So You Think You Want to Write a Book

It seems as if everybody’s writing books these days, even celebrities who never did anything literary before. And if you’re not a celebrity and can’t get a million dollar contract, you can publish your own book, so why not?

I started creating books shortly after I learned to write. When I was about 8 or 9, I put together little books with cardboard covers and typing-paper insides. I printed the text with pencils and did the illustrations with crayons. I only made one copy of each, but it showed the direction I was destined to go in. I was always the little writer girl. I got sidetracked in the newspaper biz for a long time, but I still had this dream of a bookshelf full of books I had written. That shelf is half full now, but I’ve been at it a very long time. I wrote an awful lot of articles, short stories, essays and poems and published quite a few of them before I ever published a book.

My first two books were works for hire. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce hired me to write a guide for newcomers moving to Santa Clara County. They supervised the whole thing, which was really a compilation of articles and photos, not so different from my newspaper work. I got paid by the hour. By the time they updated the book a few years later, a private company had taken it over and hired their own writer. But it was a start. The second book, The Iberian Americans, came as a result of an ad in Writer’s Digest. Chelsea House, which publishes books for young adults, was looking for people to write about various nationalities. I sent an outline and sample chapter and got the gig. I got paid a flat fee, no royalties, no book tour. But it was and is a beautiful hardbound book full of wonderful photos and with my name on the cover. I was so thrilled when I saw it that I cried.

The Iberian Americans, which was about Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants, led to Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. That one was completely my idea, and I’m proud that it’s still selling well after 14 years. But here’s the thing: It took nine years from the time I roughed out the idea to when I held the finished book in my hand. That’s a long time. Much of that time I wasn’t working on the book at all, just trying to sell it. I had decided to just photocopy the damn thing and hand it out to my friends by the time Heyday Books took it on and made my dream come true.

I’m not going to torture you with the process for all of my books–six published now, several others not published and set aside. Childless by Marriage, the new one, has been in the works for about 20 years. What I’m saying is that a book can take a long time. After it’s published, it becomes part of your life. You will always need to be selling it, talking about it, and answering questions as some kind of expert. As I write this, I’m on my way to California to sell books at a Portuguese festival, where I will be pushing Stories Grandma Never Told, a novel called Azorean Dreams and my newer books. Because of these books, I have a reputation as a Portuguese-American writer.

My question for you is this: Are you passionate enough about your subject, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or poetry, to spend years getting it published and the rest of your life loving it, promoting it and talking about it? It’s a huge commitment, a bit like marriage or having children.

It can be daunting to face a whole book at once. Try writing a short version first, an article, essay, short story, or poem. Is there a market for it? Do you have enough left for a whole book (think 300 pages)? Are you eager to keep going? Then go for it. If you never sell a single copy but you enjoy the process of writing the book, it’s still worth doing. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for having done it.

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