Yes, Janet Fogg is the co-writer (with Bob West) on Twenty Miles of Fence: Blueprint of a Cowboy. But she’s here on the blog so her name goes in the headline. That’s the way it goes.
Janet is a modest, quiet, unassuming writing force.
She writes fiction and non-fiction. She’s won awards for both.
She’s the historian for the 359th Fighter Group and has written several books, along with her husband, about the World War II aviators.
Janet Fogg is also writing a serialized science fiction novel, Shadow Patterns of Melt, for Kindle Vella. She has written romance and westerns for young adults.And she’s been recognized as an “Honored Guiding Member” of one of my favorite writing groups, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
Twenty Miles of Fence is another interesting entry in her varied writing career. For years, Janet worked as CFO for Oz Architecture in Boulder. Over the course of many years, she developed and drafted the memoir for her business partner Bob West. The book chronicles West’s dreams of purchasing and running a cattle ranch.
Janet was kind enough to answer questions about her work on the book, below. (Any writer currently looking for an agent or publisher should check her example of a very clever opening to her query letter for Twenty Miles; the whole project is also a lesson in playing the long game.)
A review of Twenty Miles of Fence follows.
Question: Can you walk us through the process of co-writing Twenty Miles of Fence? Did it start with interviews? What did the drafting and writing process involve?
Janet Fogg: I think it was around 2006 when my friend and business partner Bob West mentioned he’d kept diaries of his and his families’ time working on the 3,600-acre Wyoming ranch they purchased and rebuilt. I encouraged him to consider writing a book and told him I’d lend a hand. He knew I’d been writing novels and that I was a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
Bob brought me copies of the diaries to read, and also to evaluate whether there really was a book lurking within those pages of sketches and cattle counts and goals. I thought there might be, and over the course of a year or so I transcribed his diaries. I then did light edits, but didn’t spend significant time as we were both working full-time (50+ hours a week), and there simply wasn’t any hurry.
I don’t recall how much either of us worked on the manuscript until 2014, when Bob and Alanna invited me to go to the National Western Stock Show with them, then to join them at their small ranch near Livermore, the Whiskey Belle Ranch. (The Wyoming ranch had been sold years before.) It was great fun watching them negotiate for their wonderful brute of a bull, Brodgar, then Alanna and I headed to the ranch while Bob and a handler loaded Brodgar. They soon followed, and that bull was none to happy about the two-hour trailer ride. He might have knocked down a shed by rubbing his now halter-less face against one of the structural posts, if not for that post being a 100-year-old 24-inch-thick tree trunk.
In-between their ranch chores we went riding and hiking, might have enjoyed a glass or two of wine, and Bob and I spent many hours reviewing where we were with the manuscript so we could plan our next attack.
Over the next few years, I had a number of books published, but when time allowed, I would work on revisions of existing chapters, and Bob drafted new chapters.
During the pandemic we decided to really focus on the manuscript and had many conversations. While they weren’t interviews, they triggered memories about other events he thought relevant to the memoir. His adult sons also reminded him of events he might want to include. Bob drafted those, and I got serious about wordsmithing—by creating an evocative (we hope) memoir that captures his passion for ranching and preserving the cowboy way.
We completed a “final” draft in the spring of 2021, and the search for an agent or publisher began.
Question: You had known Bob West through your work at the architecture firm, correct? Did that make it easier or harder to consider taking on this project?
Janet Fogg: Yes, Bob and I met when I joined Everett, Zeigel, Tumpes & Hand (which evolved into OZ Architecture, one of Colorado’s largest architectural firms). We were named associates the same year, and over the decades became principals (owners) then managing principals.
We created many documents together, answering Requests for Proposals and Requests for Qualifications for projects, so we already had experience writing together. A big plus? I could read his handwriting. (I’m not kidding.)
Question: Was it difficult to condense many years of experiences and adventures for Bob West into a fairly compact book?
Janet Fogg: I’d suggested we target a minimum of 60,000 words, and we came in right at that. In fact, Bob added a few chapters fairly late in the process, which worked perfectly. We’ve also included sixteen photos and five sketches.
