Have you got a book in you? With the exciting lives ASTW members lead, the answer is quite likely ‘yes’ but writing a book requires a whole different approach to that which we use for blogs or articles.
Here I share the lessons learned while developing my own memoir, and the long and winding process from concept through to publishing.
Travel Memoir Writing
By Laura Waters
Start with a story
We all know the value of an engaging story but nowhere is it more critical than in a book. It’s not enough to have a random bunch of interesting/quirky/funny moments; there needs to be a strong narrative arc that links it all together and makes the reader care about the protagonist.
Lisa Cron (author of ‘Wired For Story’) describes a story as: how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. It’s about how the plot affects the protagonist.
This might strike you as more relevant to a novel but it applies just as strongly to memoir. Here’s an example:
Plot: A woman walks from one end of New Zealand to the other and has a whole bunch of challenges, tears and laughter along the way.
Story: A woman suffering from anxiety (and various other issues!) walks in the wilds for five months, during which time she learns to overcome her fears, loses her identity, reconnects with nature and emerges a new woman.
It’s all about developing a character that people will care about and ensure they keep turning the pages to find out what happens next, and it requires revealing the inner journey as well as the outer one.
“Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time” – Lisa Cron
Developing a structure
It can be overwhelming to know where to begin when writing a book. I found it useful to create an excel spreadsheet to plot the key events that I’d need to cover to tell the story. Then I divvied those events up into chapters and set an allocated word count to cover each one. Seeing the whole story like this allowed me to get a clear picture of what I was trying to achieve and how it would all pan out.
Only include the events that are critical to your narrative arc. You may have some favourite moments that you’d really like to include but if they don’t lead anywhere on the journey of your protagonist then they’re just a distraction.
- Build strong characters and only introduce them if they add value to the story or help paint a picture or set the mood of a scene.
- Use foreshadowing to build intrigue
- Use backstory and flashbacks to fill in the gaps and paint a deeper picture.
- Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Go light on the scenery, setting, weather, etc. Because stories are about people, the things that happen to them and how they react to them.
- You’ll get many more excellent tips from Wired For Story.
It’s really important to get a professional book editor to review your drafts. I had a best-selling author friend read one of my early drafts. He thought it was good to go and probably only needed a “light copy edit”, but once he’d referred me to his excellent editor I discovered that all I had was a “very good base to work from”! Needless to say, I was a little devastated to hear that I wasn’t in fact finished but in the following two edits I did with her, the manuscript developed into a far richer and more engaging tale. The moral of the story is: work someone who really understands book editing.
A good editor is like a sports coach. They’ll tell you what you need to do but they won’t do it for you. You’ll retain your style and voice while developing your story to be the best it can be.
Self-publishing or traditional
There are pro’s and con’s to each. Self publish and you can get your book out there tomorrow, have full creative control and reap 100% of the profits. You’ll also have to fund all the editing yourself, get a cover design, do all your own marketing, distribution, sales, etc.
Traditional publishing will only give you a fraction of the profits, you will have varying degrees of control over the final product (I have full say on the contents of my book – some publishers aren’t so generous – but the publisher gets to choose cover and title), and it’s a far longer process to publication – generally around a year.
There are many tales of best-selling authors who started out self-publishing their books only to have the rights purchased by traditional publishers once the success of the book had been demonstrated (Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?), so don’t discard this option if you have trouble finding a traditional publisher.
Having said that, there is still a little stigma around self-publishing and it appears easier to get mainstream publicity and support if you have a traditionally published book.
The traditional publishing process
- Polish your manuscript as brightly as you can before approaching publishers. Apparently, most don’t have the time or money to invest in developing your idea into something publishable, so make sure it’s sparkling so that when you do get their attention you can seal the deal.
- Find a publisher: It’s hard to get your manuscript in front of the right people so watch for literary speed-dating events where you get to sit face to face with publishers and agents to pitch your idea. This is how I secured my deal.
- It will generally take a year from signing to release date. During that time the following steps take place:
- Structural edit: to make sure the bones of the story are there and the general timeline and contents are all solid.
- Copy edit: This is where an editor will go over your manuscript line by line and make minor amendments, fix grammar, point out any remaining gaps in your story that need explaining, or challenge any bits they think aren’t quite right. You will then be required to review and make changes as required.
- Pages will then be typeset into book format
- Proofreading takes place to make sure everything is squared away
- Cover artwork is done, photos selected, etc
- The manuscript will generally go to the printer around 6-8 weeks prior to the release date.
- Distribution to sales outlets
- The release of your book!
- Fame, fortune, etc…
The process is lengthy but it’s hugely rewarding.
Laura’s book “Bewildered – leaving everything behind for 3,000km in the wild” is due for release 27 Aug, through Affirm Press.
Laura Waters is a freelance travel writer, author and speaker. A 3000km hike from one end of New Zealand in 2014 inspired her to quit her corporate job to pursue a long-held passion for writing and adventure.