How’s Your Writing Going?

When I was 25, I met a friend for coffee on one of her infrequent visits home. After being inseparable as kids, we eventually drifted into our different lives. Hers seemed glamorous to me: she’s a debutante who attended an Ivy League school, then traveled abroad to pursue other degrees. She drives the most expensive sports cars and vacations all over the world. When she called and told me she was in town, I couldn’t turn down the chance to catch up with her.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to meet long because my 11-month-old son would be up from his nap soon. I was so happy to see her – and impressed with myself for losing all my baby weight and then some – that I never thought how plain I would look in my jeans and t-shirt next to her designer outfit. I never thought she’d care to know what I’d been up to. What was there to say? I’m a mom. After catching her up on baby news (which doesn’t take long when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have kids), she asked about my writing.

Writing? What writing? Oh, wait, you mean how I thought getting a degree in English would set me on the path to bestseller-dom? While I kept up with my daily journal, my fiction had gone the way of the dinosaur. I wouldn’t call it a slump. It was just that I was busy and happy not writing. After I missed the “published author” mile marker on the highway of my life, I moved on to “starting a family” and didn’t look back. Yes, I still wrote, but it wasn’t the kind of writing that kept me up at night.

And that was so not how I had envisioned my life – to be unpublished and happy. By the time I was 13, I knew that I wanted to make a living writing novels. I had no inclination to get a regular job and write after hours. I wanted to provide for my family through my books. And I was naive enough to think that I could go to college and get an English degree, and somehow, I would be in that perfect position to fulfill my dream.

Here’s what I often imagined: a home office overlooking a fenced-in backyard, where my future, well-adjusted children would run around and play, allowing me to work in peace. And then we would go out for ice cream and a movie, and we would take vacations whenever we wanted, and if my husband decided to get a job, it would just be because he wanted to, not because we were dependent on his salary.

Obviously, I had no idea what being a parent or an adult is really like, much less how the publishing world works.

But by 25, I was well aware of the perils of the publishing world. I’d already received rejections from literary agents. I’d even gone through a period when I thought maybe I couldn’t write. Maybe I would just be an editor, but I got over that when I realized that I simply hadn’t found my voice yet. After I did, I found joy in writing again. But I still had nothing to show for it, other than the title of “Editor-in-Chief” for a fledgling literary journal.

My entire writing “career” has been full of these ups and downs. I do actually make money as a writer, but it’s certainly not enough to buy us the house with the big yard and to keep my husband from having to work. It’s my lack of steady employment that makes him have to work so hard to pick up my slack. Part of me wishes that I’d gone to work for a newspaper or local magazine or even a small publisher. I would be able to carry more of the financial load, although that’s not at all the kind of writing that feeds my soul.

Yet despite being married to a starving artist, my husband believes in me. That doesn’t mean he thinks I’ll make millions, but he’s always my first reader, and even though he protests that he never knows what to say, I can always trust him for an honest opinion. The book that I’m shopping around right now is the best thing I’ve ever written, but just because it’s the best thing I’ve produced to this point doesn’t mean it’s perfect – or anywhere close to the best thing out there.

Amidst editing and querying and doing a whole lot of work that could amount to a lot of nothing, I finally asked him if I should even bother. I’d been gearing myself up to ask for several days. He loves me, but he’s not afraid to give me the painful truth. He told me it’s a good story, and he wants me to get recognition for it (although that in no way guarantees anything about getting it published).

Then he asked me if I would quit writing, even if it wasn’t any good.

While I would certainly quit wasting both my and the literary agents’ time by querying, I would never quit writing because it’s my outlet.

