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    How I turned my adventures into a book

    This doctor/adventurer decided to write about his exploits, and now his volume is in bookstores. Check out his advice.


    "Doc, you really should write a book." How many times have you heard those sentiments from patients, friends, or family? As a family physician and emergency medicine doctor, I'd been hearing that from patients for many years.

    Five years ago I accepted the call. Travel and adventure are my passions. So, following the writer's dictum to "write what you know," I put pen to paper to describe a life-changing journey: my quest to reach the highest geographical point in each of the 50 states. I had decided to accomplish that in the late 1990s, when the small hospital I worked at closed. It took me 15 months to reach all the state high points that I hadn't yet scaled—which included most of the tough ones.

    Writing in my spare time didn't work

    I planned to write when time permitted and after house and family obligations had been met. Six months later, however, my "book" consisted of 10 scribbled pages. Writing, I realized, would have to be a priority, not an afterthought.

    I had been working with Project USA, staffing Native American reservations. Sometimes I worked in emergency rooms, sometimes in outpatient clinics. On locum assignments I began to arise at 4 a.m., writing three to four hours before work. When at home, I composed up to six hours daily.

    The stack of papers grew steadily, and after eight productive months the narrative was cohesive and its length was appropriate. Yet I could tell that the text lacked polish.

    Rewriting, an arduous process loathed by many novices (and professionals), came next. I banished superfluous words while paragraphs, pages—even entire stories—were deleted to keep the narrative moving.

    I also joined a local writers' group, an informal gathering of both aspiring and published authors. On my second visit I shared my prose, nervously reading a humorous account of my slippery scramble up the muddy slopes of North Dakota's highest hill. When I finished, I knew that the chapter was a winner, and I realized that these fellow writers would be an ongoing source of support, advice, and encouragement.

    As the text improved, my enthusiasm grew. Each month the writers' group listened intently, offering ever more precise advice and thoughtful critique. Then I learned how to use Microsoft Word, and transcribed my handwritten scrawl into a neat file and began to refer to the document by the loftier term, "manuscript."

    Finding a publisher was as hard as climbing

    Book publishing is a business, an enterprise with tight profit margins. Each year thousands of individuals, many with words as carefully and lovingly crafted as mine, seek one of the few opportunities available to first-time authors. Some have impressive literary credentials: newspaper editors, national reporters, and university professors. Others, especially fiction writers, use literary agents, although being accepted by one is nearly as difficult as finding a willing publisher.

    I identified some national outdoors organizations and tried to get a major publisher behind me. I also looked at each publisher listing in Writer's Market to see what they were interested in and checked out the Barnes & Noble's outdoor section to see who was publishing those books. Last, I asked local bookstore owners and other people to recommend specific publishing houses that might be appropriate.

    Three years after beginning to write, I mailed submission packets to three publishers. Each included a query letter (a vital document summarizing my proposed book, its intended audience and competition, my qualifications, and a marketing plan), a table of contents, three sample chapters, and a stamped return envelope.

    A month later, the first response arrived, a short statement that my "project did not fit with the publisher's schedule." In other words, a rejection letter. Additional refusals followed. Some were personalized (an unusual and encouraging sign, according to my writing colleagues). It was sometimes very frustrating. I hated to go to the mailbox and find a brown envelope containing my rejected manuscript. It definitely takes you down.

    Self-confidence from years of medical practice and personal success was tested as more submissions were mailed and rejections mounted. Two publishers asked to see additional portions of the manuscript, but ultimately returned them.

    I considered self-publishing, print-on-demand, or vanity presses. Although these businesses can create a quality book, self-publication is expensive. And marketing is difficult; since retail and Internet sites seldom stock such titles, and larger bookstores rarely host signings for self-published authors. I held out for a "real" publisher.


    Douglas Butler, MD
    FP/Crumpler, NC


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