Two months ago, when I last wrote, the editing process for Finding Sisters had just begun with the assignment of the publishing company CEO as my editor. He sent me the first two chapters right away, followed by an alarming silence for several weeks. It turned out that he had been hospitalized with Covid, but he didn’t make that reality public, even for his authors, until he was well on the road to recovery. We’ve now finished the editing of the main manuscript which, lucky for me, didn’t involve much serious rewriting of any of the chapters, and the book has now moved on to the formatting stage.
The formatting stage is where the book designer takes the edited manuscript and the proposed illustrations and puts them together in what will eventually become the printing format for the physical book. That process began just about a week ago, so I have nothing to report about what’s happening there, but I’ve worked with this book designer before and she does excellent work. There were lots of illustrations for Keeping the Lights on for Ike, and she did a terrific job of placing them within the chapters. There are fewer illustration for Finding Sisters, so I’m not stressed at all about what she will come up with. Eventually, the appendix of resources and other items—like the dedication, acknowledgements, and table of contents—will get added to the format as well.
Along with the formatting of the book comes the cover design process. I’ve been assigned a designer, someone I’ve not worked with before but who is excited about the creative possibilities for this cover. She has already presented me with three interesting options to choose from, based on my early suggestions for possible cover artwork themes. The first, and favorite of all who have seen the options, is a tree image with faces from my illustrations superimposed inside the tree branches. It’s a really fascinating and creative take on a “family tree” and is very engaging for all who view it. She’s now in the process of playing with color variations and adjusting some of the photo images so we should be moving to finalize the design soon. The other two options presented below (designs by Alyssa Roth) included a playful wallpaper of a repeated double helix image (the structure of a DNA molecule) with lettering spread across it, and a closer view of a double helix with photo images inside the rounded, crossing strands and interspersed with lettering. Such wonderful and creative options for this author to choose from, and if these are the ones we’re not going to use, imagine how amazing the final cover will be! I look forward to unveiling the final cover design soon.
The marketing planning process for the book launch has also begun with me submitting all the requested info (about my in-person networks, social media handles, search keywords, comparable books by others, pitch ideas, blurbs, Amazon categories, etc.) to the marketing advisor. We’ll start that part of the process very soon. And you thought all you had to do to get a book published was to write it!
We are still very much on target for an early fall release, though it seems late summer could also be possible if all the details fall into place in a timely fashion. I’ll definitely keep everyone posted on that date as soon as it’s formally announced.
29 March 2021. I had my “kickoff” meeting last Friday with Marianne Babcock (Executive Assistant to the CEO) about how Sunbury’s newly revised editing and planning process will unfold for Finding Sisters. We set a tentative date for publication in the early fall 2021, though it could be a bit earlier, depending on how the editing and book design process evolves. My latest revised manuscript was submitted to Marianne later that day, I gave her access to the proposed book illustrations through my Drop Box file, and I was told I would have an editor assigned very soon. It turns out that the Founder and CEO, Lawrence Knorr, is doing some occasional duty as an editor, and he’s going to be working with me. Lawrence has been supportive of this book since I first mentioned it to him as a work in progress during the podcast interview he did with me for Keeping the Light on for Ike when it was first released in early 2019. Genealogy is one of his particular interests, and it will be an incredible privilege to work directly with him!
Once the timeline was established, Marianne and I talked about the Matter template she had sent me in advance of the meeting. For those who have never published a book, “matter” is the term publishers use for all the information they need above and beyond the manuscript itself. Most of the information never shows up in the book itself, but it helps shape the marketing plan for the book as it approaches its launch and beyond. The template asks for a book description (both short and long form; very carefully defined by number of words or characters); author bio (short and long); BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories; SEO (search engine optimization) keywords; Amazon categories; and comparable books by other authors; all geared toward where the publisher can sell my book. The template also encourages social media participation by the author, an up-to-date author website, how to look for people to provide possible “blurbs” (those important mini-reviews from related professionals or other authors that help to raise interest in the book when it first comes out), and other ways the author can contribute to getting information out there about the book both before and after it’s released.
After talking about the matter document, which I am in the process of drafting now and which will come into play as the editing phase nears its end, we also talked about book illustrations. Finding Sisters will have a few photos (though not nearly as many as Keeping the Lights on for Ike) as well as some family trees I’ve created that are designed to help the reader follow all the familial connections discovered in the search for my genetic relations. I will be working with Crystal Devine, the same book designer who designed Keeping the Lights on for Ike, to determine the best placement of the illustrations. Those who know me well, know I have already thought carefully about that and, of course, provided a list (I am the queen of lists) for which chapters I think the pictures belong in and approximately where in that chapter the text reference to the photo happens, though the specifics are still to be determined collaboratively during the editing process.
