I almost didn’t do this. I mean really, do we need yet another writer writing about writing?
But I have experiences I want to share about shifting from a hobbyist writer to a published author that I have not seen on other writers blogs. Granted, I don’t follow a ton of them but I very much appreciate these — Jeannine Atkins, Jeff Goins, Anne Boyd Rioux and Rohan Maitzen (and if you have written on this and I missed it, I apologize; please leave links in the comments section if you have written about this; I would love to read your thoughts).
At any rate, I am going to treat this section of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion as a personal journal hoping that the things I share will resonate with and help other writers. I prefer not to indulge in personal writing too often in the blog itself–this is about Louisa and her family. But I need a place where I can share some personal thoughts.
I welcome you to my garret.
JULY 20, 2016–Benefits from rejection
It’s a funny thing about rejection. Sometimes it makes me want to crawl into a hole and give up. But other times it spurs me on to better things. In fact, I think it’s a way to weed out the wheat from the chaff, so to to speak, even if the chaff is a really good thing. It just may not be the right time to focus on that good thing, but on something else.
My writing experience has been strange in that I have experienced very little rejection. The newspaper I write for happily accepts every article I write. My first book deal (River of Grace) came out of nowhere with the publisher seeking me out. My second book deal (Louisa May Alcott Illuminated by The Message) happened the same way.
The editing on my second book was minimal. The first book was torn apart extensively until I came in line with what the publisher wanted. I am indebted to my editors, Lil Copan and Bob Hamma, for their patience, teaching and toughness, pulling the best out of me. It hurt but it was so worth it!
The only rejection I’ve really known is three tries to become a presenter at the Summer Conversational Series. While my proposals were considered worthy, none quite fit in to the flow of the series. I wish I knew what I was doing wrong but it’s hard to pin down. I even asked this year after being rejected and the feedback was very gracious and informative but I still didn’t have a clear idea as to why I was not accepted. I know there were many who submitted and who also were not accepted so I was hardly alone in that.
It’s like that, isn’t it, with all of us who submit articles, book proposals and the like to publishers–we often do not find out why the piece was rejected. I keep reminding myself however that it is nothing personal–it’s not because they don’t “like” me or because I’m a bad writer. It’s all quite objective–the piece I offered simply did not fit into their puzzle.
A funny thing happened each time I was rejected for the Conversational Series: after licking my wounds I was galvanized. And I believe now that those things upon which I took action were the very things I was supposed to pay attention to in the first place. It took a bit of rejection to recognize where my priorities lay.
The first rejection sent me back to my blog with a greater focus to go deeper especially with research.
After the second rejection, I made the decision to plunge on ahead and begin research for a book on Lizzie Alcott. Before that rejection, I had entertained the thought but had no idea how to begin. I thought it was a crazy for me to write a book but that rejection empowered me somehow to take that chance. Thus began 2013, my Year of Bliss deep in the rabbit hole of biographies, commentaries and original Alcott family letters and journals.
Between 2014 and 2015 I was tied up with my two published books and had to put my beloved Lizzie project on hold. I also skipped that year with regards to submitting a proposal for the Conversational Series.
This year I tried again. After the rejection, I dove headlong back into my Lizzie project, full steam ahead! I came up with plans to write a journal article first since the book is years off. I doubled down on my reading and journaling; after attending this year’s Conversational Series, I am now ready to start writing.
Each time I was rejected, I doubled down. For some reason it provided a wind beneath my wings. Go figure. Maybe it’s the spirit of Louisa urging me on saying, “Yes, this is good, write the story of my sister’s life.” Maybe it’s the spirit of Lizzie saying, “Yes, at last I will have a voice!”
It’s all a good thing.
JULY 16, 2016–Thoughts following the Summer Conversational Series 2016–it takes a village to write a book
As much as I looked forward to the Summer Conversational Series, I was dreading it. I really needed a week off from all work (loved and otherwise) and here I was plunging into the middle of it! I have been doing intense research for my Lizzie book for the last 6 weeks and hit the ceiling even before the first session on Monday. In fact on Tuesday, when I went to the Houghton Library, I only lasted 2.5 hours before I hit the brick wall and went home to go to the beach (I was reading Bronson’s journals and the writing was illegible, can you blame me? :-)).
