Path to Publication, pt 16: It’s happening!

Wow, it’s been a looooong time since I last wrote, especially on this publication series. And here’s one of the reasons why: I’m about to get published!

Quick background: Over 18 months ago I was hired — as a history buff, writer, and someone with some graphic lilian-scrapbookdesign skills — by a historical society to put together a biography/memoir on a local historian — Lilian Baker Carlisle. This required traveling regularly 90+ minutes to Lilian’s former home (now owned by her daughter) to go through 80 years worth of scrapbooks she kept starting in 1925 when she was in 8th grade. Now all these months later, the text is written and the layout (which looks like a scrapbook itself) will be finished next week.

And let me tell you! For the past few months, since I have been able to see the end of the tunnel, I have been like a woman possessed. Having dropped all other freelancing projects so I can give this one my full attention, I have nothing else to occupy my mind (oh, don’t worry, every once in while I remember to take a shower or feed my kids).

I go to sleep thinking about the book and I wake up thinking about it. Like this morning, a Saturday, I was awake at 5:30AM worrying about the details — I wonder if the table of contents page get numbered? How do I know what goes on that very first page where the publication details go? Will I EVER finish?! And even when I’ve put in a “full” day of work (“full” for this intensive work is at most six hours, but I can usually get in four hours before my eyeballs start to shrivel and shoulder muscles go into full spasm), I am thinking about what and when I will do next, sometimes forcing myself to stay watching TV instead of escaping to my office to put in a few more minutes.

When the book committee first told me the details of this project, passing over a large file book smelling strongly of stale cigarette smoke (Lilian was not a smoker, it was from the researcher before me), the stage at which I am now seemed an impossibility. How to pull 94 years of an extremely active life into one book with a theme without it sounding/looking like a long run-on sentence of “and then she did this, and then she did that…” felt like a monstrous challenge.

Did I doubt I was up to it? Of course I did. Almost every day. But I didn’t let that stop me. I kept doing what I had to, believing the next step and then the next step would become clear. And they did, step after step through the stages of the research and the compilation.

lakeviewAnd every step was fabulous! I carefully skimmed crumbling scrapbooks from the 1930s and ’40s, guided the photographer through shoots and scanning photos and brochures and newspaper clippings and articles in huge binders from every decade, all while looking out over the most amazing view of Lake Champlain from Lilian’s house. I visited museums and the state historical society. I enjoyed a comfy bed, good food, and good conversation provided by Lilian’s eldest daughter and I oogled over carefully preserved clothing my grandmother might have worn in her younger days. AND I will have a book with my name on the cover at the end! I feel like I hit the jackpot of freelancing.lilian-suit

But here I am, just weeks away from having a completed manuscript in my hands and I feel like I will never make it. All the details are swimming in my head and I have never felt quite so overwhelmed. I’ve never put together a book before and so I don’t know all the details, and I don’t have to (*she reminds herself as writing that sentence*); the members of the historical society have done it many times and the printer we are working with is ready to help in any way. But that doesn’t help my obsessive thoughts. Even on weekends (notice I am writing this on a Saturday), I can’t leave it behind my office door.

This is, I realize, a lot like a pregnancy. At first you’re in disbelief that one day there will be a new little person (book) in your midst but you just go along doing what you’ve got to do, eating right, mulling over names. Then it starts getting kind of uncomfortable, your belly (manuscript) and thoughts of the new arrival get bigger and take over your life. Then the reality of it all takes over and you begin to think, I can’t do this! But you know you have to. This book is in its last month of gestation and soon it will enter the world. When it does, I will be exhausted but ecstatic.

When I began this Path to Publication series, I never, ever thought it would veer off in this direction, that the path would take me to publishing someone else’s book before my own (but that’s next!). But I’ll take it, happily. It has been — and continues to be — a fantastic ride.

I will be very glad to be done with it though. I’m tired (obsessive thoughts are pretty tiring), I’m ready to sleep for about a month. I’d also kind of like to (don’t laugh) clean my house and start paying my bills on time. And shower on a regular basis.

