I was privileged to attend my former advanced memoir workshop a few weeks ago to share my publishing journey, both with my first memoir that came out in August of 2013, and the news about recently signing a book deal for a second memoir. As I talked through the six years it took to publish my first book, as my fellow writers threw questions at me left and right, “How did you find an agent?, what did you do to build a platform?, how do you plan to structure your current project?, how do you even go about writing a book?, a thought occurred to me.
If you want to write a book…If you really want to do this…
Step into the next patch of light.
That, my friends, is the best writing advice I have to date.
I’ll let you in on an author secret. We all started at the beginning. And I think most of us make this life up as we go along. Even New York Times best-selling authors, at one point, stared at the cursor on a blank page.
Step into the next patch of light.
Are you already a writer, a person who has honed her craft and has literary muscles? Have you always been interested in memoir and look!, your uncle gave you a book on writing memoir for Christmas? Were you walking down the street when you stepped in a mud puddle, and while stopping to shake off the mud you happen to notice an ad on the flag pole in front of you for a writing class in your neighborhood?
Any of those instances may be your next patch of light.
You have to start somewhere, so look around and see where you stand. Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
If you hope to publish a book, than do what’s in front of you today. Don’t worry about a two-year plan complete with a detailed description of how you’ll construct your book while you also build your platform and research literary agents. (If you are naturally a person like that, email me, OK? I may need a little help.)
No, do what is in front of you right now. And when it’s time (and you’ll know it is time because you’ll itch for something else, or get bored, or curious), look ahead for the next little patch of light. Pay attention to your surroundings: follow authors on Twitter, look out for workshops, read blog posts for fun, pick up a book at your local independent book store on a Saturday afternoon that might apply to your writing journey. Any of these things could be your next patch of light. And before you know it, (and trust me, if you follow the patches of light, you will move in this direction and it is crazy and cool at the same time) you will be writing a book.
But for today, resolve yourself to take it one step at a time, and pay attention to the writer light in your life.
“Strong people ask for help.” As a counselor, I often teach my clients this mantra.
So when I found myself discouraged last week, I sent an email to another WordServe author, asking for help.
An hour later we were talking on the phone. She reaffirmed how much she liked my book, she told me she would commit to praying, and she gave me a handful of marketing ideas.
That short phone call changed my day in three ways.
I got an emotional release. I even cried a little.
I got encouragement.
I got inspired with new marketing ideas. In fact, I spent six hours the next day working on marketing ideas.
Most authors, by their nature, are Type A personalities. We are self-motivated, hard working, and perfectionist. As we seek to promote our books, it makes sense that we would try to put the best light on ourselves. But have you ever noticed how lonely driven perfectionists really are? If you’ve ever spent time watching Brene Brown’s TED talks, you understand that it’s our vulnerability and imperfections that draw others to us.
All authors need to ask for help. Here’s why:
When you ask for help usually you’ll likely find ways to reciprocate. Authors don’t know all the same people or have the same ideas. During my phone call I was able to connect my author friend with some influential people who will help expand her books’ reach.
Almost everyone loves to help. I think it’s part of the way God wired us. Think about it: if someone trips and falls, we instinctively rush towards the person in order to help. I’m pretty sure the only ones who don’t feel that pull are people who lack the ability to have empathy (sociopaths).
When people help others, they’ll be reminded of their own success. As my friend was giving me marketing ideas, it affirmed all the hard work she had done. She was able to share her success stories and tell me how proud her publisher was. Reliving your successes feels good.
Accepting help can feel like a reward for all the times you helped someone. At all times I am in the process of reading and reviewing two to five books for other authors. I know how hard I work to promote my author friends; it’s nice to be on the other side once in a while.
Asking for help can build bonds. Before last week’s phone call, I only knew the other author by name. Just one more person person from Facebook. But now, I feel like we’ve become friends.
It is actually quite arrogant to think we can help others and yet have no need to accept it in return. Is there something you’re struggling with? Why not take a risk and ask someone for help.
Can you think of a time when someone helped you on your book-publishing journey?
The last half-decade has been full of changes for our little family. Stressors included the death of several friends, unwanted job changes for both my husband and I, health challenges, and a total of four moves in five years. We’ve bought and sold three houses (well, we bought three houses…one is yet to sell, so we’re renting it out). Finally, both my dad and my father-in-law underwent major heart surgery within a few months.
