Before and After the Book Deal

Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum is one of those books you don’t necessarily read from start to finish. It’s a book that has been on my bedside table for a while now. I pick it up and read a few pages, mark meaningful paragraphs with a yellow highlighter and sticky notes, and then put the book down again until the next time.

Ms. Maum has crafted a well-written and, at-times, humorous book. It is an incredibly valuable resource for writers who are looking to “finish, publish, promote and survive” their first book. Which I am.

Yet, even if you’re not a writer, if you create in a different medium, there are useful tidbits for all artists and creators. Here are just a few:

“Narrative voice is your literary aura, your essence, the thing that allows writers the world over to write about the same topics in thrillingly different ways. Even though it’s yours, your voice can take a long, long time to find.”

“Get excited by your rejections. They are road maps toward the kind of work that you were born to write.”  (It’s a good reminder. Although they are a part of the writing process, some rejections sting more than others.)

In addition to writer-specific advice, I love these reminders about the power of expressing gratitude:

“Set some money aside for thank-you tokens for your editorial team and agents at pub time. (A heartfelt, handwritten card is thoughtful, but some authors also send on gifts, flowers, alcohol [when appropriate], or something handmade.)”

“At some point after the book contract is finalized, if you live close enough to your publishing house to make this happy event possible, you will meet the people who are going to publish your first book.
“Within twenty-four hours, send a group email to everyone you met expressing how great it was to meet them, how lucky you are to be working with them, and why [enter name of publisher] is simply the best house for your book. Then send a handwritten note to your editor, reiterating the same.” 

Dear readers-who-are-also-writers, have you read this book? Do you have paragraphs or pages you have marked with your own sticky notes? 

Gardening and Writing

The other day, I spent an hour working in my garden. Pruning, plucking, and even pleading. (Me: “Please don’t eat the plant. It’s not food.” Squirrel: No comment. But it did stop eating and stare at me for a long moment before scampering away.)

While I was marveling at the many plants that are getting closer to blooming, I realized something — gardening and writing have a lot in common.

They both offer the promise of something different — something more, something bigger, something more colorful — than what you started with.

A small green plant with a card sticking out of its moist soil labeling it a kalanchoe. A stack of white printer paper, standing at attention, just waiting for me to type some words on the computer and press print. 

I turn to both of these endeavors with hope and optimism. I water my plants, doing my best to make sure I’m watering a Goldilocks-not-too-much, not-too-little amount. I strive to find just the right spot, with just the right amount of sunlight, for each plant. I trust in the process and hope I’ve done all I can so my kalanchoe will bloom its yellow flowers. Likewise, I open up a new Pages document on my computer and begin. I only have twenty-six letters to work with, but, again, I trust in the process. I’ve done this before. Just get something down — a word, a vague idea, a quote. Something to get me writing, and keep me writing.

And then you see it start to happen. The plant looks a little taller, a bit fuller with more leaves. A tiny bud appears. The screen on the computer is no longer full of ramblings. I’ve found the line that I was writing my way to. The line that leads to a paragraph, which leads to multiple paragraphs and multiple pages.

But it’s not done yet. My kalanchoe does bloom its small, happy yellow flowers. And I continue showing my plants love, in the form of my pruning and plucking. So, too, it is with writing. After I have printed several pages of my personal essay, I know I’m not done. My pages need some love, too. I review, revise, and rewrite.

Of course there are others involved. All the people responsible for getting my plants to the garden store. My husband for being my personal I.T. person. 

But in the end, I did it. 

I pause and savor and appreciate. 

Then I do it all again. 

Lollipop Trees

“I had painted ‘lollipop trees.’ At least that’s what my elementary school teacher said.

“Our assignment was to paint watercolor landscapes. I painted trees with round tops, modeled after the pruned trees I saw as I walked to school each morning. I liked my painting; my teacher did not. She said my trees looked like lollipop trees; that they didn’t look like real trees, although they looked like the trees I knew.

“Mrs. E picked up a paintbrush and painted over my trees to make them look the way she thought trees should look.

“For the rest of my school years, I never voluntarily took an art class.” 

Those words are taken from a piece I wrote that was published in the Christian Science Monitor back in 2004. 

I thought of that essay the other day while on a walk. I am supposed to keep moving and not let my pain stop me from walking each day. So I try. I park the car near my son’s high school with plenty of time before the dismissal bell rings, so I can take a leisurely walk in the surrounding neighborhood. 

