First-time Publishing

 

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During the last few years, several friends and acquaintances have asked for my advice on writing and publishing a book. My literary agency curates a blog which is chock-full of great publishing info; below are my insights on the experience.

WRITING

My favorite writing manuals are Stephen King’s On Writing; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird (both of those contain bad language); William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I studied these invaluable books, and others, before I started writing publicly. As Stephen King says: If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Read all the great writing you can get your hands on, especially in the genre in which you’re planning to write. I’m always happy to give book recommendations!

Most of the people who have contacted me want to write nonfiction, like I did. I faced two big challenges while working on Grandma’s book. First, because I was writing someone else’s story, I had to please her. Grandma was driving the bus. She had veto power on what I included, what I left out, how I described events, how I portrayed characters. It was a delicate balancing act, particularly with sensitive parts of the story, and I didn’t have much “artistic license.” My artistry had to conform to her exact preferences, and I often didn’t know what her preferences were until I’d labored over a passage, only to have her completely dismantle it. Most people – including me, and probably you – are very protective about their own story.

(There are certain legal restrictions when you’re writing about real people – this includes all secondary characters – and there are ownership issues with letters and diaries. My publisher guided me through the legal factors.)

The other big challenge I faced, particularly since mine was a historical project, was the research required: I had to get all the details right. Not just the facts of dates, people, and events, but also the colorful details that make a scene come alive. The weather, the plants, the clothing, the vehicles, the birds in that area of the country…everything. This meant combing through books and websites ranging from Ellis Island records to the South Dakota University extension (horticultural) service. Since I am very curious, and love doing research, I’d often fall down a rabbit hole and have to reel myself back up – no, Cathy, you really don’t need to know every detail about every hurricane that made landfall in the 1920’s…especially since your story doesn’t take place anywhere near the ocean.

Once I had a passage or chapter written, I’d edit and edit and edit some more. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” As with any craft, it takes lots of practice to improve.

PUBLISHING

Because I wanted to be traditionally published, I needed to have an agent – publishers won’t accept manuscripts directly from writers. Literary agents require no money up-front, but they get 15% of any book money you earn. They’re worth every penny.

Once I had several chapters completed (and while I was still writing and researching), I went to the library and checked out the “Publisher’s Marketplace,” a thick book that contains contact info for publishers and agents. After making a list of prospective agencies, I looked at each of their websites to see if any of their agents represented books like mine. For any I thought was a good fit, I followed their submission requirements.

These days, most agents accept electronic submissions, although a few want faxes – I even found one who still required “snail mail.” Most of them want a synopsis of the book, a list of previous writing projects, and social media audience numbers; some also want part of the manuscript attached to the query. For a nonfiction story, interested agents want to see the first three chapters, written and polished. For fiction, they require the entire manuscript up front.

It took me more than a year to find an agent who loved my story, but once I did, things moved very quickly – I had a signed book contract within about four months. (Self-publishing is another option. I don’t know anything about that process, but I believe there are many useful guides to that online.)

REALITY

The odds are very much against any writer being traditionally published. Many famous, talented authors started out their careers by getting dozens and dozens of rejections – sometimes spanning years. I just now revisited the list of agents I queried, and I winced while scrolling through it…it was a very long list. I contacted 73 agents. More than half of them never even replied to me. I got lots of “No, thanks.” Only a handful were even mildly interested in my story – and I was offering a compelling true story that had already gone viral, and had drawn the attention of national morning television shows (which was a nice marketing bonus, the kind of thing that publishers appreciate).

And after all that, even though my writing was solid, I still had to hire an experienced collaborator to write my proposal and help me put the book together on a tight schedule (because of my grandma’s age.)

Even if you are published, it’s nearly impossible to make any significant money through writing. I have now been compensated for the years I spent working on my book, but that’s only after receiving the book advance, four years of book sales, international rights, AND a movie option.