In January 2017, look for news about the “birth” of this book. I will most likely be doing some book tour-ish type things at local libraries, bookstores, and museums, mostly in the Burlington, VT area but hopefully in my hometown too.

So, I’ll be off — back to my worrying, er, I mean, pondering pagination and ISBN numbers…

A Path to Publication, pt 15: An editor is your friend

I try to shake loose my mind, so something fresh can fall out… This process acts like a sifter—sand falls through and bright nuggets come to light.

–Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

In my last post I wrote about the struggle I was having with a particular essay. Every tweak made it seem even more hopeless—it was still crap. This Facebook post sums up how I was feeling at that time:

If I didn’t know I’d regret it highly, I’d figuratively rip this essay into a million pieces and forget submitting anything, anywhere, ever.

Well, I am happy and extremely relieved to say, after finally letting it sit percolating for almost two weeks, the essay is finished and submitted to the magazine. And I am also beyond happy to say: It was good.

Yes, eventually, it got good. I could claim to be a writer again. Phew.

How did this happen? Well, Anne LaMott was right (of course), you really do need to let it sit. But, as Anne also says, it is essential to write that “shitty first draft” and, believe me, my first (and second and third…) draft was incredibly shitty. (And reeeeaaaally long.)

Why? If I’m a good writer shouldn’t I just know what constitutes should be in a piece and what needs to be left out? How things best flow and what theme should run throughout? No, not at first. That’s what revising and editing are for. First drafts are for just getting it out. Getting out of your head and heart what you need to express. Some of these things may never see light of day beyond your journal or computer screen but out they must come. As Shrek says, “Better out than in…”

Here’s how one of my friend-editors put it:

By writing this piece over and over again, you finally got out of your system how you wanted it to go, and let it tell you why you were writing it and what it was really about.

Which brings me to the subject of editors.

I knew someone a long time ago, an artist who struggled with self-confidence issues. This person was a good artist but, as is the case for anyone practicing a craft (even if it’s practicing the “craft” of living) having a mentor could have been helpful. My friend wanted nothing to do with it, I believe because he felt it implied he wasn’t good enough to do it alone.

There are writers like this, those who think their natural talent is enough. But let me tell you, having a mentor/editor or a group of such, is essential to your growth as a writer.

My main editor-friend is a gift to me. She is honest in her critique but generous in her praise. She willingly plowed through version after version I sent her, gently coaching and coaxing me. With her guidance I dug through the dirt to find the gems.

At times I didn’t take particular suggestions because they didn’t sit right with me intuitively–when I felt it was straying too far from what I knew was my truth. Together with an editor, you get to sift through all the unneeded “stuff.” And ultimately, after letting the essay rest for a while, my full truth flowed far easier and authentically because I’d already played with the muck around the edges and the gems were more obvious.

I also sent my work-in-progress to two other writerly friends to have it seen by other eyes and new perspectives. Their feedback was invaluable too. They too were honest in their comments when something didn’t quite work for them and supportive with their positive feedback. Their joyful (almost proud-motherish) reactions to the final draft was validating and humbling.

Writing this particular essay was difficult. It was a personal narrative about a painful part of my past. Bringing it to fruition was akin to a hard labor and birth. But my main midwife-editor and assistant doula-readers guided me through it, not undermining my ability with their presence and advice, but supporting and fostering it.

Once again, I thank you, Jen, Gabriella, and Jennifer!

A Path to Publication, pt 13: How self-absorbed are you?!

To bring about a paradigm shift in the culture that will change assumptions and attitudes, a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon

I haven’t posted about my path to publication in a while because, well, last fall the path suddenly became a rut. I didn’t have the time or emotional ability to navigate that bumpy road at that time. But, as these things do, it hasn’t stopped nagging at me. Lately that voice has once again become too loud to ignore.

