Reflections on The Writing Life

My 60-year odyssey with the written word

I’ve always believed in cause and effect. You've seen a leaf fall from a tree. Why? Because the wind blew it off. And what brought on the wind? It resulted from air moving into a warmer area from a cooler one. This variation in ground temperature came about from differences between land and lakes, mountains and valleys. These differences . . . well, you get the idea. You could trace it back to infinity, wherever that is, but in the end everything has a reason for happening, accidental though it may seem at the time.

A casual conversation with a fellow aviation cadet at Randolph Field in San Antonio during the summer of 1945 headed me down the road to life with the written word. I was a nineteen-year-old, barely shaving, who volunteered for the Army Air Corps on leaving high school in 1943. In mid-1945, I worked with a boy named Wolfson, who had spent a year at Yale before going into the service. He told me if he had it to do over again, he’d study journalism. Up to that point, all I ever thought about was flying airplanes, which, it turned out, I never did. The idea of going into journalism, though completely foreign, struck a chord with me. Maybe my mother was right. She always said if I were going to do anything, I’d have to use my head, because I didn’t like to get my hands dirty. How’s that for cause and effect?

As soon as I got my discharge at the end of the war, I entered the University of Tennessee with the intention of studying journalism, although UT had no courses in the subject at the time. But things happen. The following year, the executive editor of The Knoxville Journal took a year’s sabbatical to teach a sophomore reporting class, and I was on my way. I studied who, what, when, where, why and learned the hierarchy of news structure, funneling down the story from most to least important. It was heady stuff, and I found I was a natural at the game.

The university instituted a full journalism curriculum in time for my junior year. The editor returned to his job, and a few of us who had been in his class went to work for him as reporters. The Journal was a morning newspaper, meaning we could go to class during the day and work from late afternoon until the first edition was put to bed around 11 p.m.

I still have my first by-lined story. Are you ready for this? It described events at a Knoxville dog show. The by-line came because I put an imaginative twist in the lead paragraph. I wrote about a puppy that "might be called an ‘airedale’ after her hasty trip here by air yesterday from a Chicago kennel." Not exactly Pulitzer Prize copy, but it was an effort to find a "hook" in a story, something I continued as I pursued more feature articles.

The lure of fiction

As a newspaper reporter, I gave little thought to fiction until I picked up a couple of books by Horace McCoy. They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and No Pockets in a Shroud struck another chord. I had done occasional stints on the police beat, and these books were crime stories. I’ll admit, I’m a copycat. That’s how I developed my writing style, copying a pinch of this from one author and a dash of that from another, honing them into my own manner of expression. Reading those books tempted me to try my hand at crime fiction.

Between attending classes during the day and working at the newspaper at night, I somehow found time to sit at my Smith-Carona portable in a fraternity house basement and pound out a mystery novel. Time Waits for Murder ran 285 typewritten pages and told the story of a reporter helping solve a murder. I still have the manuscript. It’s not bad for a twenty-two-year-old neophyte reporter, but the Philadelphia editor I sent it to didn’t seem interested in cultivating the latent talent behind it. My first rejection.

While I finished work on my degree, and after graduation, I continued to work at The Journal, doing what I enjoyed most, searching out interesting stories to "featurize," to coin a word. I also got a taste of freelancing, selling a few things to markets like The Nashville Tennessean Sunday Magazine. Not quite The New Yorker, but a start.

In the fall of 1951, a nasty little event in Korea intervened. I went to Air Force Intelligence School in Denver prior to being called to active duty with the Air National Guard. Shortly thereafter, I was treated to a Pacific cruise to the Far East. While at Fifth Air Force Headquarters in Seoul, I took copious notes and made lots of observations that I might use later. I still have some of those yellowed old sheets. One positive thing that came out of it was an article on how a clandestine group of South Koreans, led by an Air Force intelligence agent, recovered a downed MIG-15 off the coast of North Korea. I sold the story to The American Legion Magazine. I still have one possibility to pursue from that period, a packet of letters home that I may serialize as an on-line blog.

