Adrienne Ross Scanlan has been a student in several of my Hugo House classes: Deep Revision, Writing the Non-Fiction Book Proposal, and DIY Publishing. And I knew how hard she was working on this book since I saw several early versions. So I was delighted when she found the perfect home for her book.
Turning Homeward is a place-based narrative nonfiction book about the journey of a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest who learns that home isn’t simply where you live but where you create belonging by repairing the nature that is close to our lives. Adrienne weaves natural history with her quest for a home, and her hands-on experiences weeding, planting, salvaging, counting, digging, and in other ways restoring our world.
Tell me about the development of the book.
Before Turning Homeward, I was a “short form” writer. I wrote essays but I had never tried writing a full-length book. It never occurred to me that Turning Homeward would be something other than an essay collection, so I started revising essays I’d written over the years, as well writing new ones. I thought it was a coherent collection, but the agents and publishers who read the first manuscript disagreed: there was no backstory, no connective tissue that explained my personal “why” for being at so many places weeding, salvaging, planting, collecting, monitoring, counting, and doing other restoration work. I was having enormous trouble thinking of the book in a new structure until one day (in your Deep Revision class actually!), it occurred to me to just re-name the chapters to reflect the location. For some reason, this small change in the book’s structure triggered a big shift in my thinking – – it literally felt as if a door opened in my mind, and I could start moving material across the chapters as if I was re-decorating the rooms of a house, and even add a few new rooms. I think of Turning Homeward as narrative nonfiction because it has a personal quest that becomes a narrative arc, and because I know the original structure. Most readers see it as an essay collection, and that’s fine.
How long did it take to write it? What helped you during the writing process?
All told, seven-odd years from first idea in winter 2007 through the first manuscript, initial copy editing, sending out that manuscript only to have it receive multiple rejections, followed by having it reviewed by three developmental editors, a major re-write, and finally the submission process for the revised manuscript, including writing the book proposal (which was itself a major project). The contract was signed in summer 2015, and that led to approximately another year spent writing additional text per my publisher’s request for revisions, followed by copy edits, a scientific review, writing an appendix, chiming in on the cover design, and then the final (finally!) editorial review before Turning Homeward went to the printers in Fall 2016.
Coaching from you and others helped enormously, as did telling lots of friends and other writers I was working on a book. I had to have an answer when people asked: “How’s that book you’re working on?” Also necessary was a good organizational system (I live and die by Planner Pads [ed: me too!]), being very, very, very stubborn, and passionately wanting to have a good book in print.
Tell me about how you found your publisher.
I started looking for publishers just before the manuscript’s initial round of submissions (about four years into the writing process). I created an Excel database and whenever I came across a publisher that might be a good fit, I added an entry with the press name, their submission process and deadlines, links to their full submission guidelines, and notes as to their interest areas. I divided the list by strong, medium, and weak prospects. I went to AWP’s Seattle conference and made a point of talking to several presses that I thought might be a good fit. I also looked at the membership lists of publishers’ associations, paid close attention to presses’ mentioned on CRWOPPS and other writers’ listervs or associations, and did basic Duckduckgo searches, as well as searching specialized databases for presses and/or agents. If anyone published a book that dealt with nature, ecology, memoir / personal story, or other appropriate genres, I made a note as to the publisher and added it to the database. I also purchased the print books that list publishers but found them to be hopelessly outdated. A book dated “2016” was probably written in late 2014 and will be inaccurate by early 2017. Those books also tended to miss the plethora of small or boutique publishers that have appeared over the last decade.
Eventually I had about 30 presses, some of them traditional, some of them hybrid (such as SheWrites), and some that were writer – publisher cooperatives. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the number of rejections the book received. Intellectually, I knew that would happen, but I wasn’t ready for it emotionally. Compounding this was that I had to re-boot my freelance writing business while also running my home, which gave me less time to focus on Turning Homeward, much less on creating new work. I had approximately 25 rejections (probably more) from presses, book contests, and agents by 2015, and I decided I’d send the book out to final set of three publishers. If there were no takers, I’d self-publish and just be done with it. That last set included several publishers that turned out to be interested in the book, so I went from famine to feast, and had some excellent presses with which to discuss the book.