I still have that dream of making a living as a novelist. I still want to have a positive answer when I meet with a friend for coffee. If she were to ask me this week how my writing is going, my answer is that it’s great. I’m editing a story I love and that I know has potential. It still needs work, but maybe someday…

Here’s a quote from Sylvia Plath that I found earlier this week:

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

I have the guts and the imagination, but I also have self-doubt. It’s what made me ask my husband if all this was worth the effort. It’s what makes me cringe when someone looks at me expectantly, like, “Well, you wrote a novel, why isn’t it in bookstores yet?” I think self-doubt is healthy because it makes us look honestly at ourselves. It’s only harmful when it turns into a loss of confidence; then it’s apparent in your writing and your outlook and can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What self-doubt should do is help us re-evaluate our goals and adjust them to be realistic.

I think the enemy of creativity is really regret. Getting to a certain point and wishing you hadn’t done what you’d done. While I sometimes wish I’d done something to augment my position, I certainly have never regretted writing. If my stories never see the light of day, at least I was happy creating them.

***

Before you go away thinking that my sweet friend didn’t understand me at all and didn’t care about my life, let me tell you her response to my lack of stellar news. She said, “But you’re a mom.”

She said it with admiration and almost reverence. Yeah, I’m a mom. And quite often a writer mom. Like I said, no regrets.

Just When I Thought I Was Done…

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!           –C.K. Webb

 

English: Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 o...

Editing (manuscript fragment from chapter 14 of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man/photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

You guessed it. In the midst of querying, when I’m supposed to be done editing, I’m still editing. As a friend once told me (and I’ve heard it echoed by numerous other writers), you will always find something you want to fix with your manuscript.

I thought I was done; truly, I did. After all, I put my novel through a lot. Before I let anyone lay eyes on it, I edited out the embarrassing first draft kind of garbage that no one needs to see. Then I distributed it to beta readers. The feedback was incredible, allowing me to make more much-needed changes.

Amidst these changes, I signed up for a workshop with a team of literary agents, in which I had the opportunity to really work on the first 10 pages. After all, the first 10 pages may be all anyone ever sees if they don’t compel people to keep reading.

So I got my criticism, swallowed it even though it tasted bad, and I changed my book some more. One comment was that my manuscript was much too long, so I cut over 30,000 words. With a new ending and lots of proofreading under my belt, I figured I should quit procrastinating and start querying.

Nowadays, the majority of literary agents ask for a sample of the manuscript. The most common request I’ve seen is for the first 10 pages, although the odd agent wants 20 or the first three chapters. (Some even ask for the entire manuscript, bless their hearts.) The theme seems to be that they want to see a significant enough chunk to get a good feel for how the rest of the book will (or won’t) flow.

I was a little stumped when I found an agent who only asked for the first chapter. After I cut and pasted that one lonely chapter into my e-mail query, I realized that it wasn’t an adequate representation of my story. Without the next few pages to go with it, the pacing was too slow, and it ended in a bad place. I had edited it down from a much longer first chapter. Also, when I was concentrating on 10 pages, I didn’t pay much attention to how the first chapter ended because the first 10 pages went well into chapter two. I should have made sure that chapter one had an enticing ending. You know what the last word of that chapter was? “Okay.” Which is not okay, unless you’re John Green.

Thus began revision number four.

A couple years ago, while querying a different novel, I decided that I would make absolutely no changes (unless I found a typo) on my manuscript during the querying phase. I sent out 10 at a time, and it wasn’t until after each round of rejections that I looked over my query letter and manuscript for ways to improve.

This time, I’m making corrections as I go. Never have I made so many changes from one query to the next. If an agent happens to like the version of my book with an anticlimactic ending to the first chapter, I have that version saved. But I’m not going with the status quo anymore. I will not sit around and say, “Oh, it can wait.” It could be that the agent who’s right for me is the next one I query, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to send a chunk of my book that I know I can improve.

Painful? Yes. And I love editing. But it’s hard to think, I’ve done all I can do, only to look back and see that you didn’t.

This likely means more drastic cuts for my book. I’ve already come to the realization that I may have to trim it by another 10,000 words-plus in order for anyone to even give it a serious look. Do I think the word count alone should be the deciding factor over whether my manuscript it rejected or accepted? Absolutely not. (And I’ve climbed on that soapbox before.) But I also think that it would be a mistake to grow complacent.

