Best Posts of 2009 (or what I learned this year)

Since launching this blog in April, I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve come so far, in fact, that it’s almost embarrassing to read some of my initial posts, when I was confused about newbie details like when to query literary agents (when my memoir is done) and what’s an appropriate word count for my book (90,000 max).

But that’s why I created this blog, to document my learning process so you don’t make the same mistakes I have. When I write my next book, I’ll have this blog to remind me what works and what doesn’t.

To celebrate the end of this year, I’ve created a Best Posts of 2009 list. It includes some of my favorites, as well as posts that were popular with readers:

  • A kick in the butt. Advice from an author who said I should spend less time learning about publishing and more time writing.

Now I’d love to hear from you: What did you learn in 2009?

What I wish I knew before I started writing a book

Writing this book is a learning process, even more than I expected. There are quite a few major things I wish I had understood before I began, and I’m sure more will arise as I continue through the editing and publishing process.

As I prepare to begin my writing residency at Hambidge next week, as I enter my eighth month of this project, it seems like a good time to reflect on the big picture, what I’ve learned so far. So here goes:

1. I need to write my entire memoir before looking for an agent. When I started this process, I planned to query with a proposal and sample chapters, as is required for most non-fiction books. But memoir, it turns out, is not like most non-fiction. Selling memoir is like selling fiction. Gotta write it all first, particularly because I’m a first-time author. (Although it’s worth noting here that some memoirists are able to sell based on proposal and sample chapters.)

But you know what? I’m okay with that. The more I write, the better my book becomes. I’m confident that when I go to sell this baby, it’s going to be better than what I would have offered initially.

2. Writing a book is grueling. You think that’s obvious, huh? Of course I didn’t think it would be easy. I’m familiar with the dedication required to write and work hard every day; I’m a journalist, after all. But this is even harder than I expected, partly because it’s such a huge project. On some days (okay, on a lot of days), it feels daunting and overwhelming. Even when I make progress, I still have so far to go. It’s like the marathon course that keeps on going and going. Actually, it’s like the D.C. Marathon around mile 20, when you hit that damn uphill two-mile bridge where there are no spectators and your running partner is four miles behind you.

3. Writing a memoir is a lot like writing fiction. Yeah, it’s nonfiction, which is what I’m good at. All my stories are true. But they have to be told with dialogue, description, scene-setting, pace, characters — a variety of literary devices I didn’t use as a journalist. Writing this way takes practice.

4. Writing is lonely. Never in a million years did I expect to miss going to work every day. But I do. I miss wearing heels! There’s no one to talk to in my home office. I’ve done my best to seek out other writers, friends who offer feedback and help me think out the next step in my book or in my life. But when it comes down to it, at least at this stage of the book-writing game, it’s really just me and the screen.

These realizations will fade from my memory as this type of writing becomes normal for me, which is why I want to document them. If I write another book down the road, I’ll know more what to expect, and I doubt it will feel as overwhelming, or as lonely, or as grueling.

Writers: what do you wish you knew before embarking on your first project?

Tackling Chapter One, the scariest of them all

I’ve never been the kind of journalist that can bang out a lead. Sometimes it’s easy to crank out the first paragraph, but more often than not I write the rest of the story and return to the lead afterward, crafting it right on deadline.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I feel challenged by the first chapter of my book. The other chapters? They’re moving along quite quickly now. But every time I return to Chapter One, I feel a little… intimidated.

Chapter One is important because it contains the first ten pages of the book, which give readers, as well as publishers and agents, reason to keep reading or skip the story altogether. (Check out this post on the Murdock Editing bog about re-thinking your first ten pages.) It’s my opportunity to pump a lil’ theme into the book, give my adventure purpose and hit the reader with my voice right off the bat.

So I’m embracing the technique that’s always worked for me in journalism: I write what I can, whatever inspires me on a particular day, which often means avoiding the first chapter. I’m writing this book in pieces, slowly weaving lots of short stories together to form one themed book. This has become one of my favorite parts of writing; Every morning, I wake up excited and ask myself: What scene do you want to write today?

Part of the reason this tactic works for me — aside from capitalizing on whatever inspires me that day — is because I’ve already outlined the manuscript.

But it’s time for me to write Chapter One. Partly because my critique group keeps asking for it. “We’ve read the middle of the book!” they say. “Give us the beginning!” But really, I need this push. I’ve got to get down on paper the meat of the manuscript, a basic explanation of why on earth I decided to leave my reporting job and go to Africa, alone.

So I’m finally writing the lead.

