Please welcome author Linda Strader to the blog today! I am over at her site talking about strong female characters, and I'd love to see you there! Take it away, Linda...
“What’s this?” my new neighbor said, noticing a collage of photos depicting forest fires, and me, posing with crewmates and Smokey Bear. I felt the familiar heart stab, and sighed. “Oh, those are photos of when I was a firefighter for the Forest Service. I loved my job, but had to give it up.”
He moved in closer to look for me in group photos. “Wow, that’s pretty cool. A firefighter? I’m impressed. You should write a book!” he said with a broad smile.
“Me? A book? I don’t know about that...”
“It’d make a good story,” he said as we walked away.
But still…write a book? For one, I’d never written anything other than a few creative writing pieces, papers, including a thesis, all in college, then technical reports in my job, and, most recently, online articles about desert plant care. But a whole book? I didn’t have a clue how to go about that, nor did I want to.
However, my neighbor’s suggestion lit some kind of spark. I had some rather amazing times during the seven years I fought wildfires, not to mention the other things that had happened to me. As time passed, I worried I might forget, despite having kept personal journals. Therefore, I began.
The original story came out less than a hundred pages. Rather proud of my effort, I shared it with a few friends. Their enthusiasm flattered me, but I figured they only said those nice things because they were my friends. But when they said I should add more detail, I thought, Why not?
Over the next few months I added more than three hundred pages.
Now that I had in my hands what looked like a book, I wondered what to do with it. I contacted a writer friend, who shared some great advice. She suggested I find a local writers group to give me support and help me determine if I had something worthy of publishing.
And so I did.
I also connected with a woman online where we both wrote articles. I mentioned my story, and Joanne asked to read what I had. She liked what she read, and before long she agreed to help me with the story line, grammar and sentence structure. This is where I lucked out, big time: Joanne is a retired English teacher and taught creative writing classes. She spent hours, days, months, working with me via email, commenting, editing, directing me on how to make it a better story.
Denise, a woman in my writers group also took me under her wing. She had published a memoir the traditional way (with a literary agent), and suggested I do the same.
The publishing world was completely foreign to me. Denise and I discussed options. She explained the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Right away, I knew I would never, ever self-publish. I wanted the prestige that accompanied the traditional route. I knew what I was getting into, that it may take years, but that didn’t bother me. With a gentle nudge in the right direction, and sharing her query letter and book proposal, Denise gave me what I needed to figure out how to start the process.
I did ask Denise’s opinion on occasion, but for the most part, I dove in and spent hours and hours researching everything I could find on publishing a memoir. How to find agents, how to query them. How to write a query letter. Who to query? I checked the acknowledgement page of my favorite memoirs to find out their agent’s names. Denise said I’d need a book proposal. I researched how to write one of those, and did. Both the original query letter and book proposal took me months to write. Months!
I had Denise and Joanne review both documents, and after many revisions, Denise encouraged me to take the plunge.
“Start with top agents,” she said. “Why not? You can always work your way down to lesser known agents, and then, if need be, small publishers.”
I discovered QueryTracker.net, where hundreds of agents willing to represent memoirs awaited. I read through dozens of profiles, trying to decide who to pick beyond my short preliminary list. Finally, after carefully reading the submittal requirements, I sent one off. My hands shook—my stomach had butterflies dancing inside. But, I sent one, and I felt victorious. Next thing I knew, off went ten more.
The next morning, I had two responses. Okay, they were rejections, but someone actually responded. Over the coming months, I sent out ten or more queries every few weeks.
When rejection letters rolled in, I shared them with Denise.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “These are all form letters. That happens. Keep querying.”
When the email from a prestigious agency came in with: “We are interested in your book. Please mail the entire manuscript, 14 pt., double-spaced, printed on one side only. We request an exclusive.”
Thrilled and barely able to think straight, I immediately printed out my manuscript, which at that font size used almost an entire package of copy paper. I hauled the package off to the Post Office, cringing at the $14.95 postage. Please let this be worth it.
A week later I received a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. Are you serious? I doubted this agent could have possibly read the entire book in that amount of time. It annoyed me that she didn’t ask for, say, 20 pages and gone from there. Although this rejection hurt, I kept querying.