Whew. It makes me tired just reading that . . . let alone living it.
To add to the chaos, my writing career stalled. Ideas I felt were timely were turned down again and again, although my previous editors loved several of them and went to bat for me. I prayed, cried, doubted, and wondered what God was up to. He provided income through work for hire projects, magazine and editing work, and I was thankful. However, I longed to write books again.
I didn’t want to turn my back on God because I felt like I didn’t deserve my circumstances. I longed to be obedient, even in the difficulties. I prayed continually for strength, and I kept seeking Him . . . even when He seemed very, very quiet on the subject of when (or if) we might be done with the “desert” we were in.
Wanna know something? Every time I cried out to Him, He answered. Sometimes He reminded me of a Scripture passage that ministered profoundly to me. Songs came on the radio which seemed to have been written just for my situation. Friends and family members called, texted and emailed me at perfect moments, when I couldn’t seem to take another step or cry another tear. He was faithful. So, so faithful.
Two years ago, my friend Tina called me with a book idea, and I knew in an instant that we were meant to collaborate on that project together. Greg Johnson agreed to represent us, and (in a first for me), we actually had two offers on the project.
It came out this month, and my heart is full. Though the process of putting the book together was emotionally draining, it was a pleasure to write with such a kindred spirit. I couldn’t be more excited about the finished product (thanks, Kregel!). Everything I’ve lived through, in publishing and life, has prepared me for Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts.
Six months ago, God led my husband into full-time ministry and moved us back to a place we love. It feels as if we are finally coming out of the wilderness and into an oasis. We are grateful beyond words. And we can see in hindsight that He’d been honing and refining us all along to minister more effectively to hurting people.
Friend, are you suffering today? Do you wonder if God has something against you? And do you fear that you’ll ever feel joy again?
Oh, I’ve been there. My heart aches for you. But this I know: the path He has you on may seem lonely, and you might not feel His presence. But He hasn’t left.
He is up to something, even when we can’t see it. Until then, trust Him with your wounded places, for one day, they will become ministry spaces.
One time as a kid, I tried to walk home from the corner store with my eyes closed.
I knew the way. My brother and sister and I stopped in often at the tiny grocery store with floor to ceiling products and cold, cement floors, always desperately worried that Marsha, the mean cashier with a mustache, was working, and at the same time buoyed in our courage by the lure of fizz candy and green, curvy, ice cold bottles of Coca Cola.
I memorized every break in the sidewalk and each pebble from thousands of trips back and forth from our house to the market. It was a straight shot, no turns, no need to cross the street.
Confident I could find my way home using other senses, I closed my eyes. As a child I subscribed to the notion that if I couldn’t see, then no one else could see me either. Creeping forward, I gained confidence, enlightened by heightened noises and smells. I smelled pine. I heard cars zipping by on the street. My feet kicked broken up pieces of gravel on the sidewalk as I meandered.
Within a few steps, I smacked into a tree. Dubbed by confidence, I had veered off to the left. The impact wasn’t that severe because I had been going at a turtle’s pace. But my forehead stung and my pride was hurt. My eyes, now wide open, darted around for witnesses. I ran the half block home to my mother in tears.
The Blinding Truth
Most of us who write, or who want to write, will recognize this story. We’re at a party, or out to lunch with an acquaintance, and we mention the book we are working on.
“Oh, you’re writing a book? That’s great. I want to write a book some day.”
You nod, take a bite of your chicken sandwich on rye, and wonder if your conversation partner realizes you’re talking about actually writing a book, not taking in nine holes of golf on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Here’s the blinding truth about writing: if you want to write, than you have to write.
Not only that, but you have to be willing to be humbled. You have to want to learn about craft, and building a platform, and countless drafts, endless revisions, fuzzy hours staring at a computer screen, keeping your butt on the chair in order to get the story down, and growing thick skin for rejections. Because rejections come, my friends. Oh, they come.
Earnest Hemingway said that we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
There is always more to learn about writing, and the best way I can figure out how to learn is by keeping my eyes open, and realizing that it is going to take work.
Gloria Steinem said that writing is the only thing that, when she does it, she doesn’t feel she should be doing something else. If that’s you, if that is how you feel, well then, write.
I sit in the living room, my laptop in front of me, open, alive, waiting for my fingers to type.