I determined at that point that I had used research long enough as a ploy to avoid sitting down to write. But what this week did for me (besides that) was to take an overwhelming, nebulous book project and contain it, making it doable. In his presentation on Thursday, Pultizer prize-winning author John Matteson discussed his writing process and gave great advice on writing and how to handle being overwhelmed with information. He has taken on a truly epic book project covering the cultural implications of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Fredericksburg through the exploration of five different people, changed as a result of that battle, who went on to influence the world at large. They include some well-known players (Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.) and a couple of lesser-knowns, John Pelham, an iconic confederate soldier, and the Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller, brother to Margaret Fuller.
That’s five biographies (with a bit of Abraham Lincoln thrown in as well) folded into a famous battle. Goodness! How does one manage all that?
I took a walk after his first session to process what he had said. And in listening to his writing process, I realized that my instincts are dead on – everything he said about his writing process and what he considers biography to be I had already considered.
So I knew right then and there that it’s time to trust those instincts, stop all the worrying, doubt and hypervigilance, get over the fact that I am not an academic, and start writing.
John also solved a problem for me through his story about John Pelham, an icon of perfection as a man and a soldier –how to write about someone who is considered “perfect” (in my case, perfect in virtue). It’s not only okay to dispel the notion of perfection–it’s what people want! By revealing the frailties, struggles, faults, suffering of Elizabeth Alcott, I will be able to present her as a fleshed-out human being, transcending the Beth March myth and thus making Lizzie a real and relevant woman no longer to be ignored or dismissed. I honor her memory and show my deep love for her by telling all of you who I think she really was. And, if I tell the story in a compelling way, I believe many of you will come to love her as I do and see her life as a triumph as well as a tragedy.
Ever since reading Constance Fenimore Woolson Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux I have thought that a biography could be written as a page-turner novel (because Rioux’s book read like that for me). This was one of the notions that John affirmed in his presentation, having written his books with the same intention while remaining honest through meticulous research.
This is the value of the Summer Conversational Series–a group of dedicated teachers, scholars, serious fans, aspiring historians, perpetual students and self-taught writers like myself getting together, sharing ideas, baring our souls and receiving loving support along with honest feedback. John Matteson took the the risk of presenting on his new book (even though it did not fit in with the theme) to get that kind of feedback and in the end, we all gained from it.
MARCH 25, 2016–Following through, and pushing through doubt
One good thing about laying out your plans in a public forum like this is that you are now held accountable. Even if only a handful of people read what I write, they have read it and expect me to follow through.
I have begun to follow through in reclaiming my Be as One blog. I physically separated the blog portion from my website, moving it from the WordPress.org host back to WordPress.com (and not without consequences, like a million broken links that have to be repaired. Ugh!). I gave it a new, simpler look to send the message that this is about content, not selling. Oh sure, I’ll share things from my books but the selling and promotional portion remains on the WordPress.org host (now renamed susanbailey.org). beasone.org now resides here. The theme reflects the original intent of Be as One, to take all the pieces of my life and bring them together into the whole. I created a new slogan–“Many pieces of a harmonious life.” This is what I intend to write about.
I am offering a free gift of a coloring book I created from my photographs to everyone who signs up with the mailing list. Here’s what it looks like.
But, I not only laid out in public my intention to reclaim my old blog. I also promised a book on Lizzie. Twice now I have seriously reconsidered that decision, thinking instead that I would post my research on this blog. I realized that’s the coward’s way out.
A recent disappointment had reignited my doubts which roll over me again and again in giant waves. Because I am not a scholar and never will be, I have much trepidation about venturing into that arena with this book. Heck, I can’t even begin to put together a presentation to pitch to libraries and churches about the book I already have! It’s ridiculous.
