The Process: How to Make a Book
Step One: The Writing
Focus on the trees and the forest will come.
When I began making a record of some of the stories in my head, I had little picture of what the final product may be. I only considered each piece on its own. As my stories began to pile up, I listed ideas for more, slowly filling out the beginnings of an outline. Soon I found I had to move from stories I wanted to write, stories that flowed out with ease, to those I felt had to be included. I had to cover a number of topics without quite knowing how. Several times I’d try one starting point, angle, or idea, only to scrap it, keep a favorite sentence or paragraph, and start new. As I found, ideas beget ideas; the more time I spent writing (and in my own head), the more work I created for the future.
The idea is important, but so is the work.
Record your ideas before they’re gone: in a few notes or a pass at the entire piece. It may not feel like a first draft―getting the ideas on the page―but you may feel differently later. You may hate what you’ve written, but without that first, sometimes uninspiring first step, you’d have nothing.
In the editing process, I all-too-often found out that I’d gotten my point across, but in an awkward and uninspired way. (I might need to go back and rewrite that last sentence.) I learned that despite my frustrations at my glaring lack of eloquence, getting the gist of my thoughts down was indeed the first step, without which there could be no second.
Write every day.
Track your progress. Measure your accomplishments. Keep moving forward. If you’re like me, try not to feel satisfied after only a small amount of work; keep going. If you’re more of a grinder, trying to finish everything in one sitting, maybe limit your time to avoid burnouts.
Maybe it’s easy for me, without full-time employment or familial responsibilities, to give such a piece of advice. But I think habits are important. Just as writing begets writing, a day off quickly turns into three―or five. I kept the progress bar relatively low, but made sure to get something done every day. With little goals, I kept myself motivated rather than frustrated.
Know that not everything you spend time on will pan out.
I wrote a number of finished products that aren’t in my book, had ideas that were never fulfilled, and took a number of attempts at a few items. Spending hours or days on an idea that seemed to carry such promise, it’d be impossible not to feel frustrated when it never seemed to come together. I’ve had to remind myself not to dwell on these minor failures and move on to the next thing.
Know that every section can’t be your favorite. Get over it.
I wish I could say that I read through my memoir and every line and every page is my favorite. But that’s not―nor could it ever be―the case. That’s not the measuring stick I used for my work. What I can say about each piece I included―that is, the actual measuring stick―is that it provided something unique to the overall story. If I felt that wasn’t the case, I had to consider its removal.
Edit as you go. Or don’t. Your choice.
I probably didn’t do enough editing in the course of writing. I wanted, more than anything, to keep moving forward and it was easier for me to see the progress in writing new words than reworking existing ones. I attended a virtual talk called “So you think you have a book in you?” I’d seen a flyer at the library: it featured local author and publisher Bill Schubart. (His books and incredible résumé at schubart.com.) He primarily spoke of all of the things that go into putting out a professional book. On the call, he explained how before beginning to write anything new for the day, he read through the previous day’s work. I think that’s good advice, but it came after I’d finished my writing, and I’m not sure it would work well for me. I’d be afraid to get bogged down in editing and lose too much of my drive before moving on to new writing that required me to be fresh. I also think, for me, one day is not enough time to reflect (and most likely, change my mind) on what I might want out of a piece of writing. Perhaps a quick, cursory review would work best.
Step Two: I’m Done Writing, What Now?
In March 2021, I sent my mostly unexamined manuscript to a couple of friends and gave myself a few weeks (or more) off. It felt like a milestone after more than eight months of daily writing. Then came an uncertain phase of waiting, feedback, and review. At some point, after feeling that I was reaching another end, questioning the future of my project, I began to ask Google. (Actually, Ecosia, the tree planting search engine using Microsoft Bing.) "How to find an editor for a book," I typed.
Let me just say, I put off this sort of thing for a long time because I'm not very good at searching the internet. I am, in fact, terrible. Unless I find something identifiable and substantial (Wikipedia for most of my inquiries) in the first few minutes, I often give up. I'm not perusing Amazon for hours for the best or the cheapest. If given the choice, I'd gladly pay more to avoid the hassle. These are the anxieties I was feeling as I typed in my browser and took my first uncertain steps down the rabbit hole.
