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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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.

Hear Them Roar – Women of the 2012 Olympics

Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.

Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.

But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.

After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.

Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.

Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.

That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.

Image courtesy of People.com

Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.

Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.

And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.

That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.

Image courtesy of The Washington Times

Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.

Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.

Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.

These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.

Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”

Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.

And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.

Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.

I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.

Photo courtesy of Bleacherreport.net

Whatchoo talking ’bout, Hilary?

I don’t usually do opinion pieces on this blog, for a variety of reasons.

Nevertheless. When one begins to fear that a significant percentage of the populace has lost their ever-loving minds, one feels obliged to speak up.

In the byte heard ‘round the world on Wednesday, Hilary Rosen, a democratic “strategist” who was being interviewed by Anderson Cooper, stated that Ann Romney, the wife of one of the wealthy politicians lobbying for the Republican presidential nomination (a woman who happens to be the mother of five children), had “actually never worked a day in her life.” Continue reading

Huhns in Space

As you may have heard, that intrepid man-about-town Richard Branson has developed a spaceflight program for civilians, Virgin Galactic. Anyone who can cough up $200,000 is now eligible to venture into the great unknown. (The latest person to sign up was Ashton Kutcher. Don’t ask me; I have no idea.) (Side note: is anyone else concerned that nearly every member of VG’s official “Team” is touted as a leader of business or finance? Shouldn’t someone working on this program have, I don’t know, worn a space suit at some point in their lives?)

Anyway, you would think Virgin Galactic would be a perfect fit for my brothers and I, because even before we discovered we had an honest-to-God astronaut as a cousin (that’s him on the right, in the picture below), we were utterly transfixed by everything having to do with outer space. Astrophysics. The Final Frontier. Light years and black holes and strings, oh my.

And astronauts are frickin’ rock stars to us. Continue reading

On (Attempted) Writing

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Last week, I started reading Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi. And, jeepers creepers.

This is by far the best sports bio I’ve ever read. Andre’s story is incredible, better than fiction. (The man hates tennis with a passion, always has. The reason he wound up doing it is heartbreaking.)

To write his story, Andre had the good sense to employ the Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, the writer’s own exquisite memoir. According to the end-notes of Open, Moehringer moved to Las Vegas so he could work on the book full-time, meeting with Andre every day (for hours.) He also employed a research assistant and a fact-checker.

And it still took him two years to write the book.

This is the norm: the best and most successful authors pour thousands of hours into their projects. Laura Hillenbrand, author of the fantastically good (and wildly popular) Unbroken, which is still atop the hardcover bestseller lists more than a year after it was published, went nine years between her only two books – and she writes full-time, has no children, and, due to a chronic physical condition, rarely leaves her house. According to his memoir My Reading Life, Pat Conroy used to leave his small children for months at a time; he’d move to foreign countries to write in solitude. Even Stephen King, one of the most experienced and prolific writers in America, can spend a few years working full-time on a single novel. Continue reading