Paths to Publication: Interview with Shannon Huffman Polson

I’m always fascinated by the stories of how writers become authors, which is why I’m starting this new feature called Paths to Publication. At the end of my Writing Your Non-Fiction Book Proposal classes, I always feature a previous student who has recently published. My guest author for the Winter of 2013 was Shannon Huffman Polson whose beautiful memoir, North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey was just published by Zondervan in April of 2013. Shannon’s story illustrates the elements I find that repeat in the stories of most of my successful clients and students: skill, perseverance, connections and a dash of luck.

Shannon’s story is a compelling one. In 2005, her father and stepmother were killed by a grizzly bear while camping in the Arctic wilderness. In an effort to come to terms with this loss, Shannon commits to singing Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D and traveling to Alaska to retrace the journey which had ended in her parents deaths.

So she had a great story to tell, and that became obvious when the first agent she queried, immediately requested a proposal. The problem was that Shannon didn’t have a proposal. So she did the absolutely most outrageous thing any writer could do: she quit her job and started taking writing classes, including my class on how to write a book proposal. In this lovely blog post, Shannon tells the story of what happened next and how she found her agent. (If you don’t want to click through, you should know that it involved enrolling in an MFA program, honing her writing skills, becoming a mother and discovering via Twitter that one of her fellow students had become an agent–that’s the luck part.)

Once Shannon had an agent, she revised her proposal again, according to the agency’s guidelines, and they submitted it to several publishers. In this blog post, Shannon describes waiting to hear from a publisher, interweaving that waiting with news about her second pregnancy.

Once the book was accepted by Zondervan, a Christian-focused imprint of Harper Collins, in March of 2013, things moved quickly. The normal publication schedule would have been closer to 24 months, but Zondervan wanted to accelerate North of Hope, planning to release it 12 months from acquisition. Shannon worked with a developmental editor hired by the publisher to revise the manuscript over about 6 weeks before moving on to work with a copy editor. The title was changed for the third time: it had morphed from A Pilgrim’s Requiem (Shannon’s original title) to North of Hope: A Daughter’s Expedition Towards Healing (the agency’s suggestion) to North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey (the publisher’s choice). She was given a choice of five possible cover designs. Though she would have liked a photo of the Arctic, she chose the one that was most evocative and is happy with the way the book looks. During this time, she was also reaching out for blurbs and she got some fantastic ones from Scott Russell Sanders, with whom she had worked in two small writing residencies, and one from Terry Tempest Williams, with whom she’d connected through her work on the Alaska wilderness. That blurb arrived just in time to appear on the cover: “a soulful and brave book . . .a testament to deep change, human and wild.”

North of Hope was published in April 2013. Shannon now spends about two hours a day promoting her book. As the mother of two young sons, that’s about the most she can devote to it, though she feels like it could and perhaps should take closer to 5-6 hours a day. She has talked to several church groups, contributed to various blogs, and done readings and signings at a number of book stores in Washington and Montana. At Elliott Bay Book Company, she packed the house to standing room only and she sold out their inventory. Again luck and connections helped her promote that event: when she mentioned it on Facebook, one of her college friends put her in touch with her partner’s sister who happens to be a Seattle news reporter who interviewed Shannon the day before the launch party.

Shannon was blogging irregularly at her website A Border Life during the writing of the book, and is now focusing her efforts on finding other outlets with established readership, as well as learning more about social media, especially Twitter. (She recommends following and learning from writer.ly, Rachelle Gardner, Michael Hyatt and Jane Friedman in particular). Since North of Hope’s publication, she’s reaching out to new audiences by becoming a regular contributor at Patheos Good Letters (after writing a few guest blogs)  , reaching out to request reviews or guest blogs at various book review sites (most recently at Drey’s Library), and pitching and writing articles, for instance, for Alaska Magazine.

Just to reprise the elements of her success:

  • Skill: beautiful writing, crafted through multiple classes, an MFA program, work with an editor
  • Perseverance: over 7 years from idea to publication, multiple submissions (the proposal was submitted to 30 agents in three different mailings), focused effort on learning social media
  • Luck: A colleague who had become an agent; a college friend whose partner’s sister was a news reporter (Shannon and I debated about whether this was really luck or connections–it does take work to be in the right place at the right time)
  • Connections developed before publication efforts: Above-mentioned fellow writers, friends, Twitter, blogging, writing organizations, a mailing list of approximately 1,000

For more on the book and upcoming events, check out Shannon’s web site.

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