Extended Interview with WD’s Self-Published e-Book Awards Winner

WritersDigest-June-2016-Cover

Eleven Regrets by Mel Anderson is the grand-prize winning entry in the 3rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards. It bested more than 725 entries across eight categories to take home a prize package that includes $5,000 and trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. For a complete list of winners from this year’s awards, click here.

Mel Anderson is a 33-year-old author, advocate, and attorney who lives in San Antonio with her husband and eight children. She is currently studying for a Master’s in Social Work, and in addition to Eleven Regrets, she has published the children’s book The Big Fib.

Can you describe Eleven Regrets for us? Eleven Regrets is the true story of my tremendously abusive childhood, which can be validated by court reports and news feeds. I am the second of sixteen children who were abused, neglected and secluded from the world. It contains my first memory down to leaving my parents’ home at seventeen and later finishing law school after having started with only a 4th grade education. My father is currently serving two life sentences in California for the child torture, child sexual abuse and several other counts. This is the true story of my childhood and the conquering human spirit.

Describe your writing process for this book. Eleven Regrets took seven years to write. It was such a gut wrenching story and it was traumatizing to write, but I felt that the true story of my childhood was too important to not write. My first rendition of Eleven Regrets was simply one memory after another in no particular order. I wrote it for my husband because it was too difficult for me to verbally tell him what happened in my childhood home. Later, I wrote, then put it aside for a time, months or more, and came back to it when I recovered from the writing. Then, when my mind was clear, I’d go back and read it and fix and stylize. My goal for Eleven Regrets was to not “vomit on the page,” but to make something so ugly into something beautiful. More than that, I knew that to write such a violent and hard story, I’d have to give my reader breaks, time to breathe and act as a guide.

Jill Pierce was instrumental in this process. I sent her each rendition and had her look at it, then comment and edit. Her insight was invaluable. She’d say things like, “I can tell this part was hard for you to write because it’s a rote telling with no emotion. Try again.” I couldn’t have written this so well without her.

 

Describe the process of publishing this book. Even though I had already been published, I knew that finding an agent, let alone a publisher, for Eleven Regrets would be difficult. The feedback I got from publishers and agents was that I needed to “rose color” my childhood. Although I am usually quite open to criticism, I wanted to be true to my story. I wrote Eleven Regrets to teach and to raise awareness. I wanted to teach police officers, social service workers and teachers what abuse can look like, how people hide it, why children don’t talk, why children protect their parents and so much more. I couldn’t teach while rose coloring and I felt it’d be a disservice to those I consider my peers- children who are out there right now suffering abuse.

Having said that, I did take some aspects of criticism to heart. Although I wouldn’t rose color my childhood, I could see the purpose of that criticism was to say the story was too hard to read. Instead of rose coloring, I found ways to give my readers breaks along the way. I wanted to be compassionate to my reader, so I inserted quotes, definitions of words, poetry and humorous moments to give my readers a pause.

In the end, I decided to go with self-publishing because I knew Eleven Regrets was well written, may be difficult to be picked up by a publishing house because it’s an emotional read and I desperately wanted to get my story out there to see how it would do. My goal was to market it and get good sells on my own in the hopes that its success would allow me to find a well reputed traditional publisher.

 

Why did you choose self-publishing? Why did you choose to self-publish as an e-book? I chose self-publishing for this particular work because Eleven Regrets is a violent memoir dealing with a tragic topic. I initially attempted traditional publishing, but was told that although the memoir was well written, it needed to be “rose colored” if I wanted to publish it. I felt very strongly that rose coloring the personal experiences of my childhood would do an injustice to those children suffering abuse right now. I wanted to write beautifully all the ugliness of child abuse in order to educate, raise awareness and empower.

I specifically chose e-book because of the ability to reach so many readers so easily.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing? As an e-book? Marketing! With a traditional publisher, your success means their success, so there’s already some marketing that comes with the package. As a self-publishing e-book author the success of the book lies solely in your own hands. A self-publishing e-book author must be prepared to take the time to market their books through book signings, press releases, speaking engagements and other avenues.

What are the most important benefits of self-publishing? As an e-book? Self-publishing allows new and unknown authors an opportunity to get a foot hold in the market and can be used as a way to get a contract with a traditional publisher, if that’s the desired outcome. Another benefit is that you don’t have to sell your rights to the work.

