The dark-haired kid in the back row raised his hand yet again. It was the third question that he had asked and the fifth one total that I had fielded from the sleepy-eyed, bored teenagers scattered throughout the small auditorium of my old high school. I scanned the sparse crowd looking for someone else, anyone else who might lob me a softball: “Who’s your favorite writer? “What’s your favorite book?” “Are you married?” Having no luck, I pointed at him, and he haughtily threw another query in my direction.
“Why did you opt to publish with an independent publisher as opposed to pursuing a more traditional publishing route?” he asked, and I could almost feel his classmates rolling their collective eyes (thankfully beating me to it).
I had expected this question—not from a smug sixteen-year-old, but I had expected it nonetheless. I thought back to a radio interview that my older brother had given when he signed a football scholarship with Troy State University in February of 1986. (I was three then.) While his teammates were heading to Middle Tennessee State, Auburn, and more well-known institutions, my brother was off to play quarterback for a Division II school that no one in Paris, Tennessee, could find on a map. After taking a swig from my water bottle and letting the silence settle over the disinterested crowd, I stole my brother’s answer: “Why did I go with them? Because they said ‘yes.’”
Like everyone who has ever put pen to paper, I have daydreamed about being the diamond in the rough—about creating something so brilliant, so earth-shattering that its light couldn’t be hidden. From Jack Kerouac retrieving a newspaper one early New York City morning to learn that On the Road was an overnight success, to Harper Lee becoming a bestseller ten years in the making, to whatever deal with Satan that Stephanie Meyer made—all writers dream of having their work ubiquitously accepted and spread across the globe like an epidemic.
And maybe it still happens that way for some people . . . but it didn’t happen that way for me.
I was lucky to have a book picked up by someone. I was fortunate that someone, anyone wanted to take a chance on a guy who had written for virtually no one—who held no journalism or creative writing degree, who had no literary agent, who worked in no field related to publishing or writing. Someone who was a no one from nowhere.
But it happened. Unexpectedly. Strangely. Perfectly.
This is the story of a story and how it went from a tangled mess to a little hardback book (one that is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books-A-Million, and online). This is written for the reader who dreams of being a writer and about what he or she can expect along the way—from the conception of the idea, to the preparation process, to the anticipation, to the actual delivery. It’s an uncertain process packed with anxiety, but the final product stands on its own and has already engendered a mountain’s worth of pride—just like I assume becoming a father does.
Question one from the little dark-haired brat in the back row had been: “When did you start writing?”
I answered truthfully yet boringly: “I have no idea.”
I gravitated towards writing, be it essay questions or book reports or scraps of throwaway fiction, from the time that I began formal schooling. I wrote humorous songs about my friends, filled old college biology notebooks with scribbled rough drafts of stories, and, when given the choice to attend academic seminars, I ultimately opted for those centering upon creative writing as opposed to those aligned with my chemistry major. (In my defense, the options were an exploration of Southern Literature or a lecture detailing fluid inclusions on interstellar foreign bodies. Albert Einstein would have become a Faulkner fan under similar circumstances.)
Somewhere in my (especially) angsty twenties while living in Nashville, I began tinkering with a novel about an (especially) angsty twenty-something-year-old who lived in Nashville—a novel that I insisted was not about me. I wrote it on napkins, envelopes, sloppy legal pads, and (when necessary) my own hands. It was revised and reedited, reordered and rehashed, and ultimately put on the back burner as I was convinced it was drivel. (Remember, it’s about angsty twenty-something-year-olds.)
When I moved to Washington, D.C., I decided that my hometown of Paris, Tennessee, needed to know all about what I was up to in the big city. I wrote three sample columns for my hometown paper and sent them to the editor, covering the disjointed topics of the Presidential Inauguration, Washington Nationals baseball, and jazz music. As expected, I heard nothing for two weeks. Fearing that I had accidentally sent them to the wrong recipient, I wrote back to find out if he had even reviewed them. He laughed and said that he loved them and that that the first one was slated to run later that day. I had never intended any of them to be published without extensive revising as I thought they were unrefined and unworthy of being printed. But I learned two valuable lessons immediately: Never submit anything that you can’t stand behind as it is, and you never know what an audience will latch on to.