Below three ads and a masterclass, I spotted Barnes & Noble right off the bat. The article (from 2018) was about a new partnership with "Reedsy, a curated community of the best editorial, design, and marketing talent in the industry." Lucky me, it seemed I was on the right track.
I came to find out that there is more than one type of editing. Developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading―what did I need? More reading, learning, anxious procrastination, and uncertain decisions. And the grandest of joys: reading résumés. Reedsy is set up as a marketplace for every possible independent author or self-publishing service. Once I thought I knew what I needed (a bit of everything, up for interpretation), I could begin to find that "right" person the site said I deserved.
I managed―in limited sessions separated by much-needed diversions―to pick out four names, filled out the required description of my project, and chose a few sections to attach as examples. Three of the four responded to my inquiry; two seemed genuinely interested. I decided on a guy in Michigan over an equally qualified (and enthusiastic) English woman because she was unable to begin for a couple of months.
By this time, it was well into August. My new editor (Howard) and I had an introductory video call and he started to read through my manuscript. Once he had finished, we exchanged a few emails, answering big-picture questions, and began to comb through each chapter. We passed Word documents back and forth, Howard making corrections, asking questions, and providing advice. For about three months, we worked through each successive chapter. He'd take a few days to go through a section, and I'd take a similar time adding, correcting, and rewriting content. It felt like three or four days of homework at a time.
The transformation was great. A number of sections underwent only minor changes, but others were almost entirely rewritten. Substance was added (often in the form of inner-monologue) and less meaningful or repetitive sections dropped altogether. And as had been the case since I first began writing, new ideas came into my head and I added them in.
I learned the difference between a foreword and a preface, and pieced together an appropriate preface; I gained confidence in my use of em dashes, parentheses, colons, and semicolons, and corrected a mountain of mistakes; and I added some much-needed descriptors where only blandness and generalities had been. I read and reread awkward sections, searching for a better set of words to convey the same meaning. In many ways, I felt this was real writing; the first time had only served to record my thoughts. I put more of myself in the writing, focusing more on my feelings and thoughts and less on setting the scene. I rethought the opening of the narrative and, at Howard’s suggestion, spent several days writing a piece to close a door that had been wide open. Story resolution had never been on my mind in the course of constructing my narrative; I needed to think of the reader.
As the weeks turned to months and we made our way through the manuscript, I repeatedly told myself to stay focused on the narrative. I knew there’d be further steps in the process of creating a book, but until the story was finished (until I thought it was finished), I didn’t want to move forward. When we came to the end at the beginning of December, I had to start fresh once again.
Howard and I had talked briefly about whether I wanted to pursue interest from a traditional publisher. I hadn’t much considered it, and when Howard informed me that to get to any major publisher, I’d likely need to hire an agent, I was out. Bill Schubart had talked about all of the unseen people who had contributed to his novels and made the point multiple times: publishing a book is a group effort. He talked about how much the publishing industry had changed over the years: a traditional publisher is not likely to put resources into a project from an unknown author unless it’s something like a political tell-all, he told us. But they will happily take their cut of each sale you generate. Asked, Then why use one?, he gave a shrug and an explanation amounting to, I wouldn’t.
Step Three: Design
With barely a vague notion of how I might actually self-publish, I continued to move forward. The next step was design, that is, creating the cover and laying out the interior of the book. Howard made a recommendation based on his work with the Alliance of Independent Authors. I was referred to Marko and perused his website at 5mediadesign.com.
I had an idea for the cover: my face. I’d read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, over the summer and was drawn to its cover. A simple close-up of the tennis star’s face, it seemed to say honestly, “This is me”. I liked the inherent vulnerability of that kind of image. I wanted the reader to see me, look in my eyes, and know, at 37, at the end of the story, how young I still am.
In order to create that image, I needed a skilled photographer. I knew just the guy, but as a business owner with two children in public school in an ongoing pandemic, scheduling the time would be difficult. There were a great number of times, throughout the entire post-writing process, that I felt a loss of control and resulting anxiety from waiting on the next step. Because I didn’t reach out until I had finished editing with Howard (and therefore had nothing on my plate), and due to Covid exposure and the additional sensitivity to bringing a potentially life-threatening virus into the house of an ALS sufferer and his two 65+ parents, I had to live with a late-in-the-process (or so I thought) delay.
