Friday, September 13, 2013

Writing Hopeful, Inspirational Books--The Story behind Nancy McMillan's March Farm

March Farm in Fall

Nancy McMillan had already fallen in love with the beautiful March Farm in Bethlehem, Connecticut, by the time she decided to write a book about it.  She'd met an author at a farm event who had written about a dairy farm in Eastern Connecticut, using photographs and narratives to document a year in its life.  

Nancy kept saying to herself, "Someone should do that for March Farm here in Bethlehem."
  
"You know what happens when you start saying that: you're that someone," she says.   

Nancy had already gotten a few articles published; she wrote a series of theater reviews for Warner Theater and essays for Edible Nutmeg.  And she was passionate about the locavore movement and sustainability.  So writing about March Farms fit her on many levels.

An Interest in Hopeful, Inspirational Stories 
There's much to depress readers these days, but as a writer Nancy is interested in writing hopeful, inspirational stories.  "What intrigued me about March Farm," she says, "was that it's a success story.  We hear so many stories about farms failing or about farmers selling to developers because of financial pressure, and here was fourth-generation family farm that had survived. 

Ben March in the Corn Fields at March Farm
"The farmers made smart decisions about changing: in the 1980s they moved out of dairy into solely fruits and vegetables.  Now that the fourth generation son, Ben, has returned to work the farm, he has brought the whole agritourism element into play, which has increased visitors to the farm.  The Marches continue to diversify and shape their business to respond to changing trends."   

Nancy had a personal stake in the book, too:  "I was already involved in town organizations focused on farmland preservation.  March Farm is an integral part of our small town (pop. 3500) and this was one way for me to give back to the community." 
    
Writing a Book Organically   
She wrote the book organically.  She chose a structure of the four seasons of a farm's life, and within that structure she knew the topics she wanted to cover.  "But I followed my instincts on the order to cover them.   I continue to write this way, with a rough structure in mind, following my nudges and energy."  
   
But "the research was much more time consuming than I ever imagined," she realized.  "When you write nonfiction, one paragraph can represent hours of research.  Fortunately, I love doing research, but pinning down the fine details can be tricky, as well as keeping an objective perspective."  

Farmers are busy people, "constantly putting out fires, so catching up with them was a little challenging.  However, they love to talk about farming, so once I got them talking, there was no shortage of material." 

How Often Did She Work on the Book?  Every Day?  Once a Week?
Nancy's writing practice varied.  When she first started writing she read many books by different writers about their routine.  She figured out that the reason there are so many writing books out there is because every writer does it differently.
  
She discovered she was most productive when she wrote first thing in the morning.  "Then I decide what one or two tasks I can do that day to move my writing forward."   These can be more of the "business of writing" tasks as compared to the actually writing.  "I set aside two-hour chunks of time for bigger writing tasks.  I have to schedule it in my calendar, then honor it!  I don't aim to write so many pages per day or hours per week. 
  
"I find it works best for me if I look at tasks instead of quotas," she told me. "If I put too much pressure on myself to produce, I tend to lock up and not want to write."   

Bringing the Human Element into a Factual Story
March Farms Farmstand in June
Nancy's book is sprinkled with lively interviews with the March family.  She says interviewing the children for the section "Growing Up on the Farm" was one of the most rewarding parts of her research.   

"They were all so open with their responses, so loved growing up on the farm, that it brought a real human element to the book.  Farmers are honest and don't hold back.  The interview with Sue March (wife of Tom, third generation farmer) I left almost completely unedited because I thought it represented the reality of farming, especially the financial realities, since Sue is the bookkeeper."  This is in the section called "Keeping the Farm Afloat."

Nancy brought her personal experience with March Farm into the book from the start.  She didn't plan this, she said, "but it came out that way so I kept it in.  I was a little bit concerned about it, but readers have told me that they like it.  I think it brings the readers into the story and gives the book a friendly feel.  I had two agents object to this, but I decided to stay true to my own vision of the book and am glad I did."

Greater Mission--The Impact of Your Book on the World
Nancy wants people to become more conscious of their food choices and the ripple effect that those choices have on their local economy and their community. 

Nancy's Blueberry-Peach Lattice Crust Pie
Farm values are deeply rooted in our cultural psyche symbolically, she says, and they are values worth sustaining.   "I also want people to connect with the pleasure of using fresh, seasonal produce in their kitchens, which is why I included easy recipes in the book, using the farm's crops."  Nancy often shares recipes on her Facebook page and recently made a video of how she makes a lattice-top summer fruit pie.  


Publishing Process 
Nancy ended up self-publishing March Farm, but only after a long process of query and rejection--when her heart could take the rejection no longer, it was time to explore self-publishing.  The catalyst was the award of a grant from Sisters-in-Script for a woman publishing her first manuscript. 

It helps to have a writing group or writing partner, someone you can run your work by, and to assemble a team, she advises.  "I used an editor, a book designer, and a copy editor.  They made my book professional and beautiful. I worked with a publicist to develop my online presence after the book was out and I recommend that, too. However, for my next book I will work with her before it comes out."

The self-publishing process was such a huge learning curve for me," Nancy said, "that I couldn't deal with marketing until after the files were sent to the printer.  Because this was a book with color photos, the design and printing process were much more involved--and much more expensive--than a straight text-only book."     

Something that surprised her was how much fun it is to market a book. "Maybe because it's great to finally have a book to sell" after all the time spent creating it.  "I also feel more comfortable promoting my book because I'm also promoting farms," she says.  "It's nice to be able to tie my book a bigger cause."

Because this book has local appeal, Nancy focused most of her marketing efforts on her region: libraries, farmers markets, author events, local bookstores, historical societies.  She already had an email list that she was keeping updated on the progress of the book, and she still keeps them updated.  She has a website in addition to her book's Facebook page.

The best advice she's heard is to focus on one social media outlet at a time.  She's on Goodreads and did a five-book giveaway in July, which had a decent response.  She loves Anne Allen's blog for social media tips for writers.

Most important:  Stay true to your vision of your book.

Nancy says, "I had a big-name agent criticize the structure of my book, but I didn't change it. When I hired an editor, she confirmed that my structure worked.  That was a big affirmation for me.  I felt like I had a book!   

"Write the book that you want to read, and write the book that only you can write."   

If you'd like to meet Nancy and see her book (now in its second printing), she will be appearing at the Big E, the annual Eastern States exhibition of agriculture in West Springfield, Massachusetts, on Sunday, September 15.  Check out her book here.  And visit her Facebook page here.