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My Long Road To Cretaceous Stones

Unless you are supernaturally gifted in your chosen artistic pursuit, the path to success can demand a long apprenticeship. I am certainly not a gifted writer, supernaturally or otherwise. The road to the publication of my just released fifth novel Cretaceous Stones has been a long, labyrinthine journey. My apprenticeship has been quite lengthy. Nearly 40 years of knocking around the fringes of the publishing biz, many of those years feeling like I was just beating my head against the wall. But looking back on it now, I wouldn't have it any other way. The journey has made me a better writer, storyteller, and publisher.

I have known I wanted to be a novelist since the tender age of eight, when I became enthralled with the original Hardy Boys mysteries. I devoured those books, getting lost in the adventures of amateur teenage sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy. Though I didn't recognize it at the time, those novels were teaching me about story structure and pacing and dialogue. I remember thinking that's what I wanted to do (write entertaining novels, not work as a detective). But I knew I was too young to write anything people would want to read. Oh, I dabbled in fiction writing through my childhood. But, as expected, it was all juvenile crap. Laughably amateurish. I was enthusiastic but unskilled. However, the fire to write stories burned like a bonfire within me.

Skip ahead 20 years to the early 1980s, when I decided to seriously pursue my dream of being a published novelist. I was working a demanding corporate job as a technical writer and playing in rock bands on weekends. I was single then, and even with the day job and rock "stardom" I had plenty of free time to work on my fiction writing. From 1981 to 1992, I wrote five long novels and 20 to 30 short stories. I submitted my work relentlessly and collected enough rejection slips to wallpaper my house several times over (unfortunately I'm not exaggerating). Most of the rejections were form letters. A scant few were encouraging and professional. Some were extremely harsh attacks. It was a discouraging decade of hard work and absolutely no return. I went through periods of deep depression, wondering if I was wasting my time and energy on a ridiculous dream. Years later, when things finally started happening for me, I realized the editors and literary agents had been right. My stories weren't ready for prime time. They weren't as good as I thought they were. My short fiction wasn't even good enough to interest non-paying small-press magazines. My five novel manuscripts suffered from every beginning writer mistake. The plots were hackneyed, the characters cardboard. My prose was overly purplish and melodramatic. I was disappointed and distraught, full of self-doubt. I also learned that the book publishing world was a deep murky ocean full of predatory sharks and grifters that preyed on unpublished writers. I was desperate and I naively paid two "literary agents" large sums to review my manuscripts and give me critical feedback. They took my money and I never heard from either of them. Expensive lesson learned. A few years later, I read that one of them ended up being successfully sued by a group of writers he had scammed. The '80s closed out with me having learned just how cutthroat competitive, potentially treacherous, and ultimately humbling the book publishing business could be.

I was down, but not out. I was determined to make it on some level even though my internal voice was getting louder, coaxing me to give up on my dream. But I kept at it, writing daily.

Those five novels that went absolutely nowhere are buried in a box at the back of my closet. I consider them my apprenticeship trunk novels. I occasionally take them out and read selected passages for a good chuckle (I can laugh about them now). They also boost my confidence in my current work as I see how much my storytelling has improved since then.

So from the disappointing '80s I rolled into the new decade. The 1990s brought big changes. I got married and started a family. I put my music on hold and in 1991 I joined my first writers group. Graphos was an established science fiction/fantasy/horror critique group. None of the members were published, but there were several very talented writers in the group. It was there that I really started learning how to write fiction. The objective critiques forced me to see where I was going wrong, and how to streamline and polish my work. And what I learned by critiquing other writers' work proved to be invaluable. Thanks to my fellow scribes, my stories improved in leaps and bounds. I started submitting to small press magazines. I was still getting rejection slips, but they were now more promising, editors telling me I came close and to send them something else. And then, late spring 1991, I made my first sale to a horror/dark fantasy magazine, Eldritch Tales. The editor sent me a contract and a $5 check for my story "Hobo Harvest." I was in heaven! I was finally going to be a published author. Somebody actually paid me money for one of my stories (how pathetic is that?) However, as happens in the business, my story sat in a queue at the magazine for years and never made it to print. Eldritch Tales closed its doors in 1995 taking my unpublished story with it. At least the editor didn't ask for his $5 back!

The Graphos writers group led to the formation of my speculative fiction magazine, Random Realities., an illustrated digest of short fiction that I launched in the summer of 1992. The premiere issue featured a short story from each Graphos member, including my first published story, an otherworldly science fiction piece titled "The Fjords of Vankosh." Random Realities taught me a great deal about the business end of publishing and brought me some valuable contacts in the industry. Shortly after our second issue came out, I made my first sale to a wide circulation, internationally distributed fantasy magazine, Strange Days. Editor Peter Bianca loved my story "Last Call" about a man who doesn't realize he's dead when he meets God in the back kitchen of an Atlanta bar. It was the lead story in the Spring 1993 issue of Strange Days, illustrated by David Grilla, an artist whose work I had admired for a while. And then, after the third issue of Random Realities came out in early summer 1993, we won the Best New Magazine award from the Small Press Writers & Artists Organization (SPWAO), and I was lucky enough to be named Best Small Press Magazine Editor that year. Things were finally starting to happen. I was asked to contribute a few of my stories to small press anthologies. My dark fantasy tales "Sin and Salvation" and "Wombstone" and "East of Hades" brought me a little money and some national prestige.