I worked on all the ancillary pieces in the meantime. The preface, table of contents, dedication, acknowledgments, about the author, and summary for the back cover. I looked to a number of books for input on each item.
The back cover of most books is mostly full of third-party praise. Obviously, that wasn’t an option. Often there’s a picture of the author, but with my face on the cover, that hardly seemed appropriate. Instead, I wrote a large font, two sentence teaser for the top of the page, and a three-paragraph description belo
w. As I had observed elsewhere, I wrote in third person present tense. “Nate Methot is…” and “He is determined…” to give two examples.
My photographer came by the house a couple of days into the new year, took a wide variety of shots in the house and, with the door open and a backdrop of flat gray light on a cold winter day, in the garage. I’m sure it was obvious the moment he saw them: the garage shots―my face flooded in natural light―were far superior, and really, the only choice. We quickly agreed on the best one (I considered it the only acceptable option) and I sent it to Marko with some vague instructions.
He made up a half-dozen versions using the picture and sent along alternative possibilities with a few other poses. I want to be looking into the camera, I told him. I also wasn’t in love with any of the options I had, I said. While I hemmed and hawed and tried to schedule another photo session, unbeknownst to me, Marko continued to create new examples.
Before I could find a time for a new picture, I received a cover design that caught my eye. The more I looked at it, the more it grew on me, and I began to think, This is my cover. After soliciting a few outside opinions and making a tweak here and there, I locked it in and moved on.
At the completion of each step, I moved from steadily working on a task, back into the unknown. Nowhere was this perhaps more evident than now. I’d written the book, received input from friends and made changes, examined every sentence, paragraph, and chapter with the help of a professional editor, and created a cover out of nothing. What was left? Where was my confidence in this project? Was I done?
Step Four: What Now?!
Having several times researched self-publishing―each time feeling overwhelmed with information―learning much from Howard and Bill, I was reaching a decision point. If I was going to self-publish with IngramSpark, (a giant publisher catering to independents), as I had vaguely intended, it was time to take the first step down that road. I still felt uncertain; shouldn’t I have someone to lean on?
I was leafing through Seven Days, Vermont’s long-running free, alternative weekly, and came to the book reviews. I hadn’t known there were book reviews. I noticed the same publisher with a locally familiar name on more than one: Onion River Press.
I quickly located their description of services online, and sent an email inquiring further. I learned more about their business on a Zoom call the first week of February: essentially, as I’d expected, they operate as a facilitator for a fee. My book would be published in their name and given space on the shelf at parent company Phoenix Books. ORP would accept payment, and the actual printing and distribution would be handled by IngramSpark, who would make my book available to just about every bookseller. It sounded like just what I needed.
It also brought to my attention a number of additional tasks. Instead of feeling along on my own, I was learning some standards. One was the need for additional proofreading. Having covered and re-covered every chapter with a professional editor and twice combed through every word on my own, I considered the manuscript complete. But I was easily convinced otherwise.
I went back to Reedsy in search of a proofreader. Feeling that I was finally reaching the ever-retreating finish line, an urgency took hold of my mind. I soon found four candidates, set a (in retrospect, unnecessarily short) two-week deadline, and waited for the responses to come in. Three of the four were unable to accommodate my timeline, but the fourth was willing to play ball.
I sent April the PDF manuscript Marko had created. Unlike the editing process, in which there was almost daily back-and-forth, I needn’t be bothered too much. Following a few minor interactions, she returned my work with more than fifty changes.
Now that we were working with a PDF, any changes―even something as simple as fixing a misplaced comma―had to be made by Marko. No matter how responsive he might be, every edit required a number of steps: notice and make note of change; send email (in batches rather than one at a time); Marko makes changes and sends back updated copy; review changes and send back mistakes. Of course, there were many rounds of this dance, each of them tedious and inefficient. But more than that, the loss of control―having to ask for every little thing I needed done (and as it turned out, there were a lot of them)―caused my anxiety to rise and fall with each step.
