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June 17, 2024

Confessions of an Amateur Author

By Kellie Gillespie

I have a confession to make. I wrote a book and it was recently published. Actually, I have two confessions to make: I wrote a book that was published and I'm not busting at the seams to tell the world about it. I'm reluctant to talk about it for several reasons. First, the whole writing-a-book thing just fell into my lap, so it doesn't feel like I earned the right to be a published book author. Second, I have an aversion to self-promotion and find it difficult to brag about my accomplishments, which is probably why I haven't changed jobs in over ten years. Third, it's a nonfiction book, not a novel, and therefore doesn't feel like a "real" book. I'm sure many people will disagree, but it really didn't take much imagination or creativity to write this kind of nonfiction book. I couldn't let my inner muse direct the plot development, and I had to follow a strict format. I didn't even get to do character outlines or shuffle index cards or write the whole thing in one month or anything. I feel somewhat cheated.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not dismissing the accomplishment. Writing a nonfiction book took an incredible amount of work. My book is a practical guide for library staff who work with teen volunteers in libraries. I did tons of research on volunteers, teens, libraries, and how they all fit together. I sent countless emails to teen librarians and volunteer coordinators across the country, conducted interviews with teen volunteer supervisors, and incorporated many tips and hints from the professionals who work with teens. I wrote, edited, wrote some more, edited more, corrected redlines, fussed endlessly with reproduced materials submissions and agonized over every single line. Believe me, I earned every bit of that ten percent royalty check I have yet to receive.

Writing a book, as every writer knows, involves much more than the actual writing part. What surprised me was the amount of time I spent thinking about what to write, how to organize it, what to include, and how to avoid being sued for plagiarism. I also spent way too much time procrastinating and then feeling guilty about the procrastination, but that part didn't surprise me at all.

Here's a timeline of the book's creation.

September 2000: The editor at Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), a journal for teen librarians, sends me an email about a new line of guidebooks they want to publish. She asks me if I would be interested in writing one. I was writing a quarterly column about teen web sites for VOYA, so she knew me well. She tells me to pick something and do a proposal. I pick teen volunteers as the subject, since I had been a teen volunteer supervisor for several years. The proposal is very easy to write once I have a basic idea of the chapters and their organization. I send the proposal off and promptly forget all about it.

January  October 2001: The proposal is accepted and contract negotiations begin. The main sticking point is the index, which the publisher wants me to do. I don't want to. I work with a librarian/indexer who warned me that I would be totally sick of the whole mess by the time the index needed completion and I should hire a professional indexer. Sounded good to me. However, I want the publisher to pay for the index. They don't want to. We finally negotiate a deal in which they would advance me the money to pay for the index. By the way, my friend was right and I am very thankful I hired the index out. Luckily, she gave me a discount, too.

October  December 2001: Nothing happens with the book except that I think about it a lot and feel guilty about not doing anything concrete to get started. My New Year's Day features many resolutions about procrastination, guilt and getting my work started.

January  April 2002: I spend most of my free time at work researching teen volunteers in libraries, but let's just keep that between us, okay? They frown on that sort of double dipping around these parts. I request lots of books and articles from other library systems, take notes, surf the web for cool teen library programs and generally gather information. Oh, and I plan my wedding also. I do not recommend planning a book and a wedding at the same time. If you are ever faced with a similar situation, I suggest eloping.

May 2002: Wedding and honeymoon plans overtake any attempts at book organization, so I give up and succumb completely to the fevered frenzy that has overtaken me. I have nightmares about potential disasters, like rain and argumentative relatives. My obsessive personality is given free reign to trample all logical reasoning and I find myself compulsively planning seating arrangements for a buffet dinner. I even buy a calligraphy pen and make place cards.

The wedding goes off with a few hitches, none serious. I sure wish I could identify the joker who took the obscene pictures of the sausage that was stolen from the buffet table. My other word of advice is to forget about the disposable cameras on the reception tables. It can get ugly.

