From blog to book: 5 things I learnt along the way
June 21, 2017 § 49 Comments
On December 18th, 2015, I posted a blog entry: the option for my first book, Trans Like Me, had been picked up by Virago, for UK and Commonwealth publication. It’s a year and a half later – and I’ve been in bookstores for nearly a month, with American publication scheduled for next year with Seal Press.
When I first began this blog, back in 2010, I never imagined that what I wrote and explored here would form the foundation of a book. I did want to write a book about gender – about being transgender in particular – but always figured it would be an academic text with a long and referential name. I’d seen people blogging with the express intention of getting a book deal, and wasn’t impressed – the results too often veered between transparent and inauthentic, and flat-out desperate.
But plans pan out in odd ways, and (amazingly), here we are. A piece of advice which has always helped me is to write what you’ve needed to read. It’s certainly what I tried to do with Trans Like Me – and I thought it might be useful to do the same thing about what I wished I’d known about the process of writing for publication. Not the nuts and bolts of finding an agent and selling a book (good advice found here) – but some steps which helped me move from writing from a smaller to a larger audience, and to find exactly what it was I needed to write.
1. Define your core values
I began blogging for a number of reasons: because I’d been writing for online publications since my teens and had missed it, because I wanted to be part of a broader conversation, and because I wanted to reach out and find more people at least a little like me. Two other reasons: I thought it would help my career in general, and because I believed I had something useful to say. I got the confidence to put those reasons in practice through a workshop I attended at the MIDEM conference in January 2011. Amidst the corporate horror and music-as-commodity, there was some amazing advice on how to build a career as an independent musician. First and foremost: ‘define your values’.
You could be cynical, and call it ‘building a brand’ – but it’s more than that, and deeper. The rest of the seminars talked about creating a persona to sell copy with – but this one workshop explained how to find the best in yourself, learn how to get comfortable with it, and to communicate those values to others. To become secure enough in who you know yourself to be that it becomes your calling card, and protection against the kinds of quick and easy temptations that can scupper a career.
I figured that the best I could bring to my work was my sincerity, my love of knowledge, and my willingness to turn that knowledge on its side and see what changes. Those values gave me a lens to work through, and – when my career picked up and a range of offers started coming in – an easy way to filter out those that didn’t mesh with my deepest instincts. Trust me: if you’re any kind of marginalized writer, the majority of interest you’re shown at the beginning will be on the condition that you fit yourself into a predetermined niche. Knowing what I was best at, what I was proud of, and what lines I wouldn’t cross made it easier to turn down work from tabloids that spread hatred, not to sell a sob story and ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. Most of us have to make compromises as we go – but I’m really glad I decided on what I would and wouldn’t do before I was put to the test.
2. Define your intent
Who are you writing for? Yourself, your friends, your community, the wider world? What is it that they want to read? And how are you prepared to challenge both them and yourself?
I think it’s okay not to know those answers starting out, and to be totally prepared for those answers to change – maybe over time, maybe piece by piece. But I don’t think I would have grown as a writer if I hadn’t paid close attention to which pieces resonated with which readers, and learned how to balance my need for expression with others’ need for information and understanding.
After a few years of writing I noticed that it was my more educational posts that were getting the most hits and shares, and the best feedback. It gave (it gives) me pleasure, and purpose, to be able to help people to learn, and my educational posts were the ones that led to my most high profile and profitable commissions. Snarky, personal posts? Not so much. And, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy them so much, although they felt cathartic to write – I didn’t feel like I was expressing myself so well, and I wasn’t sure how much I was adding to anyone else’s day. So I stopped worrying about writing those feelings and thoughts up as posts: I can send my friends long, snarky rants without anything held back, and can focus the small amount of writing time I have on playing to my strengths.
3. Forge connections
This was the hardest step. I’m a performer, so most people assume that I’m super confident at all times. But I’ve had plenty of experience of being judged, hated and excluded – I don’t often find networking as easy as it might look on the outside.
Nevertheless, there’s no way I would have landed a book deal without the kindness of others. And I think that, for most people who want to move from blogging to mainstream/paid publication, forging connections is an essential part of the job.
