happen. So finally we put it with a small publisher in 2001, who actually went out of business when I pulled the novel in 2004 because he didn’t get it at Amazon. I did get my brief moment of mention in the 2003 Writers Market, though.

Anyway, the agent, Claudia, also agreed to start shopping “Journal of an Undead.” She shared the responses she got with me. Most made it sound like they were expecting a zombie novel. That’s when I decided to start toying with the title. I also asked Claudia what she thought of turning him into a first-person adventure. While doing that, I also penned my first movie script, “The Becoming,” and that won me a trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Oh, not because the script was good. No, the contest promoter thought I might know French. It was not a place to promote a script, and he nearly didn’t get us those insider tickets. I remember sitting there, watching him argue with the Cannes admission person. Kind of embarrassing, because he kept pointing at me, like I was dying of cancer or something.

But writing the script made the book better. Writing him in first person gave him more character, and gave me more insight. Then in BloodLove I developed TWO first-person voices. I thought that was a cool idea. For a while.

After the agent backed out, refusing to take on anything else of mine, I submitted this title, whatever it was then, with Arabus in first person. I got some interest, some contracts but none were any good. I like to tell people I’ve turned down more contracts than I’ve accepted.

In the meantime, of course, I had other things going on. My kids were graduating high school. I helped them move wherever they were going. In 2004 I decided to go on for my master’s in history because I hadn’t yet learned to be a great researcher, which I needed for my blossoming non-fiction work.

Rule #4 – life does not stop because you’re a writer, no matter how much you might wish it did. You do just keep getting older.

I can’t remember which publisher it was, but I was told to remove the alien story in Journal of an Undead because it was “too out there” for the real-feeling novel. So I did, and made that is the stand alone of the trilogy that I had published. I replaced the alien story with the Hollywood Depression story that actually leads well into Climax and gives this novel a good conclusion of its own.

But still no contract. By about 2010, I went back to the third person voice of Arabus, and removed the other first person voice. Yeah, I went from third person to first person and then back to third person again. I did that because I told was that I was using too much “inner dialog.” But that helped turn him into a more sympathetic and understandable undead in third person, so I don’t regret it.

So even though this trilogy is 40 years in the making, it was not with an exclusive approach. In fact, it seemed I needed to become “capable” of pulling something like this off.

Anyway, in 2016, I finally accepted a contract on Adventures in Death & Romance from Solstice. They didn’t pay much royalty for the print copy but I felt they were good at marketing. I was wrong, also about it being a paranormal romance. I was given NO say on the cover. I was given a stock photo and pretended to like it. When I saw another book with the same cover I told them to let my son Adam add the flower, which is part of what I wanted in my idea. So they allowed that.

But sales were dismal. In part, I had a hard time promoting it because they screwed up the cover, making “Vrykolakas Tales” the featured part of the title. You can’t get Word of Mouth on a word they can’t pronounce. I was hoping they’d suggest a different title, but they didn’t. They gave me an editor to work with who “doesn’t like this kind of material.” Whatever that meant.

So after three lousy years, I told them I wasn’t renewing the contract, and got the rights back. Rule #5 is make sure you can get the rights back! I had, in the meantime, found a previous edit I’d lost, and decided to rework that one instead. I also had finished Climax and wanted to weave it a little more into Love Stories.

But few publishers consider a previously published novel, especially one that’s not exactly straight genre.

Also in the meantime I took a dream trip to Crete and stood on the very shore where Arabus met the last love of his mortal life, the reason he became undead. So here I am and here it is: Journal of an Undead: Love Stories is now available for purchase and I hope it becomes a permanent part of your library.





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