Last week I did an interview with author Stephanie Dibb Sorensen, whose debut work Covenant Motherhood began appearing in stores and on Amazon this week. Join us for the kind of interview writers have with one another.
RI: We are a writers’ workshop that just happens to publish our work and conversations with one another to the world. We are especially curious about the process of writing. You’ve written a bit about that on your blog, but I’d like to ask a few questions not specifically addressed there.
When you say that you had a nagging feeling that this was a book you were supposed to write, and then that you pitched the idea to an editor, can you describe how you consolidated the scattered observations that must have been floating in your mind to a structure that made sense in a book form?
SDS: Before I pitched my book idea, I had been thinking about the book for a couple of years and collecting notes and quotes. As I prepared to pitch the book concept, I had to categorize all that into makeshift chapters. I did this in a very rustic fashion — grouping highlighted talks and notes on napkins and ripped-out spiral notebook pages into separate piles and file folders. I knew that the overlying theme I wanted to deal with was how motherhood is a reflection of the different roles of Jesus Christ. As I looked through all the materials, I was able to break it down into 9 specific roles and those became chapters, plus an introduction, plus a chapter to address the subject of grace (and how it fills in the gaps of imperfect mothering), and a conclusion — so 12 chapters in all. Knowing what that whole objective was made it easier to write that first introduction chapter and address the purpose of the book and why it was important to me personally. That one chapter was all I had in place when I initially pitched the book idea, but it gave me a good starting point.
RI: How did the idea you pitched take shape from the observations in your mind and heart?
SDS: That’s an interesting question because the shape evolved a little bit over a short period of time. When I had my first opportunity to pitch the book, I nervously focused on the purpose of the book and how the chapters were organized, etc. I was surprised to meet with a little push-back about how marketable my doctrinal approach would be among women readers. Although the editor I spoke with was polite and very knowledgeable about the market, something about our exchange left me with a fire in my bones. Later that same day (at the LDS Storymakers conference), I staged an impromptu pitch in the hallway with another editor. This time I was full of passion about what kind of literature I wanted to make available to LDS women and why I thought a book like mine was important. He was amused (by my fire, I assume), but at least mildly interested. He told me to write it, make it clean and tight, and send it to him. That was all the motivation I needed to actually write the rest of the book.
RI: What is the hardest part, technically, about organizing a book along a principle?
SDS: Setting up the large-scale organization for the book came quite easily. For me, the hardest part in the writing process was sitting down to organize and begin each new chapter. I had a lot of scattered resources and thoughts, and though I had already collected them into a chapter file, it was daunting to create some kind of seamless order that would make them all come together cohesively around that chapter’s theme. It sometimes meant writing the chapter not well, and then reorganizing it several times until it worked.
RI: You describe mapping a schedule with your husband to allow you to write. Can you describe that schedule (how many hours of writing would you estimate you have in the book?), and what worked well and did not work well in trying to write within specified time limits?
SDS: Having never written a book before, I had no idea how much time it would take. Since I had already collected most of the research, I estimated that it would take me about eight hours to write each chapter. It was a guess. We agreed that on Sundays, after church, I would fix lunch for the family and then hide myself in the office for up to four hours to write. My husband would watch the children. Truthfully, this usually meant that he would fall asleep on the couch and they would watch Veggie Tales, but it still worked, and I wrote. There were also two weekends where we went to St. George and he took the kids to go play with their grandfather; I was able to spend a whole day and crank out some good, uninterrupted writing.
Once I really got “in the zone,” so to speak, I found that I could do a chapter in less time than I’d anticipated. So I started in January 2012 (after I had already outlined and written one chapter during 2011) and I submitted the manuscript at the end of April 2012. I do not wish to give the impression that I was an efficient or especially gifted writer; in ways that are hard to describe, when I sat down to write, I could often just feel the words flow and I would just type to keep up. It was a spiritual experience for me, and I sometimes found myself in tears while I wrote. I don’t know how to say this without sounding presumptuous, but I really did feel like an instrument, and often the things I wrote were a lot better than I am.
RI: I think most good writing is better than we are, and acknowledging that is what keeps one from being presumptuous with the truth. You describe sending your manuscript in April and receiving your reply in August. Did you have any contact with your editor during that time?