Step Five: Selling Myself
Every self-publishing resource I encountered stressed the importance of marketing. How do you get your work seen and at least give it a chance to be bought? I thought about that question many times and in many different ways.
Instagram seemed like an obvious choice; I could create a new page for the book. I could post photos and reference quotes; it could serve as an ongoing companion, through the past and into the future of my life. It could draw people to my book, and―if I listed my page on the back―bring new followers to my story. As if someone were waiting to steal every possible username, I quickly jumped on @a_life_derailed. From my personal Facebook and Instagram pages, I began to promote my new account and tease my “Coming Soon” book.
I thought of promotion in a number of other ways: requesting reviews in local papers, from professionals on Reedy, or even purchasing a review from the venerable Kirkus, the Class Notes section of University of Vermont Quarterly, Howard’s affiliation with the Alliance of Independent Authors, the Front Porch Forum my mom reviews every day, book stores and the visibility of space on the “local author” shelf, maybe even libraries or book clubs. A few friends asked if I’d thought about a website. I hadn’t; not seriously, but I asked them to convince me otherwise.
I was given a number of reasons: not everyone uses social media and those pages offer very limited flexibility were among them. But primarily, it would act as a landing page for all things A Life Derailed. I was sent an example of an author’s page, katebaer.com, and the picture became clearer. Over the course of several days, I convinced myself that a website was necessary.
But before I was fully convinced, again, as if my private intentions had somehow created a rush on potential domain names, I purchased natemethot.com via Squarespace for $20/year. And I began to research and seek advice as to what website hosting service might work best for me. There were a lot of factors to consider.
I was planning to build the site myself, perhaps with some assistance from a friend, so the platform had to be relatively easy to use. As I was envisioning a simple site that would link to a number of buying options (rather than selling directly from the site), I wasn’t in need of many of the e-commerce models that seemed to be everywhere in the “build your own website” world. Transactional pricing didn’t make sense and I (of course) was looking to keep costs to a minimum.
I looked at Square, Squarespace, WordPress, and Shopify, even beginning to build a site on both Squarespace and WordPress, before expanding my search and trying Wix. As I had on the other sites, I toyed around with a few templates all the while unsure of their pricing and my resultant level of interest. It seemed a lot of these sites buried the costs, starting instead with a kaleidoscope of offerings.
After finally learning I could build and post a site for free (Free!), and encountering a roadblock of inflexibility in the template, I called (texted) for help. Scott came by the house on a Sunday to give me a hand. He pulled up a chair to my right and, having determined how to give third-party access, mirrored my screen on his laptop.
The two of us fumbled around with the template I’d chosen, specifically trying to eliminate the features and sections that didn’t apply. I hadn’t known enough to know that what I was trying to accomplish (but couldn’t), in fact, couldn’t be done. Together, we soon made the determination that the template I’d hastily chosen (one of the few “Author” options there were), was never going to work like I wanted.
What I had in mind was a simple, single-page website with a locked menu at the top. I wanted only to provide buying options and information about my book and its author. Trying a different template and deleting a number of ancillary pages, I found what I needed.
Scott answered enough of my questions in a couple of hours for me to feel comfortable building most of the site myself. Most of the actions were pleasingly simple, once I knew where to find everything. (Everything is, in fact, very limited in this case. I never touched 90% of the available features.)
I built and toyed with the site over the next few days. Wix has a tool to view and edit both the full (desktop/laptop) and mobile versions of the site, but Scott showed me a more expansive development tool in my web browser (Chrome). It allows you to see how your website will appear on a list of phones and tablets. I found I needed to alter a number of items for my site to work on every device.
Without the book having been finished and published (without marketplace pages to link to or reviews to post), I couldn’t entirely finish the site. Before I could post it live, I had to connect my Wix site to my Squarespace domain. Following the instructions, and seeking advice from Scott, I learned I’d have to upgrade and shell out for a “Premium” account. The linking itself was easy and soon I had a mostly complete website at natemethot.com.
Step Six: It Never Ends
Finally satisfied in my long-running review of an ever-increasing number of new PDF versions of the interior of my memoir, I gave the green light to print a single copy for review. Only a few days later I received a 300-page, 6 inch by 9 inch paperback with a matte finish. My mom took pictures as we ceremoniously removed its cardboard sheath.
