David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: South Dakota Festival of Books

Jerry Nelson, Dear County Agent Guy book cover, midwestern dairy farmer, author,

Jerry Nelson on Feeding the Machine, Husband Training and Getting a Book Deal with a Great Publisher

We’ve been to the South Dakota Festival of Books twice so far, and we have now discovered two amazing writers who came to the festival without a book deal. Both now have books about to come out. Our conclusion is that there are lots of great writers in South Dakota, and many of them go to that festival. As soon as we met Jerry Nelson, we knew he was the real deal. He has that subtle, dry Midwestern wit that sneaks up behind you and then whacks you right in the funny bone. Since he’s writing about experiences that are so far out of the norm from people on either coast, we knew he’d need a special kind of publisher. We’ve seen over and over again how New York publishing doesn’t quite get this kind of Midwestern book and doesn’t understand what a big audience it has. Jerry’s opus, Dear County Agent Guy, is finally ready for publication, and we are so happy to see this book spread its wings and fly out into the world. We thought we’d check in with him to see exactly how he did it.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: When did you first become interested in being a writer, and how did you learn to be one?

Jerry Nelson: I was in junior high school when I read a newspaper column by humorist Art Buchwald. My first reaction was “Newspapers don’t print stuff like this! Newspapers are supposed to be serious and stodgy!” My second reaction was “Where can I find more of this?”

When I was a kid, I never imagined myself becoming a writer. My only goal in life was to be a farmer like my dad and his father before him. I didn’t think that a formal education was necessary for achieving this goal. I put in the minimum amount of effort required of me at school and barely graduated from high school.

I learned to be a writer by reading, which I call “feeding the machine.” Reading enables you to travel to exotic lands and experience new sights and sounds.

The next step toward becoming a writer is to do some actual writing. There are many who say, “I should really write a book!” yet never get past the “should” part. We all have that little voice in our head who is constantly narrating the passing scene. Writing is simply committing that narrator’s words to paper. In essence, I learned by doing.

BD: What are some of your favorite books and why?

JN: I thoroughly enjoy everything that Dave Barry has ever written. He is one of those writers who has the uncanny ability to make the reader spontaneously snort with laughter.

I adore the outdoor writer Patrick F. McManus. When our sons were young, it became a tradition to read one of Pat’s humorous essays to them as a bedtime story. This resulted in much giggling from the boys and from me.

At my bedside is Volume I of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I dip in and out of it randomly, which I understand is pretty much the method Twain used to write it. Time spent with such a virtuoso is never wasted.

I also loved The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. The list goes on and on.

BD: Read any good books lately?

JN: Our son and daughter-in-law recently gave me a signed copy of Failure is Not An Option by Gene Kranz. It details the author’s experiences as a NASA Flight Director in the early days of our nation’s space program and during the near-disaster that was Apollo 13. These things took place when I was a kid, so it’s like time traveling for me.

I just finished Leaving Home, a collection of The News From Lake Wobegon essays by Garrison Keillor. They are from the early days of A Prairie Home Companion, so most of them seemed new to me. Reading them was nearly as pleasurable as hearing them. They gave me a chuckle and filled me with a deep sense of home.

BD: You have been compared to Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. How do you feel about that?

JN: It totally blows my mind!

As a boy, I first fell in love with Twain when I read Tom Sawyer. I then proceeded to devour Huckleberry Finn and almost everything Twain has written. He was an American original and is still the undisputed master of his genre.

I first heard Keillor’s voice one Saturday in the mid-1990s when I was feeding my Holsteins. A commercial for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique came through the speakers on my tractor’s radio and I was instantly hooked. I cannot imagine a Saturday evening without A Prairie Home Companion.

Keillor is a living legend and being compared to him is an unspeakably huge honor. Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, which is four hours from our farm, so it’s natural that our styles might have a similar terroir. The difference is that Keillor writes about Norwegian bachelor farmers, while I once was a Norwegian bachelor farmer.

BD: Tell us about how your professional writing career started.

JN: In 1996, my area was suffering through an extended period of wet weather. It had been so wet for so long that cattails were beginning to grow in my field where there should have been rows of corn.

Feeling frustrated and helpless, I penned a spoof letter to Mel Kloster, my local county extension agent. In the letter, I asked Mel if he knew of a cheap, effective herbicide that could control the cattails. And while he was at it, maybe he could advise me on how to get rid of all the ducks and powerboats that were out in my corn field.

Instead of using a normal salutation, I started the letter with “Dear county agent guy.”

