Writing From The Edge: Trembling Your Way to Publication
A few nights ago in the final class of the third incarnation of the Book Proposal Boot Camp, we reviewed parts of one author’s proposal and all concurred: Though her author bio and marketing analysis sections sparkled, her overview rambled and failed to clearly convey the power of her book’s message. This was not due to her content! Dr. Loraine Hutchins’ book is about sacred sexual healers, quite a juicy topic. I was a bit surprised to read the rather flaccid Overview. This was Dr. Hutchins’ second Boot Camp (all Boot Camp attendees get free repetition of the Camp for the life of the project they began with), and I had seen much tighter prose from her in prior classes.
Finally, Loraine (as she is known to us) admitted she was scared to put herself—that is, her unique ideas—out into the world. I validated her fear—revealing oneself on paper can bring up one’s worst demons. I said something like, “Overwriting can serve as a way of padding yourself against the vulnerability of exposure.” We wondered if that’s what academics did all the time. Since this particular writer was adapting an academic work for a larger audience, she was struggling to filter out the jargon and polish her message to clarity.
Loraine’s book, Harlots and Healers, reveals the history, contribution and culture of modern day sacred sexual healers. Because her book deals with a controversial topic, people who perform sexual services for others as a profession or vocation, her fear has some basis in realistic perceptions of how others might react to her material.
Loraine is no stranger to controversial, or for that matter, groundbreaking work. Her first book, an anthology co-edited with Lani Ka’ahumanu (who will be coming out with new works of her own in the near future) was called Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out. An anthology of writing by bisexual authors, it still earns royalties ten years later, a rare achievement for any book. The Advocate magazine also lauded Bi Any Other Name as one of the top 100 most influential Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) books of the last century. Because it involves selecting, editing and organizing works by large numbers of other authors, getting an anthology published poses unique challenges. But a book, written oneself from beginning to end calls forth a whole other level of trepidation. Loraine voiced a determination to not let “my own or other people’s fear shut me down.”
At the time she began the Boot Camp, her dissertation had already sold 70 copies as a self-published document, and she had received excellent feedback from many readers. But now this cutting-edge author seeks a larger audience. She won’t tell the commercial publishers that Harlots and Healers is based on a dissertation, because too many of them might moan, groan and glaze over, as they are wont to do in response to work they know originated in academia. So we’re being extra careful to help Loraine craft her message for a popular audience.
So how did Loraine juice up her Overview? As many of you already know, the Overview is the section of the book proposal that summarizes the book’s contents. It often begins with a “hook,” or especially interesting lead-in. At the class’s urging, Loraine rewrote her Overview to begin with different scenarios of sexual healers in action—something an editor might find much more difficult to put down than the dry historical facts with which she had previously begun. We all cheered to read about the…well, I’m blushing, so you’ll just have to wait for Harlots and Healers to hit the bookstores. Stay tuned!
If writing from the edge of social and sexual norms fed Loraine’s fear, writing from the edge of personal trauma fed Delicia Hegwood’s, another student in the class. Penning a memoir entitled “This Torture is A Luxury” about how her adventures in the Peace Corps brought her face-to-face with some of her own inner demons, Delicia had been playing it safe by skirting around some of the most horrific and personally revealing elements of her story.
In the gentle-yet-honest way we aim for in the Boot Camps, the class let Delicia know that she was jumping over the best parts. We wanted to hear more of the nitty gritty: her search for identity, the struggle for approval of the women she admired, the physical dangers and how they paralleled her childhood terror.
At one point, Delicia casually recounted a journey to Africa prior to the Peace Corps stint. In that first journey, she described how she survived an assault and attempted rape. We all wanted to know immediately whether and how that experience impacted the story she presented in her memoir. She asked us tentatively, “Do you think I should include that part?” We all practically screamed, “Yes!”
The class went on to tease out the “hero’s journey” elements of Delicia’s storyline, and help her structure the piece for maximum impact and reader engagement. We helped her tie in early scenarios of being left home alone terrified, to the dangers she encountered in remote parts of Africa under the auspices of the Peace Corps, whose leaders failed to help her cope. Her story now uses the passages of childhood recollections to help flesh out the nuances of the narrator’s motives, actions and emotions in the Peace Corps setting. Said Delicia,
“I felt as if I was flailing in all directions before Jill’s class. I still have a mountain of work to do, but now I'm doing it with focus and honesty, and I am certain that I have a much better chance of getting it published.”
I admire both Loraine and Delicia for their courage in standing on difficult social and emotional edges, each author writing a book only she can write. In my experience, the most interesting writing pushes some kind of edge, be it personal, social, or simply the edge of what we think we or the world knows. The best writing takes us out of the ordinary and expands our view of the possible. Yet standing on that edge alone can be scary.
One of the things that has surprised and moved me about all three of the Book Proposal Camps so far is how the writers have come forward to support one other as they stand on their respective edges. In each case, the students got deeply involved with each other’s work, supported the variety of personal struggles that usually accompany writing on the edge, and offered wisdom and feedback to keep one another on track. This gave each student a way to help cope with and harness the fear usually inherent in the process of getting published. Said Loraine,
“Where there’s fear there is power. As Dorothy Allison, Audre Lorde, Marianne Williamson and many other courageous women have taught me, writing through the fear, not giving it power, keeping one’s eye on the vision is what makes me a writer and a survivor.”
Even when we do have our eye on a vision, executing it alone can prove difficult. Working in a vacuum, without any feedback can leave an author poorly prepared for publication. Delicia said,
“Before Jill’s course, I had unsuccessfully written a proposal for my book. The feedback I received from both the agent who agreed to read it and my friends was that the elements of my story were fascinating...but not the way I had presented it. Working with Jill and the other students, I realized that I was avoiding telling the ugly parts of my story, and in essence had avoided telling my story truthfully. My book was a series of anecdotes without a theme, and now I have much more focus on what I intend to 'say' in my book and how to do it.”
The truth isn’t always pretty, and it certainly isn’t always comfortable to put forth. And yet, the journey of getting published often involves doing just that, despite one’s fears. If Loraine and Delicia could work with their fear, what about you? What do you think you need to move forward to publish the book inside you?
This article was posted on February 24, 2005