What It’s Like When Your Book Comes Out

It’s been a few weeks now since I received a large envelope from Christian Focus with the first copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel. I knew what it was straightaway, and opening that envelope was exciting! For some of us! ‘Look, Floraidh,’ I said, ‘It’s Mommy’s new book!!!’ My three-year-old pushed past me grunting something to the effect of ‘Wow. I want a cookie.’ And she was right, life had to go on that afternoon, and I didn’t get a chance to engage much with my book until the next morning, when…

I put on some makeup and posed with the front cover, wearing my VERY BEST SELFIE FACE. Let the marketing begin! My publisher does do marketing, and they blog, and tweet about new books, and distribute them, and all that. But it’s still a small release, part of a wide-ranging children’s series, and a book like that needs a bit of a boost. Although I did get to see it in a real, live bookshop, and that was the culmination of my life from the age of thirteen – yes, I’ve been writing seriously since then! And it was amazing seeing it on a shelf where someone might buy it, because…

Can I tell you how much I hate selling stuff? I really, really do. Every time I post something on Facebook actually encouraging someone to buy a book, I’m like UGH I HATE MYSELF. Yet, I think it’s a good kids’ book, and I want readers to discover Bonhoeffer, and the only way for that to happen is if they know about it! People have been really kind and want to buy them, and I’m so grateful. Frankly, I need the support, I just hate asking for it. And it opens up lots of practical questions, like…

How does someone in America buy a signed copy? There isn’t a ‘signed’ button on Amazon, and you can’t just email the distributor a list of addresses, and it’s inefficient for the publisher to send them out themselves. So in the end I bought a box of books from Christian Focus, and am selling them at a slight discount (I still make more than my usual commission price, so it’s cool) and mail them out, then invoice the buyers for the book plus postage. Which is all fine. And I get to sign copies, which I LOVE. But I feel bad charging people for postage! Also, it means we’re entering the danger area of…

PEOPLE ACTUALLY READING AND RESPONDING TO MY BOOK. One guy responded to the IDEA of my book on Facebook by being outraged that a novel about Bonhoeffer would be written by a Presbyterian. I didn’t mind. It allowed me to talk about why I thought Bonhoeffer, despite some admittedly nutty theology, was still a great Christian example that our kids should know about, and then some other people weighed in backing me up, and it was all food for thought. But I haven’t gotten any Amazon reviews yet, and I checked the other day with bated breath. What if someone had given me two stars? There were no stars, which is much, much better than two, but it’s still nerve-wracking. I spent a year really loving Dietrich’s company. What if other people read what I wrote about him and go ‘Meh’, or ‘Nope, I still think he was totally unsuitable as a subject’, or ‘I’ve read a third of the Metaxas book and I could’ve written a better kids’ adaptation’? And yet…

The publisher liked it! Liked it enough to say we should keep working together. Liked it enough that we’ve discussed a number of other projects that I’m really excited about, not to mention another subject in this series, who I love…will I tell you now?…no, I’ll write another blog post. So where does the release of my first book leave me?

So excited about the future! (Except my book launch on Sunday, and speaking at a denominational event in September, both of which leave me terrified about the future, but that’s okay, it’s only the immediate future.)

Because I hate selling things, I would like to GIVE AWAY a copy of my book to say thanks to you all for taking an interest in my work and celebrating with me. If you’d like a copy, please leave a comment below or on Facebook about why you think it should go to you!


The Joy of (un) Solitude

This week I had a most unusual experience of meeting face-to-face with another writer. We’ve known each other since uni, fifteen years ago, and a few years ago reconnected and realised our writing careers were following similar paths. Our styles are not similar, but we critique each other’s manuscripts, discuss ideas, bemoan the difficulties of finding an agent, compare experiences of paid writing work.

Most of the time I like the solitude of writing. That’s because to me it doesn’t really feel solitary. My characters, the ones I’ve really invested in and known for a while, feel like real people. Friends. Writing feels not like creating a new incident in their lives, but discovering it. In some ways this came out of my somewhat solitary childhood. I grew up in the woods, and I was definitely the “different” kid in school. I generally preferred my own (and my characters’) company to going out with schoolmates.

But I always longed for some kind of intersection too. If I was different, I wasn’t shy about it. I got my friends to read my fledgling novel, just because I so wanted other people know my new gang, my imaginary friends. As I got older, I joined both real-life and online writing groups and came to actually enjoy getting constructive criticism just because it meant someone was really engaging with this world of mine.

Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom to two toddlers, people often ask me how I find the time and space to write. They ask this with a sympathetic grimace, as if it’s this extra burden to fit into my day. Well, they say you’re a real writer when you can’t live without writing, and I fit it in like I fit in eating and sleeping. Even when I’m editing or working on a commissioned piece, the moment I can’t wait for in my day is when the kids are asleep or at nursery, and I can write. It’s the world that feels most mine, and that solitude is a privilege.

Now that I’m getting work published, I get the solitude of writing and the un-solitude of people reading it, reviewing it, writing to me about it. Even telling people I’m a writer means they’ll ask questions and I can talk about what it is I do during those quiet hours. This is a place of great intersection.

And getting to see another writer friend in person, that’s just a whole new level of a treat.  She understands the doubts, the craft, the pride, the graft, and why, no matter how busy my day gets, I’ll never stop writing.

Choose My Own Adventure

I have fallen in love all over again. With an idea, that is.

I love ideas. They are so fresh and shiny and unspoiled by failed drafts and one-dimensional characters. Ideas are potential. And even better, my idea has a great playlist.

The year is 1250. A man is told by his two-hundred-year-old father that he may have the lifespan of a Methuselah. He ages slowly; most of the last millennium is the prime of his life. He is now reaching the end, and reflecting on history – what he’s lived through, what he’s learned from it, how it repeats itself, what is unique about each age. He experiences the lifestyle of a pauper, a king, an explorer. Great lands, revolutions, cultures, religious movements.

Which brings me to the bit where you choose the adventure. Which great periods or turning points in history would you send my Methuselah to in the past 900 years or so? I’m looking forward to the fall of Constantinople, the French Revolution, the Black Death, and the Enlightenment, to name a few. What lessons could we in the 21st century learn from someone who’s walked through that past? And what is unique in our day?

Beating Writer’s Block

One of the great struggles of fiction is sitting down with a blank page or screen and a vague idea in your head (if you’re lucky) and thinking: What does happen? How do I get through this plot hole? What does these characters need to discover? Or even (if you’re unlucky): Who are these people, anyway?

I find that blockage can be an issue in my first draft, but after that my problem is one of alternate universes. I have so many paths I want my characters to take. And often I end up writing all of them. From different points of view. Even though I know they won’t make the final draft. I think of it as self-fan-fictioning. For my money, Alternate Universe Indecision Spiral is as bad as writer’s block.

Anyway, I’ve found a number of ways to beat writer’s block, largely via preemptive strike.

1. Killer Playlist. The playlist is pretty much the first thing I do when starting a new project. Admittedly, a Broadway love story is a lot easier to soundtrack than a 4th-century Byzantine historical kids’ novel, but human emotions are universal, thank goodness. Listening to music that really encapsulates what I love about my books makes me want to write like nothing else.

On various playlists I’ve used a lot of old-style Broadway, a lot of classic rock, a soupçon of Gregorian chant, and a LOT of Jeremy Lindsay of Birds of Chicago and JT & the Clouds. You can, and indeed must, find him here, in order to enrich your life and art. Jeremy is an old connection from the States, and a wordsmith second to none. His songs have inspired whole characters and plot points. I once dreamed of writing a musical around them. Which brings me to…

2. Outside Inspiration. Watch and read excellence. Analyse the craft. Great work will make you despair of ever reaching those heights, but it will also drive you on to try.

3. Scrapbook. I’m not crafty and I’m not really suggesting anything involving glue and construction paper. But Pinterest is a great place to visualise characters and settings and collate research. I also sketch scenes and characters because it helps me think.

4. Write the parts you feel. It’s taken me a long time to learn that the pivotal parts are what people really want to read, and the whole story and description should hang on them. They’re also motivating to write, and once you see your characters in the exciting bits, they have a bit more flesh on them when you go to fill in the blanks.

Once you figure out how to work around writer’s block, you can move on to different problems, like the solitude of being the only one who really knows these wonderful fictional people, and deciding which completely engrossing project to devote yourself to out of the fifteen on your ideas board.

Now, if anyone can give me any tips for getting out of the Alternate Universe Indecision Spiral…

Making the most of time off

As a freelancer, every week is different. Two weeks ago I had to use every spare moment to edit for two different clients at the same time. Because of the children, it is not totally unusual for me to edit in ten-minute spurts. No one enjoys working ten minutes at a time.

Since finishing those projects it’s been quieter, which was just as well given the Easter holidays. And while I love having other people’s work always on the go, I’ve learned to appreciate time off from editing, because that’s when I get to be a writer. So in the past week, besides a lot of lamb-basting, tomb-cake-making, egg-decorating, pancake-frying, and vegetable-chopping, I’ve been thinking, researching and writing.