(The photos above are the reunion images from the days I first met each of my new half sisters, April in the left image in 2015 and Ann on the right in 2017)
After the illustration conversation, we turned to talking a bit about ideas for the book cover. I think the most promising idea we discussed will be some kind of collage of the reunion photos and perhaps one or two of the family trees. Sunbury creates compelling cover artwork for their books, and I was quite pleased with the cover for Keeping the Lights on for Ike, so I have high hopes for the Finding Sisters cover as well. I don’t know yet who will design the cover for Finding Sisters, but Terry Kennedy who designed the cover for Ike is an excellent designer, and I’ve recently discovered that Lawrence is also an accomplished digital artist as well as editor and book publisher CEO, so it’s a win-win situation for me, regardless of which cover designer I am assigned.
I have no idea how long or short the editing and book design process will be now that it’s finally underway, but based on past experience it’s a solid bet it will be completed in plenty of time for an early fall book launch. However, between working on the newest book (not yet ready for a book proposal submission so I need to give it more attention) and the editing and marketing planning process for the Finding Sisters release, I have no idea whether I’ll be doing much new blogging until it’s finally published. But you can be sure I’ll keep you posted about the launch before it happens!
19 January 2021: Last month, I promised to write a bit more about my “mosaic memoir” process, but first a quick update about editorial work on Finding Sisters. I’m still inching up the queue, and I’ve learned a lot about the process for the editorial staff at Sunbury Press. The “waiting to be assigned” queue isn’t necessarily a linear progression, as I had first imagined. Each editor works on multiple manuscripts of different lengths at any given time (some being assigned more projects than others, depending on their status as full or part time editors), and while Sunbury has a wide variety of imprints (from young adult fiction to literary and historical fiction to fantasy/horror to self-help books and more) as well as their primary focus on non-fiction manuscripts of all kinds, their editors do not seem to specialize in one genre of book over another. This means that the time needed to edit each manuscript can vary wildly. It’s also possible that occasionally the head of the company might pull a manuscript on a particularly “hot topic” (such as books related to the pandemic) out of the queue and advance it to the head of the line. Though there are still only a handful of books ahead of mine in the “to be assigned” queue, there’s really no way of telling when the editing process might start for me.
I’ll share that process with you when it happens, but it’s hard to know for sure when that might occur. So, in the meantime, I’ll explain more about the essays that make up what I was calling a “mosaic memoir” in my post last month. Due to a really interesting exercise suggested by the facilitator of my writing group, I discovered something surprising about those essays. The directive was to give a working title and subtitle to the projects (mostly memoirs) we were each working on, with the goal of telegraphing to our reading audience the main topic or theme of our manuscript in progress. In other words, “what’s my story about?” Members of the writing group shared our titles at our last Zoom meeting before our holiday hiatus.
The first step for me in preparing for the exercise was to list and characterize each of the 14 essays I’d drafted so far for the mosaic memoir project, and in doing so, I discovered that the essays were evenly split in type and that there was no way to give the current collection of essays a single title. There were actually two books in progress! Not only that, I was able to list several new essays/chapters that I want to write for each project. Exciting stuff.
The first thing I realized was that I had written more than I had realized about my late-in-life second marriage, including my husband’s unexpected death from sudden cardiac arrest just months after being pronounced totally healthy by his doctors. That has now become a different project for me. It will become a much more traditional memoir and, like the story in Finding Sisters, will cover a specific time in my life (2004-present). It will have anecdotal information that anyone on a similar grief journey might find useful, but it will not be a self-help book. Instead, it will be the story of those years in my life, my interactions with my husband, and the people and actions that helped me to survive and eventually even thrive again after his death. I’ve given it a working title of Adventures with the Bartender: Finding and Losing the Love of My Life in Six Short Years. For those who don’t know, my husband owned and ran a small Adirondack hotel for seven years and loved to serve drinks to guests in our house, especially when we had parties, thus earning himself the nickname “The Bartender” among our friends. He earned another nickname, “The Geezer Model,” because of his good-natured indulgence of me and my camera when I wanted to take his picture, which was often, especially when we were traveling.
For those who let me know after last month’s blog about their interest in the concept of the mosaic memoir, I want to reassure you that project is still very much a reality, though likely a lower priority at the moment than the new memoir about my widow journey. One close friend wrote me a note after learning about my mosaic memoir idea telling me she heartily approved and sharing information about an early 20th century Italian poet, Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), who famously said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” A former student who now teaches and performs internationally loved the idea of a mosaic memoir, and he explained to me, “Mosaic is my favorite content-process metaphor. In all my classrooms and performances, I always tell students/audiences: ‘Don’t look for a thread, we’re not following anything, keep your eyes in soft focus, the picture will begin to emerge eventually.’” And that’s exactly the point of this second project with the current working title, Mosaic Memoir: Snapshots of My Life. Though I have seven essays already written about various threads or snapshots that are important in my life, and at least four more I want to write, there’s no obvious narrative through-line. At least, not yet. These essays cover various times and experiences in my life and have current working titles like “Tomboy,” “Like Mother Like Daughter,” “Losing my Voice,” and “Brothers of the Heart” (with “Sisters of the Heart” soon to come), among others.
