On Tuesday, I shared the brief version of the long dogged journey of how I wrote and sold my memoir, Flying Free. Next week I’ll dive into the details of the more instructional steps of actually getting there (the 7 stages of memoir writing). First, however, I think it’s important to wrap your mind around the entire process.
People often ask me, “How long did it take you to write your memoir?”
I usually pause for an unreasonably long time, because it’s a trick question.
On the one hand, I wrote an outline in two days in March 2017, and then got up early every day for the next three months, writing the details of the 40 scenes in the outline. By May 2017, I’d produced 130,000 words of rough draft. I took a couple of weeks to boil that draft down into a 99,000-word narrative.
So you could say I wrote a book in 3 months.
But like the tip of an iceberg, that statement is an illusion that ignores the reality of the many years of preparation that led to that abundance of writing.
Because, on the other hand, the first file folder on my computer labeled “My Memoir” dates from 1999. It holds a few thousand words of me complaining about my early childhood. It’s now 2019, and I’m polishing up the final draft of the memoir with a due date to my publisher of September 15.
So you could also say it took me 20 years to write this book.
A Map of How to Get Published in 7 Stages
One of the best ways to get an overview of a long and complex process is with a map or visual. When aspiring authors ask me to go into more detail explaining my journey to publication, I usually find myself using a graph to depict the 7 stages of memoir writing.
It’s not surprising, since I teach data visualization at the University of Washington in Seattle. Originally, I was going to produce a professional-looking diagram on the computer to chart my experiences and emotional states during the course of writing the memoir.
But first I drew a sketch…
… and then I realized that this messy sketch was a more realistic depiction of the process from “wanting to write” to “book deal” than a glossy dataviz.
It’s kind of a messy process, full of emotional ups and downs. Especially downs.
In this series of blog posts, I’m going to share my journey through memoir writing, rewriting, pitching, and (finally) publication. Maybe some of you won’t have to go through the years of false starts, rejections, and revisions I did. But I suspect a process full of multiple failures is more common than most people think.
The 7 Stages of Memoir Writing
- Wanting to write (may take a long time; in my case a 17-year process!)
- Writing first draft (prep work can shorten; it took me 3 months)
- Revising and research (editing, learning about publishing process)
- Querying (lots of emotional ups and downs)
- More querying (lowest points of the process)
- Agent representation and book deal (long wait, then moved fast)
- Editing and publication (where I’m at now)
Let me know if you have any questions about my messy sketch. The label on the vertical axis is “mood,” as in emotional state over time.
Note from the graph above that most of the emotional lows occurred during the querying process, when I was sending my writing out into the world (of agents). It’s painful to hand over something as personal as a memoir to people who will judge not only your writing, but also the essence of who you are. There were times along the way when I actually believed agents were rejecting my manuscript because there was something flawed in my own personality.
In reality, of course, it was simply a business decision. Agents’ livelihoods depend on whether they can sell your work. It has nothing to do with your human decency or lack thereof, and a lot more to do with their own enthusiasm. (Flawed personalities can make for terrific sales!)
But don’t ask me to understand that in my gut after I’ve opened my third rejection in a single day.
The good news is that the emotional highs at the end of the process make up for the difficulty of the entire journey. See how absurdly happy I became at the point in the graph labeled “book deal”?