So it’s time to continue cutting, revising, and searching. The right agent is out there, I know it. It will just take a more vigilant search than last time, and I have to be willing to do my part to earn a contract.

How to Choose Your Future Literary Agent

I wish it were as easy as reading a list of potential agents and picking out your favorite. Unfortunately, the agent has to pick you back. But if that happy day of acceptance ever does come, you don’t want to have that sinking feeling that of all the agents you queried, this really wasn’t the one you wanted. You want to be excited about everyone you’re querying, and it’s a lot easier to achieve this goal now than ever before.

Back when I first started querying, it was a lot harder to research potential agents because many of the agencies didn’t have websites. I would buy a copy of Writer’s Market and look for the agents that were interested in young adult, juvenile, or children’s lit (middle grade didn’t even exist back then). Some of the well-known agencies listed their big-name clients, although most didn’t. And often the list of agents was far from complete. I would just have to take a stab at it, with no idea if my story was at all appropriate for the person I picked. Those days, I figured that if I stirred up any kind of interest, I would be happy and call it a day with my search.

I think that’s why I was so eager to sign on with my former scammer agent. I never considered that an agent might not be right for me. But after ditching the scammer and looking for legitimate representation again, I decided that I might want to research the next steps. If I were to luck out and land a real agent, what would I expect? What I found kind of surprised me. Not about the publication process but about the courting process.

You see, rarely does an agent send a “Sign on the dotted line – I’ll represent you, and we’ll make millions!” response to a query. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened (although if it does, beware). I’m just saying that an agent may want to see more of your manuscript but then get cold feet. Or – Lord help us – several agents may be interested, and then you’re faced with the daunting job of choosing. Although a positive response is a great alternative to an outright rejection, it doesn’t mean you’re done with the querying process. Only now, the ball’s in your court. It may turn out that only one of these people you thought you liked is really the right fit. It might be that you don’t like any of them and have to keep looking. Kind of depressing, but you don’t want the wrong person representing the fictional world you’ve worked so hard to create.

If you’re building a list of agents to query, the tools are out there to help you find a great match, and I’m going to give you a couple examples of how I’ve used this information to narrow my search. I am strictly giving my opinions of the following agencies. What looks good to me may look horrible to you, but I’ll try to explain as best I can, so you can make an equally informed decision.

First, check out The Bent Agency’s website (click here). Simple but appealing (to me, at least) with bright colors and a stack of books. But the copy is what shines; it certainly sounds as if they’re enthusiastic about their authors. And not only that – enthusiastic for submissions, too. Each agent has her or his own page, and of all the sites I’ve checked out recently, these have the most personable bios. I know exactly which of these agents I would like to have a cup of coffee with. One even has an invitation to her blog. These aren’t people sitting in a tower, looking down on the masses of unpublished wannabes. They’re real people, and they’re not afraid to mingle with us other real folks.

Contrast this with Sterling Lord Literistic (click here). Sterling Lord is the actual name of one of the agents. His parents must have known he would go on to have an agency that would represent the likes of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, not to mention famous children’s books, such as Corduroy, The Berenstain Bears, and Fancy Nancy. SLL has a gorgeous website. It screams, “Professional! We know what we’re doing! We’ve spent big bucks on our marketing, and you’ll see why when you read our author list!”, but it can also be a little off-putting. From their submissions page: “Sterling Lord Literistic is highly selective in offering representation to writers. We receive an extraordinarily large number of unsolicited submissions and can seriously consider only those with merit.” Sounds kind of like, “You’d better think twice before you waste our time.”

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Maybe I was also a little bit rejected by them two years ago. (But I do give them props for actually mailing my rejection via SASE rather than making me guess.) That didn’t stop me from looking at them again. After all, they have new agents on staff, and if you’re seriously looking for an agent, then you know that your best bet to get your foot in the door is usually with an agent who is trying to build his or her client list.

