Knowing When You’re Ready to Submit: Q&A with Adela Crandell Durkee

Image: Adela Crandell Durkee

In this interview, author Adela Crandell Durkee discusses what brought her to book-length writing in the adult years, how she knew when she was ready to begin submitting her fiction, what she does to trick herself into writing when she doesn’t really feel like it, and why she opted to self-publish a novel that had at one time been under consideration with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Adela Crandell Durkee (@Blacktortoise) is the author of A Ship of Pearl and The Fable of Little Tzurie. She comes from a family of storytellers. Being a little more introverted, Adela puts pen to paper. First published at the age of eight in the “Flint Journal,” she is still thrilled by seeing her words in print. She lives in rural Illinois with her husband George. Within driving distance are her four children, twelve grandchildren, and the exciting city of Chicago. Add her vegetable and water garden in the backyard and two cats on the balcony, and Adela says she has it all.

5 on Writing

KRISTEN TSETSI: You say in an interview conducted by Helene T. Stelian that you learned the value of words and story young—from your mom, who taught you that you “could learn anything by opening a book,” and from your dad, who “could make a game out of any work by telling a story.” As a child, you say in the interview, you’d listen to friends of the family tell stories, and later, you’d tell stories to your own kids on long car rides.

Before writing your first book, you’d done plenty of writing as part of your college studies as well as in short story form. So, not much of what it takes to write was new or a mystery to you; however, writing—as an adult woman with grandchildren—from the point of view of a little boy, A Ship of Pearl’s Eldie Craine, must have required some creative shape-shifting. What did you have to consider when writing through Eldie’s eyes, and in what moments of his did you find yourself having to be reminded, “Right. He’s a little boy. He’d do [this] rather than [that]”?

ADELA CRANDELL DURKEE: In some ways, having a boy as the main character freed me up a bit to “become” someone different.

The first challenge I faced was getting back to a time when children were a lot more innocent than they are today. Eldie is twelve. Today’s twelve-year-olds are a lot more worldly than they were in the 1930s. YouTube, 24-hour news channels, cable television, and even the way schoolbooks include cultural diversity allow today’s children to sample way beyond their backyards.

Not so for Eldie. He had limited reading material, the radio, and a fairly homogeneous neighborhood.

By the time I wrote A Ship of Pearl, I had raised two sons, spent a career in a male-dominated industry, and had a handful of grandsons. All of that told me that feelings are universal, no matter what sex, but some things are different.

I was lucky to have a few grandsons in Little League, so I spent some time observing how boys relate to each other. I took photos of eyes, ears, noses, hands, hair whorls, to keep me grounded in little-boy-land.

Boys are much more physical in the way they relate to each other; girls have a lot to say. Eldie keeps a lot of his feelings inside. Boys bump into each other, try to trip each other, jump on each other, and constantly tussle physically. Also, boys like to challenge each other. One of my male readers related to the way Ephraim attracted Eldie to his adventures. The temptation of “playing too close to the flame” is irresistible for most twelve-year old boys.

Twelve is just the right age for falling in love for the first time, no matter what decade or sex. The feeling is universal, but boys and girls have a different physical response. I really wanted to get that part right. So, of course I asked a lot of men, “What was it like the first time you fell in love?”

Universally, I got this: A hangdog look, a long sigh, and one-word response: “Confusing.”

I wish that at least one man had been a bit wordier with their response.

All that rough and tumble energy Eldie has with his brothers, and Ephraim has nowhere to go when he’s with Cecilea… Showing, rather than tellingthat piece was my biggest challenge.

There are people who know what they want to do from the time they’re in high school, or younger, and they make a life of it. There are also those who find their direction in college and follow a linear road, professionally, until the day they retire. Others are happy to bounce around, exploring various interests and moving onto something new when interests change or opportunity arises.

How big of a deal—or not—was it to you to have taken a turn into a writing career at what we call “mid-life,” a time when many who have been writing up to that point consider—at least once—giving it up if they haven’t reached a certain level of the kind of success they were striving for?