Mel told me that he had enjoyed my missive and that I should get it published somewhere. I replied that I had zero training as a writer and didn’t know the first thing about publishing.

Despite my reservations, I took Mel’s advice and showed the letter to Chris Schumacher, editor of our local weekly newspaper, the Volga Tribune. Chris read the letter and said, “Yeah, I’ll publish this. Do you have any more ideas?” I replied that I had maybe one or two. “Keep them coming,” he said, adding, “What should we call this?”

I asked Chris what he meant by “this.”

“It’s a newspaper column,” said Chris. “How about using the salutation, ‘Dear county agent guy?'”

I replied that this was fine by me and that’s all the thought that went into it. I have written a column each week ever since.

That tiny spark was the beginning of my writing career. As my confidence in my abilities grew, I began to get some of my work published in the nation’s premier farm magazines. I also began to submit scripts that were used on A Prairie Home Companion. I don’t recall exactly how much I was paid for those scripts, but do know that the money was put toward our home heating bill.

BD: You been doing your column “Dear County Agent Guy” for a long time, what have you learned about America by writing about this very particular part of it?

JN: I have learned that folks who live in the Midwest feel that we are all part of a large, extended family. I often write about what’s going on in my life, so my wife and our two sons have provided me a lot of fodder over the years. I have had numerous people say to me, “I feel like I know your family better than I know my own!”

A high school girl recently told me of a family ritual that involves my newspaper column. My column arrives at their home on Friday. When they sit down for their meal that evening, one of the family members reads my column aloud at the table. What I have written then becomes the official topic of discussion during the meal.

Reactions such as those are very gratifying and extremely humbling. They also drive home what a huge responsibility I have to my readers.

BD: What are some of your favorite stories in the collection?

JN: That’s like asking which of your offspring is your favorite child! I cherish them all equally.

But if you held a gun to my head, I might say that “Electric Fencing 101” has a special place in my heart, mainly because it’s mostly true with only a little embellishment here and there. That piece illustrates what it’s like to raise kids on the farm.

Another piece that is special to me is “The Four Seasons of Farming.” It’s one of the more ruminative articles in the book, an essay that speaks to my deep connection with my family, the land and the rhythms of the earth.

BD: Your family have been dairy farmers for four generations. How has farming changed since your great-great-great-grandparents were milking cows?

JN: When my ancestors homesteaded in Dakota Territory, they milked cows the same way it had been done for 10,000 years, that is, by squatting beside a cow and squirting the milk into an open bucket.

Modern dairy farmers utilize 21st century technology. Some dairies have milking parlors that can milk dozens of cows at a time. Over the past few years, robotic milkers have come to the fore. These machines can clean the cow’s udder, attach the milking unit and apply a post-milking teat dip, all without any direct human supervision. Daily milk production and numerous other data points can be accessed via your PC or your smart phone. The robot will send a text to your cell phone if it needs help with an issue.

Cow comfort is paramount on the modern dairy. It used to be that the cows were cold in the wintertime and suffered through the heat during the summer. Nowadays, dairy barns are climate controlled and some dairy farmers have even opted to equip their stalls with water mattresses. Many dairy operators put electronic necklaces on their cows that will track such things as how many steps the cow takes each day and how much time she spends chewing her cud.

My wife wants to put a similar necklace on me so that she can quantify how much time I spend doing actual work and how much time I waste goofing off. I am adamantly opposed to this idea.

BD: Many of our readers want to know, how exactly do you train a husband?

JN: My wife says that one of the things that first attracted her to me was the fact that I have five sisters and was thus “pre-trained.”

From what little information I have managed to gather, husband training is more of an art than a science. It’s also an ongoing, never-ending endeavor. I have heard wives say that it can take up to 50 years to get a husband properly trained.

Husbands are actually fairly simple creatures. We respond positively to rewards and have a deep aversion for unpleasant experiences. If you discover a training method that works well for your Golden Retriever, odds are it will also work for your husband.

BD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

JN: There are six simple rules to becoming a better writer: read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read the greats and the not-so-greats, anything that will stretch your imagination and your vocabulary. Make certain that you consume a healthy dose of poetry on a regular basis.

As a writer, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Recognize that you are not perfect and will never be able to please everyone. Such is life.

It has been said, “Be bold and mighty forces will rush to your aid.” I have found this to be true throughout my years of beginning each week with the words “Dear county agent guy.”

Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. In addition to his weekly column, his writing has also appeared in the nation’s top agricultural magazines, including Successful Farming, Farm Journal, Progressive Farmer, and Living the Country Life. Dear County Agent Guy is his first book.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Dirk Lammers

Dirk Lammers on Books, Baseball, and the Joys and Perils of Getting Published

We met Dirk Lammers a couple of years ago at the South Dakota Festival of Books. (For those of you who haven’t been to that book festival, or to South Dakota, do yourself a favor before you die and do both. Breathtaking landscape, ridiculously friendly people, world-class published authors, very serious and talented attending writers. We saw buffalo; a donkey put his head into our car–it was a series of peak experiences.) So Dirk told us about his book at the South Dakota Festival of Books. David is a huge baseball fanatic, so the subject was of great interest to him. Dirk was fun, knowledgeable, smart and passionate, all wonderful ingredients for an author. Hell, for anybody. We had a very strong feeling that he was going to get his book published. Lo and behold, here it is, Baseball’s No-Hit Wonders, just in time for the Boys of Summer to take center stage as America’s pastime unfolds, as it has since the 1800s, and takes us through the dog days of summer all the way into the Fall Classic. So we thought we’d chat with Dirk about baseball, books and getting published.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to write this book?

Dirk Lammers: My interest in no-hitters is borne out of my identity as a Mets fan and suffering through numerous ninth-inning misses by Tom Seaver, and watching guys like Seaver, Nolan Ryan, David Cone and Doc Gooden finally notch their no-nos in other teams’ uniforms. That led to a website, NoNoHitters.com, which tracked the Mets’ dubious streak of playing more than 7,500 games without a no-hitter. For years, I diligently tweeted updates and wrote blog posts each game until the count reached 8,019 and Johan Santana broke the 50-year curse on June 1, 2012. I decided to retool the site around all no-hitters and realized that my wealth of research was probably worthy of a book.

TBD: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the idea of a no-hitter?

DL: A no-hitter is all about the suspense, and whether it’s a fan, a player or an announcer, the suspense doesn’t begin for everyone at the same time. Some might be aware that it has been happening since the first pitch; others might not take note until the 6th or 7th inning. But once you’re aware it’s happening, each pitch, each crack of the bat, each throw takes on a heightened significance. I also think that for fans, the cast of characters is so varied that you never know who’s going to throw one. It could be Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax or Bob Feller or it could be Bobo Holloman, Bud Smith or Chris Heston.

TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing this book?

DL: Many of the greatest joys in writing this book came from the interviews. Chatting with former MLB Fay Vincent in such detail about the 1991 committee’s decision to tighten the definition of a no-hitter was so compelling, and then to have him agree to write my book’s foreword was such an honor. When I was at Fenway Park to interview Clay Buchholz and some other players, I got to sit in the Red Sox dugout to conduct the interview. Such hallowed ground. And it’s hard to top getting to talk to Don Larsen about his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

One of the biggest difficulties was securing rights to the book’s nearly 90 photos on a tight budget, considering that financial responsibility fell on me. I combed my hard drives from games and museums I had visited to dig up anything that was relevant, and I headed out to as many ballparks as I could to get my own shots of players, stadiums and other items. I also worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to secure rights for some images from the archives, worked with online auction houses for some memorabilia shots and was fortunate to get permission from Keith Allison, a great sports photographer from the D.C. area, to use some of his more recent images.

TBD: What are some of your favorite stories from no-hitters?

DL: It’s not an official no-no, but Harvey Haddix losing his perfect game (and the ballgame) in the 13th inning after retiring the first 36 batters still boggles my mind. And the tale of Dock Ellis throwing a no-no while tripping on acid never gets old, no matter how many times I tell it, read it, watch it or hear it in song. I find Dave Stieb’s perseverance of finally completing the task after losing four no-hitters in the ninth inning inspiring for all of us who encounter failure. But as a Mets fan, the no-hitter that is forever etched into my mind is Johan Santana’s no-no, because of the long and detailed backstory.

TBD: Do you think it is immoral, shameful and dishonorable to try to bunt your way on base when someone is in the last innings of trying to throw a no-hitter?

DL: It’s funny, I wrote a whole chapter on this subject and I’m not sure I’ve completely made up my mind. I see both sides, but it’s certainly more acceptable in a 1-0 game than a 12-0 game. If I were the batter I would swing away, and if my coach singled for the bunt I’d be more than a little peeved. But if I were a pitcher who lost my no-no on a push bunt to first, I would stare that batter down for the rest of the inning.

