Throughout the past year I’ve had several blogs posted onto WordServeWatercooler.com. This is a site where authors represented by WordServe Literary provide writing tips and encouragement to other writers. When first asked to contribute to this site, I was intimidated. Help! No, please no! Write for other writers? I’m not a writer!
Grateful to my agent, however, and to WordServe, I felt I needed to do my part. So I wrote about what I know… which is how someone like me, who had never written more than a decent consumer complaint letter, wrote a book that was acquired for publication. Here is the four-part series. Hope you’ll have fun reading!
Part I (Link to WordServe post)
I never aspired to be a writer. Truly. In fact, Mr. Johsen, my high school senior English teacher, once said to me, “Cofer, you will never graduate from college because you can’t write!”
Writing didn’t become a consideration in my life until, uh, well, God and Oprah suggested it. This happened
during the height of the recession when my physician recruitment business of twenty years was struggling to pay the bills. Exasperated, I turned the computer off early one business day and shifted my attention to the Oprah show. A discussion was underway about women who had founded new businesses, many starting in a basement or garage. Mrs. Fields was among those featured, as was the creator of Spanx.
I was surprisingly inspired and then on my knees. “Lord, please show me a new way to be in the world. I’m likely too old to start a new business, and the garage is already full, but please weigh in if you have any ideas. What can I possibly do at this age to augment the business I already have?”
I was unprepared for the answer I received about ten days later. It was mid-morning on a Friday and I was alone in the house. The stillness was unnerving. I leaned on the door jam of my office and faced the darkened expanse of the room. I dreaded entering. The only thought in my head was the ever-present drone, get to work. And then it happened. I heard The Voice. It was that commanding “voice within my own” that William P. Young so beautifully describes in his book, The Shack. I’d heard it before.
“Write a book about the gifts you were given.”
Huh? God, is that you? Write a book… really?
I’d never written anything more than a decent consumer complaint letter, and yet I just heard God tell me to write a book. Like I knew how to do that.
But the nudge was unmistakable.
I knew too what He meant by “gifts.” I often thought of as gifts the lessons learned through my daughter’s addiction and recovery. Even at the moment when Annie broke into our house and literally stole the family jewels, the opportunity that event provided for intervention seemed a gift. Maybe the judicial system would stop her from killing herself with drugs.
If I was indeed to write a book, I first needed my daughter’s permission to share our story. Then in sustained recovery from drug addiction, Annie would be both antagonist and heroine in my memoir. Telling an authentic story would require vulnerability on both our parts, as well as a willingness to reveal some very private details from our lives. Were we ready for that kind of exposure?
Annie’s response was wholehearted. “Go for it, Mom!” I didn’t know at the time she was secretly musing, isn’t that precious? Mom thinks she’s going to write a book.
So the new entry on my daily To Do list became “write a book.” I mean, how hard could it be, right? I already knew the story, so I figured I could crank something out in a couple of months. Uh-huh. I really was that clueless.
My writing began one night at 10:00. I’d promised my husband not to take valuable time away from our business day in order to pursue my newest folly, plus late night hours also provided a peaceful quiet. The time was guilt free. Settled in with a cup of tea, I faced the blank Word document on the computer screen before me…and silently prayed.
Okay, God. Now what?
(Stay tuned for Part II about finding a voice, and the will to keep going.)
Part II (Link to WordServe post)
I began writing my memoir by starting near the end. That first night, while sitting in front of a blank computer screen, I tapped out the images closest to memory, and likely closest to my heart. It was the account of a remarkable day… the day I delivered my daughter, Annie, to a drug treatment center in California.
“It wasn’t at all the institutional setting I’d expected for detox… At that late hour, the street was quiet and still. A woman emerged from the far side of the darkened house, brushing by a wall of hydrangeas that cast an eerie glow of amethyst and silver in partial moonlight. Her hushed tones made it seem a clandestine transfer as she took hold of the pull handle on Annie’s bag and turned to escort her inside… Just before both disappeared into the darkness of an open gate, Annie turned around to me and mouthed the words, ‘Thanks Mom.’ I thought I might burst. “
My brother, Paul, on the other hand, provided terrific support for my intentions with the book. He had been the smart one, the accomplished student. While I was sunbathing and reading Cliff Notes during our college years, Paul studied Comparative Literature as a graduate fellow at a top university. “So Goose,” he asked (yes, he calls me Goose), “are you going to write this sequentially or thematically? You also need to pay close attention to your voice.”