The problem is that while The Bent Agency’s list of agents made me feel all cozy and warm and encouraged, the deeper I looked into Sterling Lord Literistic, the more I realized I was out of my league. Sure, to be represented by them would be amazing, but none of their bios really spoke to me. I may be able to put on a good front, but I’ll always feel like a toddler walking in my mom’s big-girl shoes with these kinds of people. Maybe they speak to other authors who will go on to sell millions of books, but not this girl.

I would still love to sell millions of books, by the way, but if I ever do, I want my agent to be someone that I feel I can be myself with. It’s one of those trust your gut instinct kinds of things, and I’m at the point where I don’t want to waste my time querying someone who doesn’t excite me.

So I’m being picky. I’m using the internet as a tool to delve deeper and deeper and find the agents with whom I hope to connect. (I’m also vetting them on Preditors & Editors – don’t worry! Do yourself a favor, and always check reviews of literary agents before querying them.) Instead of looking for agencies that sell big name authors, I’m looking at agents who are enthusiastic about what I write. I’m looking at agents who are maybe a little quirky and have a sense of humor and who don’t know exactly what they want because they’re willing to have their minds blown by something totally unexpected. (Not saying that’ll be my story, but I do like that kind of agent.) I’m looking for agencies who take a chance on new authors that I’ve never heard of before. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll be one of those authors.

It’s liberating to feel that I have this choice. It’s also nerve-wracking and scary to put myself out there and not know if what I’ve done is good enough. But it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing for my story, which at the end of the day, is finding someone who cares about it as much as I do. For everyone who is looking for representation, I suggest that you settle for nothing less.

For a great place to start, check out Writer’s Digest‘s Editor Blogs/Guide to Literary Agents (click here). You’ll find all kinds of helpful articles, as well as the bios and submission info for new literary agents.

Maybe I Am Meant for This Line of Work

My Books!

My Books!

This week I had two wonderful opportunities to talk to kids about my books and being an author. In all my dreams of making it big and whatnot (ha), I have never really thought much about interacting with my audiences. If I ever think about it at all, it’s usually about book signings and how miserable they are if no one shows up to buy the books.

Despite not having a household name or a bestseller under my belt, I was chosen to speak at two schools. One was a preschool, the other a junior high school – quite a difference. It just so happens that I write for both age groups.

Pre-school, I figured, would be easy. I’m most comfortable with this age because 1. they’re a lot smaller than me; 2. they’re still huggable; and 3. I teach that age all the time. I knew pretty much what to expect when walking in. They might be unruly, and I may not be able to understand everything they say, but at the end of the day, they think people who write books are cool. Plus, I did this event with my co-author and friend Karen Saltmarsh, and we ad-libbed a very over-the-top version of the moment we decided to write a book together. Even the adults loved it.

Karen and I wrote a non-fiction book for ages K through 12. It’s not a sit-down-and-read-it-during-circle-time kind of book; it’s all about encouraging the creative writing spark to thrive and spread. And even though I wasn’t sure if the older preschoolers would get it, the four- and five-year-olds we visited wanted to write their own books right then and there. Then I read my book to them, and they were the perfect audience. Even the little three-year-olds listened and interacted with me. I left feeling energized and wondering why I don’t do more of this kind of thing.

OPJH literacy week cardAs for the junior high, it was their literacy week. They had a book fair and everything, and I was the guest author. Kids who were interested in talking to me spent their lunch period in the library, listening to this nothing author talk about books and the writing/publishing process. I’d had it on my calendar for a couple months, and every time I thought about it, I reminded myself that there was no reason to worry yet. Just save that for the night before, and go about life as normal.

Of course, I was still nervous. Not incapacitated or sick to my stomach, but it was the kind of thing I couldn’t dwell on much because then it would make me sick. Despite writing for this age, I don’t spend all that much time with 12- to 14-year-olds. To be honest, when I was that age, I didn’t want to be that age. I interact with them from afar, usually from the pages of adolescent fiction.