It’s interesting that this is a rather recent unwritten rule. Pete Rose bunted during Ken Johnson’s no-hitter for the Houston Colt .45s but Johnson wasn’t peeved. And then at some point, the practice became taboo. You can’t really expect an athlete to not compete, and if that guy is a speedy leadoff hitter you’re taking something out of his toolbox by removing the bunt.

TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?

DL: After I outlined the chapters and wrote the first few, I felt like I had enough of a concept of where the book was going to craft a formal proposal, though it was way more work than I had anticipated. I began submitting to literary agents who seemed to have an interest in sports and set a goal of submissions a day. I received my share of rejections and no responses but also got some positive and encouraging responses from agents who could not take on the project. I was then contacted by literary agent Helen Zimmermann, who had a publisher who expressed interest and wanted to publish my book. One of that company’s partners, however, had a recurrence of cancer and they had to shelve any new projects. A month later, Unbridled Books expressed interest and the book found its home.

TBD: Who do you think are some of the most unlikely pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter?

DL: The St. Louis Browns’ Bobo Holloman, who threw a no-hitter in his first major-league start in 1953, has to be one of the most unlikely successful pitching performances of all time, considering he ended his career with a 3-7 record and a 5.23 ERA. It’d give the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bud Smith (7-8 lifetime record) a close second, and probably place Philip Humber’s no-no in third as he’s an ex-Met.

TBD: And what pitchers do you look at and say, I can’t believe you never threw a no-hitter?

DL: Grover Cleveland Alexander is probably the most prolific pitcher not to have thrown a no-hitter. He won 373 games and had an overpowering fastball and sharp curve, so he should have landed in the club. Lefty Grove and Early Wynn should join him as well. Modern-era pitchers that should have thrown at least one include Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who threw nine perfect innings for the Expos but his team couldn’t give him a run. I also find it funny that Paul Dean has a no-no, but brother Dizzy Dean does not.

Greg Maddux easily could have thrown a no-hitter with his talent, but he actually was quoted during his playing days saying he never would because he liked to experiment in the strike zone too often.

TBD: I know you are a Mets fan, I won’t hold that against you, but do you think they have a chance of winning the World Series this year and why?

DL: The Mets have the best starting pitching staff in the league, so anything less than a return to the World Series will be a disappointment. I’m especially happy that the team shored up the middle infield and has brought back Yoenis Céspedes to give some punch in the cleanup spot. That said, the team needs to stay healthy and David Wright needs to return to top form if the Mets are going to go all the way. I sure hope they can do it. The year 1986 seems such a distant memory.

TBD: Do you believe that in the year 2016 the San Diego Padres can finally get off the no-hitter schneid?

DL: I honestly thought that 2015 was going to be the year for the Padres, but a San Diego starter never even reached the sixth inning with a no-no intact that season and the team’s count is now sitting at 7,490 games (still far to go to catch the Mets). James Shields would certainly qualify as the favorite, but my guess is that Tyson Ross or Andrew Cashner might be the one to break the curse. And to live on the dangerous side, I’ll go on record saying it will be Ross in 2016.

TBD: You have written lots of short pieces from a journalistic point of view. How is it different writing a whole book? What advice do you have for writers?

DL: I actually embraced the journalistic process to write this book as that’s what I am used to. And, frankly, it made it less overwhelming to view it that way. I set out to write 27 1,000- to 1,500-word stories, all centered around the same subject, and I conducted as much research as I could through newspaper clippings, books, box scores and (whenever possible) personal interviews. I am currently working on a non-sports biography and am using a similar process, although with a biography I am constantly reworking the early and late parts of chapters when I get a better idea of their placement to make the transitions more seamless. I’m not sure how well this process will translate to fiction, but I will find out when I try to enter that world someday. Writing for the Associated Press has taught me to be concise and write for clarity, and I think that training has helped me as an author. My advice to new authors would be to embrace a process they are comfortable with, and nudge it into a new direction rather than trying to start from scratch. It’s easier to start from a place where you are comfortable and move it out of that zone.

Dirk Lammers is an award-winning Associated Press journalist who for years chronicled the New York Mets’ 50-year quest for the team’s first no-hitter. He has spent more than two decades writing thousands of news stories and features for the AP and Tampa Tribune on a variety of topics including business, politics, technology, sports and entertainment.

In 2008, Lammers tapped into his love of baseball to create NoNoHitters.com, a website dedicated to the Mets’ seemingly futile quest for its first no-hitter. For the 4½ years between the site’s creation and Johan Santana’s first Mets no-no in 2012, NoNoHitters.com blossomed into the Internet’s online gathering point for all things related to no-hitters, garnering press coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and more. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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