Friday, July 13, 2012

Three Writers, Three Writing Journeys--How Three First-Time Book Authors Found Their Way to Publishing

Nancy Okerlund, Nancy Wood, and Sylvia Gravrock all have something to celebrate. Their first books have been published, and readers are loving them. 

I worked with each of these writers, getting to know their stories intimately, helping them stay the course. It's not easy, and I'm so pleased they chose to keep going. Now they each have a beautiful book to show for it.

Below are some questions I asked them about their writing journeys. Perhaps you will recognize your own journey in their story--and come away encouraged. If you have questions for any of them, please feel free to ask by clicking the link at the end of this article.  

When did you begin writing this book, and why was it important to you to write?

Nancy Okerlund (Introverts at Ease: An Insider's Guide to a Great Life on Your Terms, 2010): For years people encouraged me to write, but my response was always that writing for its own sake didn't seem to be in me. If I found something that seemed important to communicate, I might consider writing. Nine years ago I got passionate about being an introvert.

One day I thought to myself, Maybe I could write a book about it. It was a daunting thought, and a book seemed beyond my reach. But the possibility stayed with me and eventually I found your workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, "How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book."  

I came through it a changed person: I learned so much I felt like a book-writing insider!

Sylvia Gravrock (Alive in the Storm, 2012): On a whim, in the summer of 2006 I packed up everything I owned and moved from Minnesota to Southern California. Not long after I arrived on my son's doorstep, two characters-Callie and Leo-suddenly took up residence on my shoulders. I could see them clearly, but I couldn't make them talk and couldn't make them go away. Five months later, I turned to an online writing class offered through the UCLA Extension program for help.

I didn't start out with the intent to write a book. I started taking writing classes with express intent to make these characters go away. One online class led to three. Four months later, when I still hadn't succeeded in finding employment in L.A., I took a job back in Minneapolis. I asked my online writing teacher if she could recommend a place in Minnesota where I could continue learning how to write.

She said, "You have one of the best places in the U.S. right there in Minneapolis. It's The Loft Literary Center."

After my move, I began exploring what The Loft had to offer. My characters were now talking up a storm, and I used their story to help me learn the craft of writing. I was fascinated to be learning something new again; and this approach to writing, using islands, fit the way my nonlinear brain functions.

Nancy Wood (Due Date, 2012):I started this book almost six years ago. Before diving into the mystery genre, I had been working on a women's novel that focused on an open adoption and the relationship between the birth mother and the adoptive mother. When I took it to a publishing workshop, I learned how difficult it would be for me to publish this novel through traditional channels. It was a "quiet" novel, and I had no credentials, no MFA, no connections.

My goal had always been to publish commercial fiction. During the workshop, we talked about popular genres; mystery, of course, being one of them. With help from other participants, I ended up with a pitch for a mystery around adoption.

It was important to me to write this book for a few reasons. Though I don't have direct personal experience with adoption, I am fascinated with all the nuances of the complex relationship between a birth mother and an adoptive mother.  

Writing a mystery allowed me to continue to explore that relationship, but in a genre that was more marketable. I also wanted to see something that I had written as a published book!

Any advice to first-time book writers?

Sylvia Gravrock: Believe in yourself, your characters, and your ability. Take classes. Most importantly, don't be afraid to mine your deepest, scariest memories and emotions. Because I wrote Alive in the Storm with no intent that anyone else would ever read it, I could be honest with myself. The most common comment I've received since Alive in the Storm was published in May is that the reader feels engulfed in the emotions of the book. That, above all, feels like success to me. I'm overwhelmed with awe and gratitude. Sounds silly, but it's true.

Nancy Wood: Don't give up! Keep writing!  My other piece of advice is to read as much as you can in the genre you're writing in. Then re-read, studying how the author created the story. Call it research! I also found that listening to books, rather than reading them, was invaluable. As I listened to books, I often discovered nuances that escaped me when I was reading.

Nancy Okerlund: One resource that had a wonderful impact on me is Brenda Ueland's book If You Want to Write. After I read it I gathered up passages that particularly spoke to me and I still refer to them. She gives me permission to trust myself.

What's it like to have your book out there? What's the reader response so far?

Nancy Okerlund: It's been seven months since my book came out. I'm very happy about it. I see it as a contribution to the growing body of information about the power and beauty and importance of "introvert energy." Reader response has been very positive. Sales have been modest but steady, in this world of online book-buying. (Besides several local bookstores, Introverts at Ease is mainly available from Amazon.)  

Nancy Wood: I'm just a few weeks into this, so it's a brand new experience. The Solstice cover artist designed an eye-popping cover that I love seeing on my Amazon page! To top that off, my first Amazon review is a five star one, so I couldn't be happier. I have already connected with a few book bloggers for reviews and interviews. In truth, I feel like I'm walking on a cloud!

Any obstacles you encountered along the way?

Sylvia Gravrock: My biggest obstacle was forging time to write between work and personal commitments. I believed that writing was a "pastime," and as a result it was usually the last thing on my list. Even though it was the activity that gave me greatest pleasure (and still does), it always came in last. I needed a change in attitude.

