Friday, March 30, 2012

How Do You Finally Get Your Book Finished (and Published)? Passion and Determination--An Interview with New Author, Atina Diffley

Atina Diffley, an organic vegetable farmer in her former life, is now an organic consultant, author, and public speaker. Her just released memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, is called "a must read love story, a lesson in entrepreneurship, a master class in organic farming, and a legal thriller."

Atina showed up at one of my writing workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis a few years back. She had a book in mind.  She was passionate about the topic, and--from her determination to make others passionate about it too--I could tell she would be successful at writing her book.  Although she'd written quite a bit, she needed help structuring and developing the material.  As an experienced organic farmer, she wanted to share what she knew, but in memoir form.  Her life, and her farming, were and are very intertwined.

From that first workshop, Atina got fired up.  She liked what she learned about book structuring.  And over the next year or so, I saw her again in a workshop, then another.  She began bringing along her writing friends to learn about structuring their books.

Flash forward to last Friday, when I was back in Minneapolis teaching at the Loft Literary Center.  It was the same two-day book-structuring workshop that Atina had first attended.  She wasn't there.  But two of her  friends were.

Before class began, they handed me a book.  Atina's just-published book:  Turn Here Sweet Corn.  University of Minnesota press had accepted it, and they'd done a great job publishing it.  On the back cover were strong endorsements, and I've heard since the class that Atina is getting good reviews and interviews.  As an author, she's launched.

I felt very privileged to share in her writing journey, from early days of crafting her manuscript to finally glory.  This happens fairly often in my classes, I'm happy to say.  One of my favorite moments is when a former student stops by and hands me their published book or sends me a copy by mail.  I'm so happy to celebrate with them.

So I asked Atina to share her writing journey, from seed to sprout to published memoir.  What did she learn along the way that might help other writers who are dreaming of a book?

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

I thought about writing a book for over a decade, but I’m glad I waited, as crucial parts of the story hadn’t been lived yet. It became a priority for me in November 2009.

There are so many reasons I wrote Turn Here Sweet Corn. To pass on the support and guidance I have received to other women and farmers, for personal healing for my family and myself, to bring more people into the conversation on food and farming, but the most powerful—the subconscious driving force that kept me on task—was the ecological collapse I experienced in the development of our first farm.

This was burning to be shared.

Any obstacles you encountered along the way?

Mostly myself. I had everything—all the support and teachers I needed. Sometimes self-doubt would interfere. I had to learn to trust.

What was the biggest turning point in your writing process?

Two weeks in, I wasn’t accomplishing much at home so I went off alone to write for two weeks. I didn’t really know what the book was about beyond being a memoir based on my farming experience. I started to write and it was like my life was on a Rolodex card file and each card contained one moment. I couldn’t figure out which belonged in the book.

 Painful memories piled up and became emotionally exhausting. The thought of publishing made me feel completely exposed and vulnerable. The card file spun faster and faster, and I became so overwhelmed that my body developed bursitis of the right shoulder. I was in excruciating pain, close to vomiting and passing out.

I spent the next week doing nothing but emotional work and by the end of the week the bursitis was cleared and I was one determined and committed writer.

I later learned in a writing class that the body sometimes acts as a “gatekeeper” to prevent a writer from going into areas that are emotionally painful.

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

I LOVE the island method I learned in Mary’s class "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." It solved my problem of not knowing what the book was about. Once I learned to trust the process and my subconscious to bring forward the needed storie,s the islands literally poured out of me.

 I couldn’t write them fast enough. Next book I’ll start right in on writing islands.

Any advice to first-time book writers?

Believing in ourselves is the most powerful thing we can do. When I sit down to write, I thank my inner critic—her name is Sylvia—for all she’s done, and I assign her the role she has in my present work. (I learned this from Mary Carroll Moore in a class at the Loft Literary Center.) During freewrites Sylvia is sent on vacation. While line editing she is appointed the responsibility of “specific” and “constructive” feedback. If she’s having a bad day and insists on self-defeating criticism, or her ego is raging out of control offering talk shows with Oprah, I send her packing.

How did you land your publishing contract?

Every writer’s dream! Turn Here had a fairy godmother, food writer Beth Dooley, who not only mentored me during the writing, she also connected me to her acquisitions editor, who just happened to be a freezing-corn and canning-tomato customer of ours from twenty years ago. I never even wrote a query letter.
The University of Minnesota Press was fantastic to work with and many of the staff had eaten our produce over the years so they had a personal connection. May the stars align again for my next book!

What's it feel like to have your book out there? 