There’s a lot that’s been written about how to play people and tilt the field in your favour – I’m not so sure about that. But what I have found to help:
* See possibilities everywhere. I was introduced to my agent, Laura Macdougall, by the writer Kaite Welsh. I’d met Kaite through the website the F word – I’d sent a press release for a classical concert, Kaite reviewed it, and I reached out to say thank you. She got in contact for an interview, we bonded, she fell off a stage, the interview was pulled…but we stayed in contact. Which leads to my second point…
* Don’t be afraid to ask for an informational interview. Shortly after the stage incident, I asked Kaite if she’d be willing to answer some questions about the literary field in exchange for coffee and muffins – and she said yes. You might be surprised by how often people are prepared to say yes. That interview gave me the information and confidence I needed to push for the next stage in my career – and, to be honest, meeting with people you admire, working at the stage above you, helps to get your name into the ring.
* Do your research. Research into the people and the fields you’re trying to connect with, and into the work you need to do. Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd, and Beyond Talent by Angela Beeching were invaluable tools.
* Follow up! There’s no point in having those conversations, exchanging those emails, pencilling in dates, if you never make good on them. Set a reminder. And then set several more.
* Identify what it is you have to trade. Writing (and music) are notoriously shitty for paying in ‘exposure’. Nearly all of us have day jobs, and learning the balance between taking unpaid gigs while also learning how to negotiate yourself a living wage is a tough one. But there are times where I think it’s worth it to take unpaid work, and that’s where you’re able to trade something other than money. A singing lesson for an editing session, for example. A charity gig that will genuinely expand your base, while helping a good cause. Know your worth, know what you can give, and make sure you’re getting in return.
4. Allow for more time than you think you need…
…and know that none of it is wasted if you choose to make use of what you learn.
Despite not seeing myself writing a work of popular non-fiction, I was fully convinced (in 2010) that I would be a published author by, say, 2014. I had been writing fiction for years, and had had interest from agents since my teens. I had a novel ready to sell, and was sure that my academic gender tome would be ready before long.
If I’d have known that it would take another seven years, I would have been utterly overwhelmed by that odious mixture of blocked ambition and total sense of failure familiar to so many of us. It would have crushed me. And yet, of course – obviously – I couldn’t have written this book that I’m so proud of without all of those seven years – sense of failure and all.
Everything I’ve done in that time has helped me to become a better writer – everything. The additional personal hardships I’ve experienced have led me to a greater sense of compassion, an ability to sit with what is painful without the need to be flippant or caustic. All the additional years of teaching and training taught me better ways of expressing myself and communicating concepts unfamiliar to the listener or reader. Broadening the scope of my reading (my early blog posts are heavily influenced by the postgrad music psychology/psychotherapy research I was doing at the time) made my writing more legible. And, as much as it shouldn’t happen: experiencing incremental degrees of crap from strangers on the internet did help me learn how to protect myself – as much as anyone is able to.
For the first time, I’m able to contemplate temporal ‘setbacks’ with a sense of equanimity, rather than panic and shame. You have to get there on your own but, if you’re struggling with a sense of ‘wasting time’ or not being good enough fast enough, please know that you’re not the only one, and that you’re not condemned to feel that way forever.
5. Connect the dots
There will always be a glut of writers on the subject closest to your heart. No theme is original, and every field is crowded. But, if you’re going to try, I think the best way forward is to embrace everything particular to your own experience – especially the parts that don’t feel special – and connect the dots to find your place.
Obviously, that’s not how everyone does it. Plenty of people are prepared to lie about themselves, craft a fake persona, for the chance of a book deal: look at the success of Thug Kitchen. I’m sure they’ve made a hell of a lot more money than me.
But I know that what makes me go back to a particular blog, share it with my friends, pre-order a hardback I can’t really afford, is honesty. It’s the combination of experiences and insights that combine to make a truly unique guide to a subject you thought you knew, that allows you, once again, to find the extraordinary in the everyday. It’s watching someone use every talent they possess – whether that’s as a carer, a parent, a teacher, a patient, whatever – as another tool with which to reach their readers.
There are plenty of trans writers out there. There are plenty of non-trans people writing about trans lives. When I started blogging about trans issues, and my own trans life, I didn’t always see how every other part of me could factor in. But the more I did it, the more I allowed my barriers to drop, the more I could do – and the more useful it became.
I would always pick a writer that brings their total self to the page over one who thinks that a ‘writer’ is somehow not a total person. I think that a great many readers – and agents and editors – would agree.