In this age of short attention spans, someone who counts James Michener and Pat Conroy as his favorite authors should not write a novel. But I did and, to some dismay, did my best to imitate Michener and Conroy. At least in length!
To be fair, I never dreamed of writing novels, so never studied the right way to do it. Growing up, I wanted to write newspaper stories and nonfiction books.
In my junior year of high school, I wrote a book proposal for a yearly almanac about the pro tennis circuit and sent it to several publishing companies. It was good enough that one publisher requested a full outline and sample chapters. I sent them my best work and, fortunately, they rejected the proposal. Had they said yes, I would have been in way over my head.
It was a late spring or early summer afternoon in 1985 when the idea for a novel first came to me.
Watch the book trailer for Plowed Fields – Long Version – Short Version
As a young newspaper reporter, I had just competed my final report in an ongoing story about the removal from office of a controversial sheriff in middle Georgia. Several months earlier, the sheriff had suffered a stroke that left him bedridden and unable to perform his job. His supporters and detractors lined up in droves, staging pro and counter protests for and against him.
Driving home that day, I found myself intrigued by the rage and helplessness felt by both sides—the sheriff’s supporters and opponents. But it was the idea of people caught in the middle of something beyond their control that planted the seed for Plowed Fields.
That particular day was beautiful. Wild yellow buttercups and purple verbena dotted the shoulders of the rural two-lane highway, and the sky was unbelievable blue.
The idea for a novel literally assaulted me on that drive home. Caught up in the beauty of the landscape and the clarity of my thoughts, the plotline and characters simply revealed themselves and I felt compelled to capture the story.
As it happened, I stopped on the way home to buy my first of many U2 albums, The Unforgettable Fire, and listened to it later that night. The album’s first song made a reference to “ploughed fields,” and I had a title to go with the story.
On the following Saturday, I kissed my new wife goodbye as she left for work and planted myself at a desk in the spare bedroom of our townhouse in Dublin, Ga. In a red notebook, I outlined the story elements and created character sketches.
In the closet
A couple of months later, I accepted a job with United Press International in Atlanta, and Becky and I moved to a tiny one-bedroom apartment. My desk literally went into my closet, and it was there I spent the next two years writing essentially a glorified outline.
I remember feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I finished those 125 pages. Then, I read it and thought, “This is terrible.”
So I started over and spent the next eight years writing the story a second time. I finished in early 1995 and then took three more years rewriting and massaging it.
With my finished manuscript in hand, I began looking for an agent. In those days, snail mail was the preferred choice of agents and publishers.
I wrote countless query letters, addressed and stamped return envelopes and spent a small fortune in postage. I was lucky. Many agents asked to see sample chapters and several wanted to look at the entire book. More postage!
The majority of them said they loved the book but felt it would be an impossible sale in the current marketplace. Finally, though, one agent believed strongly enough in Plowed Fields to represent me on a provisional basis.
He shopped Plowed Fields to a New York publishing house—not one of the big six—but still very prominent and respected. An associate executive editor loved the book, asked multiple questions and discussed it long and hard with my agent. She told him I “certainly knew how to capture a time and place” and “had written a beautiful story.” In the end, however, she did not recommend it for publishing.
A tough sale then and now
Even now, I respect her reasoning. As she told my agent, I was an unpublished author with a thousand-page novel, not an inexpensive book to produce for any publisher. On top of that, Plowed Fields was literary fiction and a family saga, very tough sales in the marketplace, then and now. The clincher, however, was that it was a saga with a male protagonist, “the kind of book nobody reads.”
At that point, my agent encouraged me to send the book to small publishers. While he believed a small publisher would pick up the book quickly, he bowed out from representing me “because I can’t make enough money to justify my time.”
Hard to argue with that reasoning, and I didn’t. Neither did I heed his advice.
Instead, I set the book aside and plunged headlong into my career in corporate journalism. I was in my late thirties and had just accepted a job that required copious amounts of time and commitment. I loved the job, but Plowed Fields hovered in my thoughts over the next two decades.
