Tracking Down an Ooligan Alum

Last week, I got a chance to have a conversation with the author of a brand-new YA novel that hit shelves in October. This book comes courtesy of a familiar name in the program—Cory Wheeler Mimms, who graduated last winter, had his first novel released through Craigmore Creations, the Portland-based independent publisher that he has worked with for more than two years.

Trailing Tennessee is the story of Eli Sutton, an adventurous 14-year-old who is determined to follow the path along the Appalachian Trail that his father and grandfather embarked upon before him. I talked with Cory about his history with Craigmore and how Trailing Tennessee came into being, sorting through the details of his process and how he’s promoting the book now that it’s been unleashed into the wild—a campaign that will undoubtedly be helped along by an absolutely striking cover and interior design.

The cover of Trailing Tennessee

The cover of Trailing Tennessee

What’s your history with Craigmore Creations?

I started working with Craigmore Creations in September of 2011 on Urban Wild, a comic strip geared toward teaching kids about wildlife in the city. I worked as a freelance writer on that for about 25 comic strips, produced in two seasons over the course of a year. I just wrote the scripts. They had an artist, another freelancer, doing the illustrations.

How did you go from writing comics to a novel?

After a year, Craigmore Creations decided they had done all they could do with that project and discontinued it. The last script I wrote for them was in September of 2012. But during the same time—actually, I think it was in the lull between season two and season three, so in February or March of 2012, I guess—I emailed Erica Melville, the editor I was working with on Urban Wild, about pitching larger projects. A few weeks went by and she got back to me, asking me to come in and talk about ideas. So I prepped four stories, basically pitch letters that outlined the stories, audiences, etc.

Had you started working on those stories already, or were they just concepts at that point?

None of the stories were written. aThey were just ideas. I don’t think that’s an unusual way for children’s books and graphic novels or comics to get started. Because they require artists to work with writers, because they’re a more collaborative creative process, those types of stories are often brainstormed and created in stages, rather than being written by someone and then pitched to publishers.

So David Shapiro, the owner of Craigmore Creations, and Erica took my four projects that I’d pitched them and said they’d get back to me. A couple weeks after that, they asked me to come back in. During that second meeting, they said they liked my writing and wanted to work with me on a larger project. They didn’t pick up any of the four children’s books and graphic novels I’d pitched them, though.

David said he was looking to publish something different, something other than a graphic novel or children’s book. He thought a wilderness adventure novel would align with Craigmore Creations’ backlist, and he was also interested in the Appalachian Trail and the history of the Tennessee Valley.

What was the initial brainstorming process like?

David basically gave me those two bits of information he was seeking in a novel—a wilderness adventure on the AT—then I took the reins. It wasn’t the traditional way a novel is picked up by a publisher, I suppose.

They just let you run with it.

Exactly. They didn’t dictate plot or characters. They simply said they were interested in a novel set on the AT. Craigmore Creations publishes graphic novels and children’s books mostly, which means Trailing Tennessee had to be appropriate for a younger audience. I thought it sounded fun to write, so I wrote it.

What was your approach for putting the story together?

I spent about six weeks working full-time, just researching the history of the area and the AT, and outlining a basic plot. I followed a three-act structure and created what you might think of as a screenplay beat sheet—just a skeletal structure of the story. I wrote everything on note cards and pinned them to my wall.

Once I had the story arc where I thought it should be, I started fleshing out the story, filling in the skeleton. This was still done on note cards—I wrote almost every scene, or the basic idea of every scene, on note cards; there were maybe 150. I’m just guessing on that number, but I still have them and it’s a stack a few inches high.

As scenes worked or didn’t work, I’d just take them off the wall or move them around as necessary. Creating the story that way, being able to edit the plot by simply plucking a scene out and holding it in my hand, was really helpful. I had written [an unpublished] novel prior to this one, in the way you would imagine someone writing a novel: Sit down at the computer and write chapter one, then chapter two, then three, and so on.

And the problem with that system is that the plot editing is difficult. If you have a problem that you want to scoop out or move, you have to cut and paste it around, and then you have to scroll through the rest of the story looking for all the problems that removing or moving that scene caused in the plot. It takes hours to make a single change through that method. Writing the plot first, on cards, lets you physically take a scene out, and then you can just reach over and pull every other scene out that relied on that plot element in order to work. Then you just fill in the holes with what does work.

By the time I completed the full story outline for Trailing Tennessee, I had color-coded cards that marked the passage of days and other cards that marked miles on the trail, and in between those I had the scene notes scribbled down. I even had chapter breaks worked in, where I thought the most suspenseful points to break would be. Those chapter breaks changed completely as I wrote, though.

After that, I was able to focus just on the writing, because I had front-loaded the entire plot and didn’t have to worry about where I was going. I’d mapped out the story so that I could just have fun writing each scene. It took a lot of pressure off the writing.

It helped to keep the process moving.

Right. There were no days I spent just looking at the computer screen, thinking “Where is this going?” or “How do I get this character from here to where I want him to be?” I knew all the steps along the way, so every day I just took down a couple cards and wrote those scenes, then moved down the line.

I started the research in spring of 2012 and I had a draft submitted to my editor by fall of the same year. Then we went through a few rounds of editing on it. From beginning to end, the writing part of the novel took about a year to finish I guess. Then they passed the manuscript off to their copyeditor and designer.

The design is excellent.

Craigmore Creations’ designer, Brian David Smith, I think he is also an Ooligan graduate. He’s a kick-ass designer, either way. The book’s cover and interior are both really well done. I wish I had his skill set.

Did your research influence the direction of the story?

The story changed drastically from the time I started researching to the time I handed in my first draft, but that’s because there was no story to begin with. There was only a notion of a novel that David thought would fit his house well. But a notion isn’t a story.

I eventually developed a story that I liked, which changed a bit in the first round of editing as well. I got feedback on the characters, where they were lacking, and I rewrote some scenes to strengthen them, which in turn changed the storyline slightly. It wasn’t a developmental edit, though. We mostly worked on cleaning up some of the characters and smoothing out some of the scenes that didn’t read as well as they could.

What are their plans for you now that the book has been released? Will you be actively promoting it?

I’m promoting it and Craigmore Creations is also promoting it. They’ve hired a publicist in North Carolina to work on selling it as well. Craigmore has been at book trade shows all month and they’ve told me Trailing has gotten good responses from book buyers and sellers. It’s gotten good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and other industry magazines. I’ll be at the Oregon Historical Society Holiday Cheer book event on December 1st as well.

Are you working on anything else right now?

I’m always writing. I keep several projects going so that if I get stuck on one, I can just move to another for the day or hour or however long it takes to get the thread back on the other one. I’m actively working on another novel. And I’m working on a collection of short stories. And when I don’t have much time in the day, I write flash fiction in the minutes between.

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