I first met Alisa Bowman when she interviewed me for an article about children with peanut allergies earlier this year. Since then, I have had the pleasure of becoming friendly with her through our various social networking connections and of reading more and more of her work. A former magazine editor and newspaper reporter, Alisa has collaborated on seven New York Times best sellers and has now published her first book, Project: Happily Ever After, a nonfiction title from Running Press that chronicles the rise and fall and resurrection of her marriage and how others can learn from her story.
Name of book: Project: Happily Ever After
Book genre: Relationships
Date Published: December 28, 2010
Publisher: Running Press/Perseus
What is your book about? Project: Happily Ever After tells the true story of how I went from wishing my husband dead to renewing my wedding vows—and all of the marital improvement books I read in between. It’s a true life love story, one that takes readers on a falling in love, falling very out of love, and falling back in love journey. Along the way, readers gain advice and tips from me as I discover what really does move my marriage to a better place—and what doesn’t. In the end, they find a 10-step marriage improvement plan that they can adapt for their own relationships.
This book deals very much with your private life. Was it difficult to be so forthcoming and honest? Would you consider that to be the most challenging aspect of writing this book? Revealing those intimate details was like psychotherapy for me. When you write personal tales, you really have to dig deep inside yourself and question, think about, and pick apart your motivations for doing and not doing certain things. I had to think through my thoughts and my feelings, and I had to get very honest with myself. I got to know myself more deeply from writing this book than I would have ever gotten to know myself by sitting on a therapist’s couch.
Yes, that was challenging, but in a good way. I knew those details were crucial to the story. I knew they would help others. I could feel their potential impact as I wrote them. That was pure joy.
Where it gets difficult is now—in the days just before the book goes prime time. This is when I think, “Oh, goodness, how can I make sure my grandfather, my uncle and my mother-in-law do not read that sex scene?” It’s also challenging when people read things into the book that I don’t think are there. For instance, one of my Amazon reviewers accuses me of not having a bad marriage in the first place. Those sorts of reviews send me into that second-guessing place where I ponder if I could have written the book more effectively.
What motivates you to write? I write for a living and I am the breadwinner of our family, so I suppose you could say that the desire to buy groceries and pay our mortgage motivates me to write.
But it’s really about more than that.
I’ve tried to walk away from writing many times in my career. I almost became a lot of things: a massage therapist, a yoga teacher, a personal trainer, a sign language interpreter, and a registered dietitian. If this were only about making a living, I would have found another way to make a living by now.
Whenever I’ve tried to stop writing, I ended up feeling a great loss. I would then realize that I’ve always loved words. I love finding the right ones. I love organizing them into sentences. I love using them to accomplish certain goals—convey information, get people to emote, tell a gripping story.
So, during those times when I thought I was going to give it all up, I’ve then found a way to return to writing on my terms and in a way that allowed me to earn a living and feel happy about the words I’m putting out there.
Did you experience writer’s block? I don’t experience it in the stereotypical way that you see portrayed in movies where authors go on for days and days and days and can’t write a word. I do find that I can’t always produce as many words as I’d like during a given day. I also find that there are some days when all I can get done is sip tea and pet my dog.
But I don’t see those low production days as “writer’s block.” I believe they are necessary to the writing process. They are much like that cow you see out there in a field. The cow is just standing there, seemingly doing nothing. In reality, it’s doing something important. It’s making milk.
On my low productivity days, I am like that cow in the field. It might look like I’m doing nothing because I’m not sitting and typing. In reality, I’m resting and relaxing and renewing my brain so good ideas are more likely to surface.
You have been a ghostwriter for many books. This is your first published work as the sole author. Two questions: 1. What prompted you put aside the ghostwriting work in order to do a book on your own? 2. Do you think having been a published ghostwriter helped in any way to get this book published (secure an agent, publisher, etc.)?
#1: I wrote Project: Happily Ever After during my spare time. I wrote it at night, sometimes in the middle of the night. I wrote it on weekends. And, yes, there were times I worked on it when I should have been working on ghosting projects. It was just pouring out of me. It didn’t give me a choice. It compelled me to write it.