My what? I struggled with how to continue. What was a “voice” and where could I get one? Was I really capable of writing a book? What initially had seemed nothing more than a quick chronicle of a story I already knew, the magnitude of the task ahead started to overwhelm me.
I decided equipment would help. A lover of bins and boxes and anything organizational, I ventured into Office Max and filled my cart with a large black binder, numbered dividers, a year’s supply of yellow sticky notes, white 3×5 cards, and multi-colored mechanical pencils.
Once home, I affixed a sticker to the spine of the binder with the word “Book” written on it in blue felt tip marker. I placed my new materials throughout the house: at my desk, on the coffee table in the great room, at my bedside table, near the bathroom sink, and in both cars. Ultimately finding it perilous to jot notes while driving, I purchased a small recording device. “Don’t forget to tell them what happened in the garage,” I recorded into the mic.
Each night before I sat to write, I filed the day’s sticky note inspirations onto the dividers throughout the binder. Then I prayed. “This was your idea, God. Help, please!” Six months later I had an outline and about six chapters written. This feat coincided with the weekend visit of a close friend, and one of the smartest people I know. Bright, articulate, and extremely well read, my friend-who-shares-the-same-name-as-me, practically demanded to read what I’d written. She in fact seemed hurt that I hadn’t yet asked for her input and advice.
I knew better than to share my work so early in the process, and especially with someone who tends to be critical, but I yielded to her insistence. I really hoped for some encouragement.
You see it coming, don’t you?
My friend emerged from our guest room the next morning, with the “Book” binder in hand, avoiding eye contact as she headed to the coffee pot. Oh boy, I thought.
“So Barb,” she finally said, once settled in at the breakfast bar, “I, uh, think, uh, this is an important story for, uh, people to read. It’s not, uhhhhh, gonna be a best seller or anything, but it’s, uh, good.” She then looked up at me and added enthusiastically, “You sure have a great memory!” I laughed. Kind of.
“Memory isn’t exactly what I was going for. But I guess that’s something. Thanks for reading.” Unable to leave well enough alone, she added, “You sure didn’t use many big words, did you?”
At that point my heart went “thunk”… and I stopped writing.
(Stay tuned for Part III when I share how the Jordan River helped me start writing again….)
Part III (Link to WordServe post)
What made me think I could write a book? I mean, really. Book writing is for experts… for people who know things. Important things. My friend’s critical feedback on the early chapters of my manuscript only served to confirm what I already believed to be true: Who would care what I had to say, or if I even had the right to say it?
The wind had been knocked from my sails and I saw no point in continuing my brief writing career.
Yet in the midst of the doldrums, I couldn’t shake the memory of that moment with God many months before. “Write a book about the gifts you were given,” I heard him say in my office. If that was really God, maybe He knew something about me that I didn’t. Maybe He had a reason… a plan.
It was just about this same time another friend of mine traveled to Israel on vacation. She invited me to write a prayer on a slip of paper for her to place between the ancient stones in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve always wanted to do this myself, but sending my prayer with her… a praise, really… was the next best thing to being there. In my note, I thanked God for the time he met me in my garage, and for helping me to navigate the difficult years of my daughter’s meth addiction. He had restored our family, and I still could scarcely wrap my mind around it.
My friend also asked if there was a souvenir I might like from the Holy Land.
“So, um… yeah,” I replied. “Could you please bring me some of the Jordan River? Just a cup or so will do.”
Within a month, precious holy water and a few tiny river rocks had a new home on my desk, right next to the computer screen. I transferred the water into a small Manzanita olive jar and labeled it “Jordan River” in black felt tip marker.
It was as if God’s presence had returned to my office, and I again found myself back in the business of writing. I needed feedback though. Professional feedback this time. I knew no writing professionals per se, and no one in publishing, yet my new neighbor, John Vawter, had self-published a book… about addiction no less. His book, Hit By a Ton of Bricks, had been in my reading arsenal when Annie was on the streets! John had a friend-of-a-friend with an editing business here in Bend, a fellow by the name of James Lund. He’d once worked for Multnomah Publishing in Sisters, Oregon, and became a freelancer when Random House acquired the company and moved it to New York City.
“Am I delusional to think I can do this?” I asked James Lund when we first spoke early that March. “I mean, is what I’ve written any good, or am I completely wasting my time?”
Jim was working on a project with a tight deadline but said he could give me a couple of hours in about two months.
Two hours in two months? He already sounded too important for a novice like me.
But I did hear from Jim two months later, at which time I sent him my story’s table of contents, two chapters, and a check for his time. A week later, his feedback stunned me. “You’re not wasting your time… keep writing. And I don’t think you’re going to need much help from me.”