So here’s what it looks like when I’m not editing: in the past two weeks I’ve written a children’s story and worked on illustrations. Neither of these is completely working at the moment, but I think I know how to fix them, so that’s on the agenda. I’ve finished a book for researching my next subject for a historical novel. I’ve written my magazine column (first draft) and also a feature article (mostly). I’ve arranged a pseudo-book launch for the Bonhoeffer book coming out this summer.

I’ve also, for the first time in a month or two, managed to grab the odd few minutes to read. I have contemporary fiction in my pile just now (and I LOVE contemporary literary), but I’m rereading Vanity Fair at the moment. This is partly because it’s on my phone – for free! – but also because my first love is classic literature, and it’s so refreshing to dip back into it once in a while. And despite my blog name, I do love a good UNreliable narrator. It’s so much fun trying to work out when a character is telling the truth, and what their real motivations are.

Editing is fun. Creating something original is way more work, but it also feels so good. I mentioned at the start that sometimes I have to work in ten-minute spurts. That’s the case with writing too, which means that I get to research two pages at a time, I’m writing this while my kids are playing by themselves and I’m keeping an ear out for disaster, I’m late for a playdate, and much of what I write needs to be written in my head before I turn on the computer. If that won’t keep me sharp in my childrearing years, nothing will!

Next time I’m planning to talk about some of the agony and joy of writing fiction – not historical novels, where I’m writing to a plan, but leaping-fully-formed-out-of-Zeus’s-brain fiction. The struggle is real.

What constitutes a writer?

Today I updated my Facebook profile from ‘A finance administrator in a well-known church’ to ‘Freelance writer and editor’.

I haven’t worked in the church office for over three years, but it never occurred to me to change my job description. Part of it is that I’ve spent so much of that time concentrating on being a mom, and while it’s been harder work than any office job I’ve ever had, I consider it a lifestyle, not a career.

But in the past two years I’ve also seen my freelance work increase exponentially. I’ve found three new ‘organisation’ clients, not counting individuals, ghostwritten a memoir and found a publisher for it, and had a children’s novel commissioned and delivered.

And I’ve been so happy about it. I truly love my work – when I get time away from my kids, I’m excited to turn on my laptop and just look at words. My words – other people’s words – I love them all! (We have all the best words, people. Big, beautiful words. We truly do. I guarantee it.)

Everyone has their own definition of what makes them a “real” writer. For some folks the hours they’ve spent on their book, and the feel of it in their hands, makes them a writer, regardless of whether it’s gone through a traditional or self-publishing house. For others it could be getting through the ‘gatekeepers’ of agents and editors and seeing one of the Big Five’s logos on the spine.

For me it was that my small Christian publisher liked the novel they’d commissioned from me enough to ask me to write a couple more. And I realised: I’m a writer. This is what I do now. It wasn’t just a one-off; people want my words. What an incredible high; what a deep privilege.

And with that, my status with my dream career went from ‘It’s complicated’ to ‘In a relationship’.

How to love your book

Mood music: Mes Emmerdes, Charles Aznavour

In the past six months I’ve delivered two manuscripts to publishers, and discovered the amazing world of proofreading, henceforth encountered only from my editorial desk, from an author’s perspective. On the first of these occasions getting my proofs back nearly stopped my heart. The proofreader has completely butchered the text, introducing mistakes on every page which then required much manual correction just to return it to its previous state. I carefully let the publisher know my concerns, and was so relieved when he took them seriously and made a change to his subcontracting.

The publisher for the second manuscript was right on the money, getting a specialist to check foreign spelling, commissioning a map, and giving me plenty of time to incorporate editorial changes before going to a proofreader. The proofreader didn’t make a lot of changes – to my relief, considering my first experience – but did make a few very helpful and astute observations about inconsistencies.

One of the things that’s surprised me is how many times you end up reading your own book, just to check it’s all perfect. You check over the final draft before you send it to the publisher. You incorporate their notes and check it all again. You get the typeset proofs. Check it again. Corrected proofs. Check it again.

I find it’s important, in this process, to like what you’ve written. You can’t just make a bunch of subjective changes after typesetting, so if your characters and dialogue and plot are a bit off kilter, they will grind at you every time you encounter them in the manuscript. And chances are, if they grind at you, they will grind at your readers. And reviewers. And sales numbers.

The only solution is to love your book. Draft and redraft until it’s perfect. Critique partners are good in the early stages, but when it comes to your final draft, it’s down to you to make sure you are happy with every word. Or you’ll reap the consequences by reliving your mistakes.

Work hard – and love your book!