I wrote for a year (fifty columns) and received $0 for my work. The paper was struggling financially at the time, and the editor was unable to pay me the standard column rate of $15 per week.
Next, I wrote for On Tap magazine in D.C. If you have no iPhone and are eating alone in D.C. at a bar that doesn’t have a TV, you might get a chance to read On Tap. I reviewed a couple of restaurants, a concert, and this garbage bar called “The Drawing Table”—an architecture-themed bar near the U Street corridor, combining the excitement of a T.G.I. Friday’s and a T-square. However, they paid me—$0.10 per word! But as Stephen King once said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
However, fifty dollars in my pocket was not going to pay the bills—electric, gas, phone, or otherwise. As another side hustle, I waited tables and worked as a bartender. This was around 2008 to 2012, when the recession, student loan debt, and gentrification created an interesting mix of employees for most D.C. establishments. In fact, at one point, five members of the wait staff in the dive bar at which I worked held Georgetown Law degrees.
Yet, restaurants create a unique environment—one that covers the socio-economic spectrum, from penny pinching owners, to resentful managers, to teenage hostesses, to migrant workers, to struggling college students, to city-natives, to hickish-transplants. During slow shifts, I would sometimes daydream about stories detailing the interconnectedness of restaurant employees—think ER mixed with silverware rolling.
Years later, I revised that idea, but instead of the faces of co-workers from years past, I thought of replacing them with animals. And any animal restaurant would have to employ raccoons as dishwashers with their penchant for submerging and soaking their food. From that simple idea, The Ringtails of Goodnight Road began.
Draft one took three weeks—from picturing two raccoons scrubbing away in the kitchen to 15,000 words with approximately forty characters. Convinced it was terrible, I tossed it in a drawer and “let it marinate” for a couple of months. In October of 2016, I took it back out and began the editing process. Details became clearer, pointless plot holes were filled, and the story actually worked. After several more drafts and hundreds of handwritten notes, I was able to say something that I had rarely said before in my creative writing “career”: “I’m done.”
So where does one go next when he or she has a complete manuscript but no institutional knowledge? Start at the top.
My little book was sent to the major leagues: Penguin, HarperCollins, Doubleday. I am still waiting on their rejection letters. I sent it to smaller places, ones that actually specialized in children’s books, some that even specialized in children’s books specifically about animals. Their rejection letters were friendly and encouraging. Finally though, after numerous slammed doors, I had a bite.
Mascot Books bills itself as an independent publisher. They publish unknown writers who have creditable work and who are marketable—but for a fee. It’s this last point that delegitimizes some works and some publishers. And it may delegitimize my little book for some readers. However, I have no desire to be the most interesting fifty-year-old at the cocktail party telling everyone about the great book that no publisher will take a chance on.
Over the winter and throughout the spring, Mascot’s publishing team worked with me to secure an illustrator and to further develop my story—just the way the big league publishers do. They helped me to identify markets in which it might be successful and ways to maximize sales. Throughout those months, the anticipation grew, and the project matured and began to take shape. Late at night, I would nervously fret over opening the first box of books to find the cover art smeared, the pages out of order, or glaring grammatical errors.
However, that didn’t happen. The book turned out just as I had envisioned it. Not ten fingers and ten toes, but 112 pages professionally and cleanly printed.
I am my writing’s worst critic, and I know this book is good. I would never send it to anyone or ask anyone in good faith to spend his or her money on it if it wasn’t. I’ve already spent my own money on it to see it come to life.
We’ll end where we began, with the obnoxious teenager on the back row, sitting in the same gum-littered seats in which I sat fifteen years ago.
“How long did it take you to go from signing your contract to having your book published?” he asked.
You already know my answer.
Dustin Summers serves locally as the Executive Director of the West Tennessee Physicians’ Alliance. He is a board member of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson Symphony. A native of Paris, Tennessee, The Ringtails of Goodnight Road and the Case of the Stolen Wind-O-Band-Go is his first book.
Photography by Kristina Only.