Advice to Aspiring Authors
Now that I have written and published a book, at least once a week I get to talk with an aspiring author or storyteller about the process, my process. I love to speak from the place of yes, this dream came true for me and yes, it can come true for you.
I used to be one of those people who kept saying I want to write a book. I had (and still have) so many to write! I was also one of those people whose friends probably got tired of her saying “I want to …” and then had a hundred reasons of why it wasn’t the right time, or the right topic, or the biggest priority.
I have started and stopped more books in process than I’d like to admit.
And, I now have my very own ISBN and a work in the collection of the Library of Congress.
So if you are sitting there wondering if you can do it, the answer is simply this: probably.
Yes, you can probably write a book. If you want to. It’s really quite doable.
I am happy to share any and all of the logistics and details of my journey to publishing, and I’ll also tell you this:
If you have a story to tell, find a way to tell it.
Let it be yours. Let it be imperfect, even messy. Get it wrong. Let no one read it or review it or listen.
The hardest part about writing a book, or building a business, or raising your rates or entering into a new relationship isn’t the thing itself, it’s you.
You have to know that you are worth it. Your story is worth telling. Your art is worth making. Your love is worth sharing. All of this worth comes from the fact that you are you and not anyone else. No one sees the world through your eyes the way you do, and that, my friend, matters. It matters a lot.
I recently wrote and shared about creating and making art. Telling a story is the same thing. Your story might come out like mine, in a book. It might also be in the children you raise, the music you write, the food you cook, clothes you design because you want to wear them, songs you sing in the shower because you love how they sound and how it feels to hear the reverberation of your own voice. It’s all art. It’s all story. It all comes from love. It’s all you putting your unique voice out in the world. You get to let your voice be heard, your vision seen, your heartbeat held.
If you want to ask technical questions, and I certainly did, I will answer those questions the best way I can.
I will also provide answers to the questions you’re not asking.
Yes, it’s okay to tell your story.
Yes, it is okay to take up space.
Yes, you matter.
Stories are universal, even yours.
I think I’m also being asked: is it okay for me to dream? YES.
Is it okay for me to share how I uniquely experience the world? HELL, YES!
Will people care? I HAVE NO IDEA. I really hope someone does because sharing your work feels so personal and vulnerable and that can be scary, but it’s also what allows you to have joy and meaning and a sense of contribution and purpose, so please do it anyway.
Questions & Answers
Q: How did you write your book?
A: I wrote this book with multiple intentions.
- I wanted a place to put stories I’d written for at least 15 years, on blogs, newsletters, in journals.
- A part of me that wanted to close a chapter of my life with honor; looking back, I think I’d call that chapter “The Struggle to Figure Out Who I Am.” I no longer struggle. I know who I am.
- I had an experience with a client who had hired me but I felt like I had to continually work to convince her that it was worth it, that SHE was worth her investment. It was all about her business, not about her as its creator. Philosophically, we were not aligned; she kept thinking if I consulted with her on her business it would grow but wouldn’t believe that her business would grow as a reflection of her own growth. I wished I had a book to give her to say, “Here, read this first then see if you want to hire me” (Note: it didn’t work out for us and we parted company. I wish her all the best.)
- I wanted to share the origin stories of Wrong Turn Ranch and Into the Fire Leadership because my life – and everything in my life – became so much more magical and wonderful when I started listening to my inner voice and found the courage to follow my heart and if I could tell the world any one thing, it’s that.
- I wanted to normalize experiences that people have and don’t speak openly about, like:
- Losing your identity when your career changes
- Losing your identity when you become a mom
- Ongoing personal and professional reinvention
- Being a highly sensitive overachiever powerful woman
- How life is not defined by one’s accomplishments
- Different perspectives on grief and loss
- What it’s really like to start a business
- Taking risks and learning something new in midlife
- Therapy and recovering from trauma
- Realizing you are not who you thought you were
- Finally, I know I have a lot of books in me and I had to start with this one.
Somehow, we managed to fit all of this into 284 pages!
Once I committed to writing my book, I compiled everything I’d written that I thought might fit into it and I printed it out on paper and sat on the floor of my office with a red pen and two piles: Yes and Probably No.
I’d sit with my work for a chunk of time, binder clip it back together, and pick it up again later. Sometimes I was working on it daily; I also let it sit for months at a time.
I didn’t actually know what I was writing about, but I looked for themes in my writing to see what fit together. I landed on listening to my inner voice.
After that, I did a lot of cutting and pasting into one Word document (yes, I tried Scrivener but it didn’t make sense for this project, yes, eventually we moved the manuscript into Google docs to work from one version but ended up back to Word when Google docs had a glitch and kept losing edits as we were near completion of the manuscript.)
I pulled all the stories together and looked for what else I needed to say for the puzzle pieces to fit together.