A short time later, I received the most disheartening and discouraging rejection so far. An agent wrote to say that she would have been quite interested, had she not just signed a contract with another woman firefighter who had fictionalized her memoir.
Someone beat me to it. Before this, I’d found no other books about firefighting written by a woman. It took me over a week to recover from that big-time disappointment. But then I realized…my story is unique. It didn’t matter what the other woman wrote about. Besides…she fictionalized her story. I promised myself I would never, ever do that. This would be a memoir. And memoirs are true.
After many more rejections and no requests for the full manuscript or partials…I decided to revisit my query letter. That particular one generated several requests for sample chapters.
Although those agents passed, they did so by telling me what did not work for them: “The first chapter just didn’t grab me.” “You have a voice, but it’s not quite strong enough.” To be honest, at first their comments stung and I threw my hands into the air. I can’t write! My book is garbage. I had a good cry, spent hours on the phone with mentors and friends wondering what the heck I was thinking when I thought I could publish a book. After my initial reactions had faded, though, I returned to those comments. They weren’t all that bad—and if fact, I came up with a plan on how to fix what they said were problems.
Just because I had a plan, didn’t mean it was easy to carry out. In fact, it took me six months to rework the entire book.
In the meantime, I’d given up on my local writers group. Feedback there consisted of recommendations on changing this word or that, or questioning if an event really happened to me (Yes, it did.) Plus, reading only eight to ten pages a week interrupted the flow. How could they possibly tell if the story had any continuity? Nothing about the group worked for me anymore. What I needed were a few people willing to read the whole book and tell me if it worked, and if not, where and why.
Enter three connections I’d made over the years: An avid reader (but not a writer), a published author, and a fellow writer who had also written a memoir.
Each of these people offered to read my story from beginning to end. Their comments and suggestions were far more valuable than anything I’d received in the writers group over the past two years.
Another six months of revisions and another round of reviews by my beta readers generated only a few minor changes and much praise. I decided with the newer, better version of my story, I needed a newer and better query letter.
If you have written a query letter, you know what I’m talking about. I honestly believe the book was easier to write. I did research dozens of tutorials online, articles, blog posts…but what just didn’t seem to hit home for me, was that none of the examples I read were for memoirs. Now, granted, it shouldn’t matter, but I’m really good at seeing something that works and applying it to my own work-in-progress.
Although I’d tried this before, I figured it couldn’t hurt to do it again. I typed “examples of memoir query letters accepted by agents” or something of that nature into my computer’s browser. Up came three excellent examples. Bingo! I picked one I liked, and modeled my new query letter on the style and phrasing. The next day, I sent it off to five agents, and, now that I’d narrowed down the agent pool considerable, to several small publishers as well.
Over the next few months, I did receive rejection letters, but the reasons were no longer about my writing. Agents were worried about the flooded memoir genre, and selling my book to The Big Five. However, I received not only offers from publishers, but requests for the entire manuscript from multiple agents.
Although I’d always said I preferred to have agent representation, I tired of their excuses, including yet one more who told me she’d just signed on a book by yet another former woman firefighter, and could not represent me with our topics being too similar. I needed to move on. In the end, I signed a contract with a small publisher in California.
My advice to those who are thinking of writing a book but fear they can’t—I know you can.
My advice to those who wonder if they should seek traditional publication—go for it; but make sure the book is ready. I regret that I queried too early.
It’s a long, long road, so be prepared. Find a good, supportive group of mentors, fellow authors, friends, whatever and whoever it takes to keep you focused on your goal. Above all else, be tenacious! You will get there, just like I did.
Linda M. Strader is a landscape architect in southern Arizona, the very same area where she became one of the first women on a Forest Service fire crew in 1976.
Summers of Fire is a memoir based on her experiences not only working on fire crews, but how she had to find inner strength and courage to reinvent her life not just once, but several times.
Her publishing history includes many web articles on her expertise of landscaping with desert plants. A local newspaper, the Green Valley News, printed an article about her firefighting adventures, which led the magazine, Wildfire Today, to publish an excerpt. The article generated interest in her speaking on this topic to several clubs, including the American Association of University Women. Summers of Fire is her first book, which is scheduled for publication in 2018. She is currently working on a prequel.