Publishing the Pain

“I want to publish my story. How do I go about it?” Since the publication of my non-fiction book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse, I’m asked that a lot. I can’t say how any one person should go about it, but here’s what I did.

The book stemmed from the journaling I did in the months and years after the death of my wife of forty years. It started out as a mechanism to help me through my grief, but when a trusted friend read the material he urged me to share it with others who were suffering the same loss. I had no idea how to do this, but eventually I stumbled into the process this way.

1) Learn how to write. Now that sounds silly. We all speak and write English. But that’s no guarantee we can organize our thoughts so a reader will understand and appreciate them. There are a number of books available, but I started by attending a writer’s conference. The first one’s tough, sort of like the first time you’re introduced to algebra, but eventually it begins to make sense.

2) Learn how to organize your thoughts. I had to take the two inch-thick pile of raw journaling and decide to which aspect of my grieving process it applied. Using this, I put together a table of contents. Then I worried over it a few times until it seemed to flow correctly.

3) Edit, write, edit, write some more. I gleaned nuggets from the piles of material I’d written and used them as starting points for each chapter. I committed my thoughts to paper, giving equal weight to the good and bad decisions I’d made and offering hard-won advice. I had knowledgeable people read the raw material and make suggestions. Then I edited, rewrote, and repeated the process until I was satisfied.

4) Add the finishing touches. In my case, it was adding an appropriate Scripture passage and brief prayer at the end of a chapter. In your case, it might be doing something else. The important thing is to make the work worthwhile and different than anything currently available.

5) Somewhere along the line, you’ll try to sell the work. I was fortunate enough to be able to interest a publisher in The Tender Scar before I had representation by an agent. That’s a rarity now. Also, I’d written the whole book before I shopped it, which made it easier to sell than if I were working from an annotated table of contents and three sample chapters, which is now common in non-fiction work. In any case, this is the next step, and when you take it, you should be prepared for a lot of rejections and a great deal of waiting.

Remember, in all this, the timing is God’s. And even if your book never sells, the writing of it has affected one person: you. You’ll never be the same after organizing your thoughts and committing them to paper. And that’s a good thing.

Speed Bumps On The Road To Publication

I was driving through the resort grounds in Jamaica, navigating the unfamiliar territory with difficulty in the darkness, when I saw the sign: “Sleeping Policeman.” I was wondering what a police barracks was doing on the grounds of the hotel when I was sent airborne, straining at the seatbelt while my back teeth clattered together. In the clarity that followed, I realized that I’d just seen the Jamaican equivalent of a “Speed Bump” sign.

Just as there are speed bumps on the roads we travel, there are speed bumps on our road to writing. Let me warn you about a few I’ve encountered, because—as I learned the hard way—when we know about the speed bumps they don’t bother us as much.

1) Constructive criticism is necessary. When we write, we know that ultimately someone is going to read what we produce. That’s what it’s all about. But if the only person who reads our work before we submit it to an agent or editor is our spouse or parent or Aunt Sally, we can’t expect any beneficial feedback.

The beginning writer doesn’t generally produce a Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel. But informed and constructive criticism allows us to correct our errors—and hopefully refrain from repeating them—so that everything we write afterwards is better than what went before. Find someone who is knowledgeable, ask them to read and critique your work, and be prepared to experience both pain and growth as a writer.

2) Rejections can convey a message. For a writer, rejections are a way of life. We might as well get used to it. But sometimes, in addition to the usual boilerplate language of “Not right for us at this time” or “Doesn’t fit into our plans”—both of which could be true—an agent or editor may make a comment. When that happens, pay attention.

Admittedly, there are times when the comments aren’t exactly helpful, as when an editor returned one of Tony Hillerman’s stories with a note to the effect of, “This might be better if you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Of course, Hillerman went on to be an award-winning, multi-published novelist with his books about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But sometimes there’s a ray of hope in the comment, such as “I’d be interested in reading this again if you (fill in the blanks)” or “This shows great promise. I’d like to see your next one.” That’s when you take a deep breath and plunge on. The speed bump has slowed you, but it hasn’t brought you to a stop—just redirected you.

3) Hurrying can cause problems. Admittedly, I was in a hurry when I first made the acquaintance of the “Sleeping Policeman” in Jamaica. I’d have been better served by driving more slowly in the first place. That lesson can carry over into writing. Don’t be in a hurry.

You’ve just typed the last line of your first novel. Now how quickly can you send it off the every agent on your list? Hold on. I did something like that with my first novel, submitting it to the editor who’d encouraged me at a conference, and now I’m embarrassed to read it. It was a good first effort, but by no means was it a publishable book. The best advice I can give you is to let the manuscript cool—for a week, a month, or more. Then read through it like an editor, not a writer. Can you remove excess words (or, as Mark Twain put it, kill the adverbs) and passive voice passages? Are your characters well-drawn? Does the plot move smoothly and logically? Then, when you are sure it’s your best work, send it off.

What next? Why, start on the next book. Speed bumps are meant to slow you down, not stop you and make you turn back. Good luck.

Reviewers and Endorsers and Influencers, Oh My!

You didn’t really think those book reviews in the New York Times or the major newspaper in your home town just appeared on their own, did you? Publishers provide advance review copies (ARCs) of  books to the reviewers at these papers. Multiply that by hundreds of publications, from large ones such as Library Journal to smaller or specialized ones such as The Suspense Zone and you see the magnitude of the process. There’s a good bit of decision-making in sending out ARCs to reviewers. But one good review at a major site can result in the sales of hundreds of books. Each publisher has a long list of potential reviewers. It’s the job of the marketing department to match each book with appropriate sites to receive ARCs.

As for endorsers, these are the people who write one- and two-line squibs that appear on the cover or just inside book. For example, the hope is that you’re more likely to buy my novel if you look at the back cover and see that a respected author said, “Lethal Remedy is the perfect cure for boredom: a first-rate medical thriller with humor, engaging characters, and realism that only a seasoned doctor could bring to the story.”

Who lines up endorsers? It varies. Authors, agent, publishers all participate in the process, and it varies with each of them. In my case, I personally contact all my possible endorsers. I make the following stipulations: if they agree, they’ll be sent an ARC with a view to endorsement if they have the time, can read the book, and truly endorse it. So far, the only negative responders have been those with time crunches due to their own writing deadlines.
Then what is an influencer? These are people whom you hope will read the book, like it, and tell others. They’re people with large blog followings. They’re church and public librarians. They’re the heads of book clubs. The list can be huge, but again economics rears its ugly head, so distribution of ARCs to influencers must be limited. I sweat bullets over the list I turn in with each book, knowing that I’ve probably forgotten some important people.

Writing the novel is just the first step. Then you hope to get an agent and eventually a contract. After that comes the editing process. Is that all? No, now you have to think about ARCs and endorsers. The fun never stops, does it?


Richard L. Mabry, MD, is the author of the Prescription For Trouble series of medical thrillers. His latest novel is Lethal Remedy. He also serves the ACFW as Vice-President. You can learn more about him at his website and follow him on his blog.