“Nothing Venture” 10

This is the last installment discussing what I learned from the writing and trying to find a publisher for the novel named above. The second version of “Nothing Venture” is the only copy I have. It sits on the very top of my bookcases where it cannot contaminate any of my other writing. I dragged the stepladder over and climbed up to fetch it down for a look. I was rewarded with a paper cut as I stuffed it back in the typing paper box – I guess it’s still resentful of its shabby treatment.

The opening chapter was the first problem I saw, it seems to present the whole introduction of the challenge to big oil through the eyes of a bystander. Instead of setting up the conflict, chapter one deals with the day to day routine and sometimes dangers that come from working with explosive mixtures and toxic chemicals. Could be exciting, but it’s not advancing the story.

I looked at a few more places in the manuscript and it did seem rather boring to a reader who’d not been involved in the effort. The arguments and political implications outweighed the characters, who were not presented in a way that made them seem alive. There was no internalisation that made the reader feel a part of the issues. Well, it was my second novel and reads like it. I hadn’t learned very much from writing the first.

Considering all its faults, it didn’t have too bad a run. After failing to receive any interest from larger publishers, who used to accept submissions over the transom in those days, it was appreciated by a small independent publisher based in Winnipeg. The lady who ran the company offered a contract and said she’d try to raise the money to print the novel.

This was definitely an earlier age – of innocent endeavour and honest toil. No Internet; no print on demand; no e-books and e-readers; and no pirates – but everything had to be financed at full business rates, editing. typesetting, printing, and distribution. My new publisher operated with money granted to the arts by provincial governments. Two years passed without a release date … the problem, she said, was that she was applying for money from the Manitoba government who balked because I lived in Alberta. Applying to Alberta ran into the wall of the publisher being in Manitoba.

Don’t you love all this ridiculous balkanisation? I came to Canada and became a citizen of Canada, not of Alberta. Too bad. Federal systems have to be the most small minded, parochial administrations in the world. Even today the attempt to create one single stock market regulator for the whole country – large enough to have real teeth, and no different in operation than every other jurisdiction in the world – runs into roadblocks from Alberta and Quebec. Encroachment into provincial rights! This from people who seem to care nothing for the general public’s rights.

Anyway – back to novel writing. After two years of this charade I asked for the manuscript back. Having run out of publishers, I entered it into the next “Find a New Alberta Novelist” contest and sat back to wait for the judges’ decision. This contest was real support for the arts provided by the first Conservative government under Peter Lougheed. It was one of the first things cut under the Philistine regime of Ralph Klein.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the next new Alberta novelist. Not that year; not any year. The arts scene in Alberta is heavily weighted in favour of the university art departments – but I have to agree that the judges were right in finding Nothing Venture less than compelling. It came home and hid in a corner. The copy I just looked at had a revision started and not completed. The ending climax this time was properly dramatic and concerned the real issue – here, the workers actually did refuse the shut down the refinery. I’m not sure what this last revision was intended to do to the assault by the police to evict them from Imperial’s premises, as the pages are too muddled and incomplete to tell what I intended. Someone was hurt in a fall from a refinery tower – perhaps the managers’ quisling who had been the antagonist.

I would advise writers to think twice before writing a novel that attempts to build up a local issue into a serious campaign against Big Power. Think twice about how they tackle a political issue that half their potential readers have already made peace with – and the other half have an opposing opinion. Make sure they write within their current level of competence – clearly I had many lessons to learn before I could have made Nothing Venture work as a novel.

I moved on to write novels that now interested me more. The Iskander series gradually took shape, and in an alternate world were far enough from current controversy and set opinions that their craft issues could be easier defined and resolved. As the writing of “Iskander’s Wildcat” progressed I decided to seek expert advice. The late Joanne Kellock was both editor and literary agent, and her critique pointed up a number of issues I wasn’t aware of. The one I remember most clearly was my overuse of passive voice. Overuse? I was addicted to it, a legacy of reading English tomes of earlier times, when the indirection was considered polite. I still relapse into it at times and need fresh eyes to find it.

We discussed my hoped-for writing career by phone and she remarked that my name was familiar. Surprise. How could she know of me? It turned out that she had been a judge for the Alberta novelist competition the year I had entered Nothing Venture. She remembered the story in some detail, certainly far more detail than I remember today, and it wasn’t even good enough to become a finalist. Perhaps the story had something to say about the world – or perhaps she had a photographic memory.

We discussed where it had failed. With the lapse of a few more years I had been able to look more dispassionately at the plot. I offered, “I think I wrote it from the wrong POV. I wasn’t well disposed toward Bill, our company president, and avoided much of his contribution. But it really should have been his story.” “Yes,” she said. “He was the one with the driving ambition and a future at stake. His passion for the project was greatest. I think writing it as his story might have made all the difference.”


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