I hated almost everything about it. It seemed too big and the matte finish dull and uninspiring, then I saw the inside. The font was comically large. I’d never considered the font. It was chosen by the designer I’d hired; I guess I just assumed, given his experience, that it was in the realm of “normal” for a paperback. I was mistaken. If I might have been able to wrap my mind around the trim size and finish, the children’s book font was a deal breaker.
I still had to look through the book for mistakes, and with my mom’s hands and my eyes, I looked at each page. There were two minor spacing changes to add to the list. Smaller trim (5.5 by 8.5 instead of 6 by 9), gloss finish instead of matte, smaller font, and add a space after the first paragraph on page x and y. Another delay, but at least now I know (I self-reassured).
The trim and font changes were more complicated than I thought. It wasn’t as simple as a few clicks in a Word document; the PDF would require reformatting, almost akin to starting fresh. Before he began, Marko sent me three fonts to pick from. I printed the examples and, to be certain, took out a couple paperbacks to compare.
After several more drafts and emails―repeating the same “final” process yet again―I was back in the same place, waiting on the UPS truck. It took about ten days this time for IngramSpark to set up, print, and ship.
My desire to finally be finished was overwhelming to the point that I had to repeat to myself that I might again find a mistake. When the moment of truth arrived, my mom tearing open the cardboard, I was hopeful but realistic. It would have to check all the boxes before I could celebrate.
It was perfect, well, no, that’s not what I felt. It was more than acceptable and I couldn’t find any mistakes. (I’ve found some now.) The trim size and glossy cover looked great; it finally, finally felt like something I could be proud of. On to the next thing.
Step Seven: Selling My Memoir: The Continuing Saga
I’d put some thought into marketing and publicity, but now I had to implement those plans. I wasn’t sure when I’d be done; would it ever be done? How would I know how to feel about the whole thing? After completing all of those tasks and feeling the satisfaction that came with each, after almost two years of work, how would I measure success?
I haven’t been able to answer those questions, and the result, I think, is a feeling of spinning my wheels. Though my efforts have been rewarded with book sales and meaningful praise, it’s been hard to measure my progress. It’s been a bit of a let down to finally be done with the project. Of course, I’m not done; here’s what I’ve been up to.
The first thing I did: that first copy, I sent it to Seven Days with a letter asking for a review. I also contacted a couple of local newspaper syndicates and eventually, after a couple of tries with weeks in between, was able to set up an interview with the Vermont Community Newspaper Group. They sent a reporter to my house and we talked on the back porch for about ninety minutes. I may have been a bit too frank, as noted in the resultant article.
From my social media pages (personal and business), I announced a book release event at a friend’s business on Sunday, June 5th, two days before it would be available online. I steered clear of calling it a “signing” because I can’t form a repeatable signature and didn’t want to encourage requests. More than fifty people showed up to support me and I was able to unload more than half of my books. (Oh, didn’t I mention? Once the final version was OK’d, I ordered a hundred copies for personal distribution. They came in five boxes and cost me about $150 in shipping.)
I emailed a couple dozen local bookstores, offering my book on consignment, and heard back from most―eventually. Some agreed with the consignment arrangement, while a few―including Barnes & Noble, to my surprise―offered to purchase copies directly from IngramSpark. Scott (my web design
guru) and I made the trip to Middlebury, Waitsfield, Waterbury, and South Burlington on a Saturday and Mom and I visited Burlington and Montpelier to drop off consigned copies.
As would continue to the present, I began to post regularly on my new Facebook and Instagram accounts. I claimed my book and created a profile on Goodreads and established a Twitter account (@a_life_derailed) to match the others. I also brought a copy to the public libraries in Hinesburg and South Burlington.
It’s been more than two years since I began working on this project. I’ve learned so much in the process. Perhaps, most importantly, that a book such as mine is not a solitary production. I had so much help and support from so many. With each milestone, I’ve felt a sense of accomplishment that’s been difficult to find in my post-ALS life. Though I feel immensely proud of the finished product―and it’s always nice to hear complimentary reviews―the sense of satisfaction doesn’t last long. I’m currently in search of the next thing.