The Writing Life From Brainstorming to Book

the writing life from brainstorming to book


(I prepared the following program for the Madisonville Noon Kiwanis Club. If you’d like me to speak to your group, shoot me an email maureencberry @ gmail . com)

What is the writing life like?

How do you turn your idea into a book?

And how do you get your book published?

So that first question, what is the writing life like?

First, I want to define who a writer might be.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writers have a few things in common.

  • We are observers. Watchers. We look for expressions of passion, hurt, fear, glee.
  • We are listeners waiting for that turn of phrase, the sounds of a heated argument, the call of a bird defending its nest against a predator.
  • We are readers. We read to understand.

Then we work to describe those thoughts, feelings, and expressions in a way that is unique to our own voice and style.

As far as writing a book?

Writers follow a few basic guidelines.

  1. You pre-write—develop the idea, brainstorm, think, do research, take notes. You write an outline.
  2. You write the story. It’s your first draft. It’s what you know about the subject.
  3. You revise. You shift your focus to the reader’s expectations. Words and phrases are sharpened. Prose is tightened. You write an entirely new draft.
  4. You edit. There are two types of editing, developmental and copy-editing. Developmental editing involves overall story structure, style, and clarity. Copy-editing corrects grammar, punctuation, flow and sentence structure.

So let’s say you’ve taken the above steps. You have an edited manuscript. What’s next?

You either find an agent or publisher or you self-publish.

If you decide to go traditional like I did, you research and then query an agent (or ten). Now once you take this step, be prepared to you wait eight to twelve weeks to hear back from an agent or publisher.

While you wait, if you’re like me, you wring your hands and fret over that last phrase, that one word.

“Should I have written more? Less? Did I seem needy? Will they like my work? OMG, did I include my phone number? What if I never hear from any of these people? Should I self-publish? Traditional publishing is overrated. I will not self-publish, I’ll wait until I hear back. (Checks email every two minutes.) A rejection letter is better than nothing, right? A badge of honor. Surely someone will love my book.”

During the fall of 2014 when I queried an agent for my cookbook Salmon these exact thoughts raced through my mind daily while I waited. Okay, who am I kidding, by the minute!

I was determined to find a traditional publisher.

And while I always considered self-publishing a viable option, I was convinced that traditional publication was the best route for me. I mean who doesn’t want a publishing deal?

But as I researched agents and prepared my query letters, I was a hot mess. Publishing, whether traditional or Indie, is not a business for the fainthearted.

But for me, during that nerve-racking time, something short of a miracle happened—the first agent I queried replied within five minutes of my sending the email.

My pulse raced, my breath caught in my throat. I looked around my one-woman office needing someone, anyone to see the reply. I opened the email.

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for your MS. This is really do-able. [I almost fell off the chair], But she continued, not for me. [My heart dropped to my gut]

However, [My heart fluttered back to life], this is a perfect project for XYZ.

And BTW, there’s a similar title, ABC, that was bought earlier this spring by John. P.Q. Literary. Use this in your market research. And please use my name in your query to XYZ.


Literary Agent

Okay, so now I am dancing with the dog. Is it too early for champagne? I called my husband. Validation set in. I pinched myself. Then I sat down to write the query to the referred agent and hit send.

You know where this is going right? Insert all the internal dialogue I mentioned previously.

But get this, within two weeks, the second agent bit on my project too. She wanted my book proposal.

This is the business plan of a book.

Generally, a book proposal is about 50 pages. It didn’t matter that my book was finished.

I told her I’d have it to her in two weeks. I had written the entire manuscript after all—how difficult could a book proposal be? Ha! I did some research and bought Michael Larson’s How to Write A Book Proposal. The bible of how to write a book proposal.

I submitted the proposal on the fourteenth day. Two weeks later they offered to buy my manuscript. A twenty-two-page contract arrived in the mailbox about a month later. Mine was a mid-level publishing house in New York City.

Talk about overwhelming. My first book. Twenty-two pages of legalese. And of course, the only thing I cared about was on page six. How much were they going to pay me?

But I was savvy enough to know I needed an attorney for everything else including my royalty rate. I found a publishing attorney on Twitter (yes, it’s true!) who negotiated my contract pro bono since I was a first-time author.

In early 2015, after almost three months of negotiating, I signed the contract.

Then I waited some more. Within a few months, the publisher and I were discussing book styles—the publisher suggested a soft cover, 6” x 9” black-and-white illustrated interior with color graphics on the cover. I struggled with this, I wanted a hardcover, full-color photography (mine was a cookbook after all, and we eat with our eyes), but I relented, assuming they knew best. Plus, I had sold my rights when I signed the contract. They owned the book. So I really didn’t have much say. Unless I wanted to breach the contract (which is code for return the advance and forfeit my rights to the publisher).

