Becoming A Published Author
Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book
By Evan and Lois Swensen
Getting in Harness
I worked as a journalist for almost three decades before writing a book— my first—for Publication Consultants. What took me so long? My nine-to-five job, of course. It’s hard to find the time, let alone the creative stamina necessary to embark on a project as complex as a chapter book when you’re reporting and writing news stories five days a week.
Unlike most of my colleagues at the Detroit Free Press, I was self-taught. I earned my spurs the hard way, in a climb that started at the very bottom of the ladder, as a secretary/receptionist in the paper’s Features Department. In college, I had majored in English, and had stumbled into the news business by pure accident a month after I graduated. I like to say that I didn’t choose journalism—it chose me. I was utterly unfamiliar with the profession, so I had to start small.
Did I say I started small? My first assignment was to compile the paper’s weekly entertainment calendar—a list of hundreds of events with their corresponding dates, times, and admission prices—and I quickly learned the importance of fact checking. It was Journalism 101, to be sure, but it was new to me, and I considered it a challenge.
Soon, I was writing one- and two-paragraph items for Detroit, the paper’s glossy Sunday magazine. I cut my teeth at the magazine, graduating incrementally to longer and longer and more and more complex pieces, all the while struggling to write well with as much grace and proficiency as my more experienced colleagues. I struggled mightily, sweating blood over every story, searching for the right “lead” or first several paragraphs, paging through the thesaurus for snappy verbs, grasping for transitions until through dumb luck or sheer doggedness I would finally hit on le mot juste. Writing was hell, but it was so satisfying to finish a story, knowing that I had given shape to my thoughts to the best of my ability. I persevered and, lo and behold, over time—a very long time—I became a solid and versatile writer. And I had an idea for a chapter book (a book for young readers).
The idea germinated in 1999 on a trip to Alaska—my first—to cover the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for Yak’s Corner, the paper’s weekly news magazine for kids. Five years earlier, after 23 years of reporting and writing for virtually every department at the newspaper, I had shifted gears to become the Yak’s lead writer, confounding my colleagues. I decided to write for kids in elementary school—50,000 of them in Detroit Public Schools alone—many lacking quality reading materials at home. It was an intuitive leap that turned out to be the right one for me, and I have never looked back.
Would I have written a book had I not made that leap? I have no idea, but writing for Yak’s Corner definitely helped me to find my “voice” and unleashed my creativity with the intensity of a tropical storm in a rainforest. I reached into the rich well of my childhood and even into my emotional and spiritual lives and found freedom and authenticity. I reached deep in Alaska, where I stopped at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla and first heard about the dog who—I’m aware that I’m anthropomorphizing by using “who” instead of “that”—would become the subject of my book.
Balto was the lead sled dog on the final leg of a 1925 life-saving relay to carry serum from Fairbanks to Nome to save the town’s children from diphtheria. The serum run is regarded as “the first Iditarod” and made the dog an overnight sensation—a BONEa fide international celebrity. After his death, Balto’s body had been stuffed and mounted. But where was Balto’s mount now? Not at Iditarod headquarters, where the mount of Togo, another famous Alaska sled dog, resided in a glass case. I asked about that and, upon learning that Balto’s mount was in Cleveland, I decided to write a Yak story about Balto when I got home. The staff member who divulged this great secret had no idea how the mount had ended up in Cleveland. I would find out. Curiosity is a major ingredient of nonfiction writing—perhaps the most important ingredient.
Back in Detroit, I called the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and talked to Steve Misencik, an exhibits designer and fount of Balto esoterica. The museum displayed the mount every winter, around the time of the Iditarod. Thanks to Steve, the display had grown every year to include more and more information and artifacts. Steve’s enthusiasm ignited mine and I ended up writing not one, but two stories about Balto. Yet, after they were published, I couldn’t let the dog go—which isn’t at all like me. Typically, when I finish writing a story, I move on to something else that strikes my fancy. But now, my interest was piqued: I daydreamed about visiting the museum’s Balto archives to learn more. A few months later, at my own expense, I did, in hopes that I would find enough new and fascinating material for a book.
Steve recommended a wonderful B&B near the museum, where I ensconced myself for three days. We had a meal together and got to know each other. I immersed myself in countless old newspaper articles and other documents about Balto and his peripatetic life in both Alaska and the Lower 48. I also visited The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, which permitted me to dig through its numerous clippings about Balto. Best of all, Steve agreed to show me the mount, which was in storage at the time. The museum had taken good care of it and it was in excellent shape—and gorgeous! Balto’s once black fur had turned the color of mahogany, but it was still thick and glossy. The stuffed dog had poise and presence, exuding something of the old Balto magic, of his charisma and spirit. I was smitten and knew absolutely that I would write a book.
I realized I would need to do more research and I reveled in it, working at night and on weekends for several months before I was ready to write. I treated the book like an investigative project, searching high and low for snippets of new information. The University of Michigan library borrowed rare books for me from libraries in other states (including Alaska and Massachusetts) about the serum run; Siberian huskies; Leonhard Seppala, a musher famous in Alaska’s history and Balto’s owner; Togo, Seppala’s favorite dog, who was injured in the serum run; Roald Amundsen, the famous polar explorer, who knew Seppala and brought Balto’s vaudeville tour across the Lower 48 to a screeching halt; Sol Lesser, the Hollywood producer who leased the dogs and made a reenactment film of the serum run; and several other major and minor figures in Balto’s story. I even located Lesser’s son, Bud, in California, who, in his eighties, recalled the dogs visiting his elementary school and “feeling like a hero” because they belonged to his father.