I talk myself into retreating back to a quiet and peaceful life of reading and blogging. But it all sounds rather hollow. The compulsion to write this book is too strong.
Now almost halfway through Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, I see how Woolson dealt with her plaguing doubts. Despite the amount of support she received from her publisher, her male friends and the public, she still dealt with those waves of doubt. She seemed particularly sensitive to the whole false notion that women could never be the serious artists that men could be.
And yet, despite those fears, she continued to continued to write, to defy the odds and the stereotypes of women authors of that time. She continued to push into the male arena of writing with prose of force and sheer power at the expense perhaps of polish (as put forth by Anne Boyd Rioux in the book). She suffered greatly from doubt but pushed through those feelings with sheer will and belief in what she was doing.
She is a wonderful role model.
Yesterday I was posting something new on the blog that will appear next week and saw my post announcing my intention to the world that I was going to write a book on Lizzie Alcott. Can’t go back on my word now, can I?
March 17, 2016–Chasing after that lost voice
I think I have found a new friend in Constance Fenimore Woolson. She keeps saying things that so totally nail my experience. On pg. 92 of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, she calls herself “an isolated beginner.” She wasn’t truly isolated (as she had a Mr. Stedman as a valuable and trusted literary friend along with the help and support of family members) but she felt that way anyway. I do too even though I too am hardly isolated. I’m thinking it’s more how writers, many of them being solitary by nature, may create their own isolation. But when I saw the phrase, I underscored it and wrote “Yes!” in the margin. It was just nice to hear someone else say it, especially someone I’m learning to admire.
And then there the description of Woolson’s writing of her first novel, Anne. Woolson was as sensitive to literary criticism as the next writer but as much as it hurt, she also fought back:
“‘For I wo’nt write [the novel] at all unless I write it as I please,’ she insisted to Stedman. How, she wondered, could she please herself and the general audience who preferred ‘pretty and pleasant’ stories–not too long’? She imagined, in particular, the women who seemed incapable of feeling deeply and therefore could not ‘in the least appreciate the tragedy of deep feelings in others.’ Having been so uncomprehended in life, Woolson wondered how she could expect her novel to be understood.” (pg. 109)
How many of us who write feel that way sometimes? Louisa became trapped in her own success to the point where she returned to the blood and thunder style when she knew she could be anonymous (A Modern Mephistopheles). In my case, I became pigeon-holed into the narrow genre that my publisher was using to promote my book.
While I love writing for this blog because it is independent of the needs of publishers, I want to love writing for my other blog, Be as One, again as well.
Thanks to my new friend Constance, I’m going to take action and reclaim Be as One for what it originally was–many facets of my life about which I enjoy writing. In essence, I will stage a quiet little rebellion. I know the marketing gurus I faithfully follow would probably have a fit if they knew how I plan on executing the change. But in the end, I will be writing from the heart again.
Like Constance with her first novel and Louisa with A Modern Mephistopheles, I will write what I please. And maybe then I will reclaim my voice.
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March 9, 2016–What happens when you find your writing voice, only to lose it? Or maybe just misplace it?
I’m in the middle of reading a riveting biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson and this quote struck me:
“Those authors who write from within, and coin their own brains into words, may go dreamily through the world, their eyes fixed upon vacancy … but the man who takes mankind for his subject, the man who writes to benefit and interest his race, is quick-witted and sharp-sighted, drawing upon his own observations of every-day life.” However romantic a writer [James Fenimore] Cooper may seem to us today, to Woolson he provided a model of the writer interested in keenly observing the “literal truth.” In him she found a form of realism that was “far more fascinating … than the wildest flights of fancy.”
pg. 64, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux
I don’t know why but that quote addressed something that has been bothering me for awhile.
I have a second blog, Be as One, which was originally created as a dumping ground for writing other than about the Alcotts. I wanted a place where I could explore other topics. The site has changed with the release of River of Grace and as a result, I’ve lost my way.
