My Publishing Journey: Part 1 – The Art of Backwards Book-Writing

pubjourney

In the winter of 2010, I finished writing my book.

In many ways, I did the whole thing backwards. No one asked me to write a book. I had no proposal. No chapter outline. No plan or platform or agent or advance. It sort of just happened anyway.

The whole thing started when I was more than a year into my Master of Fine Arts program. For no particular reason, I (somewhat reluctantly) wrote an essay about my evangelical past for my Creative Nonfiction Core class.

I’m not sure what spurred me to write about that part of my life. I certainly hadn’t intended to. In many ways, my decision to go to Hamline University was motivated by a desire to flee the conservative Christian “bubble” that I’d spent most of my life in. I was a little jaded, a little cynical, a little tired of the whole thing.

I had drawn a line in my heart between “Christian writers” and “REAL writers,” and I wanted to be somewhere where my writing could grow into something a little bit unsafe. Something gritty and honest and hopefully good. I hoped that the sheer act of being at Hamline would push me out of some subpar subgroup and toward a literary elite.

I was taking all these memoir classes, slowly becoming obsessed with the structural freedom and unique perspective that the creative nonfiction genre had to offer. I felt at home in memoir writing. And, at the same time, I’d spent my formative years shaped by the waves of that powerful 90s Christian subculture.

I couldn’t embrace creative nonfiction without diving headfirst back into that strange sea. So I wrote an essay about my Super-Christian high school boyfriend. I was writing about first love a little bit. But mostly, I was writing about how the strength of his faith and of the dazzling Christian subculture pulled me in like a magnet.

After class, my adviser took me aside. “This is clearly your work,” she said, and I knew with a fearful certainty that she was right.

*

When I applied for the MFA program at Hamline, the thesis requirement was a “book-length work of publishable quality.” By the time I got to my Thesis year, however, they’d softened the requirement to 80-100 pages: a polished subset of a future work.

I chose to write the book-length work anyway.

Partly, I did it to see if I could. I wanted to know if I had the chops for an actual, honest-to-God book.

But also, I did it because I had to find the end of the thread. Not a happily-ever-after, necessarily. But some kind of resolution to the doubt and pain I’d been sifting through.

This is the problem with being in a creative nonfiction writing program at the moment when you most desperately want to give up on your faith. You keep getting pushed back to where it began, prompt by prompt, class by class. You are forced again and again back into the surging tide of your evangelical youth, forced to engage with it on the deepest levels. You have to repaint it scene by scene, conversation by conversation, one fragile moment at a time.

From a literary standpoint, I should probably have been further removed from the events of the book before I set them down on the blank page. But I did it anyway, and my adviser kept saying, “This is your work,” and they sounded like holy words, strong and sturdy in the middle of my doubt and fear.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote until it was done.

blank book

I finished the book just before Christmas 2010. In February 2011, I gave my graduate reading. I was 7-and-a-half-months pregnant with my second son, gasping for air from my crowded diaphragm as I read to friends, family, colleagues, professors.

I spent the next couple of months pulling out bins of newborn clothes and picking through publishing blogs. For the first time, I came across words like “platform” and “readership” and “Wordpress” and “Twitter.” Words I knew of, vaguely, but had never given much thought.

I didn’t really know blogs were still a thing until then, but I started reading them in earnest, and slowly it began to dawn on me that even though I had a book-length work of (potentially) publishable quality…I was missing other somewhat essential things for a non-fiction writer. Internet presence. Readers. Platform. Published articles in national and literary magazines. A well-read, much-loved blog.

In the world of nonfiction writing, I learned, authors submitted not full manuscripts, but rather proposals. Outlines. Brilliant ideas bolstered by all kinds of brilliant, quantifiable ways to market them.

I’d done it backwards. I’d written a book that I loved. A book that changed me in the writing.

I’d done my work, and it had been hard and beautiful and bitter all at once…and now I stood in the cavernous middle, not sure where to turn next.