But I don’t. I can’t seem to think of one true word, let alone one true sentence. Papa Hemingway would not be impressed.
My eyes follow the thud to the window that looks out to our chipped blue porch and the Japanese maple in the front yard. Within a month, leaves will bud. Eventually a glorious rust-colored blanket from the tree will shelter the porch.
A robin flies into the window. She backs up, bewildered, and returns to her perch on a bare branch of the Japanese maple.
“Oh, you poor bird. I understand. I’ve hit my head against my reflection more than once in my life.”
The robin seems to catch her breath, and she’s off again, flying towards the window, searching for someone in the smudge filled glass. Herself? A lover? What does she want, and why doesn’t she learn her lesson? There’s nothing there for her but a hard, cold surface that will cause her pain.
And still, she flies into the window. Again and again and again.
Thud… Thud … Thud …
I watch her as I sit on our comfy, worn leather couch with a hole in the right seat cushion, the buzz of the laptop the only noise–that, and the recurring thud of the bird.
On writing memoir
As a memoirist, this happens, this hitting my head against a hard surface, when I get too introspective with my work. I am the writer, and the narrator, and the main character, and sometimes my roles mingle to the point of self-obsession and confusion. My desire to be perceived well, and to reach my personal predestined truth in the story turns me into a robin, fixated on my reflection, attempting time and again to break into something bigger than me, but really only hitting my head against a hard surface.
Annie Dillard says that you have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”
The robin has banged her head against our window for three days. I’ve tried to deter her by closing the curtains and opening the window a bit, but to no avail. She returns every few moments, unaware that if she just shifts her focus there is a whole world to fly into and discover.
If a memoirist’s goal is for people to esteem her, to like her, to want to be like her, it will show in the work. The writing will fall flat, come across as inauthentic, and showy.
No, the memoirist should write for discovery. According to Andre Gide, a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947, one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
A good memoirist is open to her story’s agenda. She participates with the reader, and diminishes the importance of her role for the sake of the universal truth found in her words.
“On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points,” says Virginia Woolf. I would add that every good memoir has a point outside the visceral domain of the writer starting out. Our job is to bring ourselves and our readers to that point. Instead of a writer playing tour guide, the memoirist should rather find herself on the journey in the words. Then she will be able to fly right and free for discovery, and most assuredly get herself and her readers somewhere she would not have found on her own.
“I’m so glad it is our first year here so that the pressure’s off to win an award. I heard you have to be returning to be in the running,” my friend Kim leaned over and whispered as we sat in the back of Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference’s auditorium last April.
“Seriously, right?” I said, slouching down in the pew and sighing. We were settled in for the final night of programming; awards, music, and a message from the great Liz Curtis Higgs, who, if I am being honest, seemed so inviting and encouraging that it took all I could muster not to walk over and crawl up in her lap.
The week in California had been a dream for this mother of four, prone to piles of laundry, homework with kids, housework, and therapy and doctor appointments for my two daughters with Down syndrome. One week by myself, ensconced with like-minded people, authors, agents, publishers, and writers with dreams of their own, in one of the prettiest parts of God’s creation.
So you can imagine my surprise when my bio was read and my name was called. I won the Ethel Herr 2012 Most Promising New Writer Award for submitting 25 pages of my memoir about giving birth to my daughter Polly, and her diagnosis of Down syndrome, while serving as a missionary in Ukraine. My friend and I jumped up and down, and I ambled to the stage. The bright lights made me dizzy. Liz Curtis Higgs gave me a huge smile. “Wonderful!” Ethel Herr (Ethel Herr!) gave me a hug. The award thrilled me, and embarrassed me. After all, I was just a mom, trying my hand at this writing thing.
I naively left the conference sure that I would secure an agent and a publisher for my book within minutes of walking in the door back home.
Yeah. That didn’t happen. I secured an agent, but months later, through a different writing venue. The manuscript garnered interest from publishing houses that even resulted in two frightening, sweat-producing face to face meetings.
But so far, my book hasn’t sold.
Here are three things I’ve learned from this experience so far:
1. Keep writing
Someone offered me sage advice once I completed my manuscript. “Start another one.” Diving right back into another book length project has been one of the best things I’ve done as a writer. I’m a writer, not a wannabe, because I want, no, I need to write, not just to be published. I am growing in my craft, and I am still having fun doing it.