The question for me right now is: Do I stop everything else I’m doing, including pursuing other work, to dedicate my time to this memoir? It is so close to being finished (pre-revision finished, that is) it probably wouldn’t take too much concentrated time to complete it. But, as always, money and time are in limited quantities and I wonder if even the consideration of taking precious resources to work on a book is foolish.

Yes, the old fearful, imposter-syndrome, “who am I?” question has come into play. Why on earth do I think my story is so special that I have a right to spend anything on it?? Isn’t that kind of self-absorbed? Isn’t it just navel-gazing?

Well, here’s what my journal had to say about that last night:

If you are a good singer, you share your voice with others. If you are a talented cook, you feed others. You are a gifted teacher, you inspire others to learn. You have a story, you tell it.

I am a writer. A good writer, with a story to tell.

People respond to my writing. I have been given a gift. It is my gift back to share it.

I need my words to be read. I need to be heard.

And I have something to say. If it only resonated with one person, that’s reason enough to say it. Writing my story helped me to heal. Maybe it can help someone else too.

Humans are story-livers and givers. We relate, we learn, we empathize, we resonate, we make decisions, we change the world through story. It is my obligation to share mine.

A Path to Publication, part 12: When the silence descends

manda4Silence. My yearning for it is as strong as my need for sleep. At least eight hours of sleep and almost as much silence. Otherwise, don’t expect too much from me.

Today I have silence. For an entire day. It’s a different kind of silence than I experience weekly once the kids are off to school and I sit in my office to write my articles. It’s a silence where I get to think and write what I need to. For me.

The last time I wrote a post here, it was high summer and my children were away visiting family. I lived in daily, sometimes empty, silence for many weeks. It was wondrous. It was enlightening. Rejuvenating. Inspiring.

During that time I worked on my memoir manuscript to send it off to an agent who had requested it (see previous posts). Other than these blog posts and those in my journal, I didn’t write copiously during that time, I’d even taken some time off from my weekly newspaper columns. All my creative energy was thrown into editing, which I thoroughly enjoy.

But since that time, when I hit send and watched (in my mind) the .pdf snapshot of my life shooting through cyberspace to an office, and hopefully appreciative agent in New York City, a new silence has descended.

In August my children returned, and I reveled in their energy, yes, even in their noise. For a while. When they went back to school, I, thankfully, once again fell deeply into the softness of a quiet house, the calmness of  solitude, and into the love of writing. And I was writing almost every day, producing 3,000 words a week for my columns, and who knows how many more scribbled in my journal.

But I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write. Besides in my journal where I anguished and cried and pep-rallied my way through a difficult personal situation, I began to feel my voice was silenced. Of course, my writing voice came through in every article I wrote; every turn of phrase, every angle, every theme was mine and a reflection of my authentic self, but it wasn’t quite right. Writing had become my job. I was doing it for a paycheck. Deadlines were almost daily, interviews frequent, and topic brainstorming endless. I had lost the joy. It felt as if I was talking a lot without saying a word.

The busy-ness of my freelance life took over from everything else. This blog became silent, and the urge to write after my deadlines were met was gone.

It has been almost five months since I sent off my manuscript, and I didn’t hear a word — silence. And that’s OK (well, it’s not exactly OK, at least a “no, thank you” note would have nice). It’s mostly OK because I feel freed up to move on. And move on not necessarily with that piece of work. It called me over the summer and I responded with a passion that wouldn’t let me quit despite the emotional chaos of those few weeks (in fact, it probably helped get me through it), and now I feel satiated for a while.

It’s like last year when I became obsessed with making mandalas. manda1I knew I needed to do something meditative to pull me and my mind from my ever-open laptop. Over a period of three months I made over 100 mandalas, one or two a day, and I loved every second of it.

Then I stopped. Just stopped. I was done. And that was OK.

I’ve been a singer since childhood — solos, small groups, choirs, voice lessons — and I continued until my first child was born. After that my singing activity was sporadic at best. And that was OK.

I was an avid artist from my senior year of high school through college and a little beyond. Then I started writing and it took over my imagination and my life. And that was OK, too. Very OK.