There’s certainly no lack of writing topics for me, and I’m sure these projects will keep me busy for many months to come. For anyone who worries that they might not have enough to say to write a memoir, I suggest you might try the mosaic approach. It’s amazing what comes up in one’s memory to write about when there’s no pressure to have a specific structural plan for a book!
For my next entry, I hope to be able to report on the start of my editing process for Finding Sisters, but I’m not holding my breath. In any case, I’m sure I’ll find something interesting to share with all of you about my two newest projects.
1 December 2020: Due to several factors beyond my control, I continue to find myself “in the queue” at Sunbury to begin editing the new manuscript for publication, but my place in line has now moved from low double digits to the middle single digits, so perhaps my process will start before Christmas. Or not. It’s hard to predict, especially when you combine the holiday season with a pregnancy leave for a member of the editorial staff and a pandemic where the rules keep changing nearly every week. The editing and design work for the previous book took about five months from the beginning of the process to the book release, so I still expect Finding Sisters to come out in 2021, though I’ve stopped using “early 2021” in my projections.
In spite of a three-week hiatus in late September/early October where I couldn’t focus my eyes properly due to the healing process after laser eye surgery, I finished the files for the audiobook version of Keeping the Lights on for Ike in mid-November and submitted them for processing. However, they haven’t yet given me a date for the release of the audiobook. I’ll be sure to let you know when it happens, so anyone who’s been waiting to hear me read my WWII book out loud to you will finally be able to enjoy that experience. I realized as I was doing the work, just how amazing it was to read my own book out loud from start to finish. The book went through multiple revisions and had been read out loud, chapter by chapter, within my writing group before I started working with the Sunbury editors to get the book ready for publication. But the writing group readings happened over a longer period of time, with several weeks between each chapter, so there was no true sense of overall continuity. But reading a chapter a day really helps you understand whether or not your story hangs together and helps you more easily find repetitions and duplications. Even after as many revisions as the Ike manuscript went through in the nearly three-year process from early chapters to final publication, I was still able to notice a few small phrasing repetitions in this reading-aloud process that no amount of revisions managed to discover prior to publication. I doubt many will notice it, other than me, but I think it’s something I’ll try to do with any future book manuscripts before final publication, even if I’m not actively working on recording the audiobook version. It was a very interesting and revealing process.
So, other than waiting to be assigned my next editor, what else is happening for me? Both of my recent books had a very specific story to tell, but I didn’t feel like I had another lengthy and specific event-driven story to share when I finished Finding Sisters well over a year ago. Most of the women in my writing group have been working on memoirs of various kinds, so I started to think what that kind of me-focused story might mean. I knew I didn’t want to write a chronological “this is my life” story (boring!), and the most dramatic thing that had happened to me in the past couple of decades was the sudden death of my husband in 2010, which was very difficult to approach as a writer, especially because I worried that whatever I wrote might be maudlin and over-emotional. So, I started writing short essays about things of importance in my life to see if they might eventually hang together and add up to a larger story. I am calling this process my mosaic memoir, so each essay becomes a “tile” in the larger mosaic. Some are related to each other (the stories about my husband and his sudden death, for example), but others stand alone. In the spaces between working on larger projects (promoting Ike and recording the audiobook version, completing Finding Sisters, not to mention working actively with a theatre company for most of 2019), I started writing those essays throughout the past two years. At the moment, they number fourteen essays that could potentially become chapters in this mosaic memoir, and I have a list of at least seven other essays I still want to write. Four of them have had two drafts, and ten of them have had one critique from the writing group and are awaiting more work on a second draft. And then there are the seven new ideas on my list that await their first draft. Definitely plenty of work to keep me out of trouble in the coming year!
I hope all of you have found safe and comfortable ways to celebrate the 2020 holiday season. Next time, most likely in early 2021, I’ll write more about the mosaic memoir process. Hopefully by then, I’ll also be able to tell you a few things about the process of working with my editor on Finding Sisters.
18 October 2020: The field of genetic genealogy is a fascinating one, but it can also be complex and confusing, especially for those just getting started, many of whom would likely be my readers when my newest book, Finding Sisters, gets published. I was still just barely more than a novice myself when I started the project, though I eventually found what I was looking for (with lots of generous assistance from others more experienced than I), and I wanted to share that story with others in a way that would encourage them to get involved in their own genetic history while not downplaying the complexities of the journey or throwing the shade of discouragement on anyone who felt confused by all the details that are a necessary part of the search for genetic ancestry.
Because mine was a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, I started to write about the details in chronological order, and because I had been saving absolutely everything from the very beginning of my explorations (emails, documents, photos, notes from conversations, relationship charts, family trees, etc.), this meant going back over what had happened along the way in minute detail. This kept me honest about what had taken place and when, and it was also a great way to refresh my own memory about how everything had unfolded. In the excitement of the discovery process, it had been easy to conflate the details, to mix up how and when certain things had occurred, and to forget certain important elements of the story.