Nancy Wood: I was my biggest obstacle--procrastination and doubt were my biggest challenges.

Nancy Okerlund: A series of serious illnesses and deaths in my family disrupted business as usual and at some point I officially let go of my intention to write a book. But my passion about introversion didn't go away. Then in 2007 I launched an electronic newsletter (ezine) called The Introvert Energizer. Every two weeks I'd write a short essay about what was happening in my introvert lab.  

I discovered it was a good way to crystallize my thoughts. It wasn't easy. It took the kind of musing, probing, mulling, wondering that introverts are known for. But I was getting grateful and interesting responses from my readers. And the ezine became a powerful structure for me. I felt so responsible to my subscribers that I'd manage to seek out my writing voice enough to meet my deadlines, even when I had to gnash my teeth in the process. I published it every two weeks for two or three years, then shifted into monthly. I continued to get encouragement about the writing. And I also continued to recognize how it kept me in a searching, observant place. And that I'd grown to like this way of writing: brief, self-revealing, informative pieces that almost always surprised me.
How did you land your publishing contract or make the decision to self-publish?

Nancy Wood: I'd finished another rewrite and really felt like I'd done everything I could. The manuscript was as polished and as strong as I could make it. I sent query letters to agents with very little response. I had a few nibbles that didn't go anywhere.  

I started looking online and found a marvelous array of Kindle books for $4.99, $3.99, $2.99. $0.99, and even free. I purchased some of them, read them, and was impressed with the whole package, from the cover to the story to the editing. I researched publishers, and found Solstice, a mid-sized publisher with a focus on e-books. I submitted the manuscript following the guidelines on the website, and was delighted 12 weeks later to receive an acceptance email, followed by a contract.

Nancy Okerlund: I chose to self-publish. I spent a year in a class, designed and led by John Eggen, which gave me another important structure, of support and of access to technical information and resources that further normalized producing a book. One of those resources was, the company I used to self-publish. I found it remarkable for its customer service, both online and by phone. I regularly had my questions answered skillfully within minutes of contacting them.

What was the biggest turning point in your writing process?

Nancy Okerlund: It was a conversation with an experienced publisher that got me back to my intention to produce a book. He assured me that my collection of short essays could become a book. I didn't believe him overnight. But once I did, I began to relate to the ezines differently and it was almost a pleasure to write an introduction for them. Because I'd published these pieces over five years in plain text email, I'd been minimizing their value as book material. But writing them was not a superficial process. And once I chose to believe the publisher, it felt like a miracle had happened: I'd let go of writing a book and then, years, later, it materialized right before my eyes!

Sylvia Gravrock: By April of 2010 I'd all but given up. Through your coaching, I'd come to see this story as a potential book, but I was hopelessly stuck and blocked. I hadn't written in weeks, and was honestly on the verge of saying, "Well, that was an interesting exercise. Time to leave this work behind and find the next adventure." (I'm a "starter;" I struggle to make myself finishing things.)

In one last effort to see if I would hang up this "writing thing" forever, I packed up my laptop and notebook and sat in a local Dunn Bros coffee shop. Staring blankly out the window and into a frosty spring landscape, I was disturbed by a woman suddenly standing right beside my table.

"What are you working on?" the stranger abruptly asked.

"Um. I'm writing a story ... a book." (Oh dear God, please make her go away.  
How rude of her to interrupt my mental block!)

"Really? What's it about?" She set her coffee cup down on the table, not about to move until I answered her.

"Well ... it's about a 10-year-old girl who is abducted, brutally raped, and left for dead." (How quickly can I spit this out so this stranger will just go away?)  

"Through the experiences of her own storms and trials, her grandmother realizes she's the only one who can reach her granddaughter and help her navigate the storm she's in to safety." (Whew! I said it. Will you just go away now??)

The stranger dropped her hands upon my table, stared straight into my eyes. "That's exactly what happened to me," she said in a hushed voice. "When will your book be published?"

Alive in the Storm was completed within the year and published as an ebook on May 9, 2012--two years nearly to the day from my encounter with a stranger in a coffee shop. I wrote it for this stranger.

Nancy Wood: When I was working with you, you introduced me to all the elements of a novel, from inner story to outer story. As a reader, I had always been able to sense when these elements formed a cohesive book, but I had never been quite able to translate them into my writing.  This was my turning point.   

What would you do differently, based on what you know now about book writing?

Sylvia Gravrock: I'm working on my second novel now. I've learned a lot but feel like I'm a novice all over again. This time, I'm using exercises from Your Book Starts Here and taking more writing classes with the intent for this book to not take five years and ten revisions. If it's possible, I'm being more methodical in my randomness.

Nancy Wood: I have always been a writer who needs to write from beginning to end. I need to know what I am writing about ahead of time. I need to know where the story is going and where to plant the clues. That hasn't changed. What has changed is how I approach each scene. I try to think of the inner and outer story as I write.  

Anything else you'd like to share with writers?

Nancy Okerlund: While we're socialized to believe the value of published work is in sales volume, my encouragement to other writers who are considering or in the process of creating a book is to trust that our voices join a conversation about life that reaches deep into our collective heart.   