What happened when you started working with your publisher?
Working with the Mountaineers Books has been great, from start to finish. I’d read a fair amount over the last decade of how awful it is for writers to work with traditional publishers (we all know the reasons) but nothing like that happened with Mountaineer Books. They were (and still are) fully committed to Turning Homeward and found excellent copy editors, scientific reviewers, and designers. Mountaineers Books is a mission-driven press, and while they have to pay close attention to the business side of things what they really want are books that nurture the love and skills to care for our world.
Having been a self-employed, small business owner for over a decade gave me invaluable skills for reviewing and negotiating the contract, coordinating my end of the project details, advocating for particular editorial directions, and working with my acquisitions editors and later the publicists. So often writers focus on the craft and marketing aspects of book production, but having basic business skills makes the process both easier and more realistic.
What has been the most surprising/exciting/challenging thing about the publishing process?
At every step of the way, I had to learn new skills. My research and fact-checking abilities had to get sharper, I had to learn how to present myself to publishers and agents, to self-advocate more strongly (while still being open to negotiation), and to turn my back on internalized limitations (“I can’t speak in front of people! I can’t talk to strangers about my book!”) Every time I hit an “I can’t,” it was really an “I don’t want to have to learn how to do this…” But each time, I did learn, and I became a stronger person and better writer.
How do you let people know about your book?
I have an e-newsletter that’s sent out quarterly and that always includes calls for work from the Blue Lyra Review (where I’m an editor) and other magazines, as well as announcements of fellowships, retreats, and contests. That’s my way of helping other writers while also getting the word out about my work. I have an author’s page on Facebook, as well as a personal page, and I am on Goodreads and other social media. I have readings planned at western Washington bookstores over the next six or so months and am sending Turning Homeward out to book bloggers. I’d like to start giving joint readings with other writers, as well as giving readings at restoration events, lit festivals, conferences, or similar events. Book clubs are a big priority. Turning Homeward is a great fit for book clubs, and I’d be very happy to attend either in person or via Skype.
I have several essays in revision and am turning my thoughts towards two possible new books. I’m also increasingly interested in fiction and will be taking short story writing classes at Hugo House and elsewhere. I’ve had a Seattle-based mystery series in my mind for nearly a decade (I started thinking of it the same time I began work on Turning Homeward but have yet to put a word to the page. Time to start working on it…)
Any advice for other writers looking for publishers?
Get a working knowledge of all the publishing options: traditional, hybrid, and the different ways that someone can self-publish. Taking your DIY Publishing class was invaluable in helping me make an informed decision about how to get Turning Homeward into print.
Also, when researching publishers take a long, hard look at their entire catalog of books, including from prior years. Don’t just rely on the guidelines but look for books that are complementary to yours and ways that your book fills a specific niche.
Last but not least, get onto the email lists of people genuinely knowledgeable about the business of writing, publishing, and marketing books. Two people I look to for sage advice and strategies are Jane Friedman and Tim Grahl.
Adrienne Ross Scanlan has explored the Pacific Northwest’s nature (inside or outside the city) as a lay naturalist, a restoration volunteer, and a citizen scientist. From these and other experiences have come nature writing, personal essays, and other creative nonfiction published in The Fourth River, Pilgrimage, Under the Sun, the American Nature Writing anthologies, A Natural History of Now: reports from the edge of nature, and other publications. Adrienne received an Artist Trust Literature Fellowship, a Seattle Arts Commission literary award, and her essay “Salvage” was recognized as “notable” in the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002. She is also the non-fiction editor of Blue Lyra Review. Adrienne lives in Seattle, WA with her husband (a scientist and former English major), who she met at a swing dance, and their daughter. She’s a backyard city farmer (no chickens but plenty of strawberries) and a not-too-bad chess player who wakes every morning to the beautiful music of Artie Shaw playing “Begin the Beguine.”