I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised when the kids were very receptive to what I had to say. They loved it when I talked to them about how they can publish books on-demand (and without waiting for a major publishing house to discover them). And when we talked about the books (and books-made-movies) that we like to read, I had a wonderful moment of wow-we-actually-get-each-other. They were even polite enough to listen to me read my children’s book, although the reactions (as expected) were much different than what I get from little kids.

There weren’t many silences at all – and when there were, it was because the kids were nervous about talking to me. Afterward, when we had some one-on-one time, several kids hung around long enough that they were late to their next class; we could’ve talked all day. In fact, I wished that they didn’t have to go so soon.

Two completely different groups of kids, two completely different situations, two great experiences. I still don’t know if my books will ever attract the interest of a so-called “real” publisher or any of those lists that seem to matter so much. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t care. But still, what I found was respect and joy – and gratitude for myself that I haven’t given up, that I keep writing when publishing and promotion are so difficult. I’m doing what I love, and it turns out that part of what this introverted author loves is spending time with her audiences.

Check out my children’s book Hero here.

My Gift

Have you ever had a dream that seems a little silly, but you can’t help but hold onto it anyway? Like driving by a beautiful house every day that you know you’ll never be able to afford but imagining yourself living there anyway?

Well… but who says you won’t live ever there? So many people give up on dreams that aren’t necessarily impossible, just difficult to attain. Sometimes life makes it very difficult to hold onto our dreams. Sometimes we get bitter, assuming that those who do achieve their dreams have some secret inner track that is unavailable for the rest of us “normal” people. Sometimes we give up.

Probably my longest-held unfulfilled dream is that of becoming a published author. Well, let me rephrase: an author who is published in the traditional sense. I do have books under my belt, and I do make a (tiny) income freelance writing, but back in high school, I thought that I could go to college, major in English, improve my writing skills, and somehow earn an annual income as a novelist equal to (or more than) what my husband makes.

Not only did majoring in English do absolutely nothing to further my writing career, but the idea that becoming a novelist can bring a steady income is one that seems less likely every day. It’s harder than ever to find a literary agent and then a publisher, and even they can’t promise positive or lasting results. Books get remaindered all the time, and there go the hopes of more starving artists.

In the face of this and many more discouraging statistics, it would be logical to give up on my dream. And to be honest, this dream does come and go. When my first son was a baby, I wrote very little. It suddenly wasn’t very important to me, both because I was tired and focused on new motherhood. I wrote when I wanted to, and I wrote what moved me, but as far as a career, I almost let go of the dream completely, unless someone reminded me by asking how my writing was going.

Other times, I’ve wanted my dream so much that it almost caused physical pain – and I guess that is possible, if you consider the toll anxiety can take. It’s not fun trying so hard and being rejected over and over and over and over… need I go on?

But most of the time, I live in a cycle of writing with pure joy and energy and plowing on because I know that joy is just around the corner, if only I can stick with it. That’s how this last year has been, starting with my first NaNoWriMo experience in November 2013.

If you follow my blog, you know that last year’s NaNoWriMo was the joy and energy, and this year’s I just had to plow through. Although I won (by writing more than 50,000 words in the month of November), I’m still chipping away at my novel. I would love to finish the first draft by the end of the month, but things really have to change if I want that to happen: I don’t think I’ve ever procrastinated so much when it comes to writing.

This isn’t writer’s block. I’ve had that before, don’t care for it much, but understand that it’s a normal part of the writing process. What this is is writer’s exhaustion. Three days in the past week, I neglected to write at all. I was so busy that I forgot, and I was too tired to even care all that much.

Except.

Except that I realized that I missed it. I make time for all kinds of other things during the day, all of which are important, but why is it that my novel gets shoved to the side? No, it’s not paying the bills, but since when did that become the sole criteria of what’s important to me? If I have to dedicate five minutes at a time to get it done, at least I can go to sleep at night feeling like I haven’t let myself – and my dream – down.