To check out any of these books, click on the title below 

Alive in the Storm by Sylvia Gravrock
Due Date by Nancy Wood
Introverts at Ease by Nancy Okerlund 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Think of a question you'd like to ask one or all of these writers.  Post it below.


  1. What a great post! Mary, your blog and this wonderful article is the lifeline I am needing right now.

    I found that living in Minneapolis, amidst my roots - with all of its commitments and distractions - kept me from my dream of finishing my memoirs.

    So, here I am in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where I've taken an casita rental for four months. And just to show you that my Source works in mysterious ways, this rental not only comes with a writer's cabin, it is high enough above San Miguel de Allende - providing a gorgeous sunset over the church domes in the famous Jardin - to keep me in the writers cabin working. The treacherous walk down the hill is just long enough for me to avoid the distractions of all the fun festivals and free salsa dancing lessons.

    Thanks to inspiring articles like you continually put up on your website, I am finally living my dream. Next goal - after four months of writing? I'm looking into mentorship at The Loft. Too expensive? Not if you really want it. I cleaned houses and babysat for two months saving every penny for this trip. I never turned down a "job." I can do the same for mentorship. I know I can do this!

    1. Virginia, I love your story! Thank you for sharing it. It is truly a wonderful feeling to have dreams and reach them. Best, Nancy Wood

  2. Thank you, Virginia, so glad it was inspiring. Keep living your dream!

  3. Virginia, thank you for reminding me of the power of dreams. When one is accomplished, the next one has to appear to keep us motivated and alive!

    Mary, I have a question for your readers:

    In Mary's book, Your Book Starts Here, Mary mentions how different her writing became when she moved from MN to the East Coast. It was when I abruptly moved from MN to CA that my characters appeared. Now, Virginia's talking about how inspired she is by her "mini-move" to Mexico.

    Here's the question: Is this a shared experience? Does a physical move, whether across state lines, out of the country, or taking an extended vacation to another location change (that's the word) -- change your writing in some way? If so, how?

    Okay, I guess that was more than one question. :-) Sylvia Gravrock

  4. I love this comment, Sylvia, because it's so very true. Very common with many writers--the landscape of our physical life changes our writing tremendously. I find my writing mimics the horizontal or vertical views of my surroundings, a lot. Now that I live in mountain country, I am writing more conflict, for example.

    What do others think?

  5. This is Adair Heitmann, I find your blog so helpful, I've nominated it for a Versatile Blogger Award

  6. Thanks for posting. Much obliged.

  7. Colleen Burns DurdaThursday, July 19, 2012

    Hi Mary and newly published writers,
    I shared with Mary that I feel like a "fearful" writer compared with how I'd like to express myself. My question is for Sylvia. Do you have any recommended exercises to get to those scary places that produce a real connection with your readers? I'm writing a fictionalized memoir/novel and find myself continually peeling off layers to get to "the good stuff."
    Congratulations to all three of you on your new books! Mary, excellent article to spur us wannabees on to go for our dream.

  8. Colleeen,

    Thanks for visiting and for sharing this question for Sylvia.

    Looking forward to her answer!


  9. Hi Colleen,

    Thank you for your question and your comments. For me to be able to work in really emotionally scary places I have to convince myself that, "well, this chapter at least...," will never be seen by anyone but me. I have to make myself believe that scene or island is for me alone. Then I'm free to bleed all over the page.

    Here's my process. I hope it is helpful:
    In the first chapter of my novel, Alive in the Storm, a little girl is brutally raped. Her grandmother finds her and takes her to the hospital. After the rather horrific initial rape scene it would fall flat to just tell the reader that now the little girl was in the hospital. I had to put myself in her place.

    This is where Mary's teaching about the use of container comes in for me.

    1. Do your initial freewrite, alone, with your Internal Critic completely on vacation (or locked in a cellar on another planet).

    2. Become the character you're working with in your mind(regardless of who it is in your story).

    3. Use every sensory detail (internal and external) you can perceive. Don't hold back -- this is just you and the page. ("Did you get a metallic taste in your mouth when they inserted the IV drip into your vein?")

    4. Once you've felt, heard, tasted, seen, shuddered through everything in that immediate snapshot of experience (and you're often shaking inside from it), then go back and edit so you're using the emotional details of the container to deliver the punch you want in that moment.

    It's an emotionally messy process, but I can't viscerally place the reader in the emotion if I don't immerse myself there first.

    Good luck -- and have fun with it, honestly!


  10. What an interesting and inspiring interview, Mary. Congratulations, Nancy, Sylvia, and Nancy on your releases. Thank you for sharing the stories of your writing/publishing journey. Sylvia, your "stranger" story made me sob. (Talk about divine intervention!) Best wishes to all of you.

    1. Thank you Cindy! That is an amazing story that Sylvia shared. Best, Nancy

  11. Yes Cindy, thank you. I still tingle when I think about that "stranger" encounter. I'm glad relating it struck you. It makes me mindful to pay more attention to the "serendipitous." A couple days ago I "happened upon" a buck -- in the middle of the city -- silently stamping his front feet and staring at me for several minutes. I'm still pondering that one...

    Anyone have any ideas?