Anybody else out there have trouble with the first chapter? Do you save it for last, or hunker down and write it right off the bat?

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You asked for it: More about my book

Readers of this blog increasingly ask: Can you tell us more about your book?

Most of you know I’m writing a travel memoir about my solo journey through French-speaking Africa. It’s based on my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa.

I’m recounting my backpacking adventure, which took me overland through West Africa — across Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana — then to Cameroon and Madagascar. Traveling alone as a woman in these countries was empowering, humorous and, at times, scary.

Part I: West Africa. A three-day boat ride up the Niger to Timbuktu, an inspiring AIDS-infected teenager in Burkina Faso, a drug deal in Ghana. Seeking independence through adventure, I end up connecting with new friends.

Part II: Cameroon. Delivering the gift of school to a polygamous family makes me appreciate everything I have: my running shoes, my education, and my financial and personal freedom as a woman.

Part III: Madagascar. Watching the world watch my country elect a historic president, then finding myself vulnerable in a dangerous bus station at night, and finally feeling high on travel, I learn that I can do whatever I want on my own. And that even traveling solo, I’m never really alone.

What my book is not: My beef with most women’s travel narratives is that the author usually finds love at the end. Sure, this makes for a romantic, feel-good ending, but it also reinforces the illusion that the only way to reach gold at the end of the rainbow is through a relationship. I adored Eat, Pray, Love until the woman who claimed for 300 pages that she was looking to discover herself finally feels fulfilled in part because she finds a man.

I’m out to fill what I see as a gaping hole in modern stories about women’s solo travel: the tale of true self-exploration. I did my share of flirting with men in Africa, but I didn’t need — or want — one professing his love to me to feel complete. (Although, ironically, I often fended off would-be suitors by telling them I was married.) Instead, my book is about seeing this beautiful yet poverty-stricken continent through my own eyes, learning to depend on myself as I push my limits and eventually, coming to love traveling avec moi.

Coming soon: At your request, I’ll post a few short excerpts from my work-in-progress. The trick is offering enough of a tease without giving too much away!

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Supporting the writing habit

I’m not exactly racking in the dough writing this book full time. Hopefully I’ll make a little cash when it’s finally published, but for now my annual income is, well, nada.

This is the first time since graduate school that I don’t have a salary. For the last few years, I worked my dream job reporting for a daily newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, getting paid to write, ask questions and stick my nose where it otherwise might not belong.

I even managed to make some money last year as I backpacked through Africa, freelancing for several newspapers. (Read my favorite of those pieces: A story about why polygamy is declining in Cameroon.)

But now I’ve given up a paycheck to create a manuscript. How can I afford to do that? For one, I’ve got no one to support except myself: no hubby, no children, not even a pet to worry about. Secondly, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I moved back in with my parents (who are cool enough to have me). Without rent and all the bills that come along with an apartment, life is pretty cheap. And lastly, I saved money while working at the Chronicle that I can now fall back on.

I am working a part-time job, coaching a high school softball team, which helps cover expenses like health insurance and my new laptop. But as my savings dwindle and my parents solicit my help for chores like this weekend’s garage sale, increasingly I wonder: How do writers support themselves?

Some authors work full-time in non-writing jobs and write on the side. (Now that I understand how time-consuming it is to write a book, I’m super impressed by these people.) Others maintain writing as their first priority and make a living with a side career. And a few lucky and hard-working writers manage to support themselves solely off their word creations.

I still haven’t found the perfect solution. And so I ask you, writer readers of this blog: How do you fund your writing pursuits?

My nonfiction novel

I know what you’re thinking: It’s an oxymoron. Novels are fiction.

But when it comes to narrative nonfiction, the genre of my book, labels aren’t that simple. My travel memoir tells a true story, but it’s meant to read like a novel.

That means I’ve got to work elements of fiction into my book, including dialogue, character development, conflict and literary techniques like the metaphor, which I haven’t used since college.

This isn’t easy for me. As a journalist, I’m used to writing short, true stories that are straight to the point, not subtly dramatic. I’m used to quoting scarcely. I’m used to keeping my voice and humor out of the story.

But for this memoir, I want my voice to shine through. To help me along, I’m reading Peter Rubie’s The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction (a book recommended by a literary agent on Twitter, which is where I seem to get all my good leads these days).

To tell you the truth, it has taken this long — four months of delving into my book — to figure out my own voice, my style, my writing humor. But now I’m finally getting it! My nonfiction novel is starting to come together.

