My Tangled (Writing) Journey

Of making many books there is no end…

Photo: Evan Bench, Creative Commons

Photo credit: Evan Bench, Creative Commons

So said the wise man in Ecclesiastes. And never has that been more true with the explosion of self-publishing, when people can crank out a book in an afternoon, converting to a digital format their academic thesis or that novel buried in a drawer. But who will read all this stuff?

I’ve been asking myself that very question as I bury myself in words as I write my first book. Will anyone care? Do I have anything to say? I’m trying desperately to reserve judgment, or I’ll remain paralyzed.

My journey to book publication has been long and arduous. Sure, I compiled a couple of gift books for Lion Hudson a few years ago, but somehow those don’t seem to count like the First Real Book. You know, the one that deserves capital letters.

About four years ago (or was it even longer?) I set about writing my first book. I wanted to write about learning to see ourselves as God’s beloved, and how that understanding changes everything. I read and researched, went away for some power writing trips to a friend’s house in Eastbourne (thanks Kev), and had no clue how the book would come together. I had a chapter on self-hatred and a chapter on self-acceptance, and bits and pieces of my story. It was a mess.

I was meeting up with the amazing Michele Guinness, she a writing and speaking queen, and I ventured to send her two contrasting chapters to read before our breakfast together. (She in turn sent me early chapters of her marvelous novel Archbishop, which I loved.) As we enjoyed our granola and yogurt, she said, “Amy, why don’t you just tell your story.”

I felt like a light had been switched on. “Wow – just telling my story. Here I am writing about accepting who we are in Christ – who he has made us to be – and I don’t even feel I have the permission to be a writer! To tell my own story!”

I ditched the more prosaic of the chapters and set about ordering my narrative. Wrote and wrote and wrote some more, poring over my journals and reliving some ghastly and funny experiences from my twenties. I dreamed of writing for not only a British audience, but an American one too.

Months later, I knew I was stuck. I enlisted (yes, hired!) the expertise of an editor friend, who helped me to shape and form and put together a proposal. She could see how to phrase things, what the marketing hooks might be, and helped me with a title: Beloved of God.

Research books for Beloved of God.

Research books for Beloved of God.

Finally I was ready to send off my proposal and sample chapters to the literary agent of my choice. Because I’ve worked in Christian publishing for a couple of decades, I’ve had the opportunity to meet more than one of these sometimes hunted-down gatekeepers. I approached the amazing Steve Laube, whom I had connected with some years previously when he was the nonfiction editor at Bethany House and I was an editor at HarperCollins UK. I sent off my stuff to him and was blown away when later he actually said yes, he would represent me.

After a few months of revision and shaping, we sent off my proposal to sixteen publishers, both US and UK. Some of the “no’s” came thick and fast. Others took months to arrive, and some publishers didn’t respond either way (I’m told that’s common these days, but find that hard to stomach). One of the rejections was particularly painful, and I don’t think the writer of the review ever intended for me to see it. Others, however, were constructive. Still hard, of course.

One publisher believed in me, and said yes. When I sat down with their MD (yes, for whom I do freelance publishing work), Steve Mitchell, I said, “Well, I was so aiming for the US market with this book. I don’t have to write it if you want me to write something else.”

I don’t think he’d be a brilliant poker player, for his face revealed all as his eyes shone relief.

Having agreed to ditch my years of efforts, we then had the hard task of finding what book I should write. I wasn’t short of ideas – I’d love to write a book on prayer and a devotional, for instance – but I kept being stymied. I sought the help of an amazing editor friend in the States for direction. She had some wonderful insights, but cultural differences reared their ugly head: What she thought was snarky writing, my British publishing friends thought wasn’t snarky enough. (Snarky? Me, snarky?)

Finally I told my MD that he’d have to be my commissioning editor. I knew I needed the objective outside view of someone like him, who had years of retail experience and now was immersed in the UK publishing scene. We crossed the country to meet in Birmingham, him traveling south and me north, and he set forth the idea that I should pursue: the observations of an American transplanted into the UK.

Research books for View from the Vicarage (much more fun).

Research books for View from the Vicarage (much more fun).

As I accepted the writing commission, I realized that I was relinquishing the American market. Okay, we may sell a few copies between those huge shores, but my voice is here in the UK, not there. So I approached my US-dwelling agent, and he graciously agreed to release me. Maybe some years hence we can partner together; who knows?

But for now, I’m relieved not to be reading those angst-ridden journals from my twenties. Instead I’m thinking with love and affection of my adopted people, trying to put into words their quirks and treasures. Why will a cup of tea solve all our problems? Which goes first on a scone, cream or jam? What is the art of queuing? And how can one’s family be kept from gaseous explosions over the Christmas period from all the Christmas cake and pudding?

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, View from the Vicarage will release October 2015. An unexpected first book. But that reflects our unexpected God. After all, who’d-a-thunk I’d still be living on this small island nearly 17 years after leaving the States?

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