The thing I felt most vulnerable about--not having any control over the reader’s relationship with Turn Here or their interpretation of my writing--has turned out to be the greatest experience! Readers are telling me how the book is affecting them and of parallels in their own life. I am receiving stories of their own loss and grief, and celebration, in connection with land and nature.

Their relationship with the book has brought me deeper understanding of the inner story of Turn Here and of my own life!

What's the reader response so far?

Readers are loving it, and it is meeting my goal of a compelling read for people from all walks of life! But there may be some liability issues. The story is so engaging that readers are reporting irresponsible behavior. One person turned a kettle on high, started reading, and forgot until hours later when smoke was pouring out of the kitchen, another reported forgetting to pick his kids up from daycare, there have been marital disputes about who gets to read, and one reader laughed so hard, and for so long, that she couldn’t drive and was late for work.

How has writing your book affected your life?

I’ve heard that writing is cathartic, but writing Turn Here has transformed me! It gave me the structure to completely reevaluate my life experiences and what they mean. In the process I learned that bad things happen but me, I’m fine, in fact I’ve thrived.

Anything else you'd like to share with others who are writing a book?

The world needs your story. Trust yourself and the process. Make a commitment and let the writing happen.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Evaluate your commitment to your book, especially your passion about or interest in its subject.  Does it meet the level required for the journey to publishing, as Atina describes?  Why or why not?

2.  Visit Atina's blog and see what else she has to say about her passion.  Think about starting a blog of your own.  If you already have a blog, post a comment at the end of this article and share your blog's URL with readers.

3.  Interested in attending the same book-structuring class that Atina took?  You can enroll now in my 12-week online version of the class--take it from your home, do the same exercises, and get feedback each week from myself and your fellow book writers.  Check it out at How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book.  Sponsored by the Loft Literary Center's online program, this class begins the week of May 14.

4.  And read Atina's article on the Loft's blog, Writer's Block, at . .

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Timeline of a Book Project--How Long It Can Take, What to Do at Each Stage

D.W., a reader from the West Coast, emailed me this week with some great questions about the timeline of a book project and how a writer can best assess her needs for feedback at any stage.  D.W. just read my new book, Your Book Starts Here, and is working on her first manuscript.  "Thank you for your wonderful book on getting published," she wrote. "It has been the biggest help.  But I have a couple of questions."  And she listed them:

1.  At what point do I spend the money for a professional editor?
2.  Does one wait until they find an agent and let the agent guide them or should it be done before the agent sees the work?
3.  When does one get their work copyrighted? Is that part of the work an agent helps with also?

D.W. is right to ask these questions.  Books have particular timelines, and they need different things to help them grow at different stages.

For many years--and the last eight books I've published--I've worked with a successful timeline for building a manuscript and moving into the editing, then the submission process.  Of course, it varies with each new book, because books, like babies, have their own plans.  Some take a lot longer than you expect; others are very fast because you've done so much of the "gestating" before you put fingers to keyboard.

Writers know that a lot of book writing happens solo.  You, your words, the dream worlds you're occupying, are not shared with others in the beginning.  No editors are involved because there's not a lot to edit yet.  This is as it should be.  You're gestating something very fragile, easily destroyed by other eyes.  I love the support of other writers and creative artists, including professional editors, during the writing journey, but if I share my work too early, their voices blend too easily with my own and confuse me.

I need time to listen to my own thoughts, let my own ideas emerge.

Unlike other creative artists who give themselves this important time to explore and "birth" their idea before sharing it with the world, lots of book writers have publishing in mind immediately.  I know very few new artists who paint with the goal of a gallery, few beginning musicians who are composing for that recording contract.  But writers tend to be motivated by the starry dream of seeing their name on the cover of a published book.  Or by the hopeful royalties that will let them quit their day job.

Give yourself the dream time, first.  Books aren't that different from paintings or a musical composition or a dance--there needs to be open, goal-less space in your timeline.  Space for just writing, for exploring your book idea, before you imagine an audience.

Truthfully, you must enjoy a dedicated one-to-one conversation with your book, before you are able to produce a publishable manuscript.

The essence of your book, the story only you can tell, comes from the unstructured part of the creative self.  This part loves the dream time of incubation.  Go into it and live in it for a while.  You'll gradually get a sense of what your book is really about.  Its voice is unique to you; you must have time and interior space to find it.

That the first successful step on the timeline:  to have a chance to explore.  A sabbatical from the goal of publishing it.  For this stage, I advocate the "island writing" method promoted by writers like Ken Atchity and Natalie Goldberg, where you allow yourself to scribe a collection of random scenes or ideas, then begin to structure them.  You allow yourself to be in the "process" of writing your story, exploring it and getting deeper into your material.