The other day I noticed the tree in the photograph above. And that’s when I thought back to my “lollipop trees” and this essay.

You can read my essay, “Too often, teachers extinguish a student’s spark,” by clicking here.

Write On, Sisters!

Write On, Sisters!: Voice, Courage, and Claiming Your Place at the Table by Brooke Warner is more than a writing book. It’s also a look into the uneven playing field that women encounter in most careers and fields. It’s a close-up look at the ways in which women often hold themselves back, and not just when it comes to writing. 

I’ll be honest — the first half of the book has a lot of statistics and was rather slow reading for me. But the second half of the book has quite a few nuggets that were worthy of my sticky notes.

Here are a few:

“Writing is self-expression, and as such, when we write we give voice to what we think, what we care about, and who we are. When we read a book —or even a post —we take a walk inside the innermost recesses of the author’s mind, welcomed into a place so private that the words we read on the page may be words the author has never uttered aloud. How powerful — and intimate — is that?”

“To put your voice out into the world is to both believe and demand that what you have to say matters. We are our best selves when we assert our independence and self-reliance, our strength and toughness. The very qualities our culture values least in women are the ones women need to succeed.”

“… you don’t need to heed warnings from the jaded that failure is imminent or inevitable. It is. The work is in getting back up on the horse, rising from the fall, and the way you handle the fall.”

“Few events are more life-changing and soul-affirming than offering up your work in the form of a published book. The act of creating a story, honing your words into a message that matters to readers, or honoring your truth by recording your experience in memoir form is a way of telling the world, I am here. I have something to say. I have something to impart. I want to share with you a story, a message, a truth. You are passing feelings from one human heart to another.”

Writing Out the Storm

There are some people who see little value in re-reading a book. After all, the world is full of books. There will never be time to read them all.

I am not one of those people.

One of my most re-read books is Barbara Abercrombie’s Writing Out the Storm: Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury. (Barbara holds a special place in my heart. You can read my tribute post, For Barbara, by clicking here.) 

Inside my copy of the book, is a print-out of a short email exchange between Barbara and me. I had written Barbara, thanking her for writing the book, and letting her know it had helped me put my thoughts on paper. That email was dated 2012.

This paragraph is taken from the back of the book:

This powerful and deeply inspirational handbook is for anyone coping with serious illness or injury — be it theirs or that of a loved one — who wants and needs to help themselves through the healing process. Offering her own experiences with breast cancer, as well as stories from other authors who have suffered from illnesses or severe injuries…

Though I have read this book several times, highlighting passages, marking pages with sticky notes, each read feels like a slightly new read. Each time I turn to this book, I’m surprised when a passage sticks out, a passage that in all my other reads had never really stood out to me before. 

That’s because I’m different. The book doesn’t change. But I do. Each time I read this book, I am a slightly different version of myself. And each time I read this book, I find writing prompts and quotes that speak to me and serve as inspiration in my writing. 

This time around, these are just a few of the sentences that jumped out at me.

Once you’ve heard the unthinkable, you know it’s possible to hear it again, or worse.”

“I’ve stopped fighting the diagnosis. I now fight the disease.”  

“I suppose it’s easy to be courageous when you don’t know you are doing so.”

Readers, I’m curious. Do you ever re-read books? Let me know in the comments. 

For Barbara

This is a difficult blog post to write. 

My heart is heavy. Which in turn makes my fingers feel heavy to write what I need to write.

You know when people ask Which teacher most impacted you? I never had a really good answer to that question. I always thought the question referred to teachers you had before college, either the teachers that told you the play area for the week was kickball, or the teachers who helped you navigate the confusion of changing classrooms for each class period, or the teachers who wrote you the recommendation letters you needed for college.

I had gotten it wrong. 

A teacher is one who teaches. At any level.

Now I know my answer to that question.

Which teacher most impacted you?

Barbara Abercrombie.

And with a heavy heart and my heavy fingers I must add may she rest in peace

Barbara Abercrombie recently passed away. I learned of her death through an email newsletter I received from Jennie Nash, current CEO of Author Accelerator, former instructor in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

About twenty years ago, I took my first class in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. A weekend course about Writing the Personal Essay taught by Barbara Abercrombie. I remember writing a somewhat humorous post about the women’s restrooms not having toilet seat covers. I remember hearing Barbara Abercrombie tell me she could hear my voice coming through. At the time, I didn’t realize what a huge compliment that was.