As an e-book, the most important benefit is its cost-effectiveness paired with the opportunity to reach a large audience almost instantaneously.

What surprised you about the self-publishing process?  I was most surprised by the cost-effectiveness of self-publishing. It can be incredibly cost effective if you’re willing to use an editor to polish the book and take the time to market.

What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing? I think the biggest misconception is that only authors who aren’t up to par choose self-publishing. That’s absolutely not the case. Authors choose self-publishing for many different reasons. I’ve published in the past, so my ability as a writer isn’t a question, but the subject matter of Eleven Regrets is a difficult one.

 

What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors? Find a good editor! I’m not talking family or friends (unless you have friends with experience in the field) but someone with real world writing and editing experience.

Look for criticism! As authors we tend to get so involved with our work, and act like it’s our child (because it is) and reject criticism. It’s like someone calling your baby “interesting” to look at! The difference is that all criticism is helpful, whether you use it or not. Like being told to “rose color” my childhood, even though I rejected that advice, I still embraced the root of what those wonderful people who took the time to read the book advised. The root was this: It’s a difficult read. Give your readers a break. That helped me beyond belief. If anyone ever reads your work as an editor or a critic and tells you it’s perfect, find a new editor because writing is never perfect. Seek out good criticism because it helps you grow as a writer.

What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make? The worst mistakes a self-publishing author can make are not hiring a good editor and prematurely releasing a book before it’s fine-tuned. Writing and editing are two very different things. Writers can easily become so enmeshed in their work that they don’t see growth opportunities.

 

If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently? The one thing you’d do the same? The one thing I’d do differently is be more patient. Eleven Regrets went through several title changes before I settled on Eleven Regrets. More than a year before I published Eleven Regrets, I posted its predecessor that I’d titled “Daisy Baby” (terrible title!) just to see how it’d sell. It was an unpolished manuscript and I wasn’t patient. I posted it and was selling more than a thousand a month, but the formatting was wrong and it was unpolished. It got amazing reviews from readers, but it wasn’t ready yet. I pulled the book, polished it, changed the title and re-published. I ended up losing the customer base because the title changed and I also lost the initial costumer reviews which were all great. Big mistake!

If I were to do it over again, I’d definitely still hire a professional editor for the final manuscript. My final editor, Sarah Cortez, was so helpful for finishing touches, lingering questions and typos.

Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise? I’ve been blessed to have many inspirations in my life. Of course my husband, Jared has always supported and encouraged my writing and my children give me some excellent material to draw from just by being themselves.

Another inspiration in my life is my fictively adopted dad, Major John Crump. He was my commanding officer when I served in the Army and he later took me under wing. He’s now my adopted dad and one of my children is named after him. John unknowingly started me writing Eleven Regrets. During physical training one morning, John brought his dog, Maggie, a beautiful flashy fawn boxer. I watched as, before he ever took a drink himself, he squirted water from his bottle into his cupped hands and offered it to Maggie. Here was this Green Beret Army Officer, taking care of his dog before himself. I thought of how different my life would be if my parents treated me with the same affection this man showed his dog. That’s what first triggered me to write my story. John later sent me to counseling with a trauma therapist, Patti Harada, who is the best trauma therapist I’ve ever met. It’s funny how things work out. John later married Jill Pierce, who became my best friend.

In writing I’m inspired by Maya Angelou and Anne Lamont. The entire time I was writing Eleven Regrets I kept a quote from each on my writing desk; from Maya Angelou, “and still, like dust, I rise,” and from Anne Lamont, “Tell your stories. You own what happened to you. If people wanted you to write kindly about them, they should have behaved better.” Those quotes gave me the strength to keep writing.

How long have you been writing? How did you start? I started writing when I was in the first grade. I wrote little stories. My parents told me that my writing was worthless, so I hid my writing and kept at it. As an adult, I started out writing children’s book for my children. My husband, Jared, believed that my children’s manuscripts had potential and badgered me to try for publication. To appease him, I sent one manuscript to one publisher and got a contract. That was not only encouraging, it taught me that my writing has merit.

