I sometimes think my parents named me Jo for a reason. It’s short for Joanna, actually, but I have been just plain Jo for decades now. Have you heard the phrase ‘honest Joe’? Well, that’s me! It’s a monika I’ve had to learn to live with.
When I became an authors’ mentor in 2002, after getting 15 books of my own published and working as a journalist for a few years, I had a fair bit of experience underneath my belt. I’d had my failures and in fact my publisher rejected every page of the first book I was commissioned to write on wordprocessing. Yep, I had to start from scratch.
My first magazine editor, back in 1987 in Dubai, told me straight.
“Well, you’re a new writer but you have good ideas and you show promise,” she said. “So I’m going to ask you to write for me and then rip your work to shreds. If you can take that, you’ll learn the craft on the job.”
I decided I could take that and there began a long career in which I wrote thousands of feature articles for magazines all over the world, and even ended up editor myself.
So, by the time I became an authors’ mentor I had graduated from the school of hard knocks. I knew that if I was to be any good I had to be honest with my clients and tell them exactly what I thought. Thank goodness I’m British and the art of giving people bad news in a jolly nice way was in my blood! I’m pretty good at beginning a piece of particularly tough criticism with words such as:
“I’m really sorry to tell you this, but…”
“Would you mind changing …”
I don’t like being nasty to people. I even tell them that what I suggest is only my opinion and they can take or leave it, but that I would not be doing my job if I didn’t say it as I found it.
Nevertheless, I do not like giving negative feedback. And always try to go back over my comments to soften them a bit if I can. I still quake when I press the send button, but I know I must do it.
But when one of my friends comes to me for advice that is really hard. I SO don’t want to offend them, that not only do I quake when I press the send button but I worry about what they will think of me when they read it and whether our friendship will be over. But, like I said, it’s my ‘job’ and I have to be professional even with a friend.
So, two weeks ago, I found myself reviewing a book for a really good friend of mine. He’d already written it and published it and as I read I knew I was likely to cause a commotion with my comments. But I did a really thorough job, and didn’t even charge him for it. I just could not keep my mouth shut. I wanted his book to be the best it could be and knew that as the book was print on demand, fixing it did not mean he’d have to bin the 2,000 copies in his garage. So, I said what I thought, pressed send and lay awake for a couple of hours that night.
The next day, an email was waiting for me when I got to my desk. I felt sick. I saved the email 'til last and gingerly opened it.
“Nobody has ever taken the time or trouble to give me such a high level and really useful critique … Ever !!! And I really appreciate the time you’ve spent and your intention of love .
I love all those ideas and they would be great to wrap into a second edition …
I take them all on board and will mull on how best to implement them rather than my usual “drop everything approach” – I do want this to be a big success.”
I could breathe out at last and I am delighted to report that we will work together on that second edition – on a professional basis.
The reason I share this with you today is that I know how hard it can be to even dare to ask for feedback from a professional. I also know how hard it is to give negative critique. However, thanks to my friend’s wonderful email, which he has given me permission to share, I have had my belief endorsed that it really OK to be honest – even with a friend.
It came out less than two weeks ago and already I see it has 11 raving reviews on Amazon. This is a wonderful book, though heartbreaking, terrifying and emotional. Paula Lucas, an abused expat wife who managed to escape with her three children and not only tell the tale but start a charity to help others in her situation, is a fabulous writer. Here I interview her about her book, Harvesting Stones.
JP: Tell us about Harvesting Stones. What is it about? Can you describe it in just a few sentences?
PL: It’s about my journey as a young American woman who thought her life was going to be wonderful living and travelling overseas, but instead it turned into a nightmare. Even more so, it is about overcoming the terrible things that happened and instead of taking the stones that were thrown, and throwing them back, harvesting them to make a better life for myself and others.
JP: Why did you write the book?
PL: To raise awareness of the problems faced by Americans abused overseas. Also, to rally support for the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center (AODVC), so it doesn’t have to close and stop providing life -saving services for American domestic violence and sexual assault victims overseas. Services to Americans overseas are not written into the legislation of the Violence Against Women Act that provides funding to domestic violence and sexual assault programs in the USA, despite our efforts and the efforts of other victim’s rights advocates. No other government funding is currently allocated to serve American victims overseas and the possibilities of future government funding are bleak. We need AODVC to become a community-supported resource.