Question: What was the hardest thing about writing Twenty Miles of Fence? The book is told in first in Bob’s voice—was that hard to do?
Janet Fogg: In my experience, architects, artists, and many creative people view the natural and built environments with a clarity that, for example, pairs light and shadows and sometimes something as simple as the ripple of grass to that moment in time. I care about the west, and know how passionate Bob is about preserving and protecting the land, so I wanted to find a voice for his story that would at least be expressive if not evocative—to try to convey what he sees and the emotions created. That was the most challenging aspect, for me.
With that said, I’d never written in first person, and more than once slipped up. Fortunately, Shannon Baker, who ranched in the Nebraska Sandhills, did an early read, and she caught those errors. She also contributed to the story-telling aspect, in suggesting we move one story thread from the back of the book toward the front. Made a big difference in the progression of the story. Wise woman.
Question: I’m wondering if you purposely spent time on the ranch to get a good feeling for the land and the business? For Wyoming?
Janet Fogg: My husband and I have spent quite a bit of time in Wyoming over the years—in fact, our brief honeymoon started at Little America then we drove over the Snowy Range. Since then, we’ve spent many a road trip hiking in the west, from desert country to the prairies, to the Rocky Mountains and Canadian Rockies.
Bob was always generous with invitations to the ranch, and I did spend time there on several occasions. One time when I visited with several others from OZ Architecture, we were snowed-in—the highways were closed due to blizzard conditions. I remember Bob and our friend Gary drinking scotch and fishing in the midst of that snowstorm. I stayed by the fire!
Question: Were the themes obvious at the outset or did they emerge as you worked and wrote?
Janet Fogg: The themes were obvious, though I knew we needed a strong ending. Early on, when I wanted to discuss that, Bob became evasive. He knew what he wanted to share, but told me, “I have to have a few drinks and write some demanding chapters. Then you’ll understand.” I did. He impressed me with his honesty in sharing painful lessons learned that he’d never mentioned to anyone.
Question: Can you give us an idea how long this project took to write, edit, and publish? How did University of Nebraska Press come about?
Janet Fogg: I’m not able to judge how long this project took to write, as we worked on it in spurts and fits. First round of serious editing? Probably six months. Final round of serious editing? Perhaps eight months. Then we had the Press’ edits. We were blessed with a great editor and fantastic copy editor.
I will always be amused by and regret what I told Bob when I thought we were ready to send out queries. I cautioned him that it might take a year or two to spark interest. Of course, we researched agents and publishers before querying. He spent time looking at his own bookshelves of cowboy books and online to suggest publishers, while I visited QueryTracker to target western memoir publishers and agents.
Mid-summer 2021 I drafted a query letter and emailed it to Bob. Here’s where working with a friend is good—he told me it sucked. While the letter included all of those items we’re “supposed” to include in a query, it didn’t grab Bob’s attention. After I re-read the query, I sighed and agreed. Boring.
A couple days of revisions ended with the first few sentences of the query being a quote from the manuscript:
“How do you describe the utter vastness of Wyoming prairie? The smell? The clarity of the air? The inability to judge distance?
“Where you can hear the sun set.”
Then we briefly described Bob’s life and his quest to become a cowboy. After that, some of the almost metaphysical events that Bob embraced as he delved into the history of the ranch, the region, and the life of his great-great-grandfather, who served with the Union during the Civil War and very likely visited the ranch on more than one occasion.
Back to the University of Nebraska Press. We emailed a query to the Press on September 20, 2021, and to one literary agent in New York. Both queries included sample chapters. The next day (!) an editor with the University of Nebraska Press called Bob to chat and they requested a full.
Bob and I discussed the pros and cons of working with a university press, but as we re-reviewed their publications, it became clear that Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, was a perfect fit.
After approval by the Press’ editorial board, a peer review followed, and we signed a contract on December 7, 2021. We then had four months to edit the manuscript to conform to the Press’ guidelines, gather final suggested images with releases, write captions, finalize chapter titles, and create a bibliography.