My dream will never have the chance of becoming reality if I don’t do my part. Which means I have to start querying again. Which means editing last year’s novel and finishing this year’s. After all, my books won’t write themselves, and I can’t expect an agent to just stumble across my blog and send me an email – “Hey, Sarah. You sound talented. Do you happen to have a novel I could represent?” Yeah right.

Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but this girl isn’t going to sit around and wait for a miracle to happen. Writing may present a challenge, but it can also fill my tank when it’s empty. I owe myself this gift. The gift of five minutes a day, the gift of keeping my dream alive, the gift of trying to make it become reality.

And if it doesn’t work… well, I’ve always loved dreaming.

Sometimes You Have to Freeze Your Characters in Carbonite (Don’t Worry, It’s Temporary)

What a difference one week makes! If you read last week’s blog, I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo and nervous about starting. Not because of the whole 50,000 words in a month thing. I did it last year, so how hard could it be to do it again?

What I was worried about was finishing last year’s NaNo novel in time to move on to the sequel, which is this year’s NaNo novel. I was still deep in my last edit, and although I didn’t have many pages to go, I was at the crucial point where I needed to make the most drastic changes.

During the editing process, I cut almost 50,000 words (ironic – don’t you think? – since that’s the number I need to type this month). Cutting I can do all day. But the closer I got to the end, the more it became like slogging through verbal quicksand. It was the part of the editing process that I dreaded most. I had quite a bit of hard work ahead of me. On the one hand, I still needed to cut 3000 words, and on the other, I needed to add to the ending to improve it.

Then something wonderful happened, something that I hope happens many times this month (although it hasn’t yet): I had a brainwave. Whenever I read a novel with a plot twist or a really clever scene, I wonder if it was always a part of the plan or if it developed over time or maybe if it popped up out of nowhere, just in time to save the story. And while I’m not saying that I came up with something brilliant like the vanishing cabinet in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, this brainwave explained some of the points that I was afraid would never gel. This included making quite a few cuts and changing the ending even more than planned, and I just couldn’t stay up long enough to finish. Editing when you’re half asleep isn’t always in the best interest of the story, but on the plus side, I got to sleep on the brainwave.

November first, the first day of National Novel Writing Month, wasn’t much better. I had my weekly editing work for Fiction Fix and my son’s t-ball game. When the afternoon rolled around and I finally got a chance to edit, I would fix a scene, move on, add some more, realize that this affected an earlier scene, go back, rewrite again… and stare at the computer screen a lot as I tried to figure it all out.

I finally got it, finally realized exactly how it needed to end, and it dovetailed perfectly with the opening of the second book.

Half of my goals from last week were in the bag: I’d finished editing and gotten my word count under 100,000.

And as soon as I finished, I was supposed open up a brand new document and leave my editing hat at the proverbial door. Forget cutting! Now is the time for extraneous adverbs and adjectives. For people to ask sweetly and say quietly and walk quickly and wear elaborate gowns with one hundred buttons down the back, belled sleeves, and sweetheart necklines. Sometimes you have to break all your rules in order to get the job done – and tell your inner editor to shut up while you do it.

Typing that first page was painful. All I could think was, This isn’t a good opening line! No one will ever read beyond this.

And that’s how it’s been all week. My inspiration has just kind of fizzled. I’ve kept up with my word count, but the only reason I’ve been able to do so was because I typed over 4000 words that first day. I’ve seen a lot of things that need the axe. Even as I type, I think, This’ll get cut in the next draft.

But not in this one. Right now, I must plow on. It may be a tough slog the whole month. At least I’ve figured out why, not that it really helps. You see, I’m in the second book slump. This happens in trilogies. Okay, instant fix: don’t write a trilogy. It’s not that simple, though. My story needs to be told that way. And I’m not saying that all middle books should be thrown away, but often it’s necessary for the plot to slow or tough things to happen in order for better things to happen later in the trilogy. And so I think that the writing process naturally reflects some of the difficulties within the story. (And besides, it can happen in series with more than three books. Think about New Moon from the The Twilight Saga or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: necessary but often painful to read.)