 It was shortly after that course that I became a published writer with a piece I wrote being published in the Los Angeles Times. (You can read it by clicking here.)

Barbara was a cool lady. She was honest and calm. She encouraged everyone, believing everyone could write — and publish — a personal essay. She was the only teacher I knew who wore a lot of jewelry like I do. Silver jewelry like I do. 

Occasionally over the years I enrolled in Barbara’s classes when they aligned with my teaching schedule. Back in 2005, I was fortunate enough to miss two days of teaching to enroll in UCLA Extension’s intensive four-day Writers Studio Barbara taught.

When I retired from teaching, I was then free to take Barbara’s weekday, daytime classes. And it was in one of those classes that I met one of my closest friends. 

Barbara also offered four day writing retreats up in Lake Arrowhead. I used to wistfully read her emails and think someday. Someday became two different occasions. Each time, I left my family for four days and three nights to go read and write and talk about reading and writing up in Lake Arrowhead with a group of writers.

It was Barbara who told me the essays I was writing could be — should be — a book. 

March of 2020. We all remember it as the month and year when our world ceased to be as we had known it. Originally I was enrolled in one of Barbara’s classes which would have started at the end of March. The class, of course, switched to a virtual format. With my husband working from home, and my son doing his schooling from home, I had to drop out of Barbara’s writing class. 

I hadn’t spoken to Barbara for quite some time though I followed her on Instagram and always liked and commented on the photos she shared of her grandchildren. 

But I know Barbara knows how much I appreciated her, how fond of her I was. Because I always told her — through a letter. At the end of each class, Barbara told her students to write a letter explaining what grade they deserved. You wanted an A, you wrote and asked for one. I always wanted the A. In these end-of-course letters, I didn’t just reflect on my writing during the class, but also on Barbara’s teaching methods. Barbara created a safe space for writers. Writers, who often didn’t know each other well, came together and created a supportive environment to write and share aloud some of the most personal, intimate parts of our lives. 

It always worked, because of Barbara.

13 Ways Writing Is Easier Than My Autoimmune Disease

It all started from a 5-minute writing exercise. I used a prompt from Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement (great book!), and when my timer went off five minutes later, I knew I had written the beginning of something. That first draft went through some significant changes.

13 Ways Writing Is Easier Than My Autoimmune Disease is the final result. 

I’m happy to say it was recently published at The Mighty. You can click here to read the essay in its entirety.

Dismissals and Rejections – of Symptoms and Submissions

“It’s not a realization that came to me easily or early on in my life as a chronic illness patient. It took me several years to finally recognize it and to see what had been in front of me all along.

Not until I marked my submission tracker with that most depressing word, “Declined,” did I make the connection. I realized that having a piece of writing declined and leaving a doctor’s appointment without any answers share many of the same emotions.” 

Those paragraphs are taken from my personal essay, “Dismissals and Rejections — of Symptoms and Submissions,” recently published at Spoonie Authors Network. You can click here to read the essay in its entirety.

Deserving of the “Good Paper”

The theme for the March issue of Sasee Magazine is “Planting the Seed.” 

Some writers might read that and think in literal terms – planting seeds, watching a garden grow, waiting for a flower to bloom.

I took that theme and went a different way. 

I wrote about my second grade teacher, Mrs. Jones. It was she who, all those years ago, “planted the seed” and helped me believe I could be a writer.

Click here to read my essay, “Deserving of the Good Paper’ ” in its entirety.


Chicken Soup and Cozy Stories

Who else needs comfort and reassurance during these scary times?

In our family, comfort takes many forms. 

Mugs of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.

Snuggly blankets. Fuzzy socks. Lit candles. Lots of hugs.

And favorite stories. 

This holiday season, perhaps more than any other, we need to hold on to that which makes us feel comforted and calmed. 

We need heart-warming, re-affirming stories. 

On that note, might I do a little self-promotion and recommend Chicken Soup for the Soul: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas – 101 Tales of Holiday Love and Wonder, a collection of feel-good, holiday-themed, non-fiction stories

And, if you turn to page 140, you will read “A Timeless Gift” — written by me! It’s my story of our family calendar and its place in our holiday traditions. 

May your holidays be filled with good stories and good health.