What does it take to write and publish a book? Fire in the belly

When I decided to write my book, many years ago, I was committed. I had what I called “Fire in the Belly.” That is what it took for me to stay with it. I had passion and conviction that the story was important. It was history that had never been public. I needed to set the record straight, and I believed in myself that I was the person to write it.

I had a lot of challenges, though:

• To do the very difficult historical research that was not readily available

• To sit in the library and search through not just microfilm, but micro fiche

• To seek out people from 30 years ago

• To schlep to the courts and archives and spend hours combing through files

• To travel to locations where my subject lived

Yet, that wasn’t as difficult as facing the dead air of no response, negative remarks, and countless rejections.

I look back on my author self, and I’m amazed that I survived it and what I accomplished. Yes, I’m proud. However, like many other writers, I had the naysayers along the way. There were many destructive comments that had me question my mission and did stir up self-doubt.

Among some of the comments, I heard: “Who would want to read a book about a “footnote” in history. No one has ever heard of her.” “You don’t have all the information. No editor would want that.” “No one cares about Sara Jane Moore.” “You don’t have a platform.”

Creative nonfiction

I was a terrible writer in trying to create a non-fiction book that would read like a novel. It had to be nonfiction, not historical fiction. So I took classes to learn how to write in a literary fashion. The first iteration of my book was so bad, it could win a prize for the worst piece of writing ever.

While I wanted to use the “creative” part of the equation, every word, every comment, every quote had to be carefully vetted. There was no room for unverified material. While many of my interviewees shared some pretty fantastical experiences, not all could be confirmed. If I couldn’t validate what they said because either they were dead or unavailable, I couldn’t use it. On many an occasion, I wanted to include anecdotal information but could not risk being inaccurate. The consequences were great and not just about liability but my reputation as a journalist.

Joined a writing community

I knew nothing about publishing a book, so I sought out a writing community to learn more. It was a very good decision. I wasn’t alone. We shared many stories, some rewarded for their efforts, but many who were frustrated with the process or disappointed in response to their efforts.

Some of my writer friends decided to go the self-publishing route, and it worked well for them. Several signed up with a new small publisher, Sand Hill Review Press, a company started by a member of the San Francisco-Peninsula California Writers Club. To date they have published over 23 books. However, I decided to seek a commercial publisher as my book included material on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, San Francisco Police, the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army and other current historical events from 1970’s San Francisco. It had to pass a lot of rigor by someone else. The wrinkle in that publishing scenario was that many of the big publishers only accepted “agented” authors: books that came from literary agents, not directly from the writer.

I attended many writer conferences eager to learn how I could land an agent. I signed up for what is called, “Speed Dating” where, for a fee, I got to meet with a potential agent for three minutes and pitch my book. I pitched to “agents” at networking groups. I mailed out at least 20 query letters to agents around the country. Nothing ever materialized.

It’s not about having an agent as it is the agent you have

Ultimately, I landed two agents who unfortunately left me disillusioned with the industry. I didn’t know that agents are supposed to keep their writers informed with all responses on who they approach with your book. After six months with the first one, I never heard back. Same thing happened with the second one. After a year of waiting, I reached out to new agents and was turned down as used goods. They said since as all the publishing houses had rejected my book, there was nothing they could do for me.

“Let me know when you write a new book.”

A new book? What about this one?

Still, somehow, even after those major blows, my belief in my book, my conviction for its message, kept me going.

Fire in the belly

That was in 2009. The message here is to keep going. I did finally land an amazing literary agent who believed in me and sold my book to a major publishing house. The book has been optioned for a movie on the “big screen.” It happened.

Had I given up, the book would be sitting in my documents file. Instead, it’s out there, and I’ve started a new one. I found fire in the belly again.

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