How I created my book and got it published

I belong to a writing organization called  Independent Writers of Southern California. We meet locally in a  small satellite group once a month, and this last month our leader asked me to speak about how I got my memoir published. Here are my notes from that talk.

Even though writing is a lonely business, a village of resources helped and nurtured me from the time I started writing my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. I started with journaling, at first sporadically and later, after reading and doing the exercises in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Putnam’s Sons, 1992), I kept my fingers moving across the pages of my journal every day. I still do.

After amassing about three years’ worth of journal entries I began to think about turning them into a book – a book very much different from the one that was eventually published. But, I was not a creative writer. My writing experience consisted of writing, editing, and training engineers to produce reports and proposals in the aerospace industry.

So, I went back to school to learn.

I took fiction, essay, and memoir writing classes through UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. The people from my first fiction class formed a writing group, meeting monthly, sharing and gently critiquing each other’s writing. Unfortunately, our group disbanded when my son, who was bipolar, took his life. However, a member of that group had spoken lovingly about Jack Grapes of the Los Angeles Poet’s and Writer’s Collective, who at that time taught classes in the living room of his family home.

Three months after Paul died I enrolled in Jack’s level one method writing class, and for five years I worked my way up the level ladder, ending with a poetry editing class. Many of the poems I wrote in the Grapes class are also in my memoir. Last summer I took a poetry series from him, and every now and then I attend one of his one-day workshops.

The prompts in Mourning & Mitzvah—A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1992) also kept me sane. However, I keep returning to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California – my healing and writing place. Early on I discovered Ellen Bass’ “Writing About Our Lives” workshop and almost immediately poems started to flow from my pen. I still attend poetry workshops there with some of the same people I’ve written with at Esalen for years.

After being in Jack’s workshop for about a year, writing about Paul and our family story, he and my classmates started to say I had to get my story out in the world. I put it off for a while, but finally decided to take my journal entries and other writing – pieces from writing classes and workshops, a poetry manuscript, new writing – and turn them into a book.

But, I had no idea how to put it all together. Luckily my son Ben introduced me to a former literary agent who reviewed my work and suggested I structure my book based on the sequence of poems in my poetry manuscript. She also gave me some writing prompts to help round out my material.

Then I began compiling – first by reading through my journals (they were handwritten in notebooks), underlining everything I thought applicable, and then transferring that stuff into book files on my computer. It took a long time. Once in a file I moved pieces around according to my outline. Then I wrote some more, edited, revised, edited, revised until I had a book manuscript. With that I hired an editor – a woman referred to me by one of my memoir-writing instructors – and worked with her until I had a draft to shop around. She edited and commented chapter by chapter first, then the book as a whole after I integrated her comments and changes into the manuscript.

Once I had a draft manuscript, a book proposal – I used How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997) as a guide – and a list of resources to contact, I started querying. Again, through an introduction from Ben, a CEO of a small press critiqued and advised me on my query letter and book proposal to help me through some pretty bad rejection letters I received early on. One said my book was bland. My mentor explained “bland” meant our story wasn’t exciting enough because we didn’t get a divorce after our son died, or I didn’t have an affair or become an alcoholic or drug addict as a result. Also,  we weren’t celebrities.  So we turned the query letter around to say:

“…My memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, is about living after loss. It tells the story of my son’s madness (bipolar disease) and death by suicide, an aftermath filled with guilt and grief, followed by my own decision to come out of this experience alive, whole, and productive.

No, I didn’t get a divorce, I didn’t have a breakdown, I didn’t have an affair with a beautiful younger man, and I didn’t go into years of therapy. Instead I picked myself up and relearned how to live my life again after my son’s death. My book is about my healing process, making decisions about what to do with the rest of my life, and finding a balance between keeping my son’s memory alive, and living – not just participating – through each day. First, I had to choose to live and acknowledge the truth that he is really gone. And, I had to convince myself that “magical thinking” and leaving the hall light on would not lead him back to me…”

Then two years and 68 queries later I finally had a book contract after I agreed to more revising and editing. My new publisher asked me to revise the second half of the book completely. That took another six months. To accomplish that I relied on revision techniques I had earned while working on proposals and a group of readers, editors, and reviewers who worked with me until my book was published. I’ve written a lot of blog posts on revision. The one on my revision process is here.

When my publisher decided we should include photos in the book I asked my friend and a local photographer, Paul Blieden, to get involved. He took new photos and readied all the others for publication. My young friend, Madison Poulter, who was just 17 at the time, took the cover shot.

Because I based my book on my list of poems I was adamant that poems appear in the book. Luckily my publisher agreed. And I was delighted when she also asked me to add more poems within the manuscript – not just at the beginning of each chapter as I had originally envisioned. I also wanted to include a few quotes so I had to get permission and pay in one case to use them.

Finally after writing journal entries, workshop pieces, new pieces, and poems from as early as 1993 when my son was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had a memoir that was published on Mother’s Day, 2011 – eighteen years later.

Yet, the story isn’t over. After I found my dream publisher who published the hardback edition of Leaving the Hall Light On, she went out of business after I was with her for one year – with a one-day warning to her list of twenty authors. With that I contacted the CEO who helped me with my query and book proposal again. He immediately gave me a referral and within two weeks I had a contract with Dream of Things, owned by Mike O’Mary. He brought my memoir out in an eBook and paperback in August of 2012.

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