Career Planning and the Slow Writer
My first book, Breaking the Code, took almost ten years to write. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it. But let’s break it down to find out the truth.
First a little background: The subject of my memoir is my father, a WWII veteran. When I was growing up, he told only select stories about his time in the service. It wasn’t until he was 81 and suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that I began to question what he’d told me about the war. Thus began our journey. But here’s the thing – though he started talking about his service and his WWII experiences at that time, it was a slow process – a very slow process. After repressing memories for more than 50-years, one can’t expect them to effortlessly spill out in chronological order, over breakfast. Instead, his memories were revealed slowly, often painfully, in stops and starts, bits and pieces.
The Years That Followed Can be Broken Down Something Like This:
The first few years:
My father gave me more than 400 pages of letters he wrote to his “folks” during the war. I read them and we started meeting to discuss the letters. Later, he slowly began sharing photos and other memorabilia.
The middle years: The information he was sharing with me became more and more emotional. I still had a feeling he wasn’t telling me something. He’d go right up to it, but then change the subject or simply stop talking. I knew there was more. But the more he shared, the more distraught he was becoming. I struggled with whether this was helping him or hurting him.
The last years:
I began writing my father’s story, using the letters as the foundation. My intent was to make a copy for each of my children. Though it was only going to be for my family, I wanted it to be the best it could be, so I joined a writer’s group. It was in that group that I was encouraged to write his story into a book. I began filling in the gaps that his letters left. I researched WWII and everything related to every single piece of information he’d shared. I went to a writer’s conference and met an editor from Sourcebooks.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It Takes as Much Time as it Takes
So, you see – saying that I was working on this book for almost ten years isn’t all that accurate. Most of those years were not spent with my rear in a chair actually writing for hours and days, months at a time. No, writing is much more nebulous than that. This is especially true for nonfiction. And when you’re dealing with someone else’s difficult memories, it’s even more complicated.
When I speak to writers, I find that they often want specifics. They want to know exactly how much time it took. I’ve been there too. When we ask those questions of other writers/authors, what we really want to know is if it’s possible for us. We want to know what to do so that our writing becomes know, and published. We want our writing to touch others. And we want to know the formula for making that happen. But there’s a problem with that.
There is no formula for writing the story you were meant to write.
If it takes me almost ten years to write every book I write, well…I may get three books written in my lifetime. For some, that’s completely acceptable, even appropriate. For me, it’s not. My current Work-in-Progress (WIP) is another military story. This time, it’s the Vietnam War I’m writing about. The subject is portrait artist, Michael G. Reagan, and the miraculous experience he had which lead him to leave everything he’d worked so hard to attain; security, a job he loved, prestige – in order to found the Fallen Heroes Project. I heard about Mike and met him in 2012. I began gathering information and research by the end of that year. Now, almost three years later (hard to believe!), I’m nearing the end of my part in the project – the actual writing. Then it will move on to working with my agent on it and after she finds a publishing house, working with them on it as well. So, while my father’s book took 9-years. This one will take about four years. When I first approached an agent with it, she said, “This is a huge and ambitious project.” She was right.
As I near the end of the writing portion of the book, I’m beginning to think about what’s next. While goal setting is so much a part of my life that it’s practically in my DNA, my first two projects (books) happened quite organically. But as I move forward, I feel the need to give more thought and action to goal setting. If I want a career as a writer, it’s imperative that I have a plan.
Planning my Future Books
Like most writers, I have stories that pop into my head all the time. Some stay for the weekend, some pop in and pop out before I can even get to know them. And then there’s the ones that pull up with a U-haul and move in, holding me hostage until I meet their demands. As I contemplated this the other day, I could name six books, right off the top of my head, that have moved in. Some are fiction, some nonfiction. Some are children’s books and others are for the adult market. But what they have in common is that I didn’t have to think hard to pull them to the forefront of my mind. So, I wrote them down. Then I opened a file on my computer labeled, “Old Computer Documents.”
You see, when I first started writing in 2005, I only knew that I wanted to write. I didn’t know what genre. I didn’t know who my target audience would be. I didn’t know whether I wanted to do freelance work for magazines or write books. In fact, I didn’t know much of anything. There wasn’t any goal setting involved. I just started writing It was good therapy – but that’s another story. In that old documents file were stories – some half-hatched, others full length books. When I looked through all those stories a few days ago, I was amazed. I wrote a lot in those first few years of dreaming. Some of those manuscripts are actually quite good. Some resonated with me more than others, so I added those to my list.
Slowly, I began to see that the time for me to expand into other genres is close at hand. An excitement for the possibilities filled me. I’ve been exploring a new list-making app called, Wunderlist. So, I made a new file within the app and listed the books I want to write/finish. In all, there are 15 books.
Here’s the breakdown;
5 – Children’s Books (all categories)
10 – Books for Adults
3 – Completely written and at least partially edited
6 – Mostly written
6 – Not Written
7 – Nonfiction
8 – Fiction
I began this post by talking about how long it took me to write my father’s story (9-years). I wrote about how long my current WIP is taking (4-years). While 2-books in 13 years sounds torturously slow, I’ve come to a new conclusion.
I’m not a slow writer.
My first two books, Breaking the Code, and Drawing me Home, will always be near and dear to my heart. As I reflect on them, it’s clear that neither one could have been finished any faster. Why? Because I was given the awesome and honored responsibility of telling someone else’s story. Both of the men I wrote about are amazing examples of heroism – each in a different way. Both men experienced the trauma of war. Creating relationship and building trust with them could not be rushed. And without those things, there is no book. What I did with each of these men was to build a bridge between me, a civilian who’s never been to war, to them – military men who had an important story to tell. That can’t be rushed.
I believe that any book you put your soul into is the same. Until it tells the story of your heart, it’s not done.
As I begin working on my future books, I will give each one the same thought and consideration. It’s just the only way to be a writer that people want to read, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, written for adults or children. As I move forward, it is with the knowledge that Story, with a capital “S” can’t be rushed. Neither can connecting with people and touching their lives.
Starting Over at Midlife