As I started to present the developing chapters to the women in my writing group, two issues became very clear. First, the scientific details and all the family names were confusing to someone who was not directly engaged in the search, even when they were interested in the story. I was fascinated with what I was discovering, but my audience was mostly just bewildered and kept losing the narrative thread. This was the proverbial problem of not being able to see the forest for all the trees. One of the first things I needed to do, then, was to limit my use of the technical language in the story itself (footnotes became my good friend, so I could include the technical details for those who might want them but without impeding the narrative through line). Another was to consider visual aids in the form of relationship charts and/or developing family trees at various points in the story to help the reader understand the intricate web of relationships that was unfolding.
The other complexity was the incredible number of names involved in a genealogical research project. If anyone has ever done a family tree for the family members they already know about, it’s crammed with surnames, often different within every generation due to marriages, blended families, and the like. And for the adoptee, this is even more complicated because all the family names we might know from our own growing up usually have nothing at all to do with those in our genetic lineage. As well, some of my extended genetic family members were not interested in being linked to me, the illegitimate outsider, according to some friendlier folks I encountered along the way. I solved this twofold problem by eliminating surnames in the story I was telling. Most people can easily keep track of multiple characters by first names, so that’s the route I chose to write about my genetic families on both sides, maternal and paternal. According to the ever-astute members of my writing group, not knowing the surnames did not distract from the primary account of finding my two living half-sisters and sharing more about the family backgrounds of both my genetic parents.
As I continued to share my experiences with the writing group, it became clear that the story was just as much about my developing relationship with my Swedish search angel, Thomas, as it was about my genetic family. Thomas was distant part of that family (a maternal sixth cousin as it turned out), but that didn’t become clear until well into the adventure. So instead of simply being a friendly technical facilitator for my unfolding narrative, Thomas eventually became a fully fleshed out character (as full as possible for someone you’ve never met in person, that is) and an important part of the story.
One of the other things that those who heard my story along the way valued was the occasional photo that had come my way from extended family members or other sources. These photos helped my audience to define and identify with my genetic parents and other family members. Because I had her name early in the search process, I was able to get her photo from my birth mother’s high school yearbook, and once I contacted members of her family, finding other photos was simple because they were happy to share. Finding images of my birth father was much more difficult, especially since his name was one of the last ones I was able to uncover. But once the connection had been confirmed, extended family members were pleased to be able to share the images they had with me, though because he had died so young, there weren’t too many of them available. The photos below are what my parents would have looked like in the summer of 1948 when I was conceived while they were dating.
I presented my chapters to the writing group two separate times over the nearly two years that I worked on the manuscript: first drafts and then, after addressing the first set of comments, I shared the revised drafts a second time, which gave me a chance to revise a second time. All these revisions took place before I submitted the manuscript to the publisher for a possible contract, which happened just a month before the covid-19 shutdown in March 2020, and I signed my contract with the publisher in May. At the moment, I’m still sitting in the queue of books to be edited at Sunbury Press, but I expect to start working with the editor they will assign to me when I get to the head of the line fairly soon.
In the meantime, I’m working on recording the audiobook version of Keeping the Lights on for Ike and working on new writing. So, what’s next for this writer? Perhaps a more traditional memoir is in store. I’ll write about that next time. And hopefully about the process of working with my editor on Finding Sisters.
24 August 2020: Last month I promised to share some info about how my journey into genetic genealogy got started. Back in 2014, I didn’t know that term existed, much less what it really meant. But once I’d done a DNA test out of a curiosity to know more about my own genetic background (I had been adopted at birth), and when a distant cousin with expertise in building family histories had contacted me to talk about our family connections and to help me put all the pieces together, things started to move really fast. In fact, within a few days of contacting me in the spring of 2015, this cousin (my search angel) had all kinds of ideas for how he could help me find my birth mother from the single clue I had. Our email correspondence was detailed and voluminous, and of course I saved it all because I wanted to be clear about everything he was saying, though at the time I had no ambitions other than wanting to remember everything he was telling me and teaching me about genealogy research and about interpreting DNA test results. It was all happening so fast that I had to reread messages with some regularity to keep up with the ideas and leads I was being given.
I won’t give you the play by play of what happened on my journey into the work of genetic genealogy (that’s what the new book does), but I will say that before the end of 2015, I was able to connect with and meet my birth mother and maternal half-sister in person, to confirm the relationship with my birth mother via DNA testing, and to hear some of the story of how and why I was given up for adoption when she had a child out of wedlock just a few weeks before her 20th birthday. I also discovered what happened to her in the years following my birth and learned I had three maternal half siblings, though one had died in infancy and another was deceased some years before I came on the scene. To say I couldn’t have done it without my search angel cousin would be an extreme understatement. This distant cousin was incredibly helpful and taught me an enormous amount about how DNA testing works and how it can be interpreted and used to connect various family members.
