A few years ago, I wrote a historical novel called “Pointer’s War.” It is set in World War II in North Africa, Sicily, Germany and Russia. The folder I created on my desktop was labeled GAN, short for Great American Novel, mostly tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps also revealing my secret hopes for the book.
People ask me how I came up with the concept for the book. It started when I published a sailing yarn in a blog that was similar to my last two columns here. If you read it, you’ll know that we were caught up in a life-threatening storm at sea. I got a good response on the blog, including from my niece who, with a straight face, wondered if I made it out alive after reading the first half.
I tried a concept of the captain sailing through storms to Sicily where he’s pursued by mafia types who want to avenge the killing of their father in WWII by the father of my captain/hero.
Then I remembered that Lucky Luciano, the notorious mobster on whom the Godfather is partially based, had offered to help the U.S. Army by providing intel about his native Sicily. Luciano, who was in jail at the time, even offered to suit up and join the impending invasion. If they would just let him out of prison.
So, I had a concept. All I had to do was write it and get it published, and then fame, fortune and movie rights would follow. I did complete step one, but I came to learn that the publishing world is spectacularly, massively and utterly uninterested in new material from an unknown author.
As I completed the first draft, only one person had read it – my editor whose other job was being my wife. She liked it – thought it was great, in fact. We were on vacation with our friend Moffett and his wife, and I determined that I wanted him to read the draft. Everyone probably has a friend like Moffett. He’s the guy who will be brutally honest with you, and even seems to like delivering negative news.
“I’m gonna show it to Moffett,” I told my wife. “Are you sure you want to do that? You know how he is,” she cautioned.
After a couple of days when I’d seen him scowling over the manuscript sitting by the pool, I summoned the courage to ask him what he thought. “He glared at me and considered. “You know, Whittle, it’s … it’s not tedious.” “Did you hear that?” I exulted. “Moffett says it’s not tedious!”
It was time to descend on the publishing world. Step one: find an agent. After getting rejected dozens of times, I remembered Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump,” who was an acquaintance, so I reached out to him for help. He was gracious and explained that his longtime agent had recently died but the agent’s son had taken over and he would connect us. He warned that the fellow was a bit eccentric.
The agent started our conversation by telling me about his sci-fi novel that he thought was brilliant, but his own father wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. He went on to explain that the odds of me getting an agent, let alone a publisher, were somewhere south of winning the lottery.
If I still wanted to try, though, I could send him the first paragraph of my novel. The first paragraph? “Yes, I’ll be able to tell about everything from that,” he assured me.
I pretended that I didn’t understand and sent him the first chapter instead. After a week of crickets, I finally called him. “Who are you again?” he responded. I dropped Winston’s name to refresh his memory. “I told you to send the first paragraph. You don’t listen well, do you?”
I thought to tell him that he didn’t have to read beyond the first paragraph but bit my tongue. “It’s just not for me,” he averred. “Can you give me some feedback on why it’s not for you?” “Have you ever read Raymond [author of] ‘The Big Sleep’? What I want you to do is get that book and copy the entire thing down in longhand. That way, you’ll absorb what a great writer is trying to do.” The whole book? Longhand?
I bought the book and even copied down a few paragraphs, waiting to feel inspired. Chandler is the type of writer that will spend two pages describing a door knocker, which is not my style. Another dead end in the pursuit of glory. In the end, I self-published. The people who’ve read it, mostly friends and family, seem to really like it. I wouldn’t change a thing and I’d do it all over again. Except maybe copying down some of Chandler’s book. In fact, I did do it all over again with a second novel.
By the way, the movie rights are still available.
The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”