Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

An Inside Look at the Literary Life

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:58 AM

It’s a feeling that comes on, the way you can tell the night before that when you wake up tomorrow you’ll have a cold. Only it’s worse. It’s not a cold, it’s a book.

When one writes a book, the last thought that one has, right after the sign of relief that the damned thing is finally done, is the firm vow never to do such a foolish thing ever again.

But the pain wears off and the oath made to oneself fades, and the itch to write a book returns.

As it has now done, again, here.

So I’m poking around at an idea that has been simmering for a few months, and if the stars align just so, and God in His Heaven smiles down in more than mercy, at some distant time an actual physical book that more or less resembles what I dimly envision now will appear at our nation’s fine bookstores, perhaps prominently displayed on the remainder table at sale time.

But that is, as I said, a long time from now. Many things must precede that happy day.

It’s unlikely that you know how publishing a book works. With few exceptions, all of which are famous because they are so rare (which doesn’t stop any of us from thinking that our book is indeed that exception, the quick path from spark of inspiration to gala publication party to vast riches and a movie deal), the process is a little bit dreary and formulaic. It goes like this:

First, there’s an idea, beyond, “I think I’d like to write a book.” The writer, if he is meticulous, will write it down, even if it means dripping water all the way from the shower to the computer. (I should mention that the space between shower and computer is haunted by the thousands of perfectly turned phrases that disappeared forever during that most brief yet arduous of journeys.) If the idea, the conception, is really pouring forth, the writer has to sit there shivering until he runs (and drips) dry. The only time to capture the vision is when it is clear; it is not likely to return. Best to get it down at once, because for the next months it will be his minor religion. He must believe in it, because at least for awhile and maybe forever he will be its only adherent. If he is smart, he will convince himself that he is now mostly done, the rest being merely a matter of details.

Next comes the all-important task of surveying the available software to assist the writer in managing those details, the most time-consuming of which is writing the thing. After several days of frenzied activity the author has downloaded and configured every application that claims it will make book writing a breeze. It leads to a clear and sober conclusion: Book-writing, outlining, note-managing, and related software all still suck, just like last time. Only now they’ll load all your stuff to “the cloud,” where they might get stolen. This is usually the ultimate practical joke, if the thief believes they’re worth much or good for something.

(The exception in my view is the Basket Note Pads application, modestly improved over the many years I’ve used it — it was nearly perfect to begin with. It is the closest thing I’ve ever found to my all-time-favorite DOS application, the great InfoSelect. which hasn’t been as good in its various Windows iterations, not that I use that execrable desktop. I use Basket every day for . . . everything. And I always forget that it is good for bringing order from snippets, notes, pictures, and the other things I collect, like low-tide trash, during book preparation, so I always look at other writing applications before remembering that I already have the best, and it always forgives my waywardness. It has one critical shortcoming, though: It won’t write the book for me.)

Now it comes to the word processor. No, really. Book writing can be, often is, a combination of incredible boredom and intense pressure. Changing word processors can relieve both of these to some extent. This is added to the fact that I do not think there is a single good word processor published by anyone for any platform today.

Hear me out. Word processors deal in text. There’s nothing graphical about them. When you’re writing a big magazine piece or a book, your concentration must be on the placement of words in a particular order. The writing. It oughtn’t include how pretty they look on your screen. It oughtn’t include typeface or other doodads. Proportional spacing, kerning, paragraph spacing — these have nothing at all to do with writing. I’ve long wished for a proper text-mode word processor for Linux. There isn’t one. (Shut up, emacs people. Emacs is not a program, it is a cult. Emacs will one day be the lone approved program for those who spend eternity doing their writing while surrounded by flames and agonized screams.)

So it’s worthwhile to consider something like a great DOS word processor, run in a console window. You can get Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS for free from Microsoft. I run it here in a dosemu terminal and it works just fine. I’m actually considering doing the book work in the best word processor you’ve never heard of, Textra 7 for DOS. It, too, runs well under dosemu. Either of these allows undistracted writing, with a bit of a bonus: they don’t show niceties such as proportional spacing, so when you’re writing you get a much better sense of making progress. It also awakens the cool factor last experienced when writing on a computer at all seemed oh-so-modern. Think of it as steam punk word processing. Just remember to save your files in Rich-Text Format — .rtf — so that modern programs can read them. You’ll pull them into the modern word processor for formatting and printing (and dealing with edits and such if a miracle happens and some publisher buys the book). But it would be better if we had a native application.


