Following their passions and learning the book business
Writing the Great American Novel may be a pipe dream for those of us in later life, but for boomers with a message or a mission, publishing a book can be a satisfying and realistic endeavor. With the technology available today, writers can reach a public audience in myriad ways — self-publishing, e-books, established publishing houses and small presses. From hiring agents to building websites to networking with fellow writers, Athens area boomers are embracing the writing life, and engaging with the business side of publication.
When writing her first book, Cathy Payne, 66,was totally driven. Saving the Guinea Hog: The Recovery of an American Homestead Breed,is the result of three years of on-the-job research. After she and her husband decided to try farming in retirement and bought a farm, they relied on the internet to learn the ropes. Payne soon developed a passion for heritage livestock, specifically guinea hogs.
“I wanted a book about them but there wasn’t one. I found the same couple of paragraphs everywhere I looked. I knew if I wanted to read one, I’d have to write one.”
Farm-related contacts and Facebook helped Payne spread the word that she was writing a book and looking for information about the hogs. After researching, interviewing, and collecting stories of this under-documented species, Payne has produced an award-winning book for anyone interested in farming, heritage breeds or preserving the planet.
Payne says for those who have a burning interest and curiosity about a subject, writing a book about it can be very satisfying. Payne chose to self-publish her book and was involved in every aspect of the work from editing to marketing. She has sold more than 1,000 copies of her book since its publication in March, and she’ll pick up a silver medal award from Readers’ Favorite Reviews and Awards in the Nonfiction/Animals category at the Miami International Book Fair in November.
For novice writers like herself, she recommends finding a group of writers for community and linking up with an accountability partner. She also recommends establishing a routine of writing every day or doing related activities like marketing, editing or blogging.
“When I was teaching, I gave it 100 percent. When I was farming, I gave it 100 percent. Now I’m doing that with my writing.” For boomers who may be considering the writing life, Payne says, “It’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Most of all, have fun!”
In March 2010, Noel Holston, 71, woke up one day, completely unable to hear anything.
“It was very scary,” he recalls. “My wife turned over and thought I had had a stroke because I was talking but I thought I was thinking silently.” Thus, began a four-year odyssey to try to recover that most fundamental sense. The journey involved numerous physicians and therapists; medical tests, strong medications, speech therapy, counseling, and finally a cochlear implant, which, a year later, would require a seven-hour do-over operation at a renowned institute in Los Angeles. And that was after his insurance company required seven different specialists in Georgia to sign off that the operation was too complicated for them to perform.
“I tried every therapy short of drinking,” says Holston, who was the public relations coordinator for the Peabody Awards at UGA.
As a former newspaper reporter and columnist, Holston was urged by many of the professionals he encountered to write a book, given that there were none except for the most technical. That, too, became a subsequent four-year odyssey. While he had posted a half-dozen blogs during his experience, writing a book took much, much longer, from extensive research to reconstructing his journey. Luckily, he had kept his calendars.
Holston says he queried around 100 literary agents and while many liked his book, most didn’t think it had a market, although he notes “40 to 50 million Americans have a hearing impairment.” He persevered and in 2018, he had an agent and a publisher. It took another year of re-writing and getting various written permissions for illustrations, quotes and song excerpts. “Every source has to be footnoted or acknowledged,” he explains. And since quoting just a snippet of a song can cost minimally $300, he chose to paraphrase most of the ones he used.
“I no longer expect the cure I hoped for,” he says, “but I’m not bitter or angry. My motto now is ‘that which doesn’t kill me makes a good story.’” Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery,” is out now.
Patricia McAlexander sailed into her first novel on the deck of a 200-year-old ship the Jane E. Williams. Researching family history, she discovered the passenger list of a ship that carried her German ancestors to America. So intrigued by the list of names, she was compelled to tell their story in her first work of fiction, Second Wives, due to release in 2020.
“I found out as many facts about my ancestors as I could – their names, births, occupations, marriages, deaths. Then I filled in the blanks with my imagination.”
