My journey was perhaps the reverse of what many authors follow. I did not start out wanting to be a writer and then spend time finding good stories to tell. Instead, I was bequeathed a story that demanded to be told and spent time struggling to learn how to be writer who could effectively tell that story. In one sense, I have been writing all my life. I practiced law for decades and have been an administrative appellate judge for 14 years, so words have always been my tools. And I have been a voracious and eclectic reader since I was a toddler. I did think that background would make it easy for me when I decided I needed to write a book. I thought wrong. My father’s crew took the only color footage of the aftermath of the atomic bombings and he spent his life trying to get access to the footage to show the American people the true effects but the footage was classified as top secret for decades. His last wish was to have his ashes scattered at Ground Zero in Hiroshima.
After going to Hiroshima and meeting survivors he had filmed, I knew I needed to tell the story. It took me more than 30 years to do it. The hardest part for me was learning to write “from the body.” By that I mean speaking directly from the heart and using all my senses to make scenes both real and vivid. It was important to me that my book not be a polemic about the past (such as the decision to drop the bombs), but instead an honest encounter with real people. My writing background was, as you can imagine, the opposite – expository, argument-based, and intellectual. Breaking old habits is even harder than learning new skills.
Your writing journey:
On the way to learning to write the way the story needed me to, I attended two invitational writers’ residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts with master memoirists; I took three week-long individual writing retreats; I joined several writers’ groups and critiquing groups; and I studied innumerable books on the art and craft of creative nonfiction and personal stories. I worked with two editors, each of whom contributed importantly to shaping the final manuscript. The first made quite a few negative comments, while the second was very positive. I was derailed for a long time by the negative feedback and only got back on track with the support from the second editor. But when I sat down with both versions and all their notes to do a rewrite, I benefitted more from the critical input. Once I had enough emotional distance (which took quite a while especially because the story is so personal), I realized which elements in the writing were putting her off and then understood how to improve them. I attended several writers’ conferences and had pitching sessions with a number of agents. Several expressed interest but all insisted that I could not combine my father’s first-person account with those of the survivors, not to mention including the path I followed in unearthing them. In the end, I was unwilling to remove any of the three threads and decided to self-publish in time for the 75th anniversary. The reviews I have received so far convince me that the “braided” structure works but figuring out how to weave the strands together was the most difficult technical problem. Once I decided to self-publish, I focused on being even more demanding in the revising and proofreading process. (I was determined not to have reviewers saying it needed an editor or was full of typos!) Several friends who are excellent technical writers read through the revised manuscript looking for inconsistencies or lack of clarity. I was able to get help from the best copy editor/proofreader I know. After inputting all the suggestions, I read it again. And again. And again. I prepared a table of contents and an index. Because the book contains a lot of photographs and original documents, I also prepared a table of illustrations with captions. And then I needed maps and a glossary.
Bookbaby did the layout and the cover design, but I provided the images and text for the cover (front and back) and examples of comparables with covers that I considered good models. I was very happy with the resulting cover. Getting from my first contact with Bookbaby, through my first manuscript prep and submission, through proofs and corrections, until final release took about 6 months. I was determined to have it out before August 6 and worked backward from that goal to be sure that could happen. The pandemic added some complexity and delay, but I made it to my goal. The book has been available for three weeks now. I had two pre-release editorial reviews and have received four reader reviews on Amazon and one on Goodreads so far, all very positive. I worked with a professional friend to develop the website for the book; posted about the book on Facebook and ran a Facebook ad campaign as part of the publishing package (which drove a lot of the traffic); set up author’s pages on Amazon, Goodreads, bookshop.org, Bookbaby’s bookstore; and participated in an 8/6 event and have several other events scheduled. Having learning to write the book, I am just now trying to learn how to share it effectively!
Choosing Life: My father’s journey in film from Hollywood to Hiroshima by Leslie A. SussanLearn more at https://hiroshima-choosinglife.com/Available on Kindle at www.amazon.comAvailable in paperback at https://store.bookbaby.com/bookshop/book/index.aspx?bookURL=Choosing-Life