I always knew I would get back to singing (I have) and to my art (more than mandalas) which I will when the time is right. I feel similarly about my book right now. Like the mandalas, which served a valuable purpose when I needed them, working on my book was necessary at that time. I don’t feel the drive for now, and that too is OK.

What worries me — as in, it is causing me discontentment with my good fortune of having such stable freelance work — is that something is beginning to bubble in my depths. Something else needs to be written. I’m not sure what it is, I get only a vague glimmer of it once in a while. I try to get it to focus in my mind, but it won’t.

I also re-experience the joy of writing once in a while when I decide to write one of my columns free from the constraints of interviews and profiles and event promotions. It is when I write these pieces that I remember why I love to write, and it verifies that I have more to give, more to experience, more to say. That I need to free myself from the confines of freelance work. That I need my “talking” to say something more authentic and more — dare I say? — important.

Ideas and questions I discovered during graduate school and am learning in life right now need further exploration as only writing can do; things that need to be shared and offered to others to (hopefully) help them on their own journey. I need to do more but I can’t quite grab hold of what it is and how I might do it.

So, in the unexpected silence of today while my family is off playing in the snow, I ponder the silence of words not written, the silence that is caused when what one really wants and needs to say is not said.

But acknowledgement is a first step. Yes, I know I have more to say, but it might not quite be the right time to say it. But it will be. And so, that is OK.

A Path to Publication, part 11: Yeah, what IS your book about?

For the past week I have been frantically editing my manuscript, molding it word by sentence by paragraph into a shape that looks remotely like something the agent who requested it will like. Of course, that is an impossible task, because to what she will ultimately say yes or no, is as beyond my control as the weather. So, I just have to be happy with it. Ha.

One of the projects I set myself before I began editing, however, was to run my “story” through some tests: asking it questions and analyzing the answers, making sure we are on the same page.

The following questions to ask your story are from a presentation by author Jo Knowles at the most recent conference of the League of Vermont Writers.

1. What is the book about?

2. Beneath that, what is it really about?

3. What does your character want?

4. Beneath that, what does he/she want?

5. What is your character afraid of?

6. Beneath that, what is he/she really afraid of?

7. What’s your W.O.W? (with credit to author Holly Black)

Want: What does your character want?

Obstacle: What do they have to overcome to get it?

Win: How do they achieve their goal and change in the process?

And this question, which seems so obvious but stumped me, came from an agent during my pitch session:

8. What’s the take-away?

These questions came from agent Katherine Sands during her presentation:

9. Why would *you* buy your book?

10. What makes it intriguing? What’s the juicy premise?

So, put your story, your article, your essay, your memoir to the test. There are no wrong answers, just — hopefully — some clarity and focus.

To read snippets of my memoir, click here. I will be adding more as this journey progresses.

A Path to Publication, pt 10: Kicking open the creaking door

credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

At this past Saturday’s conference of the League of Vermont Writers, keynoter David Dobbs encouraged us to kick open every door that creaks. This metaphor has been a repeating one in my life lately and I have been knocking on several.

What I didn’t expect was for some of these doors to not only creak, but, in one case,  swing wide open.

On the Friday before this conference I had a meeting at my favorite coffee shop with the editor of the paper for which I am a freelance columnist. I walked into the cafe with one column in full swing and one due to come off a summer sabbatical, and walked out with two brand new columns to add to my weekly roster which I hadn’t expected. My planning calendar just got busy.

Where would this leave my book, I wondered? I’m not great at multi-tasking (despite my claims to the contrary and the forced necessity as a mother at being so) and writing fourteen columns a month, plus the occasional cover story, while revising a book seems a scheduling nightmare. (And then there’s the up-my-alley, possible door-opening part-time job I applied for… but that’s another question mark for another day.)