June 2002: Recovering from the honeymoon takes precedence over book writing. Especially since the 17-year-old, now-disowned son had a big party and was found sleeping among the ruins of my house. There were empty liquor bottles strewn across my back yard and dried vomit on the carpet. Pizza boxes were piled on the coffee table. Every square inch of the counter space in the kitchen was covered with dirty dishes. I am not kidding. I take the month off for mental health reasons.

July  September 2002: Serious writing begins. After attempting to write before work, after work, and during work (remember, mum's the word), I take a week's vacation and devote myself entirely to "The Book," as I've come to refer to it. I finally incorporate all the material that's been sent to me and apply the research I've done to create something vaguely resembling a finished product. It's done. I send two copies to my editor using USPS overnight delivery. I celebrate with a Grey Goose Vodka Martini, extra olives.

October 2002: I hear nothing from my editor. I become slightly anxious but still sleep relatively well at night.

November 2002: Still nothing. Develop a nervous tic in my right eye. Detect slight heart palpations whenever the word "book" is mentioned.

December 2002: I finally send desperate email to editor, asking for the truth about my obviously horrible book. Apologize profusely about lack of writing skill, organizational ability, imagination and creativity. I humbly offer to withdraw from contract with no liability for the publisher.

January 2003: Receive encouraging email from editor, who thinks that my humiliating email was very amusing and entertaining. She loves the book and has been redlining it, even though that's not her job. She took on the copyediting work because my manuscript is so "clean." She's sending the manuscript back with a "few corrections." My job is to fix the corrections without balking too much. Too much balking, I'm told, will "hold up the process." I resolve to balk not.

February 2003: I spend two weeks fixing the redlines. They are not few, nor are they minor. Red is smeared across my beloved manuscript so that every page is a battlefield of words, sentences, whole paragraphs. I've been given a key to the vast array of editorial markings she has used, which makes the process of correcting them a tedious job. Even worse, the reproduced flyers, brochures, and forms sent to me by various librarians across the nation must be reformatted. This horrific task reduces me to tears more than once. In desperation, I send the corrected manuscript back to my editor with an attached plea to never ask me to look at it again. Never again. NEVER AGAIN. My editor finds this amusing. She sends the offending pages back. I dissolve into a shaking mass of hormones. My husband fortifies me with some 20-year-old port and Godiva chocolate, and I once again apply myself to the task at hand.

I don't solve the formatting problem, but my editor gives me an A for effort and turns the whole mess over to the production department. For the first time in weeks, I get a good night's sleep.

March  July 2003: Let the politics begin! Now that my stress is done, I can lean back and enjoy the stress of others. It turns out that production companies have their own little hierarchies and power struggles, and guess what? I'm in the middle of one. Without going into too much detail, it turns out that the production department has certain plans for my book. These are vastly different than what the acquisition editor has in mind. The publication timetable appears to be at the center of the controversy. After a flurry of emails, I decide that this part is not for me to worry about and I have another glass of the good stuff.

August 2003: The book is sent to me, via email attachment, for me to print out and proof again. It has been formatted and typeset and prettied up with graphics and boxes. At first glance it looks pretty impressive, but upon closer examination I notice that boxes are put in weird places and some pages, including the whole of Chapter Five, look odd. Very odd. However, the index is due in two weeks. I give it to my indexer, who agrees it looks odd, but she compiles the index in two days. I once again give thanks for having the foresight to hire this out. I send an email to my editor and complain about the odd formatting. She agrees, has a big argument with production and emerges from the fray triumphant. The book is reformatted and my indexer has to adjust the index. She doesn't mind because she is a nice person and wants me to relax about the whole thing before I get an ulcer.

Interesting Development: After the third reading, I am finding my own writing repulsive. Clever remarks now look trite and juvenile. Personal experiences sound forced and artificial. I decide I am a worthless hack and vow to never write another book ever again.