A former UGA professor, McAlexander, 77, had written for several academic publications. But the academic chapter is now over, and she is finding fiction a new challenge. “It’s a whole new world,” says McAlexander, who is using Goodreads and Twitter to build a platform, publishing jargon for having a forum, a pulpit to promote books to a ready-made potential readership. It’s an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.
McAlexander says she was fortunate to find a publisher relatively quickly but cautions new writers to be ready for hard work and rejections. “You have to be thick-skinned and continue to send your work out.”
Poet Dana Wildsmith, 67, also finds inspiration from family and life experience. Residing on an 1880s farm acquired by her family in the early 1970s, Wildsmith is following in the footsteps of her parents. She’s preserving the original buildings and a variety of native plant species to connect with nature and a fading way of life.
It is from this place and her memories that Wildsmith draws the images and emotions that are embedded in her work. One Light,a collection of poetry, recounts her experience of caring for her mother during the six years she declined from dementia. “Her one desire was to stay here,” says Wildsmith. “She did until her last 24 hours.”
Finding satisfaction in self-expression, Wildsmith encourages others to do the same. It’s never too late to start, she says, “As soon as you have something, start submitting. You need to build a history of publishing. Follow a publisher’s directions closely and do exactly what they say.”
One of the biggest mistakes a novice writer can make, says Wildsmith, is failing to use an editor. “Everyone needs an editor even if you self-publish. You can’t see your own mistakes.”
She also recommends conferences and networking. “You learn so much from conferences. There is a huge exchange of ideas and a synergism that comes from other writers.” Networking, she says is invaluable. “Don’t be afraid to call on anyone you know.”
Fellow poet Clela Reed, 72, agrees that workshops and conferences are great places to connect and test drive your writing. “Find a group in your genre. Great critics can make suggestions that lead to better publications.”
Reed is experiencing an impressive year, publishing three collections of poetry with three different publishers. Her latest is the award-winning Silk, a group of poems that explores the history, function and essence of the versatile fiber. Considering herself a poet with missionary zeal, Reed believes everyone needs poetry, “It enriches your life,” she says. The immediacy, brevity and intensity of poetry are what attract Reed to the genre. “It’s like a little jewel.”
She says it’s the point at which you connect with a reader that makes writing satisfying. “You’re crafting for someone else to get it, to resonate with someone. Success to me is if they get it.”
A former teacher, Reed began submitting and publishing poetry collections as a second career after retirement. Her first collection, Dancing on the Rim, was published in 2009 during a time when she was dealing with the loss of several people dear to her.
Reed encourages new writers to read constantly in their genre. “Read what is being published. Look at writing similar to yours. Research where things are being published.” Like Wildsmith, Reed agrees writers must follow the rules. “Pay attention. Editors get thousands of submissions. They are looking for ways to disqualify you.”
Sheila Hudson, 71, is the author of several books of both fiction and nonfiction, including 14 mysteries from the Thursday Club Mysteriesseries and the Ministry Can Be Murderseries. Hudson, who has been involved with the Southeastern Writers Association (SWA) for 25 years is a great believer in networking.
“Get a writer friend/buddy to help you edit. Find someone who will support you, not one who will tell you how great your work is – someone who will tell you, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ Join a writing group,” Hudson says. “Not all of them are good but find one where you can get some constructive advice.”
As a seasoned author she offers new writers the same advice she was given about networking: “Start small and local and enlarge your circle.”
Hudson says that her writers group, the SWA, is a lot like a family and their conference an annual reunion. Held each year at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island, the SWA is one of the most well-respected writers’ conferences in the region. “It’s like camp. We eat together, stay together, hang out. It’s about access to other authors as well as classes.”
A recent endeavor for Hudson has been publishing with ACX, which is Amazon’s audible arm. Audible, says Hudson, offers authors and editors many options.
“Audible has really been good to me. I’ve met a lot of friends through them. I signed up and interviewed narrators for my books. I was given choices as to sex, ethnicity, and traits that I wanted.” Currently, Patricia Porter from San Antonio is narrating Hudson’s works.