Much time went by without any word from the publisher. When I did speak with her again, she suggested I submit the book proposal for the second cookbook in the series. I wrote it and submitted it.

By the summer of 2015, I was working with the publicist at the publishing house—she wanted to know who I knew locally, regionally, nationally and globally?

She wanted my headshot for the back cover and marketing material. She wanted to know how would I market this book? My cookbook was scheduled for a spring 2016 release date. The book had been upgraded to full color, they’d use my food photography, she said, and the book would be larger, thus a higher price and a higher royalty rate to me.

Win-win! I shouted into the woods from my office.

But a month later, my publishing editor messaged that she was retiring. To Paris. She referred me to another editor in the office. Not daunted, but a little disappointed, I shook it off. Editors move around and there is always fresh blood willing to learn the ropes.

A few days later, on a Friday afternoon that Fall in 2015, I received an email from the other editor at the publishing house—my project was put on hold. Indefinitely. She mentioned something about a competing title also scheduled for a spring release, a lifestyle seafood cookbook by a New England author with a large YouTube platform. But all I head was wah, wah, wah, like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon.

We discussed a few options. Either I could write a single subject cookbook, adding an additional 100 recipes to the book and eliminating the narrative portion, the first half of my book, or I could combine all five seafood species into one big reference book.

Over the weekend, I considered my options in between tears and anger.

My attorney told me this happens often. She suggested some language and on Monday morning, I called the publisher and asked for my rights back to the book without penalty or having to return the advance.

My contract ended a week later. A five-minute phone call followed up with an email and a formal notice in the mail a few weeks later.

So what happened next?

I told myself (and the husband and dog) that I’d give myself six months to find another publisher.

But then the New Year rolled around. Time for resolutions. But I wasn’t going to stop eating buttermilk biscuits or exercise more. I was going to self-publish my book even though I knew absolutely nothing about self-publishing.

By mid-January 2016, I hired a book designer. On April 13, 2016, Salmon from Market To Plate was released to coincide with the opening of the wild Alaska salmon season.

But my work was far from done.

In fact, in between the brainstorming and the book, I worked on marketing as well.

And most people know Marketing is its own animal, a full-time job. And these days, whether you are traditionally published or are an Indie publisher, you not only write the book, you market it as well.

So why would I sell my book rights and share the income with a traditional publisher if I am doing the writing and the marketing?

*drum roll

A traditional publisher has a larger reach for distribution.

This is how I market Salmon From Market To Plate.

  • I do book signing/salmon tasting events. I attend book, food, and conservation conferences to network.
  • I send free copies to food industry and seafood organizations for review.
  • I target independent bookstores and call on chefs and restaurants.
  • I submit my book to writing contests.
  • I do speaking engagements.
  • I work with the library and at the high school.
  • I maintain a website for writing, recipe, videos, photography, my podcast.
  • And I am active and proficient on Social Media.

I other words, I’m creating a presence, building a platform. It’s an ongoing process. Mostly though, I try hard to not be that annoying author who only shouts, Buy My Book!

And there is still more to tackle.

  • For instance, how do I sell foreign rights?
  • And should I?
  • Should I print a companion book in a foreign language?
  • Should I hire a publicist?

I don’t have all the answers.

But there are many questions I can answer.

  • Am I glad that I self-published? Yes.
  • Did I make mistakes? Yes. One biggie was that I didn’t give myself enough time to submit galleys for review prior to publishing.
  • Is self-publishing hard work? Yes. The marketing responsibilities are overwhelming some days.
  • Do I still want to be traditionally published? Yes.
  • But would I self-publish again? Oh yeah. In fact, I am currently working with a book designer for my next cookbook, Shrimp From Market To Plate.

Is Salmon From Market To Plate a success?

That depends on how you define success.

But here’s my take.

  • Salmon was #1 New Release in Fish & Seafood Cooking on Amazon for its first week out.
  • Salmon won a Gold Star for cover design from The Book Designer, a highly respected online author services business.
  • I was invited to the 35th annual Kentucky Book Fair, hosted by the Kentucky Humanities Council.
  • I was invited to the 19th annual Southern Kentucky Bookfest in Bowling Green at WKU.
  • In October 2016, Salmon received an Honorable Mention from the 24th annual Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Competition.
  • Salmon is stocked at 45-70, the men’s bespoke store on Sugg Street in Madisonville, KY and The CookBook Stall in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA.
  • And of course, Salmon is available in print and ebook wherever you buy books online.

One thing that keeps me sane between brainstorming and the next book is that I believed in me and my projects. The writing life is complex. Sometimes messy. But if you have an idea for a book, I encourage you to write.

Lastly, let’s stay in touch. If you’d like me to speak to yuor group, please reach out. And if you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my free monthly newsletter on my website Find me tweeting @maureencberry.