After the first excitement of meeting my mother and sister, the trail went cold on finding my genetic father because my mother, in her middle 80s when I met her, was struggling with dementia. My maternal half-sister, April, was incredibly helpful in our conversations and very supportive of my search, but my mother could no longer remember the name of the man she’d been dating and who’d gotten her pregnant in the summer of 1948; it made her cry every time we tried to ask new questions about him. She remembered that he was a pilot, though she never “went up” with him and wasn’t certain what kind of planes he flew, and that they met at a dance, but that was about all. She died only a few months after I met her, but whatever she had known about my father was mostly gone even before she passed, which made me sad, not so much because I needed to know but because it made her so sad. And since birth certificates in that day didn’t include the name of the child’s father unless the couple was married, there was no paper trail on him, either, even when I finally did get a copy of my pre-adoption birth certificate. I learned through newly discovered relatives who knew the family history that my birth mother had herself been an adoptee, so another layer of mystery was added that would eventually have to be explored to get the whole story.
After this flurry of initial excitement, nothing at all happened for another year to help me get closer to any information about my mysterious birth father. Actually, I think that’s the rhythm of genetic genealogy: hurry up and wait; hurry up and wait. Then out of the blue, a surprise genetic match popped up for a close relative, a paternal half-sister who didn’t match with my mother. She had also been born out of wedlock and subsequently adopted, and I discovered that my mother wasn’t the only girl this guy got pregnant during the summer of 1948 because I’m only four days older than this sister! I’m not a person who keeps journals, but I was keeping every single email message that I sent or received that had anything to do with my search for genetic relatives (thank heavens for email folder systems!), and this new development got me thinking that there might be a larger story to write someday. It took almost another year before I was able to meet this other new half-sister in person, and we had little luck in finding serious candidates for our genetic father because neither of our birth mothers would (or perhaps could) reveal his name. Finally, we decided to both take a new DNA test with a second provider (DNA testing services don’t share their data with other testing services) and different matches that we shared started to surface in this new database that eventually would lead us to the man we had started calling Mr. X.
It took us several more months to communicate with these new matches, to get the potential relationship sorted out in our heads, and eventually to find possible relatives who were willing to take a DNA test at our expense before we were able to find enough close relatives that we became quite sure of who our father had been. Unfortunately, our Mr. X had died in a crash piloting his own small plane during a heavy fog just days before his wedding and before either of his illegitimate daughters had turned two years old. We suspect he never knew about either of us.
Eventually, I also found a likely candidate for my genetic grandfather through multiple DNA matches in a different clan, matches that my paternal half-sister did not share. So now the challenge became how to tell this rather remarkable story in a way that other people would be interested. That’s what I’ll write about next month. Enjoy the rest of the summer.
10 July 2020: Due to heat, humidity, and an out-of-control pandemic (at least it seems so in the US), this entry will be a bit shorter than usual. And I’ve got almost no illustrations to share at this point. Just my thoughts. Hopefully you will enjoy it anyway.
So, when you are deep in the throes of writing a book that has been your obsession for the past decade, still working full time, and you are starting to adjust to widowhood, living alone, and finally starting to feel quasi-normal, what might you do in your spare time when you find some? DNA testing is not the first activity that might come to mind, but it’s something a friend talked me into doing in early 2014 while I was deep in the research, transcription, and early writing for Keeping the Lights on for Ike. At first, not much happened once my DNA sample was in the database. Oh, there were lots of distant relatives, but when you don’t really know anything about family names or possible biological connections, it’s more confusing than helpful to see all those names as third, fourth, fifth, or even more distant cousins. And since I had almost no real clues about my genetic parentage, there was nothing there that got me excited, at least not yet. Another year passed. Research and transcription work on the WWII book was nearing completion, and the book itself was getting closer to having a real shape and focus, which definitely gave me something to write about regularly. But then in early 2015, a distant cousin contacted me, and my serious genealogical searching kicked into high gear, at the same time as the other book started to take off in my mind.
I suppose all writers have this problem at some level or another: one book/essay/play/poem/story/whatever is in active process and taking most of one’s creative focus, and another is just at the germination stage in one’s mind, though it’s alive and cooking and starting to become “something,” whatever that might be. This dual consciousness is an interesting place to be, that’s for sure. The correspondence between me and my “cousin” (the exact relationship wasn’t yet clear, since I knew so little about my own beginnings, but he already had some theories) was active and exciting, but the only thing I could do, given my goals for the WWII book, was to respond to all the new info coming in via email and to start a file of all this unexpected information that was coming in fast and furious, thanks to the genealogical expertise of this new cousin.
