Four years ago if someone had told me I’d write a book, I would’ve told them they had mistaken me for someone else. For a real writer. Everything I’d written up to that point either had to do with college papers, my thesis, reports for work, or online articles on gardening in the desert.
But write a memoir about my job as one of the first women forest firefighters? No way. Although proud of that career, I’d never thought what I’d done was anything special or interesting, and certainly not book material.
Catastrophic events had changed my life forever. I ended my 23 year marriage in 2005; lost my job in November 2008; and then my mom in February 2009. Depressed and lost, I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with, and no motivation to do anything about it.
My new neighbor was the person that instilled the idea of writing about my experiences. He’d come over to help me with a repair, and spotted on a wall a collage of photos depicting my firefighting days. When I told him I used to be a Forest Service firefighter, he was impressed, and suggested I write a book about my adventures.
That suggestion stuck. Maybe revisiting those times would help me feel better. After all, they held not only fond memories, but also plenty of excitement and challenges; both of which I loved, and others found interesting. Thanks to my detailed personal journals, I had plenty of material.
My first draft of Summers of Fire was simply an accounting of what happened. A documentary of sorts, meant only for me. At the time, that’s all I intended it to be. It wasn’t until I shared it with a few people did I become inspired to make it more. Details, emotions, thoughts, feelings. My accounting morphed into a very personal story beyond firefighting.
I probably rewrote this book over the past three years more than anyone else would ever want to, mostly because I learned how to write after I wrote the darned thing. But every single rewrite made my book that much better. I’m so grateful I didn’t take an offer two years ago from a “professional editor” to help me “self-publish.” What a disaster that would have been.
My toughest challenge in making the book better, was whether or not to add everything. Sure fighting was exciting and dramatic, but so were the relationships I formed with the men on my crew. Did those belong in their too? I decided, yes, they do. After all, my book is about what it was like to be a woman on a fire crew. And these relationships influenced who I am today.
I’ve learned a great deal along the way, so if by sharing what helped me helps someone else, it makes it all even more worthwhile.
Read as many memoirs as you can
The more I read memoirs, the more I learn. It helps to see how other authors structured their story; how they deal with tough issues and painful memories. No doubt you will find books you love, some you will wonder how they got published. Both are important to understanding the genre. All will help you with your story.
Join a Writer’s Critique Group (or more than one)
It’s important to have your work critiqued as you write. It’s not like you have to make every change people suggest, but don’t automatically discount or take offense to comments. Give each and every one careful consideration. I participate in two groups. In the weekly group, I read portions out loud, and then receive a five-minute critique. My other group meets less frequently, but we exchange up to 20 pages at a time of each other’s work, and then meet to discuss. This one allows for more detailed discussions.
Meet With and Talk to other Published Authors
Their book doesn’t have to be a memoir (although it helps), but talking to a published author is a great way to learn about the publishing process. The first author I met not only introduced me to my writer’s group, but as a memoir author who published traditionally (which is my current goal), she had a wealth of information on writing query letters, a book proposal, and what to expect during the querying process. So valuable.
Use Online Resources
I’m still unemployed, so I don’t have money to spend on conferences, workshops and classes. However, there is a wealth of information online. And much of it is free. Google a search on memoirs, publishers, literary agents, how to write a query letter, how to write a book proposal. You name it, it’s out there. I subscribe to several websites that deliver information on writing to my inbox every day. And I read every single one.
Call yourself a Writer
This is hard for me. What constitutes a real writer? Is it someone who has published, or simply someone who writes? Some days I tell people I’m an unpublished author, other days I keep quiet about spending most of my days writing, editing, making my story perfect. Although I think a writer is someone who writes, even if I finally get published I can’t help but wonder if I will still have a problem saying “I’m a writer.”
Memoir continues to be popular among today’s readers. In fact, many who love the genre are just as interested in reading about the lives of other ordinary people as they are about celebrities. Keep this in mind if you wonder whether anyone wants to read about you.
Linda Strader is a landscape architect in Southern Arizona. She teaches classes in her community on desert plants, and writes articles online as the Tucson Gardening Examiner for Examiner.com. She is in the process of querying literary agents to represent her memoir, Summers of Fire.
Find out more about her on her blog: summersoffirebook.blogspot.com
Follow her on Twitter: @desertplantlove