I've always visualized myself writing a book (said about 90 percent of the population). I just didn't know what I'd write about until my life changed in October of my twenty-fourth year.
I watched live television coverage of the multicar accident for an entire day before recognizing my father's Chevy pickup pinned between two semi trucks. A news reporter at the time, I narrowly avoided being assigned to cover the collision that killed my father.
The event, the way I found out, and our unfinished and sometimes tumultuous relationship altered me in a spider web of excruciating ways.
Nobody tells you how to grieve right. For years after my dad's death, I distracted myself with booze, Cinnabon, relationships, and trips to foreign countries. I simply could not sit still and face my sadness.
At thirty-three, I quit my career in broadcasting to travel the world with a best friend. Writing on the road, I finally took the time to grieve. The right topic, the one I needed to write about all along, exploded out of me and onto the page.
While sifting through my relationship with my dad, I also wrote about our travels (you'll laugh, you'll cry) where my friend Shannon and I lost our clothes in Costa Rica, unknowingly swam with bull sharks in Australia, and got scolded for peeing in our wetsuits on a cave tour in New Zealand. Don't Pee in the Wetsuit blends reverent reflection with the rollicking 11-country trip of a lifetime.
Over the course of our six-month journey, I completed a fairly solid first draft of my book, or so I thought. I just didn't know what to do with it. I didn't know how to pitch the story, and I certainly couldn't see how much I had to edit. I also didn't know about the almighty nonfiction proposal that needed to be drafted as well.
So, I researched and read books on writing. Noah Lukeman's, The First Five Pages, is worth reading several times. Putting Your Passion Into Print, by Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry, helped too. I also read around 50 regular books (fiction and nonfiction), and I'm still going. If you want to write, naturally, it helps to read and study other writers.
I learned I could either query agents to represent me and they would then query publishers. I could also send my work directly to publishers or "Macklemore it" and self-publish.
It took me five years to get the book, proposal, writing platform, and query letter in good shape. The writing platform is basically you, showcasing your work. I needed to publish pieces I wrote and create a strong Internet presence. Here are the steps I took over those five years:
- I joined a writing group, which helped transform the work. To have five fellow writers tell me my flashbacks were confusing hurt deep and pushed me to rearrange the narrative.
- I started working with a brilliant writing coach: Kristy Lin Billuni based out of San Francisco. She helps me with the writing, structure, and motivation.
- In various stages, I asked around 25 loved ones to read the manuscript. No matter who read it, each person had a point to make that helped elevate the story.
- I attended writing conferences, workshops and retreats. In one retreat, we pitched to a real live agent, which was a total disaster. I was so nervous, I cried afterward. The experience made me realize I had a ways to go before I could pull my tail out from between my legs and confidently stand behind the work.
- I networked with writer friends and landed the amazing opportunity to contribute to HuffPost and MariaShriver.com. Knowing I would need to establish that writing platform, I pushed myself to produce an article a month. Today,my website showcases 30 published essays about everything from feeling like an uncoordinated crybaby in CrossFit class to attempts to find love in the grocery store.
- It took me a year to write and edit the proposal. This is a specific, energy-sucking selling document that includes: chapter outlines, ways you plan to market the book, description of your established writing platform, and books that are comparable to yours. You find the comparable books by reading books like yours. I read about 16 before I settled on six.
- A year later, I started confidently querying nonfiction agents. To my delight, several wanted to see pages. Some gave me thoughtful editing suggestions. Others requested pages and then vaporized.
Finally, last summer, a kind and supportive agent signed me. I was over the moon. For three months, we worked on a new round of edits before she began shopping "my child" to publishers.
Several requested pages and gave great feedback (it's compelling, funny, touching, heartbreaking, competent, smart, inspiring, warm, friendly, charming, very Bridget Jones and lively), but nobody felt they could sell it. What? Apparently, travel-memoir is a "very crowded bookshelf" right now. Fabulous.
I kept praying someone would say yes, until my agent called to tell me the agency side of the business is closing, and she has decided not to pursue a position at another agency. That phone call knocked me on my ass. After all of that hard work and anticipation, my story is suddenly back in my hands.
I feel naked and totally frozen. I really did believe that securing an agent meant I'd for sure get published. I realize now how naïve that sounds.
I am grateful for my former agent's hard work, but this process kills. The road to "published" is a lengthy, high and low soul-crusher. It's also the most fun I've ever had and the hardest I've worked on anything.
I believe in this project, and I won't give up. I wrote to grieve, and now I want to share my story to connect with others who don't see a way out. Writing about my dad helped me to focus more on the amazing parts of him so I could forgive and look past his sharp edges. It also brought me back into the land of the living and set me on a path of growth I couldn't have imagined.
I know it's on me to make this happen. At least that's what my dad always told me. I'll forge ahead, as soon as I get my clothes back on and figure out what to do next.