The best example I can think of actually comes from the movie Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back. First of all, what happened to Mark Hamill? Yeah, he’s still a stud, running around the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda on his back and all, but he’s not nearly as cute as in the first movie. Plus he loses an arm (Luke Skywalker, I mean, not Mark Hamill). And then Han Solo turns into a carbonite-cicle. It’s depressing stuff. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you still love it, but yikes. Thank goodness for Return of the Jedi, right?

And that’s what I have to keep in mind. There will be ups for every down. And the great light at the end of the tunnel is my book three, but I can’t get too distracted by that right now because, God-willing, I won’t start on it until NaNoWriMo 2015. What I need is to get through this book – not just get through but give it the attention it deserves, see it on its own terms rather than compared with its companions.

There is a time for choosing my words with great care, for analyzing and fine-tuning, but November is not one of those times. Editor, hop in the backseat. Writer, say whatever you want because you can always cut it out and make it pretty later. After all, the great thing about first drafts is that you can make all the mistakes you want and fix them before anyone finds out. My inner editor needs to take a forced month-long vacation, so I can get some work done.

So You Want to Write a Book – Well, Now What?

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Has this ever happened to you? You’re with a group of people – let’s say a moms’ group, with everyone exchanging tips and anecdotes – and someone says, “We could write a book.”

“We really could!” someone else chimes in.

Another mom even throws in a title: “Temper Tantrum on Aisle Four – How to Survive the Toddler Years!”

Everyone laughs, and they go about their lives and forget about it. But you linger on the thought that maybe you could write a book. Then again, the idea that you don’t know how to start – and what would make your book any more special than any other, any more worthy of the New York Times Bestseller List? – is intimidating, so your idea stays an idea and no more.

On the one hand, you might be right. Everyone does have a story (or three), and some of them aren’t worth telling (and those are the ones that seem to be repeated the most). But any time you impart a nugget of knowledge to someone else who seems to get something out of it, you feel that I-should-really-write-this tug.

Nowadays, blogs (much like this one) pick up the slack. A mom blogs about potty-training her strong-willed toddler, and other moms unite behind her or take comfort that they aren’t alone in the struggle. A man loses his job but figures out how to make a living from home – and writes a great how-to post. Someone with an incredible weight-loss story posts a menu and workout routine online to help others in the same situation. Blogs are great resources, and the topics they cover are endless.

But still, there are those for whom blogging and swapping stories around the water cooler aren’t enough. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily writers and don’t know what to do. The idea persists, won’t let them go.

Sometimes for decades.

I get all kinds of mixed reactions when people find out that I’m a writer. They want to know what I write. (“Novels? How can you write so much?”) They want to know how much freelance work I can handle. (“How do you manage it with two kids?”) They marvel that I’ve actually made an occupation out of this – you know, it’s not just a cute hobby. (“You mean you edit and write for a living?”)

And sometimes they ask me, kind of sheepishly, if I can help them with something they’ve been wanting to do for years.

One such person is a client of my parents’ business and happened to mention to my mom that she had a writing project. My mother said that I’m a writer, and the next time the woman came in, I was there. I gave her my business card and promptly forgot about it. I talk to a lot of people about my services, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hire me.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, she called. She went into great detail about this project, one that she started over ten years ago. Her kids have been encouraging her to write a memoir because she’s led such an interesting life, but she doesn’t use computers, and the woman who helped her start it has been too busy to continue.

As I talked to this woman and learned her story, I realized that there are so many people who lead amazing lives, but some of the best details will die with them. They may not have a great command of the English language, but they have stories worth passing on. It would be a shame for this woman to never see her dream fulfilled just because she’s not a “writer.” I feel privileged to help her share her bit of history with her family.

