Around this time a year ago I submitted draft pages for my memoir Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts to hybrid indie publisher She Writes Press. I was at the end of a two week “staycation” to celebrate turning forty. I cherished the time to work out, read, write, take care of my home, do a little shopping, eat, relax, and just enjoy all that time to myself.
At the end of those two weeks I came to two conclusions:
1. I am going to be a very busy retiree when that blessed day comes.
2. I was going to take my dream to publish my memoir in a different direction. More on that in a moment.
The acceptance email
A month and some weeks later I was standing in the entrance to my kitchen, waiting for a rep from my air conditioning company to come over, and talking to my closest friend about a memoir I was reading–the celebrated Educated by Tara Westover. I was also starting to give up hope that my own book would ever get into readers’ hands.
“My book doesn’t sound like this Educated memoir,” I said to my friend, feeling forlorn. “It’s so elevated and serious. This caliber of writing makes me feel self-conscious.” I glanced down at my phone and noticed an email. “I’ll probably never–Oh.”
It was an acceptance email from She Writes Press. They wanted to publish my memoir.
They wanted me. They wanted to help me share my book with the world.
And then began the journey of emails, contracting, edits, re-edits, cover design, pages design, and more re-edits that will eventually lead me to a published book on April 20, 2021.
But I don’t want to talk about that, because I’m only halfway into the publishing journey. I want to talk about how I got to that acceptance email.
I’m probably not what one would think of as a “traditional” author–someone who has stumped the writing circuit for years, submitting articles and stories and blog posts to literary journals and websites; someone who gets paid for freelance work in various publications; someone who completed an MFA in creative writing; or someone who has been in the academic literary world and is taking a turn at writing a book of her own.
I have a full-time corporate job that I don’t plan on giving up unless things change drastically. My blog that I’ve had since 2014 only gets a few hits each day, if any at all. I never “dreamt” of writing a book or “being” a writer/author.
…that is, until my book demanded that it be written.
My first artistic love was drawing. My father was a painting, drawing, and art history professor at the junior college in my rural West Texas town, and through both nature and nurture, I developed a pretty strong talent for visual art. I had to get what I saw in my mind’s eye onto a page. Over time that morphed into drawing and writing intricate cartoons, and eventually drawing drifted away in favor of the writing side of my creative streak.
I never actively pursued writing as an art form, means of income, or even a dedicated hobby. I was just good at it, first in school and later in my professional life. It was more of a functional skill that made life easier and more enjoyable rather than a dominant means of creative expression. In 2012 at the suggestion of a mentor, I began journaling, which helped me express what I was feeling during a difficult time.
When I started taekwondo training in 2013 as a last-ditch effort to get control of my spiraling mental and emotional health (journaling and other things weren’t quite cutting it), writing, specifically about my training, re-surfaced as a means to cope, process, and express the changes I experienced as I slowly progressed from white belt to black belt. The insights, epiphanies, life lessons, and questions were so insistent in my brain that I had to exorcise them, if only to quiet the flow of racing thoughts. I had to get the thoughts out of my head.
So I started this blog.
Around a year into my blogging foray, another nagging thought stemming from the inner depths of my gut (that I didn’t always listen to, but it always seemed to be right) spurned me to turn my taekwondo insights into a memoir. Memoir is my favorite book genre, and I’d already built some experience blogging about my taekwondo journey. Why not write a book about it? It seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time. Again, I had to get the thoughts out fo my head, if only for some mental peace and quiet.
Lessons I learned along the way:
1. Hone your craft: Learn from the experts
Like a black belt, the book didn’t happen overnight. While I learned and developed my martial art technique one class at at time, I also chipped away at my book in small pieces. Eventually I reached out to professionals for more guidance and took the class “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” with Brooke Warner, publisher and co-founder of She Write Press, and Linda Joy Myers, author and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. The class gave me the structure, community, feedback, and new techniques I needed to turn some scribblings, blogging, and journaling into a piece of art that other people would want to read. I highly recommend the class for anyone serious about the craft of memoir writing.