 

[Note: This is Part 1 of a 5-part series on my publishing journey. The next installment will be published next Friday, September 27. I hope you’ll join me here then!)

[Also, you can read the Prologue and first chapter of When We Were On Fire HERE.]

32 thoughts on “My Publishing Journey: Part 1 – The Art of Backwards Book-Writing

  1. Hey! I wrote my book backward too. God told me to write books (strange story). Wrote the manuscript to get my ideas in a row. Discovered you needed a proposal, an agent, and a platform. Spent three years building a platform, wrote the proposal, failed at the agent part. A newly published, first-time author found my embryonic platform and emailed me with an offer to introduce me to her publisher.

    What fascinates me is that I tell people ALL THE TIME that I did the book thing backward, and they consistently say, “No you didn’t. You did it your way.” I haven’t learned that yet. I really wish I’d hurry up and learn it.

    1. Love your story. And yes, I have a suspicion that what felt backwards to me was the way it was supposed to happen. Lots of painful growth and surrender in that process. Good for the soul, in the end.

  2. Everything about my writing journey has been backward too, lovey. Glad to know I’m not the only one! 🙂

  3. Loving this! As an aside, I’d heard that some agents want memoir manuscripts to be complete before being queried, whereas others want a proposal first. Sounds like maybe it’s moved in the direction of proposal first.

    1. Yeah, I don’t know. I suppose it depends. I’m sure most agents probably PREFER to have a completed manuscript, but as I worked through the process, I figured out there wasn’t a lot they could do with a complete, polished manuscript if there wasn’t a platform to hold it up. Sigh.

  4. I’m so excited to keep reading this series! I’m going a bit backwards on this too, but deciding to follow what God has put on my heart & just write, even if no one wants it and it’s never published 🙂

  5. LOVING this, Addie. Thanks for peeling back the curtain and letting us see the wizard at work.

  6. Backwards, forward, all a matter of perspective. I am clearly not a writer, so I had No Idea that is how one is supposed to approach it. It kinda tickles me though, that of course, you would put your own spin on not only the words and story, but the creation. Somehow, it makes me even prouder of you. Can’t wait for the rest of this series…

    1. It was definitely unintentional! And I think much of it was a spiritual journey. God always seemed more interested in helping me sort out my soul than in getting my book published as quickly as possible. Imagine that. 😉

  7. Addie, I’m always appreciative when published authors take time to explain their journey for those of us who haven’t it made it there yet. We hear all the time that you have to have a platform, a proposal, an agent, bingbangboom, but when you actually talk with writers, every journey is unique and begins at a different point. We still need all of those things (platform, proposal, agent, publisher), but I keep discovering that how writers find them and in what order is varied. The end result is the same (at least the words-in-print part) but the way to get there is almost never that cut-and-dry. Gives me a sense of relief when things don’t go exactly as planned.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this with us. Can’t wait to read more in the series!

  8. “A book that changed me in the writing” — I remember, vividly, Kurt Vonnegut, cigarette dangling from his mouth, telling our little summer-intensive creative writing class assembled in a U/W Madison dorm common area that, “We don’t write to make money. We write to make our soul grow.” Yup. If our writing does not change us, it is not worth writing. Love, love.

      1. “Get up. Create like you’re training for a marathon, methodically, day by day. Learn your tricks, find a friend, leave the dirty dishes in the sink for a while. This is your chance to become what you believe deep in your secret heart you might be. You are an artist, a guide, a prophet. You are a storyteller, a visionary, the Pied Piper himself. Do the work, learn the skills, and make art, because of what the act of creation will create in you.”

        Niequist, Shauna (2010-07-14). Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way (p. 164). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

  9. I love hearing a little bit more of your story. I think that stories of books are sort of like love stories, there are similarities but they are as different as the people who write them. This is encouraging for me (since I’d love to birth books) but also, like a love story, wonderful to read all on its own.
    Thank you for sharing, dear Addie!

    1. Thank you sweet friend. It’s definitely not a how-to of any kind. But I hope it helps to pull back the curtain and show one of the behind-the-scenes stories.

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