Monday, April 22, 2013

Slants of Light — A Collaboration

"None of us is as smart as all of us."  Japanese proverb

Harriet, Susan and Edda
A year to the date we first started discussing collaborating on a book, Slants of Light, the Women’s Writing Circle anthology, debuted.  It was like planting a seed and you weren't sure if it would grow or how strong. None of us could have done this without the other.  
We formed a core committee to make joint decisions about organization, strategy, and implementation.  None of us had done anything like this before and truthfully, I don’t think any of us had a clue how much work it would turn out to be, which is probably for the best. 
Harriet, Edda and Sharon
Our committee consisted of four people, Edda R. Pitassi, Sharon Keys Gray, Harriet Singer and myself. Those three dedicated themselves tirelessly to this project.  I am forever in their debt.

We spent many afternoons seated around my kitchen table planning, organizing and developing this book, drinking coffee and cranberry juice, munching on fruit, cheese and crackers...laughing, sharing, just getting to know each other.  We came from diverse backgrounds; memoir, poetry, journalism, some of us working, some retired, all dedicated to one creative goal. We knew we were creating something bigger than ourselves and on us rested the hopes of 11 other women  to produce as beautiful and readable a book as possible.  
We spent hours poring over anthology collections, studying how others had done it, what fonts and designs they used to make their book stand out; cover and title.  You really have to do your homework if you’re going to self-publish a book.  This is my third self-published book in three years and publishing an anthology was a far different experience than going solo. I'm still learning as I go along and publishing is changing at lightning speed.   It leaves you breathless. When you're collaborating on a book, you have to listen to everyone, consider all the input, make compromises.  I learned I was pretty good at organizing and motivating other people to keep this project on track and meet the deadlines in the contract we crafted. A learning experience, for sure.
A contract: It's essential! This way there is no guessing game, no last minute, “But you didn’t tell me that!” from anyone.  So what goes into a contract?   Details, details and more details. Stuff that takes away from your creative time, which is working on your writing.  But it’s got to be done. And everyone has to sign it.
Fee:  Each woman paid $100 for her submission/submissions.We created a separate bank account to deposit the funds to pay for the editor, the cover illustrator, the printer (CreateSpace). Everyone got to own the copyright to their particular story.
Submission:  Limit two per writer. Contributions could not exceed 5,000 words.  Looking back, I would limit to 4,000 words.
Craft a purpose of intent:  The anthology is intended to reflect our best creative efforts to share, connect, motivate, reward and reach out.  We hope our contributions will add to the widest possible range of experiences and perspectives from our lives and memories.  We approach this project in the spirit of goodwill, and we view the project as a collaborative effort.  We understand that our book - the final product - will be richer and greater than our individual stories.

Editing:  Everyone agreed to editing by their peers through critique sessions and the core committee and this was spelled out in the contract. Still, editing ruffled feathers to the extent that three writers dropped out.  We kept the project open to anyone who wanted to submit, but they had to agree to editing. The committee had the  job of hiring an outside editor who would have the final word on content editing and sequencing of stories and poems in the book. If the contributors didn’t accept editing, they were out.  No ifs, ands or buts.  
Melinda Sherman
I want to thank my friend and fellow writer, Melinda Sherman who I met at an IWWG Conference at Yale in 2011 and who agreed to be our editor.  She was awesome and we couldn’t have done it without her. She retitled many of the stories and poems  to make them more compelling to readers. 
Melinda had worked as an editor for years for McMillian and for Scholastic.  A pro. She was objective and had the final word which took the burden off me.  As creator of the Women’s Writing Circle, I have a dual role, which is writing coach and teacher.  I did not want to muddy the waters with being the one to say, “Hey, this isn’t going to work!”  I figured, let Melinda handle that, including editing the two stories I contributed to the anthology. 

As a former journalist, it always surprises me how resistant some are to editing, even the smallest tweak of their work.  If I had said ‘no’ to my work being edited, I wouldn’t have lasted a day in the newsroom.  Not to mention, I wouldn't have had as good or as polished a piece, which is what all writers should strive.  You have to put your egos on the backburner to the extent that you realize you're working on a collaboration here and one story and one poem flows into another and if one doesn't work, then the reader is going to stop right there and put down the book.  Fortunately, the women who stayed with the book over the summer and fall of 2012 worked hard to incorporate the editing and make the deadlines we had set for final submission. In the end, I think all were grateful for the time and attention we took on each and every story.  And as it turned out, we had a wealth of talent. All we needed was a little molding.
Title: Do your research and pick a title not already used. The committee’s selection of Slants of Light was based on a couple factors. No other book had the title (and adding the subtitle helped)  and we love the Emily Dickinson quote that spoke to that theme and the theme of our book.   Titles we rejected:  Lighting the Candle (connoted a religious message); Pastiche (not everyone familiar with the word). 