What are the challenges of writing life stories? The biggest challenge for me was validity. There have been so many life stories which have later been debunked, that many life stories, especially those of tremendous abuse, can be under immediate suspicion. Luckily, my childhood story can be validated by court reports and news feeds as well as witnesses. It helps also that I have so many siblings willing to talk.

 Another challenge was staying true to the events of my childhood. I struggled with whether something so horrific should even be written in the first place, then I struggled with how to tell my story in a beautiful way.

Do you write in any other categories or genres? I write children’s books. Rhyming children’s book are my favorite to write because they’re so fun and my children give me so much material to work from. Right now I’m working on a tween series.

What elements do you think make a successful memoir? I believe a successful memoir must have the same elements as a successful work of fiction. Every scene, every memory, must move the plot forward to your ultimate ending point. This means that you may have to cut out “scenes” that might be sentimental to you, but which don’t move the story forward. It’s harder to separate yourself from because in editing it might feel like someone is criticizing your life, not your writing. More than that, there still needs to be character development. Another important aspect that I find crucial with a memoir is anchoring your story in time by writing about news events outside of your life story.

What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author? The advice that’s had the biggest impact as an author was my 3rd grade teacher telling me I had talent and to keep writing.

In my life, the greatest impact has been the advice to accept my pain, embrace it, and treat it as the prize for hard won survival. Patti Harada, my first therapist, taught me to calm, embrace the pain and stop pushing it away and to love myself in spite of it. So much healing took place on Patti’s couch.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life? I can’t live without a standard #2 pencil. I love the sound of the pencil scratching across the page. I always start out on notebook paper and then transfer to digital form. I find I am more creative with a pencil and a page than on a computer. Plus, you can measure how hard I’ve been working on a scene or a book by how many teeth marks are on my pencil.

What does a typical day look like for you? My typical day is crazy! I have eight children. My oldest is 14 and my youngest is 4. The bus picks up my elementary school children at 6:45 am, which means that the kids have to get up at 5:30 so they can all get dressed, eat breakfast, find shoes that have inexplicably disappeared overnight, get hugs and kisses and head pats as they scootch onto the bus.

I work from home while the children are at school so I multi task. Jared and I work together with laundry and house cleaning. Even though I already have my law degree and practice law, I also take classes during the day. I’m working on my master’s in social work, so I take day classes while the children are out. In between all of that, I recruit volunteers, find fundraisers and work my actual job. I’m usually home when the kids get home from school. In the evenings I work with inmates in Texas prisons teaching in a restorative justice program.

Describe your typical writing routine. Most of my writing starts on a napkin or a piece of scratch paper while I’m doing something else entirely. I run through the lines in my head and eventually add a sentence or a line at a time while I’m working other areas. When working, I always keep two notepads, one for my legal work and one for my creative ideas. I find that because legal writing is a bit…bland, I need to be able to feed my creative side every once in a while to avoid being bored to death.

What are the keys that have made your book a success? Patience. In writing you have to be patient with yourself, patient in the writing process, patient with querying and editing and publishing. I find that if I force my work to move forward, my final product is not as polished and fulfilling than if I let it grow on its own.

Also, passion. I believe in the books I write. I always write to teach and to do more than telling a story running around in my head. I always try to tie my writing to something more profound, which I did extensively in Eleven Regrets.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing for your intended audience? My biggest challenge was to make Eleven Regrets palatable for an average reader. I wanted to have compassion for my reader, while remaining true to the story of my childhood.

My specific intended audience has always been law enforcement, social workers, child protection workers, teachers and anyone who works with children regularly. I firmly believe that Eleven Regrets should be required reading for all social workers and child protection employees. The biggest challenge in writing to that audience was making my story relevant to other cases of child abuse. To that end, I specifically wrote about how child abusers hide the abuse, why children won’t talk and why abused children so ardently protect their abusers. I wanted Eleven Regrets to be not only my life story, by a way of teaching and raising awareness.

The biggest benefit of writing to my audience is the feeling of empowerment in going from the child afraid and forbidden to speak, to the adult not only speaking, but raising awareness, teaching and hopefully helping those children who are now where I once was.

Why do you write? I wouldn’t be me without a pencil in my hand. I believe that the desire to write is inborn, or at least it is for me. There’s something in you that needs to breathe and be alive. I feel like I was born with a story to tell. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I write because I must write. I write because there is so much inside me that I can only make beautiful in the written word.