Word for DOS continues to run just fine in DOSEMU long after Microsoft moved on to more crowded and less writing oriented designs. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

There are other preparations. My old friend, the late writer Anne Eaton, used to talk about how writers will do just about anything to avoid actual writing. “First, you vacuum the living room, then you make sure your paper is stacked perfectly. You sharpen all your pencils and place them on your desk aligned just right, then you call the neighbor to see if he has any pencils in need of sharpening . . .” Her description was spot on.

But there does come a time when writing must be undertaken. You might think, dear summer child, that it’s time now to write the book. Heavens, no! First there is the book proposal. It is what your agent sends to publishers to sell your book. The hope is that more than one publisher is interested, so there can be bidding for the book. No, that’s the dream. The hope is that any publisher shows any interest at all.

Here’s what’s in the book proposal: First there’s an opening section that covers a few topics, including a description of the book, why you expect it to sell, other books of the same genre and whether or not they sold, why you’re the person who should write it, and what you’re willing to do in order to sell it. This includes any favors you might pull in from other writers better known than you and people in the media who might contribute back-cover blurbs endorsing your book as something to which the Bible pales by comparison. Then there is an annotated outline of the book, with a paragraph summarizing the contents of each chapter. This is followed by one or more — typically three — sample chapters. These may or may not make it into the book if the book gets published. The proposal may include other things as well, such as whether there will be illustrations and if there are where they will come from and who will pay for them. There will be a page or two about the author, with an eye toward how unfortunate it is that you were not alive in the 16^th^ century forcing us to scrape by with Shakespeare instead. Remember to make sure it’s humbly written.

Once it is completed, you print it out and send it to your agent. Who will send it back, all marked up and with a few pages of questions you hoped you’d written around cleverly enough that no one would think to ask them, because you have no answers. You become angry, then morose, then, the next day or the day after, you put yourself to work making the changes and answering the questions, which takes a few very stressful days. You send your agent the new proposal. Which is itself returned all marked up after a week or two. This goes back and forth a few times until one happy day you receive your fourth or fifth version, all marked up, with a page of questions but beginning with “Almost done!”

You eagerly tie up the remaining loose ends and print out 20 or so copies of your ~50-page proposal as revised and ship them off to your agent, who has encouraged you with soothing words such as “I guess this will have to do,” punctuated with the kind of agently sigh that makes you wish you’d never learned the alphabet. Your agent can make the copies, but it’s cheaper to do it yourself.

Then you hear nothing. For weeks. Perhaps you have continued to write the book itself, which is a great way to pass the time but it doesn’t do much to advance the book, because should you get a publisher the publisher will have ideas of what the book should be. So you’ll probably have to throw it all away anyway.

If you are very lucky you will in fact get a deal. The advance will be far less than you anticipated; mental calculation leads to the estimate that you’d have made more money collecting roadside scrap metal. And you haven’t even written the book yet. There is no great signing ceremony — they mail the contract to you. The advance is based on performance, so you get a third of the check, minus your agent’s 15 percent, when you sign, another third halfway through, and the final installment when the thing is done. Not when you’re done writing but when you’ve finished all the revisions to the publisher’s satisfaction.

In due course the book is published to probably no fanfare. You’re expected to do everything you can to promote the book. The publisher might help, but it’s mostly on you. If you come to think of the publisher as the enemy, you’re not far off, but that’s like thinking of the train that hit you as the enemy — it doesn’t much care about you one way or the other.

You’ll receive your copies — six is the traditional number — and while you know what you’d do with a hundred of them, or one, six is a puzzle. You think that all of your friends are eager to read your work. They’re not. You give copies to your very best friends, who begin to avoid you lest you ask them what they thought of the book that they have not read and have no plans to read.

That’s, of course, unless at some point during the process the old and revered publishing house has gone out of business. You learn of this in a letter which tells you that you can keep the portion of the advance you were already paid and are free to sell the book to someone else, which you don’t because now nobody wants it.

It sounds far fetched, but it isn’t. It has happened, all these things have happened to me.

And still the urge returns.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

Share on:
Follow On:

Join the Conversation

1 comments posted so far.

Re: An Inside Look at the Literary Life

The writing process for a book reminds me a lot of the process when writing sermons. Obviously, the book writing process is a much larger single effort, but the things you describe sound so familiar!

Posted by Timothy Butler - Oct 27, 2021 | 12:08 PM

You need to be logged in if you wish to comment on this article. Sign in or sign up here.