How'd You Get the Idea In the First Place?
As it happens, I can tell you!
I was listening to my iPod, Adele’s first album,one spring morning in 2007 as I was walking along the Stowe, Vermont Recreation Path. It’s a beautiful path that follows a rocky stream through woods and fields with the Green Mountains in the long view. I had recently gotten a half-time job (I’m a government lawyer by day) and I had two kids in school. This meant I had a little mental space and time with which to work for the first time in years. I had been a writer before law school, for local newspapers and in a college PR office, and I had continued writing (for fun) on a blog that I have kept since 2006. I mention this because I was in the writing habit, which helped, I think, to keep ideas coming. The walking part is important too. I walk every day if I can. I got to thinking that day as I listened to Adele sing about how important it was for gifted people to arrive at the right place and time if their gifts are to be realized.
I've always been a reader, of course, and my major in college was English literature. So when this thought flitted across my mind, I immediately thought of Thomas Gray’s famous poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,’ which includes this notion as one of its major themes. That is, it contemplates those whose talents never stood a chance, given the time and place in which they were deposited. I wondered what if some exceptional people weren't constrained by the circumstances of their birth? What if the Universe had a way of, very occasionally, correcting these mistakes? Of shifting people born in the wrong time and place to the place where they and their talents could flourish?
What about, a time travel story, I thought, with a cossetted but basically good American rich kid at its center? How about a rescue mission – where our hero has to find a girl born out of her time and a secret not meant to be and then get home with them both?
It was my own small “J.K. Rowling moment” – the one we’ve all heard about, when Ms. Rowling was riding on a train and suddenly had an idea for a story about a school for young wizards?
I’m no J.K. Rowling, but I think I experienced something of the same thrill. I knew such a story would allow me to braid together many of my lifelong interests: English language and literature, social history, especially women’s history, the differences between English and American culture, as well as their similarities, and about how we all must meet the challenges that life throws at us. I could also write about fun stuff (for me) Staffordshire pottery, London in the twenties, the English countryside and English country living at its last gasp between the wars. I could include three-speed bicycles and manual typewriters and dogs and old buildings and old songs and new music and stranger-in-a-strange land and all of that!
The book unfolded itself right there.
Well, sort of. I then had to spend the next five years working it all out.
It wasn’t all joy, working on the book. But it did a great deal for me personally. I enjoyed the research, writing the characters into being, and working out the plot lines. Mostly I was trying to write the book I wished was out there for me to read when I was growing up.
Any Advice For Aspiring Writers/Self-Publishers?
I’ll venture this much more: all writers should read good writing and stand up for it. I am dismayed that there are readers out there, by the millions, apparently, who don’t care much about how a story is written. For a writer to take that attitude seems almost criminal. (Believe it or not, there are such people). Good writing matters and bad writing, at least when offered to the public for sale, deserves to be punished.
I am self published and happily so. Not because I’ve been made rich and famous but because I used my time and energy in a way that meant I now have a book to show. I sent the manuscript around to about 25 agents when it was done. I got one nibble from an agent who then passed. Submitting was a lot of work. How much time do we have? I wanted it done and, as time went on, I wanted it done my way.
Finally, Looks Matter
My way was OK, but one mistake I made initially was in the packaging. I have a background in public relations and have worked on a few magazines and I developed a cover that I liked pretty well. It wasn’t terrible. One or two readers commented that the book was better than its cover. Hmm. About a year after the book’s initial release, I heard from a potential audio book narrator who is also a hardheaded businessman. The cover was not good enough, he said flatly. People do judge books by their covers. I got the message. I went looking for an artist who could convey the romance of the 1920s – someone who could do with light what Maxfield Parrish had done. I found him in Juan Wijngaard. I came across Juan’s work at the website of the well-known art gallery The Illustration Cupboard, in London. I approached him very sheepishly because he was a real Artist and I had no idea how one approaches real Artists. It turned out he was very nice and he had some interest – if he liked the book.
This last bit was key for me too. I had approached at least one other book designer by then whose work I liked. I asked if he would read my book and he said “no.” He did not have time. I offered to pay more and he still said no. I appreciated his candor, but this was a deal breaker. I felt strongly that a book cover is a collaborative effort. Juan and I found quickly that we had lots of common ground. (He’s Dutch, which is what you want in a painter, correct? And he loved bikes (see reference to “Dutch”) and music, which is a key story element. He had lived in England and trained at the Royal Academy. There was a lot of synchronicity at work. The Universe, in its way, seemed to have matched us, or so it seemed to me. He created a beautiful cover and I relaunched the book with his cover and just a few corrections to the text.
I invested some money in Juan, and in the excellent book designer Scarlett Ruger, but not a crazy amount. I don’t have crazy amounts. I reasoned that even if this investment were never repaid monetarily, it would be repaid by the pride I felt in having made something just as good as I could. If I had things to do over again, I wouldn’t have tried to skimp on that first –round cover. I had put six years of my time writing into the book and that was justification enough to invest in what lay beyond my skill. The cover realized an inward vision for me and I hope it will draw in readers who will not be disappointed in what they find behind it.