Because so much of what is in this book came from material I’d previously written as blogs and newsletters, I wanted the book to read as a collection of related essays, which was inspired hearing Andrew Rannells talk about his book on Rory O’Malley’s podcast which I listened to while driving my kids to summer camp.
I have worked with the material in this book in so many ways. I have attempted to fictionalize it in novel and write it as a letter to my children. Eventually I surrendered to it being exactly what it was, reflections over time, captured in a moment, preserved as authentically as possible and edited for context and clarity.
When I was actively working on it, I would take my MacBook in my purse and write in the cracks of my life like in carpool lines and while getting new tires. I’d write after dinner, before breakfast.
I gave myself a writer’s retreat weekend alone in a cottage in Malibu very early in my process, but I don’t think I used a word I wrote. Maybe they’ll show up in a future book. Or not. Towards the end of the actual writing process, I took a few days in Ojai with every plan to write and realized my time would be better spent playing tennis, surfing and wandering through town, which I did very successfully.
Along the way, I looked for other authors to spell it out for me.
- Tim Ferriss talked about canceling everything for a month and writing his book exclusively. That would never work for me. I’ve got teenagers!
- Cheryl Strayed, also a mom, talked about locking herself away in a cabin for a weekend whenever she could, but I like to engage with the world while I’m creating.
- My friend Christine wrote her first book every day at 4:00am before her kids got up for school. I’d die first.
All this to say, the way you write your book will be the way you write your book. You can try on other people’s processes on for size, but yours will inevitably be custom.
Q: How long did it take to write your book?
A: If I’m being cheeky, I’d tell you it took me about 30 years. The earliest essay I include in There’s Got to Be a Better Way was for my admission to university written in 1988. In earnest, I started writing my actual book in September of 2017 and completed the draft manuscript in July of 2018, but again, a lot of the material was vintage and repurposed and I was not writing 24/7.
Q: Did you have it all figured out at the beginning?
A: Dear God, no. One thing I tell every aspiring author is that the book you read is not the book I wrote. Well, it is and it isn’t. I did not write from an outline or a story structure. I did not have chapters planned out in advance.
I keep a flip chart on the wall of my office with post-its of story ideas. Once I had an idea of the narrative I was telling, as I’d remember a story, I’d write it on a post-it and add it to the wall, so when it was time for me to write I had pieces to pull from. In addition to the post-its I kept notes in my iPhone to catch ideas on the go.
After I gave the manuscript to my editor to read, she presented me with the concept of how the stories could fit together. We took a risk, writing the book with a non-linear sense of time, using flashbacks and pairing essays together by theme if not necessarily sequentially. Not everyone loves it. I got a fair amount of feedback from early readers about how it didn’t work, but we did our best to connect the dots and give the reader the opportunity to go on their own journey with my stories. I have this idea that you can flip through it and land on something that might be useful in the moment. You can put it down and pick it up any time.
Q: How many people read the book before you published it?
A: Somewhere between 6-10. I asked people to read it who I trusted to provide insights in a way that would be useful to me as the author and to my future readers.
Q: How did you know what to write about?
A: I wrote about my life, as unfiltered as I could. Again, going back to the many intentions I held for this book, I had a lot of material to work from, much of which was already in Dropbox.
Q: Why did you self-publish?
A: A few big reasons:
1. I met with a book agent several years ago and pitched I Invented Motherhood – Motherhood Reinvented (my early blog and first business). She listened and asked, “What else have you got?” A lot of people can write about motherhood who have more authority and expertise on the topic, she told me, and when I told her about my other work around leadership and surfing and horsemanship and my own trials of learning how to surf in my 40s she found that idea quite charming and encouraged me to put together a book proposal.
2. I tried to write a book proposal. I really tried. But I kept getting hung up on not having an audience who would buy my book, which led me into and down a deep rabbit hole of how my stories weren’t going to sell which seems to be very important to publishers, and if my book might not sell, maybe my stories might not be worth telling.
To say I had to “get over this” minimizes the real work involved, and any creative person knows this. Before I could actively write my book, the real work happened inside me and included:
- Finding value and meaning in the experiences of my life.
- Learning how to trust.
- Deepening my intuition.
- Healing from trauma and learning how to manage anxiety.
- Falling deeply in love with my life – and myself – exactly as it is and exactly as I am.
I did not do this alone and it did not happen quickly (see “I Take a Village” in the acknowledgment section of my book.)
3. How does an author aspire to be on the New York Times Best Seller’s list and also not want to play the publishing game of how many books need to sell, and when, or how many reviews need to be on Amazon, etc? I had to get comfortable with my ego and figure out why I really wanted to write my book.
It would be lovely to one day have global recognition for my work, but that is not why I write. I wanted to write a book people I know right now could have in their hands to read. I wanted to tell my stories. I wanted to help. I decided that the most immediate way I could do that would be to self-publish. Plus, all the cool kids are doing it.