Until Project: Happily Ever After came along, I didn’t think I had anything to say. I thought that my life was too boring to write about. I didn’t even think that I had a voice of my own. Then, one day, while walking the dog, the first line of the book came to me. I wrote 2000 words that day. That one line made me realize that I did have something to say, stories to tell, and a voice to say it all in.
#2: It helped in some ways and not at all in others. I already had an agent who represented me for my ghostwriting, so that was a huge plus. Because of the ghost writing, I also had inside knowledge of how the publishing industry worked. I knew, for instance, about the importance of having a platform, so I started building one about a year before I shopped the book to publishers.
I thought my track record as a ghostwriter might help me gain interest from a publisher, but that turned out to not be the case. Few if anyone in publishing (book editors, sales team members, book store book buyers) seemed to believe that I personally had anything to do with the 7 bestsellers I penned for other people. It was as if I was starting over.
How difficult was it to find a publisher? In one sense, it was easy. I got a deal about a month after sending the proposal to publishers. In another sense, it was excruciating. Several huge publishers initially expressed a lot of interest in the book. They fawned all over me, told me that they loved my voice, and gushed about how much they loved Project: Happily Ever After and about how many readers they thought it would help. Then, just before the auction, most of these publishers backed out for various reasons. I felt like the shy, wallflowerish girl who suddenly attracts the attention of the cutest, most popular boy in school. He asks her to the prom. Then the day before the prom he changes his mind and goes with the cheerleader.
It was like that. I cried huge, snotty tears for hours on the day I got my book deal. I cried until my eyes almost swelled shut.
Do writers, in your opinion, need an agent to be published (or, at least, to increase their chances)? If you want to publish traditionally, yes. I’ve worked in the industry for 15 years and have written books for more than 9 different houses. I am friendly with many acquisition editors and I have a basic idea of what should and should not appear in a publishing contract. I still would never go it alone. Agents get you better deals. They argue on your behalf. They ensure you don’t get screwed over. They are worth their 15 percent and more.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? Oh, I can’t think of just one. There are several:
1. A book is really just a series of magazine articles hooked together with transitions.
2. Your publisher will promote your book for you.
3. If you have a great idea, that’s all you need to get a book deal.
4. Once you finish your first draft, the hard work is over.
5. Authors don’t have to know how to do anything but write. As long as they can write well, they will succeed. There’s no need to learn skills like public speaking, marketing, publicity, and digital technology.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? For many months, the book was my best friend. She consoled me. She listened to me. She soaked up my creativity. She validated me. She got me out of bed in the morning. I miss her dearly!
Do you plan to write another one? I would love to. There’s a book I want to write. I’m walking around with it in my head. I am driven to write it, and I’m driven, in part, because I believe it’s an important book to write.
I may or may not publish it traditionally, though. That all depends on a number of factors that start with how many copies of Project: Happily Ever After I can sell (and therefore increase my chances of getting another book deal) and end with my concern that traditional publishing as we know it is about to forever change—and I’m not sure, at this point, if it’s going to change for the better or for the worse.
Oprah has famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I just delivered a speech called “How Not to Get Discovered,” and it was all about not waiting for your Susan Boyle moment. If you wait around for a good fairy to come along and wave a magic book-publishing wand over your head, your book is never going to get onto a shelf in a bookstore.
I’ve had to work hard to get to where I am. I did, however, have a few magical moments along the way. I’ve never won anything in my life. Then last year I won four raffles. One got me a lunch date with an editor from Parade magazine. Another got me 6 months of free life coaching with Tim Brownson, someone who was instrumental in helping me overcome my fear of public speaking.
At various points during this journey, someone, somewhere seemed to magically hear about me and do something major to help me along. For that, I am grateful and blessed.
Want a sneak peak at Project: Happily Ever After? Check out the book trailer or read sample chapters here. Plus, Alisa is running a cool promotion through the end of January 2011 in which readers of her book (keep those proofs of purchase!) can win all sorts of prizes.