Another opportunity arose in late May. I had just published my children’s book Hero (shameless plug – buy it here!), and Peter shared it with his kindergarten class. Afterward, one of his teachers mentioned that she has always wanted to write a book but needs help.

“Sure, let’s do it,” I said before I even knew what she wanted. Hey, I had just illustrated and published my first children’s book – I was flying high and felt like I could do anything.

Her face lit up as she described her 20-year dream. She used to take her children for bike rides around Amelia Island. They would stop at interesting trees, and she would make them create stories about how those trees came to look like that. Combining her love of nature with her interest in developing writing skills in children, she wants to create a book with photos of interesting trees and writing prompts. As with her own children, kids will “Look at this tree” and be encouraged to write a story about it.

It’s right up my alley. Although I’ve never created a book like this, I must admit that I love writing prompts. I love anything that starts with a tiny seed and blossoms into a beautiful story.

I really feel that I could give her a push – much like with a child on a bike with the training wheels removed for the first time – and watch her go, but I also understand that I’ve been in the publishing world for a while now, and it’s no longer mysterious to me. If you’re not right in the middle of it, though, you might think writing a book is unattainable.

I was there once. I’ve talked about my college fiction workshop before, and the second time I signed up, our instructor Ari pulled a group of us together (the ones who were serious about getting published) and gave us the low-down on publishing. 1) It’s a competitive market that’s difficult to break into, and 2) it’s still not guaranteed to be everything you hoped and dreamed even if you do get published. What Ari suggested was that we pull our best stories together and create our own publication. And so Fiction Fix was born. With his direction, we figured out what we were supposed to do, and more than 11 years later, Fiction Fix is going strong as an online fiction journal. We’ve grown quite a bit from that group of desperate writers who just wanted to see our stories in print; now we receive submissions from all over the world.

We were lucky in that we had someone who saw our desire to write and be read and who knew just when to push us. But for those out there with the desire but no direction, no help, no idea except THE IDEA for a story or book, the task can seem daunting. But here’s the thing: if you have a book that you want to write, the only thing in your way is your own indecision. Instead of dreaming or joking about maybe writing a book some day, you need to take action.

Indie (self-published) authors are more prevalent than ever. The internet has done many wonderful things for writers, on-demand and e-publishing being two of them. And even if you don’t write, these tools and their practitioners have made publishing a much more attainable reality than it used to be.

An internet search can give you everything you need, from writers’ support groups and social networks to online book publishing to lists of freelance editors (like me!). Don’t ever assume that the person you’ve just looked up is the real deal until you’ve done some research. (I learned this the hard way, regarding literary agents – read my story here.) Also don’t assume that the big companies are your only choice. Everywhere you look, you will find writers and editors with different levels of expertise. You’ll even find local printing companies, graphic designers, and illustrators who can all help bring your book to life. These are real people with whom you can share a cup of coffee – and your dream.

But if you’d like some resources, here are some websites to check out:

  • Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace (Amazon.com’s answers to e-publishing and on demand publishing)
  • Smashwords.com (distributor of eBooks to every conceivable e-format)
  • Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market (tips for writing and publishing)
  • LinkedIn (where professionals go to network – Facebook and Twitter are great, but if you want to connect with writers who can help you get started, I can’t think of a better place)
  • NaNoWriMo.org (Ever wonder if you could write a novel in a month? If you’re serious about this, I promise that you will have the writing experience of a lifetime.

So… do you have a story to tell?

Want to help with the writing prompt book?

Look at This Tree

Look at This Tree

The writing prompt book I mentioned is the brain-child of my friend Karen Saltmarsh. We’re going to title it Look at This Tree, and we’re looking for high-quality photos of interesting trees that could tell a story. To the left is an example from a park that I visited in Washington State. (Don’t you think there could be a secret hideout for some mythical, woodland creature under the roots?) If you have something you’d like to submit, please fill out the contact form on my Writing Services page, and Karen and I will consider your photo for her book.