Then came the conference where I pitched my book to three agents. At this point I will offer some advice. If you ever attend a “pitch fest,” one of these occasions where you are given the opportunity to pitch to your book in person to an agent, be prepared to:

1. Know your pitch inside out and upside down.

2. Throw the pitch out the window and be able to conversationally tell said agent about said idea without rambling or sounding staid.

I was prepared for only one of these scenarios (#1) and consequently didn’t come across as convincingly or elegantly as I had hoped when I was suddenly faced with the “Let’s just chat” scenario. However, I received good news and was asked by two of the three to send some follow-up material.

So, here I am on Monday morning facing one wide open door (with three deadlines right on the other side of it) and one slightly open one which for years has been nailed shut, and which I could put off for lack of time or–as is more probable–out of fear.

But that would be foolish. I don’t know what this creaking door will reveal, it could slam shut again, but I won’t know until I push at it a little further. I will push forward and get my follow-up materials ready to send off, even though the thought of doing so makes me feel slightly ill (you know that feeling of nakedness after you’ve sent off the resume/thesis/design/etc., that knowing you may have just set yourself up for rejection? That.)

Better to have knocked and found the wrong door, than never to have knocked at all.

(Next up: Some great questions to ask yourself when writing. What IS this book about?!)

A Path to Publication: part 9: When life gives you lemons and you have no sugar

Ah, the writing life. You hear it all the time: it’s damn hard. There are cartoons and quotes all over the place about problems with which writers are well acquainted: procrastination, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, the high of inspiration turning to the agony of reality, too little time, too much wine, doubting friends, know-it-all strangers, writer’s block, no money, the internet…

Last week my “problem” was procrastination — fear of something or other. But this week I was ready to go! Something had shifted mentally (or emotionally) and I was excited to start the next step. I turned on my computer and…

HARD DISK FAILING! BACK UP NOW! (There might even have been sirens going off. Might as well have.)

If you choose not to back up hard disk, you may LOSE EVERYTHING between now and your next start up!

So, to cut short a long, boring story (the main character of which is my knight in shining… er, whatever IT guys wear… a shining polo shirt?: my dear friend who happens to be Mr. Tech Himself) I am without a computer, and to cut and paste large swaths of text on a tablet in some inferior word-processing system, seemed like an invitation for large clumps of my hair to jump right out of my scalp because I’d be pulling them out anyway.

The first day the patient (the laptop) was on doctor (knight)-ordered best-rest it turned out fine. I had a pitch to prepare and never needing an excuse to write at the coffee shop, off I went with my always loyal, and never-warning! warning!-self-destructive notebook and pen to summon the gods of hookery (a.k.a. the art of creating a concise and catchy “elevator pitch” with which to hook an unsuspecting agent or editor.) (More on this later. I got some great tips from an Ad-Man, writerly friend of mine. He was in the business of hooking people into buying stuff they didn’t want a full 20 years after Don Draper was liquoring up his clients, so I don’t feel slimy taking his advice.)

However, day two came of not being able to do what I was now chomping at the bit to do (exactly because I couldn’t do it), and I had to face the fact that I was going to have to take a break (a break from doing nothing to do some more nothing). Can you say frustration? I can.

I don’t know what this all means. Maybe I’m meant to read some more from the pile of memoirs sitting on the table. Maybe I’m supposed to let the ideas percolate some more. Maybe I should just go shopping. All I know is I can’t move forward, not in a way I understand at this point, anyway. I just have to trust this book will “get born” when it’s good and ready.

Sometimes you just gotta stop. Sometimes there will be no lemonade unless you like it reeeeaaaal sour. Creativity cannot be forced. Book edits, on the other hand, can, and often are, unless your IT Knight tells you the quest must wait for another day while a new hard drive is on order.

Meanwhile, I have been working on my platform. So — shameless request coming up — if you feel so inclined, I have a goal on my Facebook page to get to 500 ‘likes’ by the time I pitch to two agents next weekend at a “Meet the Agents” event and writing conference. You can find me here: facebook.com/wisdomwithinink or just click ‘like’ over there to the right somewhere —> (or scroll down if you’re on your phone). Thank you!