I don’t know about other writers, but I have both electronic and paper files for LOTS of different experiences and ideas, some of which have become published or performed work, and some of which have never seen the light on day since first being written down and saved. In fact, in spite of paring down considerably when I retired from full time teaching, I still have more paper files in my house than many folks I know. In response to this fascinating new info, I started keeping genealogy files in my filing cabinet and on my computer, though at this point, I was mostly the recipient of information, not the generator of it. But things were about to change dramatically, and that’s exactly what my new book, Finding Sisters, is all about.
Next month, I’ll share a bit more about how my genealogy journey unfolded and what it was like to start writing, not about my adoptive parents, but about the search for my genetic ones.
9 June 2020: When Keeping the Lights on for Ike came out in early 2019, I knew that my publisher would help me to create various pitches for my book to help promote it. They would set the book up for distribution on Amazon.com as well as more traditional distribution through the Ingram catalog for libraries and bookstores, and they would do a few publicity pitches via Cision, a large e-commerce public relations platform, mostly in conjunction with WWII anniversaries and for military or history-focused users. But I knew that this was just the beginning. I was also going to have to take an active role in promoting my book.
The first thing I did was to start contacting local libraries about giving author talks for their patrons. I started with the local library where I volunteered each week, and though they hadn’t had any similar events in quite a while, they decided to take a chance on me. At the same time, I started visiting independent bookstores in my local region (the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts). I learned two important things during this process.
First, even when you offer to give talks for free, sometimes other priorities can prevent this from happening. I did manage to get two local talks scheduled early on, one in my own town and another in the next town over, but another nearby library was in the middle of a controversy about whether or not to fund a new building, so all general programming queries went unanswered more or less indefinitely. Further, only one of these three libraries actually purchased the book to put on their shelves, which was disappointing, to say the least.
Second, I discovered that independent bookstores were reluctant to order books from a national distributor like Ingram, even those of local authors, because of the financial penalty they would be required to pay if the books didn’t sell and had to be returned to the distributor. This reality brought me into the world of consignment book selling: I buy the books from the publisher at the author price (50% off in my case, though it might vary somewhat by publisher); the books go on the shelves at the local bookstores at the regular cover price, the stores take care of the sales tax, and any sales are split between me and the bookstore (usually 60/40).
I knew that reviews of the book would help spread the word about its existence, so I started actively seeking reviewers. My publisher was willing to provide media copies for major papers, but in the semi-rural area where I live, circulation is low for all the print media, though I was able to make the case for at least one review copy to be sent out to one of the larger papers in the area. I sent out the others from my own stash of book copies. I also knew several friends who had purchased the book when it first came out, so I asked them if they might be willing to post reviews of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, trusting that the reviews would mostly be positive ones. A few of them agreed to do so, and my reviews started to accumulate, little by little. I have recently started approaching more people for reviews, including people that I don’t know personally but who review books on these platforms often, because those reviews really are the key to successful book sales numbers.
I also spent some time developing an author website (with help from a wonderful friend who is a professional web designer and who gave me a “friends and family” discount for her services). I also created an author page for myself on Amazon and Goodreads, though I’ve only begun to explore the possibilities of those platforms.
This past winter, with the help of some friends and a couple of former students, I was able to arrange my first-ever author tour where I would give readings and talks at libraries and senior centers in several communities in southern Connecticut and southeastern Massachusetts. I ordered a box of author copies to sign and sell at these events, and everything was in place for this exciting new step. Then a pandemic put an end to all those plans…at least until this fall (or perhaps even later in the year, depending on what happens this summer as communities reopen).
Some of you may recall that I sent a newsletter out on April 1, 2020, announcing the cancellation of my in-person author tour. That message prompted an old friend to suggest I should consider a virtual tour, which was something entirely unknown to me at the time. He was right, though, and the online tour was exactly the thing to do in the middle of a pandemic! On June 12, 2020, my virtual tour for Keeping the Lights on for Ike will kick off, and I will have text-based “tour stops” with 20 different book bloggers/reviewers all over the country between then and July 31, 2020. For full tour details, see the tour announcement here.
Next month, I’ll update you on how the virtual tour is doing and share some information about my latest book, Finding Sisters, the story of how, as an adopted person, I used a combination of DNA testing and traditional genealogical research to find my genetic parents and other close family members over a four-year span of time. That book will be published by Sunbury Press, probably in early 2021.
1 June 2020: I had been warned when I submitted my proposal in September that it could take up to six months before Sunbury Press would make their decision, so I knew I needed to focus on another writing project for a while. For the remainder of 2017, I worked on the chapters that would eventually become my next book, Finding Sisters. There will be more about that soon, but for now I’ll skip to the next important step that happened for Keeping the Lights on for Ike.