4. At the end of the day, I didn’t want anyone else to own my stories. I didn’t want someone to one day break the news that my book would no longer be in print. I didn’t want any other authority telling me what I could and could not share, to whom, how much or how little.
Q: How did you do it?
A: I had a village (see above). When I hired Amanda Johnson to be my developmental editor, I trusted her knowledge and guidance so much that I re-engaged with her after we’d completed the manuscript to be my book doula and help me get the book out into the world. Amanda gave me the pros and cons of online publishers, helped me find a stellar designer to layout the interior of my book for print and electronic publishing and coordinated with my cover designer to make sure all the files were what they needed to be to make a beautiful finished product.
Q: How much did it cost?
A: Not going to answer that question specifically. I was willing to pay for things others might do themselves. I also wanted my book to be the very best book it could be, so I was very particular with the paper quality and color, the texture of the cover … I paid for an all-inclusive, five-star, luxury experience, but I do that as often as I can when it matters to me and I don’t when it doesn’t matter.
I was surprised to find quite a range of pricing between freelance editors, some who charged by the word (my original manuscript came in over 75,000 words which I edited down to about 50,000 before handing it over), some who charged by the project.
It costs what it costs and you can publish however you want. Don’t let your fears about money become bigger than the story that needs to be told. Deal with those separately.
Q: Why did you hire your editor?
A: I was about to hire someone else who impressed me with her writing, credentials, and the way she thought about the editing and writing process, even though as a first-time author I didn’t have a context for comparison. I liked her a lot, except she kept missing meetings and took a long time to respond to my messages, and since my book is about listening to my inner voice, I had to really ask myself why I was willing to compromise on something so important when I wasn’t feeling it?
I reached out to a professional network I belong to on Facebook who I describe as “magical people who get shit done,” and asked for an introduction to a Mary Poppins of an editor, practically perfect in every way, and within an hour was linked to Amanda, we connected, set up a meeting, and I hired her. Boom!
Q: Was it hard?
A: I do not buy into the concept of the struggling or starving artist. It’s bullshit. I loved writing my book, I loved editing my book and I continue to love sharing my book.
“Not hard” does not, however, equate to “easy.” It broke my heart to let go of stories I loved that didn’t fit the book’s larger narrative. It was a challenge to let my editor mess around in my beautiful nest of words, especially as an occasional recovering perfectionist. It’s an exercise in humility to be pushed to go deeper or encouraged to use words and give details that I wouldn’t in front of my dentist or my kids for that matter. I put all of my trust into Amanda when I hired her to edit my book and I’d eagerly do it again.
Some of the best parts of the book were written in the margins, which is to say the conversations Amanda and I had in the comments of the Google doc we shared elevated the whole story and I am forever indebted to her for her commitment to making
Let’s Color and Go in the Ocean There’s Got to Be a Better Way: An Overachiever’s Guide to Discovering Joy the best book it could be. (Let’s Color was the working title. I loved it but it didn’t make it through edits, and I’m glad for that.)
Q: So, are you really saying that writing a book is not a solitary endeavor?
A: No. For me, it was not. And honestly, why would I keep something to myself when I so love to share and collaborate? As I have said many different ways in There’s Got to Be a Better Way, you have to listen to your inner voice and mine said loud and clear, do your best and then find people who will make it better.
I have been working with my coach Linda for several years now, including while I was writing, also before I was ready and since. She has been a brilliant sounding board for me to process my experience and thoughts and was one of my valued early readers. I gave her my book because she knows me well enough to know that my book sounded like me and that my voice was true and she helped me see when and where it was not. She’s not a “book coach” and I didn’t need her to help keep me accountable to a certain number of pages/week. Again, my process. You do you.
Q: What else did you learn about writing a book that would help someone just starting out?
A: Writing and editing are completely different processes. I used to edit while I was writing, now I do not. Maybe I thought it was more efficient? Maybe it came from having to write under pressure for exams? I don’t know, but whatever you do, don’t attempt to edit your work while you’re writing it. Let me say it again. Editing and writing different processes. Don’t do one at the expense of the other.
Now when my kids are writing essays for school, I help them to write first and edit later. Write. Give it space. Go for a drive. Come back to it. It’s not going anywhere. For heaven’s sake, you’re not writing a book in sand. Writing is about getting all the ideas out, editing is shaping and refining. You will lose some of your voice if you are refining while you are creating. Do one then the other. Go back and forth. It’s not linear. Two different and highly interdependent processes.
Q: I thought I was going to write a book, but it’s not coming to me/I don’t have time for it/I’m totally stuck/I can’t find my voice …
A: Set it down. It’s okay. If you have a book in you, I hope it will eventually find its way out. Go listen to Liz Gilbert read Big Magic. You’re not the only one. When it is time and you commit to your book, you will have so much more to include and share. Trust yourself.
Also, it might be actually be time right now for you to write your book and you might be scared and letting your fear drive the bus (again, go listen to Ms. Gilbert), so figure that part out first then write the dang thing.
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