Hudson’s success is the result of hard work and she urges writers to persevere and have realistic expectations. “You have to be thick skinned. I won an award once for the most rejections in a year.” Hudson is making up for those rejections. This summer she has two releases, Bright Ideas to Make Your Writing Sparkleand Murder in the Classic City. “You’re not going to get rich unless you’re a biggy, but you can have a good time and enjoy it.”
Mystery writer Hal Schick, 71,wanted to have some fun when he wrote Dime Detectivea story set in 1944 Los Angles, which released in June.
“My plan was to write an original novel using the clichés, slang and vernacular of the era. I wanted to have fun with the detective genre. I wanted to create a character that makes mistakes.”
Schick confesses that the publishing side of a novel involves a lot of tedious work that is anything but fun. Beyond the hours researching and writing, Schick found publishing to be a long, difficult process.
“A lot of time is spent editing. You have to establish a routine and the difficult part is finding a publisher and marketing.”
Schick echoes the thoughts of fellow writers when he says dealing with rejections is also a hazard of publishing. “It’s discouraging but you can’t give up.”
When he hits a roadblock in his writing, Schick says he finds inspiration in reading his favorite writers. “If I wake up and find it’s not a good day for writing, I read other detective stories to get back into the rhythm. There’s nothing better than reading Raymond Chandler to get back into the rhythm of a detective story.”
Schick agrees that finding a fellow writer to help is important to improving the craft. Howard Berk, Distinguished Writer in Residence at UGA, was a mentor to him, “giving me advice on how to weave subplots into the story, introduce more mysteries and incorporate a surprise ending. Following his suggestions, I improved my novel in countless ways, but he died before learning he’d helped me get published. I couldn’t have done it without him. The novel is dedicated to his memory.”
Fellow mystery writer, Betty Jean Craige also got some encouragement from a distinguished writer. Although Craige, 73, had a successful career at UGA, and had published in academic journals and later, newspapers, award winning author Terry Kay suggested she try her hand at fiction. Following his advice, Craige wrote the Witherston Murder Mysteryseries set in a fictional town in the Georgia mountains. The fourth volume in that series, Saxxons in Witherstonis releasing this month.
Not a frivolous pursuit, Craige uses each mystery as a backdrop for an issue that is important to her. The environment, civil rights and Native American heritage are all themes that appear in this series.
Inspired by her African Grey parrot, Cosmo, Craige wrote a newspaper column explaining the bird’s education and the human/animal relationship. This experience, she says, taught her to write for a broad audience so that more people could understand her message. She transferred that skill to novel writing.
On the business side, Craige advises writers to always submit a manuscript that is in excellent shape. Having a submission that is not only creative and well-crafted, but also technically accurate and in good form is important to “getting in the stable. Once a publisher trusts you to write a good book, then it’s easier to get accepted.”
Craige also recommends that writers understand the amount of work involved. “You need to be totally compelled. It takes a whole lot of hours.”
An agent’s advice
“Because of modern technology,” says literary agent Caroline George, “writers have countless options for publication. They can self-publish, collaborate with indie publishers or go the traditional route—query agents and hope to eventually sign contracts with publishing houses. However, not all of these options guarantee that books will reach store shelves.”
To help authors have the best chance at success George recommends building a platform as a first step to marketing.
“Platform is vital to an author’s success, especially for nonfiction authors. Your writing matters, but to capture an agent’s or editor’s attention long enough to show your skills, you need a development platform, i.e. social media, speaking events, organizational connections, endorsements. They want to sign authors who show potential for career growth.”
While most writers view writing as a craft, George says writers must be involved in the business side.
“To sign with a large publisher, authors need literary agents, which requires them to either query or pitch at conferences. Along with an increased timeline, traditional publishing also requires authors to participate in and often lead marketing endeavors.” More tips: Develop a personal brand; have a website and mailing list; use social media.
“Do your research! Professionalism will help you stand out. Know the current market.”