The old chestnut is true: don’t write to fulfill lofty dreams of fame and fortune. Write because you have to express yourself that way, and you have a story that’s begging to be told. Anything else that happens is just gravy.

Happy Writing!

 

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Year in Books – 2015

reading meme

Here is how it is with me and reading – Sometimes I start to panic, and I have to talk myself off the ledge with this reminder: “You don’t have to read ALL the books.”

Because, lordy, I surely do want to read all the books.

Anyway, here are the books I read last year. I highly recommend the five star ones; regular-recommend the four star ones; and say “eh” on the three star ones. Fiction titles are in green. Please note: not all of the books I read are “G-rated,” so if you have any questions about content, feel free to ask me.

If you pinched me really hard and MADE me pick one “best book” of last year, it would be the very first one on this list.

The Best (5 stars)

All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Eventide, Kent Haruf
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht
The Humans, Matt Haig
Four Seasons in Rome, Anthony Doerr
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
The Translator, Daoud Hari
Twilight, William Gay
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy
An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor
Cutting For Stone, Abraham Verghese
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
One Man’s Wilderness, Sam Keith
Destiny and Power, Jon Meacham

4 stars

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
Complications, Atul Gawande
Bird Box, Josh Malerman
Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman
Maude, Donna Mabry
A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres
Still Life With Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen
Grace: a memoir, Grace Coddington
Home, Marilynne Robinson
Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy
Still Alice, Lisa Genova
Things That Matter, Charles Krauthammer
One Kick, Chelsea Cain
Good Kings, Bad Kings, Susan Nussbaum
The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
Finding Me, Michelle Knight
The Triple Agent, Joby Warrick
Seal Team Six, Howard Wasdin
The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
The House Girl, Tara Conklin
Memoirs, Elie Wiesel
Five Chiefs, John Paul Stevens
Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy
Full-Rip 9.0, Sandi Doughton
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck
The Time of my Life, Patrick Swayze
Chasing Down the Dawn, Jewel
Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
Born To Run, Christopher McDougall
My Own Country, Abraham Verghese
Cyndi Lauper, Cyndi Lauper
Finders Keepers, Stephen King
The Reaper, Nicholas Irving
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi Durrow
Tower, Nigel Jones
Lost in the Taiga, Vassili Peskov
Frederick Manfred, A Daughter Remembers, Freya Manfred
Duel with the Devil, Paul Collins
Stiff, Mary Roach
This Time Together, Carol Burnett
Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn
When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
For The Time Being, Annie Dillard
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
On The Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas
Love, Lucy, Lucille Ball
The Quiet Room, Lori Schiller
This Just In, Bob Schieffer
My Brief History, Stephen Hawking
Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
Deep Down Dark, Hector Tobar
The Stories We Tell, Patti Callahan Henry

3 stars

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills
Then Again, Diane Keaton
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
American Sniper, Chris Kyle
Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres
He Wanted The Moon, Mimi Baird
Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman
Sound Bites, Alex Kapranos
The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall
The Martian, Andy Weir
Drama, An Actor’s Education, John Lithgow
Stronger, Jeff Bauman
Revival, Stephen King
The Circle, Dave Eggers
Look At Me, Jennifer Egan
Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
My Story, Elizabeth Smart
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
41, A Portrait of my Father, George W. Bush
All Things At Once, Mika Brzezinski
Wool, Hugh Howey
Benediction, Kent Haruf
A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay
Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, John Carlin
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavige Hill
Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell
In the Name of God, Cameron Stauth
Alcatraz, The True End of the Line, Darwin Coon
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
See No Evil, Robert Baer

The Devil Walks in Mattingly – Q&A with Billy Coffey

Billy headshot 2014We’re back! My book has now gone to the printer (much more on that to come), so I am able to resurrect my blog in the best way possible, by talking about a terrific new book. Billy Coffey has just published his fourth novel, The Devil Walks in Mattingly, and it is his best yet. In fact, this is the first book of his that I’ve given five stars to, on Goodreads (and that was certainly one of my most convoluted sentences).