When I came home from Korea, I married the girl who’d been waiting for me, acquired a full-size Royal typewriter, and sat down to write short stories. I took a course from Writer’s Digest and mailed out a steady stream, mostly to The Saturday Evening Post. One of the magazine’s popular features was a series of formulaic stories. They might be categorized as boy meets girl with a problem, boy has problem with girl, boy solves problem and gets girl. I tried my hand at the formula and garnered an envelope full of rejections. The nice editor who read them actually typed out short notes, which I found encouraging. At the conclusion of the WD course, I won twelfth place in their short short story contest. No cash, but a spiffy certificate.

When my wife came down with a severe case of pregnancy, I put the typewriter aside and went back to work as a newspaper reporter for The Nashville Banner. There I continued to dig out the unusual. I wrote a series of articles on juvenile delinquency. Reading them now, it sounds like nothing has changed in the intervening fifty years. I did another series on education when "why Johnny can’t read" was the mantra. I stayed in the Air National Guard and used that access to write articles after flying aboard the latest Air Force bombers, including the B-52. I flew a bomb run on Los Angeles after taking off from Fort Worth, TX, flying to Denver, up to the Canadian border in Idaho, then down the coast to Southern California. When we got back to Texas, I asked the pilot what we’d have done if we couldn’t land there. He said we had enough fuel to fly back to California.

While at The Banner, I began to work at magazine non-fiction in earnest. I knew I was good at it. Like any other form of writing, it took persistence. Find the right story, do the research, track down the right market. Then the newspaper powers that be put me on the copy desk, which was short-handed. I protested. I wanted to write. But since I knew grammar and was a good speller, I was doomed. When we’d hit a lull on the desk after a deadline, I rolled a sheet of copy paper into my typewriter and worked on freelance projects. The managing editor took offense at that. He soon invited me to go home and work. That sounds better than saying I was fired.

A run at freelancing full-time

I set up an office in the garage, which got me away from the kids’ noise. There were now three. I had saved enough money to keep us going for a while. I compiled a file drawer full of story ideas and research. I wound up selling several articles to magazines like Coronet, The American Legion Magazine, and church-affiliated publications. But none of them paid a lot, and it took several bucks to feed five, even in 1960. When my wife turned up pregnant for the fourth time, I knew I couldn’t make it on freelance income.

Cause and effect. This brought another major shift in my writing life. The Banner’s top editor, not the one who invited me to leave, recommended me to a public relations practitioner looking for an assistant. He had acquired the mayor of Nashville (this was before city-county consolidation) as a client and needed someone to handle the account. I frequented City Hall, conferring with various department heads, writing press releases. I also got a taste of scriptwriting when a TV station gave the mayor thirty minutes to play with. I wrote and directed the cameraman in producing documentaries on subjects like Travellers Rest, the restored historic home of Judge John Overton, Tennessee’s first Supreme Court Justice, advisor to Andrew Jackson, and founder of Memphis.

With these new writing styles under my belt, I encountered another turning point. My boss brought his son into the agency and let me go. Another ex-Banner reporter who did PR for the governor was about to take a job as executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. He asked if I would like to write speeches for the current occupant of the statehouse. Since he was a lame duck, it would be for only about six months. I took the job.

Magazines fascinated me. I had studied them with a fervor during my freelance days. When I ran across a copy of Atlanta Magazine, a slick paper monthly put out by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, I knew I was onto something. I drove to Atlanta and talked to the editor. Result: a strong desire to start a magazine for Nashville. I tried the Chamber of Commerce, but they weren’t interested. Ditto with a few potential investors. I decided to do it on my own. With no money.

The speechwriting job for the governor was a godsend. I worked under the main speechwriter and political advisor, who served as Commissioner of Revenue. My title was Information Officer, though I dished out no information about the department. The commissioner told me he didn’t care what I did as long as I got my speeches written. Most of my time was spent putting together the magazine. A friend agreed to be business manager, and a commercial artist with one of the religious publishing houses signed on as art director. I would be editor, publisher, and ad salesman. We put in $500 each and formed a corporation.

