Although she has a lot to juggle, Don't Put the Boats Away author Ames Sheldon talks about the benefits of working on three books at the same time.
When I first started writing novels, I would prepare myself carefully. I’d light a particular candle and put on my special writing music—Haydn’s Die Schöpfung—‘The Creation.” Then I would sit and stare at the blank page, wondering what in the world to write about. To get myself going, I would write in a journal and keep writing until I found something—some image or idea or character—that excited me. Eventually I learned that I require a huge amount of energy for anything I hope to turn into a novel.
Once my daughter was born, there was no more time for candles or music. The few hours I had for writing required me to dive right in. I learned for myself what I later read was Ernest Hemingway’s advice: Stop writing each day at a point when you know what comes next. When you pick your manuscript up the next day, you can start right in and then it usually flows.
The idea for my second novel descended on me in a flash as I was hiking a wilderness trail in northern Minnesota. I suddenly thought about bringing to life a bunch of songs my uncle had written for his 50th reunion from boarding school. The songs were so evocative of his experience as a bright, musical, awkward adolescent that they grabbed my heart and they didn’t let me go. I ended up writing a novel about a boy at Andover during World War II, and I took him into his 50s. After struggling with the unwieldy manuscript, my writing coach told me I had more than one book there and that I should finish writing the first one first. Of course I had to re-think the whole project, but it also meant I had the first draft of one novel and of its sequel.
I finished the first of these novels as well as gotten another novel I wrote, Eleanor’s Wars, published. I’ve spent the last three and a half years selling Eleanor's Wars at readings, book festivals, clubs, and county historical societies. At the same time, I was writing and rewriting the sequel, then finding a publisher for Don’t Put the Boats Away, and working with a publicist. While I was waiting to hear from possible agents and publishers for the sequel, I decided to rewrite my very first (unpublished) novel with help from a developmental editor. I’m currently seeking an agent and/or publisher for Lemons in the Garden of Love. In other words, I am in various stages of marketing three different novels now.
At times, it was challenging to keep two books in my brain simultaneously. I might have to look back at Eleanor’s Wars to be reminded of a character’s hair color or the timing of particular events. I developed charts of names, relationships, significant dates (births, marriages, deaths), and biographical outlines for my main characters.
Attempting to market my first novel taught me a great deal. The publisher of my first novel didn’t do any marketing or publicity so I was on my own, though they did encourage me to apply for book awards. I believe that winning the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Best New Voice: Fiction helped strengthen my position as a professional novelist. Because I hadn’t hired a publicist, it was up to me to arrange for readings and presentations, radio talks, and newspaper coverage. I learned the hard way that folks at retirement communities are delighted to listen to an engaging talk but they rarely buy books because they usually live in smaller places than they used to and their income can be restricted. I also discovered that it’s important to get a table for the first day at the Tucson book festival. Selling copies of my book from a table at a festival can be fruitful so long as I stand—not sit!—and talk with anyone who will stop.
The publisher of my second novel is much more engaged in marketing, and encouraged me to hire a publicist, but I am still arranging my own readings, presentations, and entry into book festivals. Now I know how to make those approaches more effectively. And I believe—or rather, I should say, I hope—that I am continuing to build my audience incrementally. Because almost everyone who read my first novel enjoyed it very much, they seem to be looking forward to my next.
There are advantages to working on three different books at the same time. For example, while I’m waiting to hear from agents and publishers on Lemons in the Garden of Love, I can stay busy (and worry less) while I’m planning readings for Don’t Put the Boats Away. I just need to keep moving each book forward a step or two every week.
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