In early 2018, my former employer, St. Lawrence University, announced that the university president had made some funding available to emeritus professors (like me) for special research or creative projects they were still occupied with after their retirement from teaching. They encouraged me to think about how a small grant might support what I was currently working on, and I did not hesitate. I wanted to hire a consultant for editorial assistance to strengthen the manuscript currently in the proposal pipeline with Sunbury. I talked with the perceptive facilitator of my women writers’ group, a professional editor by trade, about her availability and willingness if my grant application was successful. She already knew each of the chapters I had written—they had all been discussed by the writing group at least once and sometimes twice—and it would definitely be a worthwhile endeavor to have her take a look at the manuscript as a whole. She agreed, and the grant proposal was on its way within days of getting the announcement.
By early March, my grant request had been approved, and because it was now close to six months since I’d sent in my proposal, I felt the grant would be the perfect opportunity to inform Sunbury about the good news while also asking about the status of my proposal. So, I did both and discovered that somehow my proposal had “fallen through the cracks,” they were happy to hear from me again, and someone would be in touch soon. In fact, almost immediately I got a message from the founder and CEO of this small press, asking me if the manuscript was still available.
Needless to say, I returned his message immediately with a positive response and a copy of the manuscript. A few days later, I got the message that Sunbury wanted to publish my book and a contract would be in the mail to me very soon. While I’m not advocating nagging publishers about your proposals, I am saying that it never hurts to connect with them once their published time frame for response is getting close or has passed with no word. And sometimes it helps.
By May 1, 2018, I had signed and returned my contract and set to work with my consultant on fine-tuning the overall shape of the manuscript; I was determined to do one last revision pass to get things in the best shape possible before my manuscript would be assigned to a Sunbury editor. Over the summer, I worked on revisions suggested by my consultant (a luxury not every author has and for which I’ll always be grateful to St. Lawrence’s generous faculty support policies, even after we’ve retired). I contacted Sunbury’s senior editor in July to be sure I understood all the necessary protocols regarding required manuscript format and citation formatting, as well as to get a sense of exactly when they would want me to be ready to start work with their editor. Contractually, I had until November 1, 2018, to provide my materials, but I wanted to let her know I was going to be ready far in advance of that deadline. She told me I was approaching the head of the queue to be assigned an editor, and that it would be a matter of only a few weeks before I would be contacted by my editor.
In mid-August, I met my editor online, and she went over procedures for our work process together. There were going to be two editing passes through the manuscript (one with her and one with the senior editor) before it went to the book designer for formatting, and I would have lots of agency in the process. Any suggested revisions that I was confused about or disagreed with were discussed in detail, and I’m delighted to say that I had a really great working relationship with my both my editors, even though I’ve never seen their faces (other than photos on the website) because all our interactions were text-based. For the next five months, I worked with my editors to get the book ready for publication, and when I started work on the formatting with my book designer, I was thrilled to discover that there were very few limits on the number of illustrations I could provide.
This was something that had concerned me after the proposal had been accepted because I had so many fascinating images available to me and was hoping I wouldn’t have to pick my top ten or twenty images for a centerfold illustration section like ones I had seen in many other non-fiction books. I was delighted to discover that the only limit imposed was that though many of the images were originally in color (they had been slides), for the book they would have to be black and white due to cost considerations. I was also told to be sure there were not more than a dozen images per chapter…not a dozen in all, but a dozen for each chapter!
I worked with a terrific graphic designer on the book cover. The only thing I knew for sure when he asked me if I had anything in mind for the cover was that I wanted to use some of the images that would end up inside the book on its cover. When I gave him a small collection of possible images to use and a quick summary of the book’s contents, he was the one who came up with the design that combined a photo of my parents from Dad’s basic training time in the early months of the war with a copy of the envelope from the last letter Mom sent to him overseas. The letter had been returned to her when he was on his way home from Europe, and she had put it in her scrapbook. (The image you see above in this blog is a companion image to the one that ended up on the book cover, and they are both included in the book itself.)
By the end of January 2019, after much back and forth, everything had finally been approved by all involved, and the book was ready for publication. Keeping the Lights on for Ike was released in February 2019. When it came the time to publicize the book, I discovered that small independent presses count on their authors to get more actively involved in those promotional efforts than academic presses do. Next week, I’ll tell you all about how involved I got as well as all the stimulating new developments happening this summer. Yes, I said next week. I’m making an exception to my original once-a-month-publication plan because there so much excitement going on right now.
30 April 2020: I wrote earlier about how my mother’s death stalled my work on the letter transcripts, both physically and emotionally speaking, but I did get back to them about a year later. However, a return to my full-time teaching job after sabbatical, plus the responsibility of directing a play each year with my students, meant my progress was slow. I managed to finish the transcripts and interlaced them with the research chronology of the war in Europe, especially North Africa and Italy, which took about 18 months, and I was just starting to think about how to present the material in another medium, when another road block slammed me. Hard. My husband died unexpectedly of sudden cardiac arrest, just a few months after being pronounced in excellent shape at his annual medical checkups. This shook my life in ways that I won’t go into here, but it was definitely not conducive to research or writing for several years after that.