I continued learning about writing from blogs and books, and felt both inspired and challenged to step up my game and improve my writing skills. The best pieces of advice I’ve had so far are:
1. Write with love and edit with ruthlessness. Just get that crummy first draft out. (Thank you, Stephen King)
2. Read your work aloud. It sounds like an entirely different piece of work and helps you listen for the rhythm and musicality (or discord) in your writing. (My brilliant editor can take credit for this)
After the class in 2015 and over the next two years I sculpted and stitched the book together and then planned my brave attack on the publishing industry. I didn’t know anything about publishing, so I decided to start with the traditional route and seek an agent. I researched reputable organizations and agents and ended up with a spreadsheet of about fifty names and several different versions of a query letter and a lengthy book proposal.
I got a few rejections and one interested agent who ultimately told me the book had some pacing problems and wasn’t something she felt comfortable marketing. I didn’t expect much but of course held out hope that someone would bite. I was tickled to get a few rejection emails (one more no to that yes!) and was very grateful for that particular agent’s candid feedback of my work at the time. The book has changed and improved so many times since then, and wouldn’t be what it became without that initial rejection.
2. Dig in your heels and find a different way to meet your goal when you feel stuck
Pursuing traditional publishing was also an exhausting and disappointing process. Working through an agent with the big publishers is the right route for many writers, but it wasn’t the path for me. I thought back to what I learned in my memoir class and purchased a copy of Brooke Warner’s publishing advice book Greenlight Your Book.
I read Greenlight Your Book in one sitting and felt refreshed, renewed, and ready to fight for my book. I’d had it with the traditional route. Independent films and business start-ups have become standard–why not independent book publishing? There are many great small, independent presses popping up, and I decided to start with the one I knew best, She Writes Press. I submitted the required pages according to their instructions, expecting nothing, and kind of forgot about it for a month and a half until I received my acceptance email.
I don’t want to condemn the traditional publishing process. One of the most valuable things I learned from going through that search was how to write about my book through dozens of query letters and my proposal. The marketing phase of my book is beginning soon, and I have lots of material to pull from when I need to tell the world what this book is about and why it should be in bookstores.
3. Set a goal. Dare to dream: I’ll let you in on a little secret…
In 2014 I made a vision board. I feel silly sharing this, but it was something that helped me along my publishing journey, so maybe this will spark an idea for someone else.
I can’t remember exactly why I took on that little project: I know I was unhappy and anxious and knew I wanted change in my life. I waited until I had some alone time for a few days, and eagerly cobbled together magazines, glue, and a small posterboard. I won’t get all woo-woo and new age-y here, but I’ve had enough good experience with the law of attraction, power of positive thinking, whatever you want to call it to know that sometimes that stuff can work. No one was going to see that vision board except me anyway.
On my board, which has since lived in my closet, I clipped these words from an article about a book I’ve since forgotten:
“book, based on her blog”
It seemed like a lofty, outlandish idea at the time. No one reads my blog. Who would want to read my book?
I looked at my vision board every once in a while and “announced” the book on my blog before I even started seeking book agents or publishers. It was “out to the Universe” whether I liked it or not.
That little wish turned into a goal that turned into hard work and six years later, a dream realized (with many more steps and hard work to go).
4. Go back to your why: Or, where’s the martial arts connection in this?
This is still a martial arts blog, so of course I need to make some kind of tie-in, right?
Behind the words you’re reading is a black belt first, and a writer second.
Taekwondo is the reason why I wrote a book and pursued a publishing deal. Taekwondo saved my life and got my head screwed on right (finally). I’m a stronger person and creator from the ways taekwondo inspired and challenged me. If I’m determined to do something, I won’t quit. I’ll find a way around an obstacle if I have to. I’ll stay in the fight until the match ends. I’m always seeking ways to improve my performance, whether it’s kicking or writing.
Taekwondo was my why. Find, remember, and revisit yours.
I just turned forty-one and will be turning forty-two a few months after my memoir hits the bookshelves and digital marketplaces. And now it seems I kinda want to write more books. I didn’t think the “bug” would bite me, but it has. I don’t feel like I’m getting into this writing game late, even though the younger aspiring writers reading this must be flabbergasted that it took me “this long” to publish a book.
I didn’t even think about or want to get into this book-writing game until a few years ago. I’ve changed careers and professional interests over the last twenty years, so maybe writing and publishing a book is just another step in my winding path. Who knows what I’ll do ten years from now–maybe something entirely different and unfathomable to where I am in my life right now.
Maybe I’ll get another book out of it.
Stay tuned for my upcoming book– “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!
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