From mid-April to mid-May, 2022, our editor reviewed the manuscript and suggested changes, which we agreed with, for the most part. A month later, copy edits began, then in October, page proofs. And we were done! Twenty Miles of Fence: Blueprint of a Cowboy will be released by Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, on March 1, 2023.
BTW, I don’t think Bob will ever let me forget how I lost all credibility, as far as how long and difficult a journey it can be to be traditionally published. (Kidding! Sort of.)
Question: Is there anything you learned in writing this project that will help with your other writing projects?
Janet Fogg: I think my primary focus on creating the right voice for Twenty Miles of Fence will definitely help future efforts. Plus, who knows when I might need to know what scours is? Or whether liquid protein or cake is better cattle feed? (Cake? Then at $162 per-ton it isn’t the devil’s food treat that graces so many birthday parties.)
In the vast array of writing credits you now have to your name, what’s next for you?
My plan, which often changes without notice, is to finish my mainstream, Bright Shining as the Sun, then start Shadow Patterns of Melt—Book Two. I was almost derailed and incredibly flattered to receive a request to write a book about the restoration of a WWII ME109 (German fighter), which will be the only flying example in the United States, and one of only three or four that still fly in the world. But I’d like to return to fiction for the foreseeable future.
More about Janet Fogg at her website here.
Twenty Miles of Fence: Blueprint of a Cowboy asks a simple question: what does it take to become a cowboy?
More specifically, can a professional working architect from Boulder, Colorado reinvent himself on nearly 4,000 acres of “rocky windswept plains” ranch in southern Wyoming?
Well, there’s a small mountain of things to learn as Bob West makes the leap and Twenty Miles of Fence, a kind of A Year in Provence with wind, harsh winters, and vast landscapes. And cattle.
Calving. Bloodlines. Feed. Branding. Vaccinations. Fence installation (and repair). Coyotes. Water. Water rights. Winter. Wind. More wind. Hired help. Firing hired help. And money.
Fortunately, Bob West isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty—helping rope calves so they can be treated for scours, training a “high-strung” and wild-eyed horse named Black Jack, and killing rattlesnakes with a shovel. West shares the mucky and grim details of ranch financing. And he’s thoroughly aware of his status as a newcomer, especially compared to an experienced neighbor.
“To cowboy up didn’t mean strutting around with spurs jingle-jangling.; It meant embracing your life and livelihood with modesty, admitting and apologizing for wrongs while inspiring others to do their best. I hoped I did all of that, always here and with our architectural firm.
“Cowboys like Shockley inspired me to do better, to emulate their very nuance, even when they had to be laughing at the quasi tinhorns living next door. Again. I grinned at my own ineptitude as the storm grumbled my way, announcing its true power with a pair of lightning bolts spearing from the heights to hit the ground about three miles distant. Being the tallest thing on the prairie made me a target. So I straightened and urged my horse to skedaddle back to the barn. We galloped home.”
Yes, West comes into the project with critical resources. He expands and improves the ranch’s facilities, enjoying the freedom of designing and building without those pesky city bureaucrats in the way. Sure, who wouldn’t build a “drinking deck” overlooking the Upper Laramie River? (The events in the book happened decades ago but are taken from detailed journals.)
But West brings deep appreciation for the landscape, wildlife, and the history of the land as well. He acknowledges the “ghostly force” of centuries of Native Americans who lived on the same acreage and also the fact that his great-great-great grandfather likely played a role in helping the U.S. Calvary deal with the “Indian problem.”
Beautifully and cleanly told, Twenty Miles of Fence provides an up-close look at the transition from corporate city dude to a guy living right smack on the land. It’s an impressive move. Whether you’ve got money or not, nothing is going to make a blizzard less intense, a cold rain easier to handle, or a calf any less ornery when its being roped. Did West make it all the way to full, undeniable cowboy? Maybe. At least he got as far as “pretty good ranch hand.”