Moving into Conversation with the Reader
But at some point, you do need to think of the book as a "product" as well as a way for you to personally explore ideas and images.  At this second stage, welcoming the reader into the conversation is essential.

This is where we begin to work with structure.  The book moves out of the dreamy place forever--and we structure the islands so that the reader can actually understand the dream too. 

I find we cycle back and forth between these two stages--dreamtime and structuring--as we create the manuscript.  For instance, we may run into an obstacle or a big question--and we're not sure how to proceed.  So, it often helps to return to the exploration of the material, do some research or create a collage--a wonderful exploration tool used by many professional writers--to see which direction is best.

This two-part experience takes however long it takes.  I always advise getting a lot written before structuring, then pull the bits and pieces (islands) together into a rough draft before editing too much.

When It's Time for Editing Help
With my first books I didn't worry about when to bring in an editor.  I didn't need to hire one, because back then (the 1980s) publishers had in-house editors.  Part of my book contract was assistance from an editor.  They were trained to help me see the forest instead of just the trees, the whole book instead of just my individual words.

This doesn't happen as often anymore, except at some small presses.  Agents can help a writer with editing, but rarely the early stages of editing--only the final polish.  So it's up to writers to decide when their manuscript is holding together well enough to warrant an outside editor.

I encourage writers first to learn some editing skills and try to edit their own material.  How do you do this?  Take writing and editing classes.  Learn the areas you need better skills--characters, for instance, or dialogue or balancing your information with enough illustration (anecdotes) if you're writing nonfiction.  Study good books to see how those writers did it.  Read (a lot!) in your genre.

When I've polished as best I can, I work with my writing partner, my writers' group, to see what else needs attention.  I learn my blind spots as a writer.  Many things I'll be able to fix myself if I can see them. 
Then, when I've done all I can, I find a professional editor for hire, someone who is not familiar with my every word and can give me a clear perspective that peer reviewers can't.  I work with a professional editor for each book I publish.

Again, writers ask:  Don't agents give this kind of help?  Some do.  But only after the manuscript is very clean (well edited) or the subject matter is so compelling or the writer is so famous or well-connected, it's worth the agent's time to dive in.  Most agents I've known will not take on a manuscript that hasn't been through editing.  And usually, you only get one chance with an agent, so it's best to take care of the editing yourself, before you approach an agent.

Before Submitting--Do You Need to Copyright Your Manuscript?
Some writers feel it's important to register their unpublished manuscripts with the U.S. Copyright Office (click here to find out more).  For me, in all my years in publishing, I've found that few people steal other writer's works.  Of course, there are exceptions, but the reality is that publishing is a very small world, especially with the internet.

I've been happy to just add a copyright notice on my works that go out to readers either electronically or in print, just by writing (c) [year] [my name] and All rights reserved on the bottom page of the story, article, essay, column, or manuscript.  This serves as a warning and has protected me well without the hassle of registering the work officially.

Publishers take care of this process, as well as getting the book its ISBN, etc., and if you self-publish, you'll be guided by the online printer as to the steps to register yourself.

These are the different stages in my book writing timeline.  Be comfortable at the stage you're in now, give it the time it deserves before moving too fast to the next.  Your book will benefit.  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Brainstorm on paper a possible timeline for your book project.  Ask questions like:
*  Where am I now in the process, based on what I just read?
*  With my work, family, and other obligations, how much time can I devote to my book each week?
*  Where would I like to be with my book in a year?
*  What editing skills can I learn in the meantime?  What is missing in my editing toolbox?

Monday, March 19, 2012

How a Writing Partner--or a Writers' Group--Can Help You Finish Your Book

Finding a writing partner is like finding gold.  A solo journey to writing a book--or just making time for regular writing practice--can be hard.  I've worked with a writing partner for many years, and we meet monthly by phone to report on our writing progress and set goals for the month.  My writing partner holds me accountable and gives me encouragement when I feel blue about my creativity.  I found my writing partner via a writers' group that disbanded; she and I stayed in contact and decided to start our partnership.  It's morphed over the years as our writing needs have changed.  We're both working on books, and we both believe our partnership has helped us keep going.

Lynn and Carole are two blog readers who live in the Midwest.  They are writing partners.  After my book, Your Book Starts Here, was published, Lynn asked if it could be used as a weekly study guide for writing partners or book study groups. Of course! I said.  

Over the year since my book was released, Lynn has updated me on their progress.  They have been steady about using the book to help their writing partnership (and their writing!) grow.  