The more I learned, the more ambitious the project became. I was no longer satisfied to focus solely on Balto; I wanted to place the hero dog within the context of his times, recreating the feel of the many U.S. cities he visited, including a burgeoning Los Angeles and Hollywood, and a New York City teeming with immigrants. It was the wild, jazzy, fun-filled Roaring Twenties. Flappers in short skirts kicked their legs and twirled the long strands of pearls they wore around their necks. The economy was booming—lots of people were making money and spending it on having fun. I wanted kids to learn about all that and one of my favorite periods in American history. I reported Balto’s story into the ground, accumulating a mountain of compelling information, much of it unknown to most Americans, about one of the world’s most famous dogs.
I was finally ready to write. I wrote all day Saturdays and Sundays, completing chapter after chapter until I crossed the finish line in a burst of exhaustion and elation, as if I had completed a marathon. In a way, I had. I was proud of my accomplishment, but I dreaded the even harder, perhaps impossible, job of finding a publisher. I sent the book to 10 New York publishers, thinking that because I wrote for one of the country’s largest newspapers and by this time had an impressive resume, someone would snap it up. After all, I was a published professional writer, not a beginner.
I was wrong. What I needed, I was told, was an agent—but, as it turned out, agents were even harder to find than publishers. Most agents didn’t even respond to my submissions. I ended up with a pile of rejection letters from publishers—several of them complimentary, but no one was “interested at this time.”
Then I had an idea: Why not create a Web site and post the book online? I was satisfied with the salary I made at the paper and didn’t need additional money. I wanted my book to be read by kids—hundreds of them, thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands had read my Yak stories; I wanted hundreds of thousands to read The Adventures of Balto: The Untold Story of Alaska’s Famous Iditarod Sled Dog.
So I hired a local Web designer, who created a charming and kid-friendly online home for the book. I commissioned an artist friend to paint a portrait of Balto, using several historic photos as references; we put the portrait on the book’s cover. I even had Balto postcards made up and mailed them to friends, announcing the site’s launch. The project was pure fun; still, I longed to find a “real” publisher. Finally, I did—Publication Consultants—and it was a perfect fit.
I had seen one of their books in Anchorage, eventually thought to call, and found myself chatting with Evan, who, of course, knew all about Balto and was familiar with the legendary serum run. Publication Consultants specialized in books about Alaska, and soon asked to publish my book. How simple! I wish I had thought of it earlier, but then I wouldn’t have launched my Web site, which had been another brand-new experience.
Evan and Lois did a lovely job of turning my digital book into paper. They used the same cover, and also were able to include six historic photos, which helped to bring Balto to life. I was thrilled to receive that first box of books; I buy replacement boxes regularly so that I always have copies on hand to give to new friends and acquaintances, especially kids and teachers. To me, being able to do that means a lot, though if lightning did strike someday and the book ended up on a best-seller list, I sure wouldn’t mind.
I am now officially retired, but still work for the paper part-time as a freelancer (on contract and still as Yak’s lead writer). I hope eventually to write another book and, thanks to my first publishing experience, have the confidence to jump right in, plug away, and complete it once I know in my heart that I have found the right subject. I like to try fiction. It might be something for kids, but it will probably be a book for adults. That’s the English major in me speaking; now, my journalist self is quite content to yak weekly during the school year at www.yakscorner.com and write occasional pieces for www.readthespirit.com, an interfaith religion and spirituality site.
I learned so much by writing that first book. For me, it embodied the maxim from the Tao Te Ching: “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” I took the first step toward a book—drove to Cleveland to research Balto—and then a second, and a third . . . and hundreds of small steps and reached my goal. I see now that writing a book with an introduction, 23 chapters, and an epilogue isn’t a lot different from writing 23 stories on the same subject—and I had had a lot of practice doing that, having produced numerous 24-page special projects for the Yak on presidential elections, foreign countries and more.
I think of my time spent writing Balto as a kind of Zen experience. I tried to stay in the moment—focus on the chapter I was working on and not worry about those that lay ahead. I dug deep in deciding how to start the story, and trusted my gut and intuition, as I do in writing for the newspaper. I did not write countless drafts. Instead, I wrote one, exactly as if I were writing for the paper, where deadlines make second and third drafts impossible. Instead, I worked on each chapter until I had it right, polishing sentences, deleting phrases, and inserting better ones; rewriting sections that felt flat until they sang to me. At night, I’d read aloud to my husband what I had written that day, so I could hear how the sentences sounded.
Perhaps I should have been a sculptor or a musician. I love tinkering with and reworking what I have written, leaving each chapter I’ve honed to the best of my ability and moving on to the next one—no second drafts for me.
There were magic moments here and there, times when a word or a phrase or a transition would jump onto my computer screen so unexpectedly that I felt as if Balto himself were helping me tell his story, like some canine angel with wings! I should stop here before I write something ridiculous, but I came to love that dog and his story, the conclusion of which brought tears to my eyes when I wrote it. That book is my little valentine to the universe, with a message for everyone—a message that I hope inspires readers of all ages.