Well, I always envied those people who knew exactly what they wanted to do, stuck to that dream, and accomplished it. My daughter-in-law is like that. She always knew she wanted to be a flute player. Before she started school, she made flutes out of cardboard. She followed her dream and is a successful musician.

One day I stumbled upon Tim Minchin’s commencement address. His first of nine “lessons of life” starts with something like this:

You don’t have to have a dream. Work with pride on whatever is in front of you, and stay on the lookout for the next shiny thing.

It’s never been that big a deal for me to follow the next “shiny thing.” Somehow, Minchin’s speech gave me permission to be comfortable with being a dream-wanderer.

I always enjoyed writing and telling stories. Lots of times, a friend would tell me, “You ought to write a book.” A book seemed so big. I was comfortable with a short story, but a book? Wow, that’s big.

So, I decided to go back to school and work a little on the mechanics of book writing. And I attended and still do attend conferences. I figured that when I retired, I’d be all ready to write a book. The Great Recession changed that. I became “retired” ahead of my own plan.

I began writing in earnest when the pharmaceutical company I worked at closed. My daughter clipped an ad for a local newspaper looking for writers. I ended up writing human interest stories for two different local newspapers.

Oh my gosh! What a lot of fun. I never knew writing could be so much fun. I went to events I wouldn’t otherwise attend, I met all sorts of people, and I learned a ton. All of that became character studies, scenes, and background for fiction.

I may never become a millionaire through my writing, but it makes me richer every time I put fingers to keyboard.

A Ship of Pearl was under consideration with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt before you decided to self-publish. Many writers struggle with feeling “good enough” at what they do (imposter syndrome or something else). Many are even hesitant to call themselves “writers” until X or Y happens—until they’re published, until they win an award, until the right person tells them they’re good and should keep on, or until they’re doing it or have done it professionally.

What are your thoughts on writer’s block? Have you ever experienced it?

I’ve had a lot of problems with procrastination, but never writer’s block. Usually, when I’m writing, I think of more things to write. That can be overwhelming. But I’ve learned to jot ideas down for another time, so I can clear the space for the project I’m working on.

When I’m procrastinating, I try and trick myself into writing for just five minutes. Usually, I look up an hour later.

Right now I’m working on my next novel with the working title, May His Tribe Increase. Characters wake me up in the middle of the night. It seems like every day I hear some historical information from the time period of the book. I must carry a notepad to catch my thoughts.

When/how did you know your writing was good enough to submit it to literary agents?

Oh my, there’s so much to unpack in this question.

Two things happened that gave me confidence in my writing. Both of them came from writing my blog, “Once a Little Girl.”

I started writing “Once a Little Girl” as a warmup for working on my novel, just something to get my mind in a creative place. A friend told me about I managed to get a couple blog posts syndicated there, and when the conference came to Chicago, I decided to go and find out more about blogging.

Yup, there I was, blogging away, and just picking up skills along the way. I thought maybe my grandchildren might read my blog someday, and here there were people from other continents reading about my childhood. Say what?

Anyway, I visited the BlogHer technical support booth for a question about website badges. I didn’t even have the technical chops to explain my problem to the puzzled tech support team, so I said, “Maybe I’ll just show you what I mean,” and I pulled up my site.

The woman looked at me, and said, “You’re ‘Once a Little Girl?’ Hey, Amy, this is ‘Once a Little Girl.’ Hey, Gloria, this is ‘Once a Little Girl.’ Oh my gosh, I read everything you write. I wanted your Mother’s Day piece nominated for Blogger of the Year.”

Needless to say, I was in happy-tears town.

Then there was the encouragement from a man I sometimes call Mr. Dictionary.

His real name is Steve Klienedler, and you may have heard his voice on NPR. He’s the executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. I’ve known Steve since he was a child. He lived next door to my sister. When we visited, Steve liked to show my sons his pet rabbits. We connected years later through Facebook, and unbeknownst to me, he started reading my blog.