October 2003: The cover of my book is sent to me via PDF attachment. It looks wonderful! I am very happy and show it off to all my friends and to my ex-husband, who's secret ambition has always been to publish a book. Gloating may be unbecoming, but it sure is satisfying. My current husband is concerned about my mood swings but I assure him this is a normal part of authoring a book. He makes a joke about menopause that is neither humorous nor entertaining. However, I choose to say nothing since he has been making dinner every night for the past year and a half.

November  December 2003: I am inundated with people asking when "The Book" will be published. I do not know the answer to this question. Soon I just laugh and shrug when I see them coming towards me with a question in their eye. I'm sure my editor knows the publication date, but she and I have grown way too close for two women who are not friends nor sisters, so we have taken a break from communicating. I make an attempt to forget all about it. Book? What book?

January 2004: I receive a box in the mail. Hmmm. I wasn't expecting anything. I open it and am astonished to see five copies of my book. Published and everything. Okay, this is great. Now what? I bring it to work and show people. I take it out at home and show people. I bring it to the mall and show people. After a while I begin to notice that no one is actually reading the book. They admire the cover, flip open some pages. Then they nod approvingly and put the book down.

I feel resentful. I'm sure if it were a novel, they would want to actually read it.

February 2004: It's time for the Annual Conference of the Public Library Association. My editor tells me that we could do an author signing at the conference. This is a possibility for which I am unprepared. In the past, I have experienced two kinds of author signings. The first kind is what happens with a Big Author. They sit at a table with hordes of people in waiting in line, barely looking at each person before signing multiple copies of their latest bestseller. I have even stood in some of those lines. The second kind is what happens with a Little Author. They sit at a table at which no one is lined up. They look kind of sad and hopeful at the same time. Sometimes they offer to give you a copy of their book, free of charge. I have seen copies of those books abandoned in the restroom later.

I was really afraid of the Little Author experience. I did not want to sit all by myself at a table while people walked around me as if I was invisible, nobody wanting to buy my book let alone a signed copy. My obsessive/compulsive tendencies, never needing much encouragement to take over my life, now go into full override. I change my mind daily about going to the conference. I debate what to do while people walked past me as I sit at the signing table all by myself. Should I read my own book and pretend it was the best thing I ever read? Or should I bring a pad of paper and pretend to be busily writing my next book? I fuss over what to wear. What DO authors wear to signings and why isn't there a web page about this somewhere? My husband gets tired of reassuring me, my friends change the subject, and I can't sleep at night for worrying

The big day arrives and I manage to get a grip. I am calm, cool, and wearing my good black pants with a purple blouse. I am confident that I look author-like. I arrive on time only to find my editor much dismayed. The books have not arrived. I'm supposed to do a signing but there are no books to sign. I find this extremely amusing, perhaps due to the Valium I consumed with lunch. I am philosophical and reassure her that everything will be okay, which is the exact opposite of our usual interaction. She and I resolve to have fun. She sets me up in a cozy alcove right in the middle of the publisher's booth and sits next to me with our one display copy of the book between us. She has purchased some bookplates and I am to sign these for people to take home and stick on their copy when it arrives, shipped free of charge.

I find that I have a great time. All sorts of people come up and talk to me, offering congratulations and support. They are very nice and I am thankful they are so friendly. The marketing director and another editor talk to me also, and we actually have fun trying to attract attention to our booth. I sign twelve bookplates but have a brief moment of confusion when one person tells me to write something witty. Something witty? I didn't know witty was included in author signings. This makes me panic for a brief time and then I decide that I don't have to be witty if I don't want to. I'm the author. I'm the one in charge.

The best part, besides meeting lots of nice people and having fun doing it, was that another editor wants me to write another book about library work. I'm planning to write this one with a colleague and we're developing a proposal right now. So, while I'm still dreaming of writing the Great American Novel, I may have found my niche as an amateur author. And that's just fine with me.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-03-20
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