The miracle magazine

Looking at that first issue of Nashville Magazine, January 1963, I’m amazed at what we were able to accomplish with virtually nothing. I found a typesetter, an engraver, a printer, and a mailing service that agreed to swap advertising for part of their payment. Three former Banner colleagues, including Sports Editor Fred Russell, who regularly contributed to Saturday Evening Post, wrote articles gratis. A partner in a commercial art studio contributed an original painting of downtown Nashville for the cover. An ad agency bought the four-color back cover, and several civic-minded businesses bought ads to support the new venture. I wrote the lead article on the new mayor of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County, which had just been voted in by the people.

We were at least ten years ahead of our time. I brought in several ad salesmen over the next few years, but the job was always a hassle. We constantly fought to boost circulation, never getting much over 20,000. I struggled to keep the magazine alive for about six years, occasionally turning out many of the articles myself. My favorite chore was writing "Scene About Town," which, in copycat fashion, was modeled after The New Yorker’s "The Talk of the Town." We never had enough money to pay writers but got short stories from people like Dr. Alfred Leland Crabb, a popular historical novelist and retired professor of education, and Jesse Stuart, whose 1964 novel The Conversion of Buster Drumwright was a Book of the Month selection made into a movie.

When we finally reached the point that we owed the printer and other suppliers too much to keep going, I solicited the help of a close supporter who was head of PR for Life & Casualty Insurance Co. With his help, I sold L&C’s president, Guilford Dudley, a former ambassador and local civic leader, on the insurance company taking over the magazine.

I remained editor. We moved our offices into the L&C Tower, at the time Nashville’s tallest building, and beefed up the staff. They brought in a former weekly newspaper editor as business manager. It was fun for a few months, putting out a magazine with both money and an adequate staff. However, it soon became obvious the business manager wasn’t the man for the job. Since it was a crony appointment, I could do nothing about it.

Cause and effect. Time for another move. But before going on, let’s shift the chronology backward for a moment. Despite working untold hours on the magazine, during that period I got the bug to return to novel writing. I had long been a fan of the spy story. I came up with an idea for a Cold War plot in which the Russians devised a way to block our radars in Iran that constantly watched activities in the Soviet Union. A Vanderbilt professor who had defected from Romania possessed the only solution to thwart the Russians. And, of course, the Communists came after him. The manuscript stayed at Avon Books for six months before an editor sent it back, explaining he had been unable to sell his colleagues on publishing it. I made some revisions and tried a couple of more editors before giving up. Knowing what I know now, I should have kept sending it out.

But, back to the main plot. An old friend from Banner days now headed Nashville’s major advertising agency. He asked me to come to work in their creative department. The pay was great, the experience terrific. I learned the value of brevity. Short, pithy expressions, boiled down to the essence. Try writing billboard copy . . . thirty-second commercials . . . ad copy that dotes on white space. I learned to write on an entirely new level. I worked on ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, did TV commercials for Martha White Flour.

When the agency decided to add a public relations arm, I shifted to the PR side. I found myself writing manuals for an auto transmission service and handling news releases for a pest control company. But, alas, all good things come to an end. When the PR business began to head south, my position was eliminated. Now you know why I refer to my career path as twisting like a snake.

The twist that lasted the longest

It was major shift time again. I had been editing a bimonthly magazine for the Tennessee Association of Life Underwriters (TALU), a trade association for life and health insurance agents, general agents and managers. Their twice-retired executive secretary decided to retire again, and I was asked to take the job. I followed my "yes" with quick but intensive research on association management. I learned it was a growing profession that involved much more than what the secretary had been doing. Since TALU couldn’t pay me a living wage, I also signed on with the Tennessee Restaurant Association.