What do you do for a day job? I have an amazing job that I absolutely love. I am the Regional Director of a non-profit organization called Bridges to Life. Bridges to Life goes into prisons to teach violent offenders empathy, responsibility, accountability, forgiveness and life skills with the goal that the inmates who graduate the program won’t commit another crime. It’s a restorative justice program that brings volunteer victims of crimes into the prison to teach inmates the impact of crime while helping the victims feel closure. The program has a significant success rate, because very, very few of the inmates who go through the program ever commit a violent crime, or any crime, again. Our victim, or survivor, volunteers are the strength of the program. I feel honored to work with the volunteers and the inmates and witness a change as they learn.

Have you published any other books? Won any other competitions? I published a children’s book with Shadow Mountain Publishing titled The Big Fib. It’s a cute, rhyming story that I wrote start to finish in one sitting. I usually don’t write start to finish in one sitting, but this was immediately after my older brother’s funeral, so I just started writing to take my mind off things for a moment and came up with this adorable children’s book. I have so many other children’s manuscripts, but I haven’t found the time to send them in. My children enjoy them.

I’ve won three competitions. The first writing competition I won was in 4th grade. I entered a Columbus Day essay contest at my school. I wrote a scathing essay about how Columbus didn’t discover America at all. I won 2nd place. The prize was some odd toy I had no idea what to do with. That writing competition meant everything to me because I’d been told my entire childhood to that point that my writing was trash.

In law school I entered another essay contest and the subject was the First Year of Law School. I won first place in that. The essay is titled Two Pink Lines and details my first year of law school pregnant with my sixth child with my husband deployed to Iraq. I gave birth to my John, my sixth child, right before finals my first year and took my first year law final exams breastfeeding in one arm and typing out Constitutional Law issues with the other hand. At the time it was hard, but looking back it was just comical.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities? My strengths are personification and emotion. Personification was important for Eleven Regrets. I had to set the scene properly to really pull my reader into a terrible situation of child abuse and hold them there. I consciously put the actions of my parents into nonliving things. For instance, instead of saying “My father was violent,” I say “The violent light stabbed my eyes.” I get the same point across, better even, by painting the room itself as violent and letting the reader label my father as they will. I learned personification at a writer’s conference my best friend Jill roped me into attending. Sarah Cortez’s conference was the best thing I ever did for my writing.

Another strength is portraying emotion. I have severe Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trauma of my childhood and I have a hard time showing emotion in person. Writing allows me to express emotion, so it’s always been an integral part of my writing and my trauma recovery. Sometimes I think trauma breeds talent.

 What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas? I was pulled out of school at the beginning of my 5th grade year because our teachers were calling Child Protective Services. From 5th grade to college I had no education, so the basics of writing took a little time to learn. I had a very hard time with writing in the active voice. I broke that habit by studying active voice on my own and applying what I learned until it became a habit. I also had the bad habit of using filler words like “that.” My best friend and fellow writer, Jill Pierce pointed it out and I’ve been working on it ever since.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer? It may sound funny, but my proudest moment as a writer was in the 3rd grade. I wrote my stories on the back of pieces of trash because my mother told me my writing was trash and to keep my stories off of her notebooks. I learned my lesson and only wrote my stories on trashed papers. So one day in the 3rd grade I wrote a story about a girl who could see air. Air was beautiful and only visible to the little girl who could see beauty where no one else could. I showed that story to my 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Patricia Vogel. She was very much the school marm type, with Lennon glasses and a permanent wrinkled frown on her face. I showed her my story. I will never forget it.

Ms. Vogel took my story and read it right there. She turned the paper over and looked at the paper it was written on. She asked me why I wrote my story on that. I told her, very proudly because I learned my lesson, that I only wrote my piece of trash stories on pieces of trash.

Ms. Vogel looked at me and said, “Stories this good shouldn’t be written on trash.” She led me to her personal supply closet and gave me a composition notebook of my own. She said, “Keep writing, Melissa. You have talent.”

That was my proudest moment as a writer.

What are your goals as a writer? I want to have my work well known while teaching and touching lives. Sounds simple, but it’s a lofty goal.

Any final thoughts or advice? I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the supportive, encouraging people in my life. My final advice to writers out there is, “Keep writing. You have talent.”

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