SDS: Yes. I ended up submitting it to a different editor than the one I pitched to in the hallway even though they were at the same publishing house. We had met later at a writing critique workshop and she had also expressed interest in the book. I emailed her questions and because of the subsequent back-and-forth email communication, I decided in the end to submit it to her. She offered to push it through to evaluations and skip the “slush pile,” so I’m sure that was key in expediting the progress of my manuscript. She would occasionally email me to let me know where it was in the process or to answer my curious questions. She seemed hopeful about getting it published, so that really encouraged me while I waited.
RI: Did you consider sending it to other publishing houses?
SDS: No, I really didn’t. I knew that my first pitch hadn’t gone like I’d hoped, and now this publishing house seemed interested, so I felt good about it. If it came back as a no, I would explore my next options — smaller publishing houses, self-publishing, e-publishing, etc. Frankly, I just knew I was supposed to write the book, and I did it. I was proud of that. I figured that it remained to be seen whether or not the book was supposed to be read.
RI: You describe the process after acceptance as grueling in a different way. What parts of pre-publication were least pleasant for you?
SDS: The news that it was going to be published was euphoric — and very scary. I now faced the reality that a lot of strangers might read a book about things that were personal and sacred and important to me; that felt very vulnerable. There have been many times that I’ve worried about it late at night. I’m making peace with it now, and frankly, listening to President Uchtdorf’s talk Pride and the Priesthood was a turning point for me, but I still feel nervous sometimes. So I guess the least pleasant part has been the unexpected return of adolescent insecurity.
RI: Do you think you’ll write another nonfiction book (a nod to your editor’s comment that most authors only write one when they see all that goes into publishing)?
SDS: Honestly, I don’t know. I really felt compelled to write this book, and it rolled around in my head for years, accompanied by that prompting that I needed to write it. I don’t have a book like that or a feeling like that in my head right now, so we’ll see. I will say though, that if I do write another book, I will do a better job of source checking all along the way. The documentation was a beast and took almost as much time as writing had. Oh, I was recently invited to write a short piece for a motherhood anthology that will probably come out next year, but that sounds easy after finishing up with my own manuscript.
RI: What did your editor do that you found most valuable in your pre-publication work?
SDS: My editor was a fantastic communicator. I appreciated so much her quick response to my questions and her confidence in me. She said things that made me believe my book will be successful. That made a world of difference to me and helped me keep going through the stressful periods of editing. Working with her was a blessing.
RI: Have you considered e-books or other media for future writing efforts?
SDS: I believe my book will be released as an e-book at Amazon, but since I haven’t formalized any future book plans, I really haven’t given this much thought yet.
RI: Looking at sharing your book, you have a book launch party coming up, and your book is appearing in Deseret stores this week. You mention a bit of trepidation with that, sort of an identity crisis I suppose. How do you feel about talking with people about your book in that setting?
SDS: I do like talking to people, so I’m not nervous about the launch especially because there will probably be people I know there. On the flip side, I’m afraid I might be emotional because I have felt overwhelmed by the people around me being so supportive and excited for me. When I do future book signings, I’m sure it will be a little bit awkward while I’m wondering if anyone will come talk to me, but once they do, I think it will be easy to talk to them. As I studied and wrote the book, I felt such a kinship with mothers everywhere — we’re all fighting the same battle and share many common goals — and I expect that connection will spill over into conversations with them.
RI: What do you most hope people will gain from reading your book?
SDS: Oh my. I just really want mothers to know that what they are doing for their children matters so much. It matters to God. It matters to their children. It matters for generations to come. And I want them to know that it’s okay if being a mom is hard. So much of what moms do is a reflection of what Jesus Christ did for us, and that was not easy work, but the sacrifice makes us more like Him and He will help us. I guess I really hope that they can feel what I have felt as I have learned about the doctrines associated with motherhood, and that somehow that testimony can help them face the daily ins and outs of motherhood with more courage and purpose and joy. That’s a tall order, isn’t it? But that’s my hope.
RI: That is a tall order, but then, so is motherhood. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Stephanie. We hope our readers find the same inspiration reading that you did while writing.
You can find Covenant Motherhood at Deseret Book, “like” Stephanie’s author page on facebook for updates and offers, attend her book launch March 15th, and see her author page on Goodreads (you can also add her book to your “to read” list).