Such a support team is inspiring--and I thought you might like knowing how to put one together for yourself.  I asked them a few questions about their writing partnership.

How long have you been writing? Are either of you working on a book--and what kind?
Lynn:  I have been writing (letters) since grade school and dabbled around with stories in my early thirties.  In 1993 I attended a seminar/writing conference in Minnesota where I started taking writing more seriously.

Coincidentally I met Carole at this seminar and we realized we both lived in St. Louis. Carole’s been dreaming up stories for years. She started writing in junior high school when a teacher inspired her with creative writing assignments. When Carole recently moved out of state, we wanted to keep checking in with one another. So when Your Book Starts Here came out, we both knew we’d want to use it for the stories we were working on--and for future stories.

How long have you been writing partners, and how often do you meet?

We started helping each other with writing a long time ago, but we began working together with your book in July 2011. We check in with one another on a weekly basis. We decided to work together on a chapter each month in Your Book Starts Here. 

We stay flexible; sometimes we need to spend more time on a chapter, so we will. Or if we get through a chapter sooner, that’s fine too. Of if something comes up on either of our ends and we can’t finish, we don’t punish ourselves!

How has your writing changed from using a writing book as a study guide?

Having a book on writing to follow is a great tool.

I’m not structured at all when it comes to writing a story. I can’t do outlines, etc., but Your Book Starts Here helped me see that it’s not as scary as I thought. Carole is all about structure and outlining, so freewriting and "island" writing in Your Book Starts Here was a new approach for her. We have different writing styles and have been able to help each other in that way.

When you try the writing exercises, do you have favorites--ones that have helped your writing the most?

A hard question!  We are only on Chapter 10, so we haven’t gotten through them all yet.

Lynn liked Chapter 4, p. 53,  "Letter to Inner Critic" – since she struggles with the Inner Critic and since she love to write letters.  She says she needs to do it more often! Carole liked this exercise too, not realizing how powerful the Inner Critic was and how inhibiting.

Lynn also liked p. 25 "Following the Unexpected" and p. 78 "My Life and My Writing," which asks you to list the minimum requirements to keep a writing practice going in your life.

Lynn:  I started using this book with a completed rough-draft manuscript in hand. I thought I could skip ahead and figure out what I needed to do to make it better. When I read a chapter where I thought I could start at, I realized I needed to go back to the chapter before. Once I got to that chapter, I again had to go back to the previous chapter.

It finally became evident that I needed to start right from the beginning. This has been a bit of a challenge—applying things to an already written story… like Chapter 10 which focuses on working with Acts 1, 2 and 3.

I had a hard time figuring out where those were in my story. But with Carole’s help and talking through it, I started to understand and then could see more clearly where the different acts were in the story.  Having a writing partner to work with has made all the difference!

Anything you'd recommend to other writers who want to get support for their writing, or use Your Book Starts Here as a study guide?

Lynn:  I’d imagine you could use this book on your own if you wanted, but I think it’s really helpful to have at least one other person you can work with because you can bounce things off one another—especially if you’re styles of writing are different like Carole and mine.

What works for me sometimes doesn’t work for Carole, but when we talk through the process she can see how it could work for her, and vice versa.

Also by going through the book with someone, it holds you accountable.

As a writer—especially a new one—you can easily get discouraged or distracted and put it away if you don’t get it. By working with someone, there’s less chance of giving up—it’s like you’re encouragement and inspiration for one another—just like the book.

It may take us a while to get through Your Book Starts Here, but I think having it as a guide will help it along faster than trying to write the book alone, and will ensure that it will get finished. When I’m finished with all my “in progress” manuscripts, I’ll be excited to use this book for a fresh idea.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Consider the benefits of a writing partnership.  Is there someone who might support you in your writing journey?  A fellow book writer, especially?  Take one step toward exploring this idea this week.

2.  Visit Carole and Lynn's blogs--they are wonderful.  

Lynn: Present Letters

Carole: Lasting Impressions

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Cure for Writer's Block: Value Writing--A Surprise Post by One of Mary's Editors

Mary is off writing, which is a good thing for a writing teacher to do every now and then. News flash: many writing teachers don’t actually write all that much. Of course they used to. There were the novels, the plays, the essays, the articles. And better yet, payment for their writing. They were “real writers.”

Then …for quite a few of them, the writing sort of dwindled. This may be your story, as well. It’s definitely mine. (I am a former publisher/editor who is hard at work NOT working on a book about Montaigne the writer who invented the personal essay.) 