JP: Why do you think your book needed to be written?
PL: There is a misconception that American freedoms travel with us overseas and I think it is important for people to understand that is not the case. So many times I have been told, “There is no need for AODVC services. All Americans have to do is go to the American embassy for help.”
The help American embassies can offer is very limited though and they don’t do direct service, just provide referrals. They are bound by the laws of the country they are located in, so diplomacy has to be their priority. Our first priority is the victims. The wrap-around services we provide for American victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are extensive and life-saving. Victims often have to break laws of foreign countries if it means getting back home safely to the USA. AODVC fills the critical gap in services desperately needed for victims.
JP: Who do you think will read your book? Or who would you like to read your book?
PL: I think the book has a wide audience. It’s an American success story… maybe not a financial success story, but success in terms of overcoming insurmountable obstacles, starting a grassroots movement and successfully helping thousands of Americans in crisis overseas. There are many themes weaving through the story: corruption, testing belief in God, the oppression of women, betrayal, abuse, terror, and so on. It has something for everyone. It is a book about empowerment and determination. It reads like a novel, a thriller I guess, so hopefully it will appeal to a wide range of folks and not just women, but men too.
JP: What steps have you taken (or do you plan to take) to promote your book? Which methods do you think work best and can you give any examples?
PL: I have a Facebook page and a website, where folks can read the first chapter for free.
AODVC has a monthly e-newsletter. We put an article in the September newsletter and will do it again in October when the book is published. I do speak nationally and internationally as an expert on the abuse of Americans overseas. In the past five years my staff and I have presented on the ground in 40 cities in 25 foreign countries, and much more via webinar. I have several speaking engagements lined up in Washington DC and Boston in October and November, and will do more speaking engagements on the West Coast when I get back. I have sent out review copies and have gotten some wonderful feedback. I will put out press releases on 7 October when the book is published.
JP: How did you choose your publisher and publishing method? Why did you decide to take this route?
PL: I have known Jo for many years and felt that Summertime Publishing was a good fit for my memoir. I had thought about self-publishing because I knew my self-imposed deadline was tight, but I am glad I didn’t. Having the Summertime team supporting me has been fabulous. They understood the urgency of getting the book out as a fundraising and awareness tool for AODVC and have been just amazing to work with.
JP: What was your biggest challenge regarding the writing of your book? How have you overcome that?
PL: The biggest challenge was going back and reliving the abuse so the reader could truly experience what happened, but do it in a way that is compelling and not traumatizing or makes people want to stop reading. I hope that folks, knowing from the onset that the book ends triumphantly, will stick with me through the tough times so they can also experience the accomplishments. I will have to wait and see what the readers think to know if I was able to achieve that.
JP: What has writing Harvesting Stones done for you, your family, your self-esteem or your business?
PL: Writing the book for me was cathartic, although I admit I feel vulnerable putting intimate details of my life out into the public. So far I have had great feedback except for a few nasty remarks, but with anonymity on the internet, people say mean things to you that they would never say in person. So I will just send love and light to those that feel they need to be hateful.
There has been some re-traumatization for my sons after they read the manuscript, so we have had lots of talks and tears lately. We are very close and they are strong. To heal sometimes you have to go back to go forward.
JP: If you were to give advice to someone else who is thinking about writing a book of this nature, what would be your number one tip?
PL: It’s normal to second-guess yourself. Multiple times I thought, “No one is going to want to read my memoir. Why am I writing it?”
So write it for yourself as a tool to purge the memories, move beyond the pain and don’t worry about anyone else.
I was pretty shocked a couple of years ago when one of my children, then in his late teens, asked me where you put the stamp on a letter. He also asked me where you wrote the address on the envelope.
When I was at school we were taught how to write letters, complete with our address top right and theirs top left, above the salutation. These days everyone sends text messages and emails. Sometimes we don’t even bother to add ‘Dear’ and the recipient’s name. We never worry about whether to use ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘yours faithfully’ at the end. We just write ‘cheers’ or ‘best wishes’ and type, not sign, our name.
