Brent Preston had a story he wanted to share. In 2007, the Creemore, Ont. farmer and his wife, Gillian Flies, set to work and began building a thriving organic vegetable farm from the ground up. Preston wanted other would-be farmers to know it’s possible for a small, sustainable, organic farm to provide not only a livelihood, but also “a happy, meaningful and fulfilling way of life.”
Preston made their story into a book, The New Farm, published in 2017, and he’s never regretted it.
“It’s been gratifying to get notes and emails from farmers all over the world who were inspired,” says Preston.
Admittedly, an organic vegetable farm is pretty unconventional in the eyes of many Country Guide readers. But what about the idea that there’s something about your farm or your family that really should be set down in print? Is that so unconventional or rare?
To learn more, Country Guide turned to Preston and other writers for their insights on getting into print. We also turned to professionals like Paul Lima of Toronto, who has written more than two dozen books including his own memoir and a book on how to write a memoir, and to writing instructors Heather Wright of Kitchener, Ont., and Elizabeth Johnston of Montreal.
The pros start with advice designed to get you thinking. Lima for instance tells us that the job of writing a compelling memoir is mostly about knowing what to leave out.
New writers might mistakenly think a memoir is a chronological retelling of your life from birth onwards. It isn’t, Lima says. Instead, think in terms of slices of your life with a theme that ties it all together.
His advice is brutally succinct. “Leave out the boring bits.”
Wright agrees. Start by asking yourself why you want to write the story. A clear focus will help with the writing process and make for a more readable memoir.
The other up-front decision you need to make early on is: who you are writing this for. “Is it your grandchildren, other farmers or the non-farm public?” asks Lima. “If you try to be everything for everyone, it will be nothing for anyone.”
When it comes to writing, Lima recommends making a detailed outline of all the points you want to make in the book, arranged in the order you want to make them. Then when you write you can simply write from point to point. This helps gets you over the hurdle of the blank page, a stumbling block for many writers, he says.
When writing, Lima also advises turning off your internal editor. Editing is important but that comes at a later stage.
However, even before you create your outline, there’s another important step. Lima recommends a pre-writing technique called clustering. This form of word association or brainstorming helps you conduct internal research to prevent you missing something important in the outline stage.
“Clustering enables you to put down on paper everything you know about and associate with a topic. It helps you get information out of your head and down on paper,” he says.
Clustering will also spark themes and ideas related to your topic that you might not have thought of otherwise.
(Lima describes the clustering method in detail in his book Tell Your Story: How to Write Memoirs and Autobiographies. He is making available free of charge to Country Guide readers. See details below in the Resources section.)
Another technique to stimulate your memory before you begin writing is to use writing prompts like the ones Wright includes in her book, Writing Memoir: A Take-Action Workbook. Maps, drawings, school yearbooks, movies, catalogues, news stories, songs, photographs and conversations with others can also unearth long-forgotten memories and help you weave rich detail into your writing.
Then set to work, keeping in mind you don’t have to devote whole days to your writing project. You may find it works better to write in short spurts, even as little as 15 minutes a day. If you find yourself stuck, colouring or doodling for 10 minutes can unblock your creativity, she adds. But keep at it.
Organic farmer Preston agrees.
Although feeling inspired or passionate about the project is important, discipline is even more so, cautions Preston. “I chipped away at it for months.”
Joining a writing class can also help you stay on track with your writing. Signing up for a writing class will formalize your intent, and it can also improve your confidence, says Montreal writing instructor, Elizabeth Johnston.
In her online classes, students write short pieces to share with other students and, over the course of a six-week session, they develop four or five good pieces. By sharing their stories with class members, her students discover that other people are interested in what they have to say.
Classes may be available through your local library, community centre or community college. Or you can start your own, says Johnston.
Johnston is a big believer in the value of writing, not just for the reader, but for the writer too. Writing about our experiences gives us the opportunity to reflect on the impact they had on us, and to process them, she says, and she believes everyone has a story worth sharing.
South of the border, Mary Budd Flitner’s 2018 book, My Ranch, Too: A Wyoming Memoir, is a reflection on her personal experiences as mom, wife, hired hand, business partner and cowboy on her family’s ranch. The book encompasses “work styles, business philosophies, personalities, and family stories… revealing histories and business developments over a 50-year period,” says Flitner.
Flitner brings the changing role of farm women to life.With modern equipment and data, a woman can much more easily be owner, rancher or farmer, she says.
When Flitner began writing, it wasn’t with a book in mind. Originally, she developed several stories based on her journals as a Christmas present for family. “I selected certain time periods from my journals. I developed some of those stories, all true… and each chapter became an independent tale, honest, and I hoped, interesting,” she says.
Finding the balance between what she felt was important to record for her family history while still keeping it “personal, lively and fun to read,” was hard, admits Flitner, who also resisted the temptation to embarrass others.
“It seemed that my perspective was important, and had not been presented,” Flitner says. But she always remembered that this on its own was not enough. The book also had to have a solid, very human core. “My family history reflects the hardships, not just the romance of our lifestyle.”
- Paul Lima is offering free electronic pdf versions of his books to Country Guide readers. These include: Tell Your Story: How to Write Memoirs and Autobiographies; Produce, Price and Promote Your Self-Published Fiction or Non-fiction Book and eBook, and Lima’s own memoir, The Accidental Writer. To order a copy, send an email to [email protected] with Country Guide in the subject line. You can learn more about these and other Paul Lima books here: www.paullima.com/books/
- Learn more about Heather Wright’s book, Writing Memoir: A Take-Action Workbook, and links to self-publishing resources: www.wrightingwords.com/
- Find information about Elizabeth Johnston’s coaching and online writing classes here: ownyourcreativity.com/
Writing prompts to get you started
- Stories your parents/grandparents told you about their childhoods
- Best present ever
- When someone taught you to do something such as drive a tractor, drive a stick shift
- What did you do for fun?
- What historical events influenced your life?
- What was your favourite 4-H club or project?
When it comes to publishing a book, there are many options available ranging from printing a few copies for friends and family to going with a traditional publisher.
In Brent Preston’s case, he knew he wanted to go the route of the traditional publisher and this shaped his writing process. His first step, even before he began writing, was to find a literary agent who would represent him and shop his book proposal and a detailed outline to publishers. In traditional publishing, the writing and publishing are intertwined, he says. Once the proposal is accepted, the feedback from the publisher shapes the way the story is told and what anecdotes are included.
With traditional publishing, the process also tends to move slowly, cautions Preston. In his case, it took about five years before his book was in print. Book tours paid for by traditional publishers are also a thing of the past, he adds. Authors today are expected to do their own book promotion which takes a lot of energy and time, he says.
In Mary Flitner’s case, her draft manuscript was accepted by the University of Oklahoma Press. Many universities have printing departments which offer a range of printing options.
Also remember, self-publishing has become increasingly affordable in recent years and may offer customizable options you haven’t considered.