I have got good excuses. Life gets in the way—there’s all that family, health, laundry. You know, "issues." And in the grand world of employment, writing often does not pay that well. Writing can start to feel like you are building a house on spec, where you use your own hard-earned cash to build a snazzy house in the hopes that when you sell it you will recoup your money and make a pile in royalties. The thing is, I don’t have the money or patience to write on spec. Does that qualify as writer’s block? Not really.

Spec is short for speculation, a noun that can mean “contemplation of a subject” and “engagement in a risky business transaction in the hope of profit from changes in the market price.”

Know anything else that calls for the mutually exclusive acts of contemplation and engagement in an activity in the hopes of big payout from market changes? Hint: it is what I am trying to do right now.

So I got to thinking… why don’t more of us go off and sink some time into our writing like Mary? For the same reason most of us don’t buy shares in a gold mine in Peru. You could make a bundle, but chances are you would lose your shirt. Why? A gazillion reasons--the mine is about to be nationalized; the mine is lying on a fault line; the mine doesn’t even have gold in it, it has silver. When you are trying to sell spec stuff, there is no way to know all the variables. The same goes with writing.

Writing is a risky business. You invest gobs of time, and the upside is a book contract with the six-figure advance. Great! Ah, but the downsides are huge, and here is the kicker: you won’t know why your book didn’t pay out. The reasons are just as specious as the Peruvian mine. For example, the publisher you sent it to says it now wants vampires not zombies, the editor “just” did a book like yours two years ago, the one agent who got back to you said your main character does not have enough “fill-in-blank” adjective, the book group who read it said it was too long, another group said it was too short.

No surprise when risk does not get rewarded, it leads to risk aversion and money gets stuffed under the mattress. When it comes to writing, risk aversion leads to something known as …. wait for it… writer’s block.  How many of us have a book stuffed under our bed? This is not necessarily your fault. It is simply the price you pay when dealing in an unregulated publishing market.

What to do? How do you turn speculation into safety? There are lots of answers, but it has occurred to me recently that maybe it pays to actually discover what the market wants to read. That means attending publishing conferences, marketing seminars on how to sell books. Learn the business from the publisher’s point of view. Learn who their customer really is. Hint: it is not you.

Now here is where it gets weird: while publishers claim they want safety, they secretly pine for the new, the different, the unknown. They want a piece of that risky Peruvian mine. They just want it to be really well written.

What’s a smart writer like you to do? There are a ton of ideas out there, you probably have read all the do’s and don’ts like me. But here is a new “do” idea—do what the most successful investor of all time does. Ignore the market. Warren Buffet could care less about the market’s ups and downs; he invests for the long haul. And only in those companies that have a significant competitive advantage over its competitors. He calls this advantage the "economic moat," and the wider a company’s moat, the more valuable the company. The trick is figuring out what a company has going for it that sets it apart from its competitors. For Warren, his value investing called for a new type of analysis that requires some number crunching and a whole lot of gut checking.

Value Writing--The Cure for Writer's Block
The cure for writer’s block could be something remarkably similar: value writing. Perhaps the problem is not with the writing, but the way we analyze our writing. Maybe all we need to do is to start asking better questions about our work.

Start with the basics: what you like to read and why. Do you read to escape from the everyday drudgery? Do you read to learn something new? To be moved by the actions of complex characters?

Before you can write to be read, you need to start asking tougher questions about your story. What moved you so much it you found yourself writing it down? Was it the drama? The complex characters? Solving a mystery? Wanting to share family legacies? Does this come across in your own writing? If not, why not? What does come across in your writing? If you are answering these questions truthfully, you should start to feel a little buzz of energy about now.

Now get ready for the really big value-illuminating question: what is the question your book is attempting to answer? (I can see your eyes starting to cross. Knock it off!) For a book to have value it needs to ask at least one really compelling question and then answer it. Will Oliver Twist grow up to live a long and healthy life? Can a white would-be writer manage to tell the story of two black maids in the deep south in the 1960s? Does knowing the personal history of Henrietta Lacks shed new light on how we look at cancer research? Yes, yes, and yes.

Does your opus have a compelling question? If you stopped writing it midway through, I can almost guarantee that it doesn’t. Hence the writer’s block.  Get on our knees, and dig out your manuscript from under the bed. Blow off the dust bunnies, and see if you can’t find that question. Once you do, the drive to answer it will fuel your writing and add a whole lot of moat to your work.

Our guest blogger is a former editor with a large book publishing company.  She was also the editor for Mary's newest book, Your Book Starts Here, for which Mary is eternally grateful.