Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It takes a village to write a book

When Eleanor Vincent and I were at pages: a bookstore the other night discussing our memoirs and how writing helped us heal, we continually mentioned how it takes a village to write a book.

I’m now in the process of writing a novel, and I continue to believe in the importance of many helping hands in the process. I’ve just completed a novel revision workshop and got useful comments from my instructor and classmates. I also belong to a writing group, and I’ve used the resources of The Next Big Writers website to get reviews of my book as I review the work of others.

Here I discuss how I got my memoir written and published, not only once but twice. A member of my village helped me connect with my current Dream of Things publisher when my first publisher went out of business.

Even though writing is a lonely business, a village of resources helped and nurtured me from the time I started writing my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. I started with journaling, at first sporadically and later, after reading and doing the exercises in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Putnam’s Sons, 1992), I wrote my morning pages, not missing a day of keeping my fingers moving across the pages of my journal.

 After amassing about three years worth of journal entries I began to think about turning them into a book. But, I was not a creative writer. My writing experience consisted of writing, editing, and training engineers on reports and proposals in the aerospace industry. So I went back to school to learn.

I took fiction, essay, and memoir writing classes through UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. The people from my first fiction class formed a writing group, meeting monthly, sharing and gently critiquing each other’s writing. Unfortunately our group disbanded when my son who was bipolar took his life. But, one of the pieces from that first class ended up in my memoir.

A member of that group spoke lovingly about Jack Grapes of the Los Angeles Poet’s and Writer’s Collective, who taught classes in the living room of his family home. Three months after Paul died I enrolled in Jack’s level one method writing class, and for five years I worked my way up the level ladder, ending with a poetry editing class. Many of the poems I wrote in the Grapes class are also in my memoir.

The prompts in Mourning & Mitzvah—A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1992) also kept me sane. However, I keep returning to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California – my healing and writing place. Early on I discovered Ellen Bass’ “Writing About Our Lives” workshop and almost immediately poems started to flow from my pen. I still attend poetry workshops there with some of the same people I’ve written with at Esalen for years.

Once I amassed enough material, I had no idea how to put it together. Then my son Ben introduced me to a former literary agent who reviewed my work, gave me writing prompts, and suggested I structure my book based on the sequence of poems in my poetry manuscript. Though the book went through several changes later on, her suggestions formed my book’s organization. Because I based my book on my list of poems I was adamant that my poems appear in the book. My publisher agreed and even asked me to add more.

Once I had a draft manuscript – edited by a woman referred to me by one of my memoir-writing instructors – I started querying. Again through an introduction from Ben, Mark Shelmerdine, a CEO of a small press critiqued and advised me on my query letter and book proposal. I also used How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). And once I found my  publisher, I spent months revising my book. I relied on techniques I learned while working on proposals in the aerospace industry and a group of readers, editors, and reviewers who worked with me until my book was published.

My village generously helped me write my book. More later on how it also takes a village to market a book.


Eleanor Vincent said...

Excellent observations, Madeline, and a testament to your persistence and professionalism. It does take a village - and a LOT of work. ;-)

madeline40 said...

Here, here. So true. The work is overwhelming.

kathleen pooler said...

What a fascinating account of your journey, Madeline and your memoir is richer for it. How true that we need to rely on many different people to help us along. I'm interested in how writing fiction differs from writing memoir?

madeline40 said...

Thanks Kathy.
Writing fiction still takes a village. We need workshops and readers and reviewers and certainly advocates who will help sell it. The writing is different - I'm making up most of what's in the novel. Memoir is our truths.