This line from page 65 where Rioux describes Woolson’s foray into newspaper writing hit even harder:
“Newspaper writing has always been an important source of income and training for American writers. Woolson’s foray into that field would be short, but it was instrumental in helping her develop the critical eye and authoritative voice that would serve her well in her later work.” (The italics are mine).
I know that River of Grace was written with authority; I did (and still do) truly believe in the message of that book. It was about real life, my life (in fact, my kids tell me they are put off by the level of the personal sharing–“too intense,” they say). I still believe River of Grace can help others dealing with grief. My author’s voice was there.
But that voice has disappeared amid the pressures to market the book. I know that the writing I am doing for that blog lacks authority. The posts are bland and the lack of visitors to the site is the proof.
Ouch. What does a writer do when the voice is lost?
One thing I know for certain about writing–it is a process with a mind of its own. I will need to read and journal to find my way back. And if I must take drastic action (such as dumping that blog in favor of a new one), I will. I want to write again with authority.
I feel a bit of empathy with Louisa who felt trapped in her juvenile writing. It drains you. But before it gets to a point of no return, I will resolve this problem once I figure out where the process of writing wants to take me.
Have you ever felt like you had found your author’s voice and then lost it? What did you do? Leave your comment on the Facebook page.
March 8, 2016–The first royalty check. I received my first royalty check yesterday–it was for Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message. This was my dear little book that I thought would not make a cent because of the low royalty. But, since I received no advance, there was nothing to pay off (small publishing house–I knew what I was agreeing to when I signed on). Thus today I deposit that check and it feels cool.
It reminded me of a passage from John Matteson’s book, Eden’s Outcasts, about Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables:
“Only later, when the initial elation of being an author had subsided, did Louisa stop to consider the economics of her triumph. Although the book was published in an edition of sixteen hundred copies, and, in Louisa’s own opinion, ‘sold very well,’ she received only somewhere between thirty-two and thirty-five dollars from the publisher.”
My other book, River of Grace, has yet to sell enough copies to pay off the advance. They are giving it a year. I hope we break even at least, if just for my pride’s sake. But seriously, for the publisher too. They have been good to me.
Romance vs. reality
Much is written about the “romantic” aspect to writing. While all the arts are portrayed in a larger-than-life fashion, writing seems to garner the most attention. Bloggers wax poetically of the joys and pains of the writing life. Much helpful and practical advice is given on how to write novel and find a publisher. Today you can choose between two good and viable options–traditional publishing and self-publishing. And there are the plethora of marketing gurus out there with advice aplenty on how to market and sell your books. Traditional publishers won’t take you on unless you have an established platform and are fully committed to marketing your book.
What about the in-between?
Writer blogs either focus on those who are dreaming of lives as published authors, or of best-selling authors sharing their secrets. There seems to be precious little written on what happens in-between:
- What is it like to have an editor pull apart your manuscript in order to make it the best it can be? How much does an author need to detach from her work t make that happen?
- What can a new author expect with regards to making money selling books?
- Does being a published author really open doors or do you still have to open them yourself?
In other words, what is the reality of being published?
Louisa May Alcott’s life shows us that writing is not all romance. In reality it is gritty and hard work, work often without rewards. She often wrote in her journals of “grubbing away,” while keeping careful records of her often paltry earnings.
Her own experience is in fact, the study of the author in-between–struggling, trying to find her voice. Published yet unable to make a living at writing. Juggling family commitments with work. Searching, trying different genres until she hit that point of magic with Little Women.
Through years of experience she became the nuts-and-bolts businesswoman/writer who made her fortune with Little Women because she was savvy enough to recognize a good offer. Money is a great motivator but as we saw with her writing, obsession over money suppressed her artistry.
I am not bitter over my experience, just sobered. It does not still the urge to continue writing. And I certainly display my two books at home proudly. But I think carefully about what lies ahead as I write. As money was as much of a distraction as a motivator for Louisa, so the reality of being published is that for me. I have to fight a little harder to keep those demons at bay who whisper “failure” in my ear. I am not a failure. I wrote two books!
All I’m saying is, just be prepared. Hopefully some of what I share from time to time in my garret will help with that.