When I retired at the end of 2016, I did not want to flitter away my days. I set specific goals to accomplish, including getting the novel published.
To make the book more attractive, I made a hard decision to cut part of the novel, axing about 200 pages. It felt like killing off a member of my family.
This is really not good marketing
About a year after I retired, a small Florida publisher took an active interest in the book and discussed publishing it—as both a full-length novel or as a trilogy. Once again, hopes soared that my efforts would come to fruition. Instead, the publisher decided to quit publishing fiction altogether, concluding the marketplace was just too risky to invest in novels.
I know, I know. This is not really a great marketing tagline: Plowed Fields, the novel that caused me to quit publishing!
Shortly after that rejection, I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and neck and began a tough time of treatment. Upon finishing treatment and recovering to the point where I felt human again, I decided to publish the novel and began working toward that goal.
On March 7, the book will publish. It follows almost to a word the initial outline created in that red notebook in 1985.
If you’ve made it this far , you’re probably thinking, “No wonder he wrote an 800-page novel.” Hang in there for a few more paragraphs.
About Plowed Fields
Plowed Fields is a family saga set on a South Georgia tobacco farm between 1960 and 1970. l describe it as a family coming of age story. The book contains some of the usual suspects from that era—Vietnam, racial integration. But the weighty issues serve only as a backdrop for hardships encountered by a large farming family more concerned with making ends meet than saving the world. At its heart, Plowed Fields is about the business of living, enjoying the good times and the day-to-day, and getting by and getting on when the unexpected strikes.
The main hero, Joe Baker, is a few weeks shy of fifteen when the story begins in December 1960 and the oldest of the family’s six children. Joe leads his brothers and sisters with quiet charisma, and they follow him because they have faith in the rightness of his decisions. But what happens when his instincts fail him? That’s the crux of Plowed Fields, but the story is far more intricate than the travails of one character with one plot line.
Over the past 20 odd years since the book was rejected by that New York publisher, I’ve returned time and again to the executive editor’s letter where she praised my ability to capture a time and place. That’s what I set out to do when I wrote the novel all those years ago.
I feel blessed by God to have been born and raised in the neck of woods where I come from. And even though I, a child of the 1970s, wrote about the 1960s, it’s my fervent hope that Plowed Fields pays homage to a very special place and time.
Finally, I love long and complicated books with lots of characters, the kind of stories Michener and Conroy wrote. It’s the kind of book I wrote, too. Not everybody appreciates long-winded writers, so I want to give readers an opportunity to experience Plowed Fields on their own terms.
Taking a cue from various publishers and agents, the full book is available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats.
You can preorder autographed hardcover and paperback books from my website, www.jimbarber.me, and the ebook from Amazon and all other major retailers. The paperback version also will be available from Amazon and other retailers beginning March 7.
In addition, the novel will be published as the Plowed Fields trilogy edition for those who want to give it a try without committing to the entire book. You can preorder any of the trilogy edition ebooks on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple/iTunes and other retailers now. The paperbacks will be available March 7.
I hope readers will enjoy reading Plowed Fields as much I enjoyed writing it. Good day and good reading,
3 thoughts on “The story of a novel”
Looking forward to it Jim. With my slow, meticulous reading style coupled with your self described long winded writing style this book may last me several seasons. Congrats and good luck friend!
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Thanks, buddyroe! Most folks have told me that it’s a quick read for a long book. The good news is that it’s a novel in episodes, with each one its own story but building onto the previous one. It should arrive shortly after March 7.
Plowed Fields, a thoroughly enjoyable read, a southern saga by a southern writer, took me through forgotten decades of war and peace, good times and hard. Enjoyed getting to know the Baker family, and share their angst and amour in the world. Emotions run high, touching chords of my own memories of family, place, and the value of hard work and a good name. Bravo, Jim.
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