Overhearing conversations between young people I often hear them saying, “I’ve been talking to so and so,” when they mean they have been emailing, texting, Whatsapping or Facebook messaging them. Sorry, folks, that is not ‘talking’.
I don’t know about you, but when I send emails, I tend to write fast and short. When I read emails I read fast too.
But when I first went abroad 25 years ago, my mother and I wrote letters to each other every Sunday. Thin blue airmail paper and thin blue envelopes with red, white and blue borders, remember? From about Wednesday onwards, I’d eagerly await the sound of Ian’s key in the lock at the end of the day, in the hope that he’d have my letter from home with him. I’d curl up on the sofa and read it through, savouring every word. I’d read it again the next day too and maybe a third time. I’d pass it to Ian and he’d read it and then we’d maybe chat a bit about the parochial goings on in Rutland and how she’d just won first prize of 25p in the local flower show.
At Christmas I write a newsletter, print and post it, my signature and a brief note added to the end, to about 100 people. But that doesn’t count, does it?
Today, as I start a new life with Ian in Kuala Lumpur, the thought of writing letters didn’t cross my mind. Oh no, I had a better idea – I’d write a blog and then my mother, my brother, my friends and anyone else who cared could read something I’d only had to write once. And so sunnyinterval began and I’m thoroughly enjoying posting on it once or twice a week. Writing a blog has become a bit like a diary, allowing me to savour everything that happens knowing I need to pay special attention in case I write about it later. And then I relive it when I write it down and am delighted when people I really care about, and some I never even met, write comments.
Writing a blog brings out the ‘columnist’ in me. The person who wants to write about the mundane in a fun and hopefully compelling way. It lets me practise writing with focus, a purpose and a beginning, middle and end and it lets me write in stories.
Sometimes I put a poem on the blog. I’ve loved writing poetry for my entire life, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I allowed myself the joy of writing several a month. The thing I love about poetry as a medium is that it lets me be more honest and vulnerable about the way I feel or how something has affected me. Only, with a poem, I can wrap the sometimes painful truth up in a metaphor, thereby protecting me a little and allowing readers a peek inside my soul.
So, armed with a diary, of course, my blog and an exercise book for poems, I thought had it all covered.
Then my son, who lives in London, set me a challenge.
“I want you to write me letters,” he said.
“But we can Skype,” I replied. “And Facebook message. We have Whatsapp and email.”
“But I want you to write me letters.”
“OK.” I gulped. “Will you write back, then?” I had visions of renewing my Sunday date with pen and paper and never receiving anything in return, never knowing whether my letters arrived and if he even liked them.
“Tell you what,” he suggested. “You write first, then I’ll reply. Then you reply to me. Like that.”
What a brilliant idea! Isn’t that how my letter writing life used to be when, before the days of email my old girlfriends and I would correspond throughout the year?
And so, quietly excited at the prospect, I went on a hunt for that thin blue airmail paper of yore. I discovered they don’t sell it in the high street any more. For shame. I learned though, through a Facebook plea, that a website called Etsy has it. Anyway, on my first day in KL I bought some proper red, white and blue envelopes and some thinnish yellow paper and on Sunday I wrote my first letter in years and years.
Do you know what? I loved it. I found it opened a part of me that had not been used in ages. I wrote myself dry on topics that, in an email, I’d touched on and in a blog I’d focused on trying to describe in a writerly way, rather than just how I felt. I told him things I’d already told him about briefly on Skype. This was different. And dare I say it, better? I wrote in more detail and watched the pages fall away as, after about half an hour, I’d actually only written about one part of our new life. After 8 sides of paper, I realised that was probably all the envelope could stand and went hunting for a post office.
I am excited that Josh set me this challenge. It has awoken a dormant part of my writing self and it has surprised me. Over the decades since email, I have begun to take the stacatto bursts of communication for granted and considered them normal. They are a new normal. I think I preferred the old ways.
All the latest news from the team at Summertime Publishing
Summertime on Facebook