The Graphos writers group split up in late 1993 as writers groups tend to do. I kept on with Random Realities, publishing five more issues with a small volunteer staff. With the awards we had won and my appearances in a few anthologies, we were now getting hundreds of story submissions each month. I was working with some big-name small press writers and some amazing graphic artists. I signed up with two periodical distributors and issues #4 thru #8 shipped out to retail outlets across the U.S. I published two more of my stories, "Hologram Sam" and "Insomniacs Anonymous," both of which were hugely popular. "Insomniacs Anonymous" was originally purchased by Peter Bianca at Strange Days, but as luck would have it, that story suffered the same fate as my first sale . . . the magazine went out of business the issue before it was scheduled to be published.

All of the short stories mentioned in this blog are available in my collection, Daydreams and Night Screams.

I pulled the plug on Random Realities after the Fall 1995 issue came out. I loved the magazine, but it was taking up all my free time and the distributors were eating me alive with outrageous fees (I have learned that the real money in publishing is made at the distribution level). I was losing money with each issue. It was time to call it quits on magazine publishing. My son was 13, and I wanted to spend more time with him. He was into soccer and I coached his teams for two years. When he started playing varsity high school soccer, I became the team videographer. During the period of 1996 - 2006 I didn't do any writing. Nor did I play my guitar much. But I read voraciously and kept dreaming of becoming a published novelist.

Finally, in early 2007, my creative itch returned. I needed to scratch it. I started playing music again in an acoustic classic rock duo, The Jeffs. We played bars in and around Atlanta. I also started up a new writers group, The Fictioneers, and for the first time in 15 years, I began work on a novel. That writers group project became The Wisdom of Loons, my first published novel. I set up a challenge for myself with two goals in mind: 1) To write an entertaining story using just two point-of-view characters, and 2) To keep it under 300 pages. My oft-rejected novel manuscripts in the 1980s were bloated, overwritten affairs with large casts of characters, and I wanted to see if I could write sparingly and yet tell a completely fleshed-out story with well-defined characters. I workshopped Loons with my fellow Fictioneers, and they helped me fine-tune the narrative. During that time, I established Nightbird Publishing (are you seeing a trend here?), a name derived largely from my fascination with birds (did you know birds are the closest living relatives of the great dinosaurs that ruled our planet for millions of years?). In March 2009, The Wisdom of Loons was released in a deluxe trade paperback edition as the first book out of the Nightbird Publishing chute. I was finally a published novelist! Granted it was self-published, and I took a good bit of crap for it, but I didn't care. It sold well and garnered many positive reviews. I was proud of it, and still am. I did my first bookstore signings and book club appearances. Nightbird Publishing had landed on the literary map. From 2009 to 2012, we published other authors of some note (Heywood Gould, Toby Tate, Jedwin Smith, a multi-author anthology featuring some well-known published authors) as well as my second novel (my first hardcover, King of the Hobos).

So now here I am, 14 years down the road with Nightbird Publishing. My fifth novel Cretaceous Stones was released this month and I'm in the beginning stages of work on its sequel. I have worked hard and paid quite a few dues on this literary journey. Decades of dues in fact. My work has been praised and slammed; I have learned from both extremes. One thing that has changed big-time in the publishing world since Nightbird Publishing launched is that self-publishing no longer carries the stigma it did back in 2008. Today there are many self-published authors who are doing quite well and have legions of fans. Many very skilled storytellers have figured out there are advantages to "doing your own thing." When you consider the big publishing firms have consolidated into the Big Five Publishing Monopoly, it means thousands of talented writers with interesting and marketable stories to tell are shut out. All of you young writers who think you are not worthy if you have to resort to self-publishing, think again. I have learned that you can wait 10-15 years to be "discovered" by a top literary agent or big publisher. Why not get your stories out there now? But first make sure they are ready for public consumption. Join writers groups and workshop your fiction. Listen to all constructive criticism and learn from it. Join writers organizations. Network and make connections. Learn the business side of publishing. Read often and widely, even absorbing subject matter outside your interest areas. Write regularly and be self-disciplined. Remember that writing is rewriting and rewriting, and then rewriting some more until your prose has a polished rhythm to it. It's a ton of work. It's not easy, but very little that is worthwhile is.

I know I'll never be a famous, big-time, bestselling author, but that's okay with me. I am doing just fine. So is Nightbird Publishing. I love the autonomy self-publishing gives me. I have complete control over my story ideas, cover art and design, as well as book typesetting and layout. I love what I do. Every day when I sit at the keyboard and write, I learn something new about myself. I learn about the world. Each new day is an adventure in imagination. It's a gift that keeps on giving. I feel blessed. All I have to do is think back on my dark days of the 1980s to see how good I have it now. It's been a long trip to get to this point. If nothing else, novel writing is wonderful therapy. And we all need a good dose of therapy now and then. Don't we?

There is magic in the doing. Dare to dream and pursue your dream relentlessly. Make it happen. I have, and my dream pays wonderful dividends each and every day.

Thanks for spending some time with me!

Jeff Dennis

Loganville, Georgia

August 31, 2022

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