After a post about 4th of July, Steve contacted me and let me know that when I was ready to have someone look at my book, he’d get it to someone at Houghton Mifflin, where he worked.

Another happy-tears-town visit.

Eventually, I showed a chapter of my book to some editors at a Write to Publish conference. (A friend had talked me into going with her. I’d never shown my work to editors.) Three out of four really liked the first chapter. The fourth hated it. I am so happy I didn’t see her first, because her comments would have crushed me.

As it happened, I realized that not everyone will be in the market for the same things. The editor of Harvest Press asked to see the entire manuscript. My novel eventually made it to a senior editor before rejection.

Can you tell that I’m a big believer in serendipity?

What’s the most memorable rejection you’ve received as a writer, and what’s the most memorable acceptance (in whatever form acceptance takes for you)? How did each impact you as a writer as you moved forward from the respective reactions?

The rejection I remember most was from a LinkedIn group of bloggers. We each posted our URL and reviewed three blogs. One of the reviewers sent me a private message that went something like this:

I responded privately, so as not to humiliate you. Your blog is trivial and mundane and has nothing to offer anyone.

Subsequently, another critique from someone who happened to write for The Atlantic suggested I turn my blog into a memoir. Invalidated and validated by the same writing.

You never know how your writing will impact someone. I try to treat criticism and compliments the same way I approach shopping for clothes: Try things on, see what fits. Keep what works for you, and don’t buy what doesn’t. Maybe it fits, but it needs a little alteration.

Usually, I sit with a criticism for a few days and consider what might be underneath it all. With my first example of rejection, I started thinking about each story in a new way: why am I telling this memory? What do I want my reader to know? And I remind myself that not everyone will get the same thing out of the same passage.

5 on Publishing

At what moment in your pursuit of a traditional publisher did you decide to abandon that option and self-publish, instead?

At last, an easy question.

Once I got my manuscript in what I considered polished shape, I contacted Steve and asked him if he knew any editors. He put me in touch with one of the senior editors at HMH. I had no idea Steve would put me in touch with someone so high on the food chain. I really just wanted to hire someone to get an opinion.

The editor had encouraging words but said Pearl wasn’t quite right for their market. She asked to see other works in the future, so I sent her my Fable of Little Tzurie. She also liked that, but thought it too unconventional for HMH.

One editor took a look at my manuscript and proclaimed it “too literary” for her publisher. She passed.

I didn’t really understand what that meant or how it could be a detriment to be “too literary.” I didn’t set out with a genre in mind, so I had a little trouble understanding what genre my novel fit into.

When I found my editor, Lisa Romeo, I asked her about genre and literary fiction. She explained that A Ship of Pearl did fit into literary fiction, but that she thought it would have universal appeal. She cautioned me against labeling it as literary fiction because that would narrow the reading audience.

Lisa encouraged me to continue querying for a year and then consider self-publishing. She was confident that I’d find a publisher.

I followed her advice, set up a spreadsheet to track my responses, and soldiered on. I vowed to query 100 publishers before I gave up.

But, honestly, I didn’t have the stamina or the time, so I set my sail toward self-publishing.

I listened to several authors who had done one or the other or both. Some authors I listened to had traditional publishing contracts for their first books and decided to self-publish for their second.

Listening to the expertise of others is almost always a good idea. I attended more than a couple panel discussions on the pros and cons of different types of publishing, and I also considered hybrid publishing, something that is somewhat new.

In the end, I decided to self-publish, but to take a page from the hybrid publishing journal. I followed Guy Kawasaki’s book A.P.E. and hired a professional editor and an artist to do the cover design.

I learned from Guy that the cover should be very clear at a postage stamp sized version, because that’s how big it will be a lot of the time. I’ve seen many people pick A Ship of Pearl up, cradle it, and stroke the cover. Every time I see that, I remember the cover designer, Chad Green, asking me, “What emotion do you want the cover to evoke in the reader?” He sure did get it right.

