Saturday, April 16, 2011

Letting Myself Exhale--Celebrating the "Empty Nest" of a New Book

I've just finished a book.  No, I mean, really finished it.  The last change is proofed, the last word typeset.  It's on amazon.com.  It's being ordered by bookstores.  It's published.

It's completely out of my hands.

That's a relief, and it's also a worry.  No longer is
the book mine alone.  It belongs to my readers, who can treat it well or hate it, who can love it and recommend it to their friends or never open its shiny covers to see what's inside.  This is the double edge of creating art.  What will others do with what you pour your heart into?

Your Book Starts Here is a guidebook to crafting a book in any genre.  I've been working on it for a long time.  It covers what I do in my classes and workshops--where I teach others how to plan, write, and develop a book--and I finally wrote it because there's nothing out there I could recommend to my students who ask me questions, desperately wanting a guide as they work their manuscripts into being.  Thanks to these students, I've gathered good tips and techniques over the last ten years, learning all about the walls writers run into as they face the empty page.  This book is large, 400 pages, and if I look back at my notes, it took active gathering for three years, writing and organizing for five.  Then testing for one more year, revising for two.  A lot of time and a lot of work!  It brought me unexpected passion for the craft, though, and it caused me to fall in love with book writing again.  I had to learn a lot, in order to teach it to you.

At first, I wasn't sure what I wanted to say.  That's normal when you begin a book.  Especially if your subject is vast.  Writing books are everywhere, but how many actually teach you how to improve your craft, as well as inspire and guide?  In the early days of putting this book together, I almost gave up.  It seemed impossible.  Many writing teachers believe you can't actually teach anyone to write.  You're either born with writing talent or you're not.  But I've seen this disproven time and again in my classes.  Plenty of writers succeed through sheer determination, by doggedly applying themselves until they learn the ins and outs of their craft.

Their stories fill Your Book Starts Here.   I admire their stubborness and skill, their originality of thought, their willingness to self-examine, their perseverance.

Finding the Real Subject of a Book
Before I wrote Your Book Starts Here, I had published twelve books myself, worked with about 2000 writers in all genres, helping them with their books.  I thought it would be easy to distill my work into a guide for writers.  But it was a tough subject.  I struggled over which topics were the most essential, which were the ones that writers in my classes obsessed over and asked the most questions about.

One topic that always came up was:  How do I keep writing regularly?  I know a writer needs a solid writing habit to complete a book.  So I devoted two chapters to answering that question.  Another topic was that stall-out that comes from self-doubt.  So I put together a chapter on the Inner Critic, and its gate-keeping function to keep us safe (and away from our creativity).  Writers struggle over genre and ideal reader.  So stories and information about that got added.

Most important were the major gateways that a writer has to pass through, to complete and publish.  One was the inner/outer story--the meaning as well as the subject  of the book--and how it gets brought to the page.  Another was the organization or flow of material, and using a storyboard.  Then comes the first draft, and its read-through and careful analysis.  Finally, a clean revision that transfers ownership of the book to the reader instead of the writer.  All these were necessary to get to publication.  I listened to hundreds of writers in my classes, I asked them about their book journeys, I captured the stories they were willing to share. 

Your Book-Journey Team
My students were the most valuable resource, and I wrote this book for them.  Such generosity in sharing their stories and questions!

But there were others too.  When you're writing a book, you need lots of help.  You can't birth anything in a vacuum.  My testers, who were students in my classes in New York and Minneapolis, tried out the exercises and tested the theories in my early drafts.  One of my advanced classes read through my chapters  and gave me very detailed feedback on what was useful, what wasn't.  I sucked it up, put my ego aside, and really listened to their right-on feedback.  It told me I had a ways to go.

Then I got the gift of an angel editor when I really needed it--a top-notch professional who came to one of my classes and gave my material a keen eye and a kind editing hand.  Then a proofreader appeared out of the blue (a student in my online class) when she was most needed.  Then there was the amazing cover designer and a typesetter who was patient beyond belief with my million changes. 

But in the end, I was alone with my manuscript.  Book writing is still a solo journey.  It is filled with 4:00 a.m. wakings to wonder if you've done the very best you could.  I worried over how best to describe storyboards.  Whatever could I say about voice and theme?  Should I even tackle the topic of pacing--a very tough element to describe, but oh so crucial to make a book sing?   

In the end, I did.  I did everything I could think of and now I just hope I loved the book enough.

Saying Goodbye to Your Creation
Ending a book is an amazing experience.  When you've done all you can to bring your idea to the page, it feels wonderful.  But it's also sad because there's always so much more to say, and you may have forgotten something important, and what if that explanation on page 155 isn't clear?  Isn't there something more you can do?

There's always more to say.  But it's time to say goodbye for now. 

When I was a new artist, I got a commission for a painting.  I spent months working on it, finally finished it, and shipped it to the buyer who lived about 2000 miles away.  About a year later I visited this woman's city and went to say hello (and see the painting, of course).

It looked good, but wait . . . what was that?  My skills as a painter had grown so I saw mistakes on her piece.  I left her house as quickly as I could because I knew if I lingered, I would beg her to let me take it home and fix it.

Your book will capture who you are right now.  If you pour your heart into it, it'll be the very best you know to write right now.  It's good to celebrate, even if you feel like a parent who just shipped their kid off to college. In that spirit, this week's writing exercise asks you to imagine traveling the journey to publication of your book.  To consider the passage from inside yourself.

This Week's Writing Exercise
 1.  Imagine your book published.

2.  Spend some time in your writer's notebook listing the names of the team who helped you get there.  Who would they be?

3.  Then write a bit about how it feels to have your book no longer your own--now the reader you are writing for owns it too.  They are beginning a one-to-one relationship with the book that excludes you, the author.  How does this sit with you?

4.  If you've been having trouble finishing your book, ask yourself if you're ready for the transition described in #3 of this exercise.  Why or why not?

PS  I would love to share my creative efforts with you who are writing a book.  To order a copy of Your Book Starts Here, click here.