Progress on the manuscript

Since several readers have commented on recent blog posts, asking how much of the manuscript I’ve written so far, I’ m here with answers.

Of my 15 chapters, two are drafted in full. Drafts of another two chapters are more than half written.

That doesn’t sound like much. But since I’m writing this book out of order, piecing it together, I’ve already written parts of every chapter. I’ve gone through more than 100 blog entries, selected dozens that will turn into scenes, and plugged them into chapters where they belong. And the entire book is outlined.

(Writing a book is about more than putting words on the page. This post explains what else I’ve been doing.)

So yes, I’ve got a lot more writing to go. But I’m making progress!

The self-imposed deadline

I love deadlines: the thrill of them approaching, the accomplishment of meeting them and how they force me to get work done. I work well under pressure. I am a journalist, after all.

But self-imposed deadlines are a bit trickier, mostly because I have to set them myself. Since I just started writing my book four months ago, I’m not sure how much time I need to write a chapter or even a page. I’m still learning what expectations to set for myself.

My first self-imposed deadline was April 1, three months after I started to write. I had hoped to finish my book proposal by then and start approaching literary agents.

I did finish the bulk of the proposal. But my sample chapters remained incomplete, largely because after writing one of them, I decided to redo it in a different way.

So I missed my deadline. After years in a newsroom, that was probably the first writing deadline I’ve ever missed.

But the truth is, this writing process is entirely different than cranking out a news story. If my newspaper story isn’t done by 6 p.m., I have to hand it over to my editor anyways, doing the best I can with the information I have. But writing a book is more flexible. If a scene or a character needs more work, I’m allowed to take more time to perfect it.

That means it’s okay to miss one of my self-imposed deadlines. But I set them anyhow, so I have a goal to work toward. My newest deadline? June 1. By then I hope to have drafts of the two chapters that will become part of my proposal.

And if I don’t? I’ll keep on chugging.

And finally… The book

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you know what I’ve been working on for the last four months: outlining my book, writing a book proposal and query letter, choosing agents to approach, applying to writers’ colonies, learning about blog book tours, and then some.

I’ve also, believe it or not, written some of the book itself. So far, I’ve got rough drafts of nearly three full chapters, plus many pieces of chapters. But it seems like every time I sit down to put words on paper, some other distraction gets in the way, either one of the tasks mentioned above or another life responsibility.

It takes time to write, I keep telling myself. I’m new at this, so it’s going to move slowly. And those other tasks are just as important as the book itself.

But then I stumbled upon an online interview for Poets & Writers, where Peter Steinberg of The Steinberg Agency threw this on the table:

“I think sometimes writers get lost in getting the cover letter and the synopsis and those kinds of professional things right because they’re afraid of focusing on the work,” he said.

That’s when it hit me. I’m procrastinating because I’m scared to write the book! I know I’m good at organizing, at learning new skills and creating support materials. But I don’t know whether I’ll produce quality chapters.

The first book is scary for every writer, right? (This is where you chime in with sympathetic nods.) I’ve just gotta put my nose to the grind and write.

Just write.

Daring to write

Writing a travel memoir has been a dream of mine for years.

Ever since I realized my love for travel, writing about it seemed like the perfect project, a chance to use my journalistic skills, write creatively and see the world, all at once.

So even before leaving my job as a reporter with the Houston Chronicle to travel in Africa last year, I began collecting and reading memoirs by women traveling solo. I skimmed guides to literary agents, highlighting anyone who represented travel stories. And I perused through books that offered instruction on writing a book proposal.

And yet, as I freelanced my way through West Africa, Cameroon and Madagascar, all the while sharing travel tales on my blog, Inkslinging in Africa, I still wasn’t sure I’d get a book out of it. After all, to write a book, I needed a good story.

It wasn’t until one of my last nights of that trip, while resting in a hostel in Madagascar’s capital, that I realized this could work. Reflecting on my adventure, I started a list in my notebook — the sixth notebook I had filled in six months — of all the characters I had met along the way.

The list kept getting longer and longer: Ony, a Malagasy orphanage employee; Jean, an AIDS-inflicted teenager in Burkina Faso; Catherine, one of four wives in a polygamous Cameroonian family; Cedric, my German travel companion. With each character, I realized, came a mini story. And a lot of interesting mini stories, woven together with a theme, makes a book.

So, just three days before flying home to the States, I decided I would do it. I would write a book! Instead of searching for a journalism job — a venture that could turn futile in this economy anyhow — I set up a home office, surrounded myself with notebooks and blog posts from my trip, and started putting words to paper.

Now comes the hard part.