2. Grow your platform
I’ll admit it, there have been days that I’ve wanted to curl up in a ball over my memoir not finding a publishing home. OK, there have been days I have curled up in a ball because my memoir has not found a publishing home. But I’m a writer, not a wannabe, because I get back up and keep trying. I am building my platform and brand through articles, speaking, social media, and blogging.
3. Trust God’s timing
As a person of faith, although my carnality wants what I want in my timing, this experience has been a great exercise in trusting God and his timing. I am called to write. And by God’s grace, he uses my words in other people’s lives, and in my personal pursuit to become more like Jesus. So I practice trusting him. If it is God’s will for my memoir to be in print, it will happen. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing.
I may not be a published author, but I am a writer, not a wannabe.
And today, that’s enough to get back to this crazy, exciting, challenging work of putting pen to paper.
“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.”- Tom Clancy
Mr. Clancy’s quote, once my eyes stumbled upon it, coaxed a satisfied sigh from my gut. I closed my eyes, imagining myself at the helm of a ship, arms stretched out like Rose and Jack from The Titanic.
But seriously, like the next day, my excitement and feelings of great accomplishment hit an iceberg when I forced myself to pay attention to two words that had floated around my mind throughout the project:
If my manuscript is the Titanic, then the book proposal is the iceberg.
A book proposal is a thorough description of a manuscript, the market it would serve, and a sample of the story, usually the first two or three chapters.
And something I had no idea about until my manuscript was nearly completed.
Once my manuscript was finished, I assumed I could change the sail on my writing ship, pound out a quick proposal, and venture into new waters of querying agents.
I had no idea about the painstaking amount of work a thorough, well-written, well-representing book proposal entailed. It took time and several confusing revisions to write an acceptable book proposal.
So here’s some advice, sailor to sailor:
1) Discern the genre. Book proposals, and when to submit them, are different depending on fiction or non-fiction. Fiction and memoir manuscripts should be completed before the proposal is submitted to an agent or a publisher. Non-fiction books can and do sell on proposal with a couple of chapters to provide the flavor and quality of the writing.
2) Work on your proposal while you are writing your manuscript. I should have started researching book proposals right away. Writing the proposal while working on the manuscript would have provided needed focus. A proposal can be a great map of where you are in your project, and where you need to go.
3) Write well. Your book proposal is probably the first writing sample a prospective agent or editor will see from you. Don’t rush. Let the voice rendered in your manuscript seep onto the proposal page. Agents and editors see many proposals. Take the time and attention required to make your proposal flawless and flavorful.
4) Stick to the basic elements of a proposal. Some include a cover page, an overview of the story, the hook, a biography of the author, marketing strategies, chapter summaries, and sample chapters.
I purchased a template from a famous author. It was a great way to get me started, but once an agent was landed, she preferred I use her agency’s template. Though similar, it wasn’t quite the same. Realize that an agent or editor will probably want you to tweak your proposal.
5) A successful book proposal requires research. Learn from the best. Check out:
But as I’ve delved into my career, the importance and benefits of collaborative writing have become undeniable. I’ve realized, with time, that my writing can get blurry. My business plan can be smudged. Enter collaborative writing.
When I say collaborative writing, I mean sharing my work with others, helping fellow writers along the way, and receiving criticism and suggestions regarding my work. I need people. I need editors, and proofreaders, and cheerleaders. I need instruction, shared experience, correction.
Col·lab·o·ra·tion: The action of working with someone to produce or create something.
Letting people into my solitary writing life has been a great experience. I create more. I create better. How? In what ways?
I’m glad you asked.
Here are 5 benefits of collaborative writing:
1. Collaboration strengthens writing skills
After I committed to writing my personal story about having a child with Down syndrome in the former Soviet Union, I looked into taking a writing class. God hooked me up with a great group. We read and discuss memoir, submit pages, and critique each other’s work. This sort of collaboration with other writers has strengthened my writing muscles and encouraged me greatly. Plus, I made writer friends!
2. Collaboration helps keep the green monster at bay
Let’s face it. All writers struggle with jealousy. I surely do.
When I collaborate with others, whether I’m reading or editing someone’s work, promoting Facebook fan pages, or having a friend guest post on my blog, it’s more difficult to for me to be jealous. Instead of racing for the win, I become a fellow sojourner along the path. If you find yourself repeatedly jealous over another writer’s success, I suggest you attempt to collaborate with him/her. It will change your attitude.