After the first year, a new TALU president took office, raised dues, and asked me to work fulltime for the association. It started a relationship that would last eighteen years. I became executive vice president, hired a staff, and moved into a new office. Over the years we doubled the membership and got involved in countless new projects. I continued putting out the magazine, ran annual conventions and numerous meetings, and earned the designation of Certified Association Executive from the American Society of Association Executives.

This was another fifty to sixty-hour-a-week job, and though I couldn't squeeze in more fiction writing at the moment, I was determined my time would come. When I was a couple of years past the sixty milestone, the association elected a president who did things of which I strongly disapproved. I started thinking it was time to move on. Since I had been investing in rental real estate for several years, I had built a small side income. The association provided money for an IRA but no pension. I announced my plan to retire on June 30, 1988 and said I planned to start writing novels. They asked me to stay on another year as a consultant at half salary, which worked out fine. It delayed going on Social Security for another year.

I had reached another shifting point. I finished my first modern era novel, Beware the Jabberwock, in 1990, the year I started drawing my Air Force pension. It became the first of a post-Cold War trilogy. I sent out a few queries and got an agent. The agent’s young assistant was enthusiastic about the manuscript. She began submitting it but got no immediate offers. Then she wrote that she was leaving the agency. When I called the principal agent, I was advised that she only handled non-fiction.

By that time I had finished the second of the trilogy, The Poksu Conspiracy, much of which took place in South Korea. My younger son was an Army officer who had married a Korean girl while stationed on the DMZ. In 1987, when he finished a tour on Okinawa with Special Forces, my wife and I joined him and his wife on a month-long jaunt about the Far East. We started in Seoul, a now bustling, modern city that hardly resembled the town I knew during the war. A lot of my ideas for the book came from that trip. I sent out queries again and got another agent. I knew from talking to him that he was an old guy (in those days I thought of eighty as old). He seemed to have no clue on how to use a pen or a telephone. When I got him on the phone, he would tell me how bad the market was. Toward the end of the year, I called and his partner advised me he had died. She was taking no new clients.

With another year past, I had finished the third book, Overture to Disaster. Out went the queries again. The Jay Garon Brooke Agency asked to see the manuscript. I knew this was John Grisham’s agent. When I received a contract, I figured I had it made. But the book ran some 600 typewritten pages. They wanted it cut. I slashed chapters and pages and paragraphs and words. They sent me the readers’ comments, which included mentions of "overwriting." I didn’t know what that meant. I had never taken a course in novel writing and, at this point, had read very little in the way of books on writing. Copycat that I am, I merely tried to emulate the kind of writing I had been reading all these years.

To shorten a long story, I submitted two more manuscripts to the agency and finally was told by a young assistant that all my stuff had been sitting on the shelf. He said he would bring it to Mr. Garon’s attention, but shortly after that, the venerable agent died. When a new agent took over, the first book I had sent them, Overture to Disaster, was finally submitted to Tor Books. I received a copy of the editor’s letter, which said it was "dated." The story involved former KGB agents leading a plot to fire mortar rounds loaded with nerve gas into the Fourth of July National Symphony concert crowd on the Mall behind the Capitol. Had it been marketed earlier, it might have come out around the time of the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway.

My next book went to the young Garon assistant, who had gone out on his own. I hope no agents read this, or they’ll probably avoid me like the plague. But the fact is, before the year was out, this agent died also.

Book seven, an adaptation of a true story, went to a couple of people who told me it was too traumatic to read. So I moved on. My wife had brain surgery to alleviate Parkinson’s Disease symptoms, but the procedure went awry, leaving her paralyzed from a subdural hematoma. After nearly two years in hospitals and nursing homes, she died following a bout with pneumonia. Several months later, I went on a Holy Land tour that led to my writing Secret of the Scroll.

The final shift to published author

This proved another major turning point. After some thirty queries, an agent wrote that she liked the plot and my writing, but the book needed some polishing before it would be ready for publication. She suggested I send it to a professional editor. The manuscript I got back from the editor was an eye-opener. It looked like a chicken with ink on its toenails had scratched the pages. She, too, basically liked my writing and thought I had a good story, but she pointed out all sorts of technical flaws I had committed. After much rewriting, the manuscript went back to the agent. Silence. A few months later, her husband called. He said she no longer handled fiction, but he had the manuscript. He was head of Durban House Publishing Co. and wanted to publish the book.