Like the great Rick Bragg and the late, great William Gay, Billy is a southern boy who has a magical gift for storytelling. He’s also the hardest-working writer I know, and if he’s not really famous some day, I’ll eat my hat.

(Inasmuch as I don’t wear hats, this is not much of a promise. But still.)

If you need comparisons, this story is similar to Frank Peretti’s best work, only less preachy and more lyrical. It’s dark, it’s lovely, it’s unputdownable.

Once again, Billy was nice enough to stop by and talk to me about all sorts of nerdy things. It might literally be the best interview ever. Except for the fact that I somehow failed to work Benedict Cumberbatch into the questions.

Read on. Continue reading

The Waiting – coming in May 2014

Well, here it is…the stunning cover of Grandma’s book, The Waiting, which will be published in May by Tyndale!  I am working morning, noon and night (along with my partner, Cindy Coloma) to meet the manuscript deadline of December 31.

Tyndale is wildly excited about the project, and is fast-tracking the release for a Mother’s Day tie-in. They have also lined up some exciting national media events for May that I am ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT ALLOWED to talk about. Boo.

I couldn’t have asked for a better agent (Janet Grant), a better collaborator (Cindy), or a better publisher. All of them love and believe in this story as much as I do. It’s been an amazing journey, one I’ll write about someday. I am so privileged to be able to be a part of sharing this wonderful story.

Anyway, the book is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can see it there, by clicking here! I’ll be sharing more details with you as they unfold. And reminding you to help spread the word. Over and over. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

The cover photo was taken while I was in California a couple of weeks ago, by the awesome (and adorable) Stephen Vosloo, who works in Chicago. Those are Grandma’s beautiful hands, holding the photograph of her and baby “Betty Jane” that she carried around for seventy-seven years, while she waited for her miracle reunion. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a synopsis.)

And now, I literally have to get back to work.

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When Mockingbirds Sing – A Chat with Billy Coffey

Billy 2013Oh, this is EXCITING.

With each novel Billly Coffey has released, his writing and story-telling skills have taken a quantum leap upwards. When Mockingbirds Sing, his brand-new book, is the kind of fiction I wish all Christian novelists were producing.

Billy is one of my favorite people: geeky-cool and polite and incredibly well-read. That’s not why I promote his work, though. I have too much respect for literature to fudge about quality. Billy just also happens to be one of my favorite writers, period, and is getting better all the time.

When Mockingbirds Sing is one of a planned series of stories set in the fictional small town of Mattingly. The book centers around Leah, a wise child with a bad stutter who creates marvelous, disturbing paintings. Her best friend and fierce defender is Allie, one of the most delightful characters I’ve ever run across. There is a storm coming to Mattingly. Nerves are on edge and relationships are in jeopardy. Just who is the Rainbow Man? Will anyone heed Leah’s message?

Continue reading

The Book – an update

Lots of things are happening behind the scenes in my writing world, which is why I’ve been scarce lately and haven’t been chattering on about all the exciting things happening in the world of physics, such as the solar flare that may/may not be cause for concern, or the fact that in just TWO MONTHS you can start submitting your application to be one of the original Mars colonists, or the fact that Google just BOUGHT A QUANTUM COMPUTER and forgive me for shouting but I think my head just exploded.

Anyway, here’s what’s been keeping me busy.

As you may know, since January of 2012 I’ve been working on a book manuscript of my Grandma’s story. It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve had to squeeze book work into the few hours a week my littlest is at preschool, plus evenings and weekends at the library (plus one trip to my favorite monastery.) Since I’m writing about events that happened a century ago and I’m bullish about factual accuracy, the project requires a ton of research. Continue reading

Ebert, Art, and Life after Death

The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.

The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.

In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.

Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.

There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.

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Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.

And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.

Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.

The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:

They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.

The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.

Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”

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Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.

As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.

And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.

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I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.

And I am grateful.