As you can see, getting comfortable with self-publishing was an evolution for me, not a quick decision. Querying is not for the weak-hearted, but neither is self-publishing. It takes a lot of work.

People will still call self-publishing “vanity publishing,” or will at least assume it’s an exercise in vanity, an avenue a writer takes because (it’s assumed) the work isn’t good enough for a traditional publisher. What are your thoughts about this?

Well, there are a lot of poorly written books out there. Some of them are traditionally published. Some are bestsellers.

I think it’s important to have an editor and some honest beta readers. Those people will catch things that I am just too close to the work to see. I know what my characters are thinking and what motivates them, because I know them from the inside out, but a good editor will see where more explanation is required and where character tics are too repetitive. You can read it in almost every book’s author notes: a good editor is worth her weight in gold.

By the way, a panel member I once listened to—J.A. Konrath, I believe, at the BlogHer10 conference featuring “Book Bloggers: The Evolving Publishing Eco-system” with founder Kamy Wicoff—pointed out that in the “old days,” everyone paid to have their books published.

It was considered vain to expect payment up front. Early American authors paid to have their books published as an act of faith in their own writing.

I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

(Konrath has a lovely writers’ blog. And as a member of SheWrites, I’m familiar with Kamy’s mission to help writers navigate the publishing landscape. I highly recommend her site. It is chock-full of ever-evolving information. Plus, it’s a community of writers willing to help each other.)

I also found several sources that identified James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans) and Washington Irving among the early authors who financed their own publishing, limiting authorship to people of means until after 1825.

Benjamin Franklin was an exception, however. He was a printer, so he could print his own books at cost.

I also attended a Chicago Writers Association conference featuring the genre-bending author Clayton Smith. Clayton formed his own press, Dapper Press. He gave attendees lots of tips on how to get your self-published book in tip-top shape so that it’s indistinguishable from the big publishing house books.

I attended another conference by Northwestern University with a mix of traditionally published, small press, and self-published authors, and the consensus was that no matter what avenue an author takes, she must do most of the promotion work herself.

You’ve been featured as an author in a number of blog or website interviews and publications. Did these opportunities come to you, or did you have to seek them out?

If the latter, what was your process for finding interview/feature spots, and what would you say your acceptance/rejection rate was when reaching out to people?

For the most part, the opportunities come to me through networking. I love to interview other writers, so many times we exchange opportunities. I have approached a few myself and I have not yet been rejected.

I’ve done book signings in hamburger joints and beauty shops, too. I like to partner with organizations for fund-raisers and offer to visit book clubs. Book clubs are so much fun!

That said, it’s been hit or miss with libraries and bookstores. I just keep asking.

A Ship of Pearl is also an audiobook. From a business perspective, would you recommend others make their books available as audiobooks?

Yes, but this part I would not do myself.

I went to the sound studio while Bud Corley narrated the first three chapters. There’s a whole science behind getting the narration right. I was warned that there might be a few minor changes going from print to audio. For example, in the written text, Look is obviously the magazine. You can see it by the way the text appears. To make the audio clear, though, Bud read, “Look magazine.”

I would most definitely work with Bud and Pint Size Studio again. I especially liked that I got a chance to listen to each chapter and suggest changes in inflection and tone.

Are you going to pursue traditional publishing with future books, or are you happy self-publishing?

I will probably self-publish again. I liked the experience. I will also employ an editor and a cover designer like I did for A Ship of Pearl.

My next novel is a follow up, written with two voices, Eldie and his wife. I hope Bud will agree to narrate again, and if my voice is good enough, I’ll do the voice of Eldie’s wife.

Next time, I’ll also hire someone to promote my book. That part takes a lot of energy. I try to do one promotional activity a month. Getting out there and selling myself is really hard. Way harder for me than writing.

Thank you, Adela.

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