I didn’t know much about small presses except that many, this one in particular, didn’t pay advances. But after all the trauma of the past ten years, I was ready to see my work in print. The contract was for three books. I had already decided to write a series around my character, Greg McKenzie, and was working on Designed to Kill. It looked like a great opportunity. I was newly re-married, and my wife agreed.

Despite a lot of problems, such as the first three books now being out of print (though still available from a supply in my office), I gained a lot from the relationship. My editor, Bob Middlemiss, is a great teacher. I learned much from his edits. Each successive book took less editing, and he thought each was better than the last.

Deadly Illusions came out at the end of April 2005, completing my contract with Durban House. A neighbor gave me a suggestion that led to a fourth in the series, titled The Marathon Murders. When I finished it, I decided it was time to look for greener pastures. I soon learned that finding a new publisher for an old series was more difficult then finding one for a new series. However, I finally found a home at the new Night Shadows Press, which is publishing the new book in February 2008.

I am now about finished with the first book in a new series starring a new character, a Nashville PI who specializes in finding missing persons. That brings us up to date. Before concluding this glimpse into the writing life, however, I must comment on one aspect I had no inkling about until I approached the point of publication–marketing. For your books to be a success, people must read them. That means they have to sell. And these days, unless you’re on the bestseller lists, nobody will spend much time promoting sales except you, the author.

Before Secret of the Scroll came out, I took a crash course on book promotion. I started compiling a mailing list, set up my web site, arranged signings at local bookstores, looked for publicity opportunities in places like alumni association periodicals. On the Internet, I signed up for lists where I could promote my books, like All About Murder, DorothyL, Sisters in Crime Internet Chapter, Murder Must Advertise. I started attending book conferences and book fairs. During the months after the book came out, I did as many signings as I could around Tennessee and in neighboring states. My wife and I worked out a successful selling system. She stood at the bookstore entrance, handing out small promo folders (which now cover four books). When someone showed interest, she directed them to my signing table nearby.

Starting in January 2004 before Designed to Kill came out in March, I signed on with Patti Nunn’s Breakthrough Promotions to publicize my books. She got me dozens of radio interviews with stations around the country. She set up key book signings and arranged a few TV appearances. She also sent out scads of press releases and feelers for coverage in various media. One comment she passed along came from a woman at AARP’s Modern Maturity magazine. The woman told her they wouldn’t have anything in the magazine, but all the staff was enjoying reading the book.

After Deadly Illusions had been out nearly a year, with no new book in the pipeline, I stopped using Patti’s services. I continued to do lots of travel and several signings but slowed down in 2007. With The Marathon Murders on the docket, we're hitting the road again.

So what’s the bottom line for book marketing? It’s an absolute necessity to become a successful author, but it takes a toll on your writing time. Travel to conferences and signings can take days to weeks. You can spend hours on-line reading and posting to various lists. It becomes addictive.

Now that I’ve been involved in writing for sixty-plus years, what have I learned? Like my Aviation Cadet friend Wolfson, what if I could do it over again? What would I change? I would do a few things differently. I would take a formal course in novel writing early on, and I would read books on mystery writing much sooner in my career. Also, I would be more persistent in sending out those first manuscripts.

The main thing I have learned is that your writing improves the more you write. Second, you need to read, read, read good writers in the fields you plan to write in. Don’t worry about developing your individual style. Just keep writing and you’ll gravitate to what feels natural. Don’t expect instant success, or even quick success. If it happens, feel blessed. If it doesn’t, keep trying. Persistence pays. That’s the one point I can clearly prove by example.

Reflecting back on my sixty-year odyssey, it’s been a blast. I’d do a few things differently, but overall I wouldn’t change the course. If writing is in your blood, regardless of all else, you write.

© 2008 Chester D. Campbell