Make It New: Guest Post by Ann Chandonnet

Write what interests you. I never seem to be interested in what others think I should be writing—say, a series of Jean Auel-like novels about prehistoric Athabascans.

Success can trap you. If you decide to create a series in which each title contains a different color, number, or letter, bad things happen. I was reminded of this when I learned that I needed to remove 20,000 words from “Write Quick” manuscript. This put me in a tizzy, and a couple of sleepless nights later I went to the library to borrow books to relax me.

I was trying to find some light reading, to get my mind off my revising deadline and the fact that my sister-in-law had just been given two to three months to live. I’ve enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum detective novels in the past, so I picked up her latest, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. I knew I was in trouble when the dead chef’s surname was Chipotle.

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen turned out to be dishwater—warmed over. Boring, even though Plum’s Grandma Mazur was both packing a pistol and relishing a neighborhood flasher.

Next I turned to Dean Koontz’s Relentless. It has to be one of the worst novels ever written. I’ve read some bad stuff in the cause of amusement, but this was impossible.

Still seeking relief, I soldiered on. The third candidate, from an author unknown to me, was no better. I noticed that a barbecue contestant at Gooser Park had a canopy with the slogan The Bull Stops Here. I felt that should have been the title.

I’m afraid such junk is published when publishers rely on “proven” writers for their lists. Where are the independent publishers of yesteryear who were willing to take a chance on newcomers? Take a little risk? Be unpredictable?

I thank my lucky stars that there are still independent publishers out there who fall in love with originals like Blueberry Shoe and Two Old Women.

Back to the task at hand: Like John McPhee, I prefer to spend no more than four hours of any one day on writing and the rest on non-writing occupations such as cooking, quilting, exercising, weeding, and so forth. (McPhee favors tennis.) By going over chapters several times, trying to keep in my consciousness my publisher’s caution that I should include what was new and not hash over the same old known history available elsewhere, I was able to subtract 18,500 words from “Write Quick.”

Today, the final version was taken to Office Depot for a couple of hard copies. It is always such a pleasure to see a hard copy of a manuscript—clean face, all best-verb-and-tucker. I know there are months of work to go before I see the actual book. Still, a hard copy is still a benchmark of note.

Now I need to gather up all the illustrations, label them, check the required wording for credits for sources like the Maine Historical Society, and see what else my editor wants me to do.

I am so fortunate in my editor. I’ve worked with wonderful editors at the University of Fairbanks Press and Fodor’s. My current editor, Barbara Brannon, formerly edited books of Civil War letters for the University of South Carolina Press, and did graduate work at archives in New England.

Documents relating to infantrymen from Maine and Massachusetts have not remained in Maine and Massachusetts. For instance, the papers of one Maine officer are stored in California. The Internet has come to the rescue. I can go on-line and pore over hundreds of Civil War photographs in the collections of the Louisiana State Museum. I can read Civil War issues of the New York Times and other publications of the period. Twenty or 30 years ago, it was still necessary to physically travel to an archive, spend time there wearing white gloves and taking notes. Now entire rare books can be read on my computer screen without my spending money for gas and motels or worrying about the rigmarole of getting grants to fund research.

Today NPR ran a story about splendid new dormitories at Boston University, $13,000 a year. I hesitate to think what the tuition is! I was able to attend a state college where tuition was $200 a semester, drive back and forth from home, work part-time, prepare my own meals, sew my own wardrobe. After I had a graduate degree from Wisconsin, I took summer classes at BU once—driving back and forth.

I worry that college will become so expensive that only the wealthy can attend. I value the citizen writer, the citizen researcher. And I choose to write about the ordinary citizen.

Dear writers, Don’t be too swayed by the temptation of the profitable series. Make it new. Every day people die for lack of this.

Ann Chandonnet is the author of Gold Rush Grub: From Turpentine Stew to Hoochinoo, a food history published in paper and hard cover by the University of Alaska Press. She also writes children’s books, poetry, cookbooks, travel guides and nonfiction. She was a feature writer for The Anchorage Times (1982-1992) and for the Juneau Empire (1999-2002).

1 thought on “Make It New: Guest Post by Ann Chandonnet”

  1. A good reminder to be careful what we wish for. I think it's not so much that the series makes itself stale, but – as you point out – that everyone gets lazy when it's the name that sells instead of the product.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top