Jane Choc
Hiring an illustrator:  The committee felt hiring someone from the local area made sense and was consistent with a collaboration of women from the Philadelphia area.  Jane Choc came to the Circle one day.  She was an illustrator, but I think she was interested in writing children's stories.  We wanted a unique cover that reflected an image of the Circle with slants of light coming in through the window behind the women.  She said she could work from photographs I had taken at readings at the bookstore and create a cover from those.  Jane also created five lovely pen and ink drawings that spoke to the themes in the anthology: childhood, motherhood, aging, career  and relationships.  They're a terrific addition to the book and help break up all the text.
Marketing and publicity.  This is important so no one person gets stuck with all the work.  Creative people don't like the practical aspects of selling a book, but, unfortunately, it's necessary or your work ends up in obscurity and then it's all for naught.  In the contract each woman agreed to actively participate in the marketing and promotion of the book. This included but was not  limited to social networking, book signings, readings, and “meet and greet” the authors at local events.  I'll keep you posted on how that's going!
A lot more went into the anthology; the angst and the frustration that comes with the whole ball of waxwriting and producing a book, no literary agents, no traditional publishers, just your own belief on a wing and a prayer that you've got something to say and you want to share it with an audience before you turn too old to speak anymore!  If you have to work hard at something...really hard... then why not at something you're passionate about?  Something that at the end of the day all of us can call our own.


kathleen pooler said...

Dear Susan,
Thank you for this treasure trove of detailed advice about self-publishing from your own lived-experience of launching three amazing books into the world. The story behind the story is as fascinating as the anthology you produced. Best wishes and congratulations to you and the women of the Circle for your wonderful achievement.

Sharon Lippincott said...


Your story is so enlightening. Who knew all that was involved? It's not that difficult to pop out run-of-the-mill anthologies of interest mainly to those who contributed and to their friends and family, but the work and polish you put into yours makes it truly unique and special. Thanks for showing us what it takes.

LadyDi said...

As a contributor, I definitely grew as a writer. I did have my feathers ruffled a few times but just decided to unruffle and keep flying. Thanks to Susan and her committee for pointing me in the right direction.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thank you Sharon, It was quite a journey ... we hope the book reaches a good-sized audience, but, for now, I think we are all just basking in the accomplishment of having produced a first-rate book. I should have mentioned, too, that two of us on the committee - Edda Pitassi and myself, are also professional editors and copy editors so it helps to have that sort of talent and expertise! Again, many thanks for your support.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Diane, Ah yes, the mark of a professional writer . . . learning and growing in the process and not letting feathers be ruffled and accepting that editors are not curmudgeons, after all, but teachers in so many ways. And your story does take flight!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thank you, Kathy, for the online "hugs" and ongoing support. You are truly a part of the Circle.

Unknown said...

Susan -

Reading your piece brought back memories of all the work we did together last summer. I feel like the editing process was very valuable and I learned a lot about my own work. I guess it's inevitable that we have "blind spots" when looking at our own work. I remember feeling surprised at how much I could improve my piece with the feedback and everyone was so supportive! What an adventure - and it continues. I am very grateful to you, members of our committee and my fellow authors for all your work and the fortitude to embark on this journey we are on together - bravo!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Ginger, Yes, it was a lot of work for ALL the collaborators. I probably should have made mention in the body of the post that ALL the poems and stories in this anthology are original and have never before been published. We created all of this from beginning to end. I feel that many of us discovered that writing our stories and poems for the anthology created a pathway to writing more stories, as learned we had a talent, a bent, for original creations.

ep said...

Once in a lifetime, perhaps, serendipity strikes. Add a lucky alignment of stars, moon, sun. Mix lightly with belief in a Muse. Fold gently with 15 hopeful, spirited, achievers and believers. Revise as necessary. Keep the reader in mind. Revise again. Top with a unique illustrator. Take required deep breaths. Don't forget to brainstorm. Let stand several weeks. Breathe out. Give thanks.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Dear Edda, Thank you for the beautiful metaphorical comments. We women have created our own "cookbook" for sure. And we couldn't have done it without you, which goes without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway.

Jan Backes said...


Such growth through acceptance would not be possible without the courage of the women in the Circle.

Perhaps what we've constructed may be less than earth-shattering but it is truly a creation and one to be proud of.

It will never be said enough how we feel as pioneers on a mission. We are on a sacred journey.

Thank you, Susan. Job well done.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Kudos to you, Jan, and to all my "sisters" in the Writing Circle here and everywhere. It many ways what we are doing is earth-shattering when you think it wasn't that long ago that women remained voiceless as men told our stories and women were expected to "suck it up" and remain silent. I always think of one of my favorite novels, "A Woman's Room" and the desperation and fury of housewives in that book who had no one but each other to turn to to find comfort and share their lives in coffee clatches.

Yes, we are on a sacred mission as well as a pioneering journey. Job well done, Sister!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Correction: It's called "The Women's Room" and if you haven't read it, here's the link.