Initially, my inner Woody Allen lamented that this James Lund person must not be very good at what he does. However, I secretly delighted in the apparent vindication from my friend’s critical review. I confess to skipping through the house chanting, “neener, neener, neener.”
Jim and I agreed to reconnect in five months, at which time I was to have an entire first draft ready for his review. Jim also had a few tips for me. He suggested I read Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
It will help equip you with some fundamentals that will improve your writing,” he said. “Try inserting ‘beats’ in your dialogue to make it more interesting. You also want break up some of the narrative by creating ‘scenes.’ Have you ever heard the term ‘show don’t tell’?”
“Jim… what’s a ‘scene’?”
(Please stay tuned for the conclusion in Part IV, when I go from clueless to published.)
Conclusion (Link to WordServe post)
I will never forget the feeling that day when I collated thirty chapters, punched holes, and neatly stacked all 330 pages of my first draft into a pink, soft-cover binder. I wasn’t Rocky at the stop of the stairs with pumped fists, but rather felt a peaceful satisfaction unlike any I’d ever experienced. It was a book in my hands, and I’d written it.
At the prescribed time, I emailed a digital copy to Jim Lund, the editor who had agreed to help me. His feedback arrived about three weeks later.
Jim’s comments were mostly about structural issues. The timeline was chaotic and he had trouble following what happened when. We shuffled chapters and paragraphs, and “trimmed” unnecessary copy. For example, when describing the time Annie broke into our upstairs bedroom, I’d “squirreled” a three-page tangent about the bats that flew into our house throughout that entire summer. “Kind of interesting,” Jim said, “in a creepy sort of way. I’d trim this.” “Trim” being the kind word for “chuck it.”
Over a period of months, I integrated Jim’s recommendations into a cleaner draft. I read and re-read that manuscript dozens of times, sometimes aloud, and fine-tuned the cadence and the prose into a finished product that sounded like me. It was then ready for beta readers.
I paid Office Max $110 to print eleven copies of the manuscript. I then assembled the pages into inexpensive binders and began to share my work with friends and family. Copies went to my brother, Paul; to Annie, of course; my son, Jeff; a couple of dear friends; my pastor’s wife, Kari; plus my therapist and the four women in our long-standing support group. My husband, Pete, continued to show little interest in reading, remaining insistent that it took me 330 pages to say what he likely would have said in 11.
I can’t remember a time when I ever felt so vulnerable… and I was terrified.
It’s a huge commitment to read someone’s work, especially 330 pages of it, and comments began to trickle in over a period of weeks. “This is good, Barb. This is really, really good. I read tons of books and frankly could not put this down.”
Yeah… that’s what friends are supposed to say.
I continued to edit and trim, ultimately heeding the advice of others and slashed/reworked/condensed the first few chapters. I couldn’t read a paragraph without reworking it, and wondered if I’d ever know when the book was done.
In the meantime, I bought hundreds of dollars worth of books on self-publishing. Jim taught me that only famous people received publishing deals these days, or people who had developed strong national platforms. He thought my story was powerful, but I was unknown. Completely unfamous.
Nevertheless, after two years of hard writing, I thought it would be fun to query some agents and see how the process worked. Maybe I’d get some helpful feedback. I’d already drafted a query letter in a “How to get your book published” class up at our community college. Next I needed to write a proposal, and Jim provided some templates.
Writing the proposal was miserable. While my business background proved helpful, I found this part of the process a chore. The manuscript was written first-person past tense, yet Jim instructed me to write the proposal in third-person present tense. So each of the thirty plus chapters needed to be condensed and translated into a different form of speech. It was a grind, and I shelved the book for months. This just wasn’t going to happen.
Until… until, I felt the nudge again. “It’s time,” said the voice within my own.
Two days later I sent a query letter to two agents, and both responded within a week. Requests for the proposal followed, and the manuscript followed after that. My brain could scarcely take in the enormity of what was happening.
One of the agents was the wonderful Alice Crider and she signed me with WordServe Literary. Within a few weeks, Alice had secured two publishing offers.
The rest is history, as they say. I’m not a famous author by any means, but I am an author nonetheless. It was four years after I received that first nudge from God to “write a book about the gifts you were given,” that Zondervan released A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth. They even retained my working title.
Miracles can and do happen. First was my daughter’s return from the abyss of drug addiction. Then a book followed about the gifts, the lessons learned. Whew. Both experiences have strengthened a simple faith, and changed me forever.