Whether you are submitting new pages to a group, or working with an editor on a freelance project, or in the final stages of line editing with your publishing house, deadlines push you. In order to write more, often, and better, collaborate with others. You will be forced to meet deadlines, which, in turn, will force you to write more.
5. Collaboration makes me an upstanding literary citizen
I’m convinced that as writers, we need to contribute to the literary society to which we belong. Read. Buy books. Share articles. Subscribe to magazines. And I would add collaborate with other authors.
Collaboration is a win for all involved.
George Orwell said that good writing is like a windowpane. I’m convinced that in order to write well, I need others around me holding the Windex bottle, spraying, and wiping my purpose, productivity, and prose clean with wadded up old newspaper.
What about you? How have you/do you collaborate with other writers?
Writing is rewriting, and rewriting is self-editing. “But isn’t that the job of the editor after I’ve made the sale?” No. Some writers think running spell-checker is self-editing. Not so much.
“But won’t rewriting my work edit the life out of it?” No, but it will catch the eye of an agent or editor as a well-written manuscript and may lead to a sale.
Obsessive editing during the writing process will destroy your work. However, after you’ve written the first draft, gain some distance and perspective on your manuscript by setting it aside for a few weeks or a couple of months. Now it’s time to rewrite.
Here are my top 5 self-editing tips in their order of importance for polishing your work to a high sheen.
Structure: Think of the structure of your work as an arched bridge spanning a great river. If the contractor takes short cuts (such as using less cement, steel, or fewer bolts) because she’s bored with the process and rushes to the end, the bridge is weakened and will collapse. The same holds true for both ends of the bridge. If too much cement is used at either end of the bridge, it will collapse from the added weight.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll concentrate on the structure of novels. If the structure of your story is solid, the reader will continue to turn the pages until the ending scene.
The material of the structure is comprised of the elements of the story arc (the basic story thread) held in place by a beginning, middle, and end. Pretty simplistic, huh? Yet the three-act structure has worked since Aristotle’s days whether you write plays, scripts, short stories, or novels.
Some authors maintain they have a four-, five-, six-, or even eight-act structure. I maintain if you break down the parts of their story arcs, you will discover classic Aristotelian structure.
Using the bridge analogy, a car drives onto the bridge. This is the point in the novel when you can lose a reader in the first page or two. I’ve thrown many a book (or manuscript) on the pile beside my bed if nothing happens right away. The author might as well have written “blah, blah, blah-blah, blah.”
A novel that piques the reader’s interest starts as far into the story as possible. I don’t want to know that the protagonist’s parents left him stranded in a snowstorm when he was a toddler and that’s why he’s terrified of snow (or abandonment). That’s back story. The story should begin with stasis (a state of equilibrium) and then the main character, pressed with conflict, reveals her goal.
One of my favorite movies is Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story throws you into the action, and the back story―Indy’s character, profession, the setting, and the antagonist―are revealed as Act 1 plays out.
As the story progresses into the middle (Act 2) and the bulk of the novel, you should have rising and falling tension as your protagonist encounters numerous obstacles or crises.
The main turning point, or big surprise, comes in the middle of the novel. By this time the reader believes he has the story figured out. You need to turn his assumptions on their head. The major turning point should be such a shock that no one sees it coming. It should keep your reader up at night turning pages.
The crises continue. Will he? Won’t she? Oh, no! What will happen to this character your reader has invested her time in? Will everything turn out all right? How will the story ever end on a happy, satisfying note now?
Tension mounts and we reach another major turning point before we head into the final third act. Every turning point should be a surprise to the reader.
The crises are unrelenting until we reach the climax halfway through the third act. The protagonist faces off against the antagonist. The clash of the titans ensues. A woman faces her attacker or her paralyzing fear. The antagonist is not always a person. A man pushes his wife out of the path of a stampeding herd of cattle. Will he live? You get the picture.
Tie up all the loose ends of your storyline in the denouement―the final resolution of the plot or story arc. Is your ending satisfying? Does the main character live happily ever after? If you live and write in America, trust me, she better if you want to succeed as a professional author. Americans are eternal optimists.
To be continued…
How will you self-edit your novel to make sure your structure is strong enough to carry your storyline through to the end?
Photo credit: Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Opera House in the background by Ian.