July 01, 2018

An Author’s First Book by Sandi Somers

Many people have dreamed of writing a book.

Author Madeleine L’Engle said she wrote her first book when she was five years old, a book called, “Gurl.” 

Margaret Atwood’ first was a book of poems, Double Persephone, written when she was twenty-one. She hand-bound copies and sold the books herself, winning the E. J. Pratt Medal. (Recently I checked Amazon to see if any copies were still available: a signed copy was listed at US $4,000, or $5,136 Canadian.)
 I began my dream in high school, with as-yet unformed ideas about what to write and how I would go about it.
Then in my twenties I was ministry support teacher in Colombia. I kept a journal and copies of my letters to family, supporters and friends, with the intent to someday write my memoir.
Some years later I selected a highlight—an extended trip through Colombia--and wrote a small book. It was modest; I photocopied it for my mom, a few close friends and my missionary companion that Christmas. (Success!!)
Still later I attempted writing the whole memoir.
I started well, with chapters of God’s confirmation to go, my first days, the culture shock. But then I got bogged down.
I got bogged down with complexities and interpersonal difficulties I saw on our mission station. How could I bring in realism but show compassion and understanding—or could I even write about them? Then I read about myself as a timid young woman facing tough issues (some issues that in retrospect have obvious solutions). How could I expose my vulnerabilities?  Or could I?
Annie Dillard, an American Pulitzer Prize winner, said that, “a work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight.” How true!
When you cannot go on, she said, you’ve discovered a fatal flaw.
Perhaps it’s the structure, or perhaps the logic has a hairline fracture that will shortly split up the middle. “If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse.”
The book collapsed and I stopped writing.
What would I do if I were to pick up and complete that book? (Writing this blog post has been a wonderful diagnosis!)

Decide on a focus. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian literary giant,  put it so clearly: “What is the question that this book asks?” In other words, what is the focus, the theme? I had so many new and different experiences in Colombia; I would need to narrow my story to bring in unity.
Ask: Who is my audience? Answering that question would help to clarify my focus. My family? People wanting to gain an understanding of living cross-culturally? Those wanting to understand a young woman’s psychological and spiritual journey? Those wanting to understand missionary life?
Choose the sharpest and most essential events, Solzhenitsyn said. Of course! They’re the highlights within the focus. Some memoir instructors said to start with ten highlights, and the structure will gradually take place.
Edit and revise what I’ve written. As an unknown author said, “Just take one article and begin again.”
Get feedback: from beta readers, from my writing group, from writers in residences, from contest critiques. Perhaps I could still benefit by taking an online course in writing memoirs.
Publish some chapters. (Which I’ve begun doing). Some chapters can stand alone, and publishing would be a great incentive to keep going.
Be patient and persistent. A number of authors have said that it takes two to ten years to complete a book. The gift of determined plodding would be an asset here.

Will I ever complete that book? I don’t know. But this summer I’m taking time to pray and wait before God for His way forward in my writing.
          “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps”
                                (Proverbs 16:9 NLT).

* * *
Now it’s your turn.
Tell us about your first book. Was it a childhood project like Madeleine L’Engle’s? Was it a book you published, and if so, what success did it bring you?  On the other hand, maybe your first book is in folders in your computer. Or sitting in a closet under a pile of other items. Or in a landfill. Perhaps your first book is still a dream.  Or maybe you haven’t dared to dream—yet.

      Whatever your story, tell us about it. 


  1. You give such good advice, Sandi! I am looking forward to hearing this month's stories!

    1. Thanks, Tracy, for your regular comments! This month's topic should give us a wide variation in experiences and what authors learned from their first book.

    2. I remember reading of one author who had six different unfinished books stashed away, and it was his seventh book that he finally published.

  2. Sandi, I have enjoyed reading your thoughtful post! Lots to chew on here.

    1. Hi Brenda, Thanks for confirming how helpful this blog was. I also realized how much the hand of God helps us as we write. I sometimes read inspiring books on creativity, and I had taken out books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Annie Dillard. There I found the quotes I used above. I had also kept "progress notes" as I worked on the Colombia memoir, and these notes gave me wonderful insight into the difficulties I mentioned above.

      I hope you can continue and finish your memoir!

  3. I appreciate the points you've brought forward in this blog, Sandi. This gives some starting points and also gives us permission not "to be there yet!" Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Sharon. Sometimes it's hard for me to write about not "being there yet"--I felt so vulnerable after I pressed "Send". But often our vulnerable moments are what resonate with others. I'm also glad you found my starting points helpful.

  4. Hi Sandi! Wow, you have given us great wisdom and points to note here. I love your points at the end and gives a framework I can follow. Thank you so much for this. :)

    1. Thank you, Alan. God's best for you as you pursue your own writing!!


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