Finally, the time came for me to retire from teaching, and following the plan my husband and I had made together long before his death, I moved to western Massachusetts to be nearer to our grandchildren. Once settled there, and with plenty of time on my hands, I was now ready to take on the letters project once again. The first thing I did was to re-read the document I had created that combined the letter transcripts and the wartime chronology. At first, I was looking for ways to create a theatrical event, but after re-reading everything, I realized that there was no true dramatic action to be found. Yes, it was a dramatic time in our country’s history, but there was no conflict in my parents’ relationship, other than the separation created by my father’s wartime assignments overseas. I also came to the realization that the letter contents required too much reading between the lines, so to speak. They were nuanced and delicate, and there was a serious love story involved, one that I knew little about until reading those letters. I started thinking of it a quasi-memoir, and my first working title for the book was The War: A Love Story.
This was a disappointment in some ways but a relief in others. Being free of the theatrical constraints of some measure of realism (for I could not imagine doing the letter texts any other way), I could add a narrator’s voice to the story to explore my mother’s side of the story as well as the many social and political issues my father raised in his musings. So back I went to the source documents, re-reading with an eye to what other kind of organization made most sense. During this phase, I was definitely functioning as an academic, taking copious notes, and organizing what I was reading by various issues that were on my father’s mind or influencing him as he communicated with his wife across a great distance. In addition to the declarations of love and devotion and thoughts about love and marriage, my dad was also concerned with military life and the war in general (including women during wartime), the various technologies of the time that fascinated him (cameras, radios), his local civilian working partners (British, French, Italian), American politics, life on the Homefront, post-war planning, and many other, smaller issues that consumed him regularly. So that’s what I focused on when I first started to write: issues. Since most of the early letters were full of Dad’s anxiety about how bad the mail service was during his first several weeks away from Mom, first in England and then in North Africa, that was the very first chapter I wrote, using plenty of additional research about the wartime postal service for soldiers overseas.
Now that I had a plan and had started writing, I also looked for a writing group. I knew that a group that would offer feedback on my work would be very valuable to me, especially since I didn’t yet have a particularly large peer group in my new community. So I started to put out some feelers. It turned out that a fellow author and sister of a close friend of mine from St. Lawrence was, at that time, keeping lists of various kinds of grant, residency, and workshop opportunities for writers, and she was aware of a few writer’s groups in the region of Massachusetts where we both lived. She gave me the name of someone in my local area who might have recommendations for me, which brought me to a women writers’ group that was just starting a new session and had one opening left. I jumped at the chance. When it was my turn to share my current project, I explained to the group about the materials I had inherited and how the decision to make the project a book instead of a play was very recent, and I shared with them my very first chapter called “Communication Chaos,” which included the history of V-mail and scholarly writings about the importance to the military of communications from home in addition to my dad’s personal frustrations. The astute and supportive feedback was very useful, and as it turned out, spot on. They declared that the chapter was well-written and interesting in an academic sort of way, but they were much more interested in the implied love story, the human angle underneath the research about the military mail service during WWII, and they strongly advised me to consider changing my approach to emphasize the personal story they felt would be much more interesting to a general reading audience. Once I made that adjustment, and just started to tell the story of my parents’ experiences to the best of my ability, words started to flow more easily.
Sixteen mostly-chronological and anecdotal chapters later, I had a good handle on the book’s shape and started in on a second set of revisions based on the feedback the group had given me on the first chapter drafts. Then I brought those revisions back to the group. When everything had been through the critique process twice, which took over a year, it was time to start looking for publishers for my new manuscript. Since I didn’t have an agent, I used my academic connections to start. In fact, when the company that had published my first book on women stage directors heard what I was doing, they had asked for right of first refusal on this new project because they also published military history. But after they read the manuscript, they admitted it was more “human interest” than they were used to (they normally published first-person battle narratives), so they passed on publishing it.
This left me looking for new options, and I started with Oregon-focused university presses, since several of them had published books about individual Oregonians, which both my parents were. However, they, too, felt the book wasn’t academic or combat-oriented enough. Next, I started looking for publishers who published narratives of all kinds about WWII. Luckily there are many of those lists available online, and I started to work my way through them. For several weeks in the summer of 2017, my book proposal got rejected outright or ignored entirely, which can happen sometimes when inquiring about author submissions without an agent. Then I discovered Sunbury Press, a small independent publisher who seemed quite open to accepting my proposal without an agent, and their website was very author-friendly, though they warned me it could take several months for a reply because they had many proposals to consider. That encouragement was good enough for me, so in the early autumn of 2017, I sent them everything they requested as part of the proposal process: table of contents, book summary, questions about illustrations (I had lots of them), etc. Then I waited.
Next time, I’ll write about what I was doing during the waiting time, what happened after I got the book contract, how I worked with editors and book designers, and then how I learned more about self-marketing with a small press. Enjoy.