Tag Archives: writing

Writing a book? Ha ha! (Step 5: It’s finished!)

On a regular school-­holiday­-Tuesday in August, LinkedIn congratulated me with a work anniversary. At about the same time, the doorbell rang. It was the postman with a package, containing five copies of a book.
The author?

So I wrote a book and it’s finished and published and if you wish, you can buy it on Amazon.painting-lilian-cover-bo034 Now what?

Well, if you’d ask me, I would answer that it’s no big deal. It’s not even 100 pages and I’m not a writer with a story in her head that has to be told. You could do it too. It’s just a coincidence that someone I already knew, read my blogs and asked me to share her daughter’s story (which accidentally became a bigger project). However, the other day I replied with the sentences above to a question from a friend about the book thing. She looked at me and said: ‘Don’t ever say that again. Don’t downplay what you’ve accomplished. Just share what you’ve learned from it.’


So what did I learn from writing about a young, very talented Chinese girl? A girl named Lilian Chu, who likes to go by the name Liane, was born in Hong Kong, moved to Shanghai and then moved again to New York when she was 15 years old. She was 17 when we got in touch and had just gone through a rough period in her life. I’ve had countless conversations with her and her mom (Maggie) and I’ve written a few blogs about the process, that you can find here for example, should you be interested ) :)

My three biggest insights

1. Build your story step by step

The idea of writing a whole book was frightening in the beginning. Where do you start?! After a lot of procrastination, I just started with interview one, then another and from there I slowly grasped what I was doing and how to do that best. It’s like a puzzle; every piece makes more sense. What I noticed is that I especially like creating rhythm in the book and that I like to write as if you had written it yourself. If people mention that my article, blog, or book reads easy, my mission is accomplished.

2. Love and trust are key

I highly value trust in every relationship and I also need to fall in love with ‘my subject’. Not for real of course, but I do need a strong connection and the feeling that you can and want to share basically everything with each other. I’ve written about this ‘falling impersonal love’ before and it still holds. I didn’t only interview Lilian and her mom, I looked forward to every conversation. I wanted to get know them and their personalities. After a while I could sense when they didn’t want to talk or needed more time. I knew when to push and when to back off. We laughed and shared stories, had fun and learned. Oh my gosh, I learned so much from them, about their relationship and their culture. Love and trust unlock your inner feelings.

3. Teamwork makes me happy

I need to be responsible for a task myself (otherwise nothing will happen), but working together is what makes me happy. Of course Maggie, Lilian and I formed a team, but I quickly realized I needed a coach, an editor and a language corrector. Luckily I knew people through my network with all the required expertise. They of course helped me with their knowledge, but there was more. I had to prepare my conversations with them and I was therefore forced to set deadlines. I had to reflect and I also liked to just chit chat with them now and then as writing a book can be a very lonely process. Working in a team fuels my fire.

So, let’s try it again

‘Hey, Eva, I heard you wrote a book, tell me about it?’

Honestly? I will probably giggle and say something like: ‘Well, you know, it’s more a story then a real book.’ I know I will do that because I’ve tried to be serious and well, I failed. I guess I’m more a ‘process person’ than a ‘final product person’. However, if you would ask me to write your autobiography, I would totally love to do that without hesitation. Writing Lilian’s story also taught me that the elements I mentioned will have to be part of any future assignment; I really like to write, working together in a team keeps me on my toes and eventually, all you need is love.

Writing a book? Ha ha! (Step 4: Where would I be without Saar)

Book Lilian, writing a bookThis piece is not written by me, it’s written by Sarah Breimer (Saar) who – amongst a few others – helps me writing
my book . Skyping with Sarah gives me a deadline, a reason to focus and she helps me further in my process. Apart from this, she is a fun and bubbly person and great to talk with. Oh, we never Skype with video btw as your own head is very distracting.

The writing process

When Eva and I ‘met’ online and started talking about the book she was about to write, she immediately impressed me with her energy and her open mind towards my role in the process. As a writer, it can be hard to take a step back and look at your own work. It is almost impossible, but, especially with non-fiction, it is very important that you do. It can be useful to see if you are still doing what you set out to do. And if you are not, if that change is for the better or should you refocus?

Eva asked me to be her first reader. This basically means that every once in a while I read along with her and together we discuss the challenges she faces in this process. She decides when she needs us to meet for a next round. We pick a day, she sends me her work and I read it.

While reading, I always have a few questions at the back of my mind. Is this still the story Eva intends to write or is she drifting in other directions? Is it evocative enough, does it have the right tone, does it tickle my mind as a reader or am I slowly falling asleep? Afterwards, when we meet for our Tuesday morning/evening Skype meet-up, we talk endlessly. Is this the right track? Why is there so much information on this and so little focus on that? Where is this all leading to, why did you decide to add this element or leave out something else?

Not all of those questions need immediate answers. They merely function as pointers for Eva to think about and to take on as she goes along in the process. Most of the time it already helps to talk about the story to clear your writers’ mind or to remember what you had set out to do originally.

As a writer, I know how challenging it is to talk about the story you have been working on so intensely. It takes a strong and open mind to be able to talk about your own writing without feeling criticized or doubted. Eva has that mind and that is sheer pleasure for an editor. I have grown to love our Tuesday morning/evening meetings, as for me they are so full of inspiration, recognition and good talk. I can’t wait for Eva to finish her book and be extremely proud of herself. I know I already am.

Writing a book? Ha ha! (Step 3: Prepare)

Bk Lillian, prepare

After that first conversation when you get to know each other you’re on to the real thing. You have to pick a subject from your ‘table of contents’ (see previous blog) and start preparing if you want to move beyond the level of ‘chitchat’. I wanted to start with the historical part, which was all about China and Hong Kong. Where should I start?

1. Collect background information

Honestly? It wasn’t me who started preparing. Based on the conversations I had with Maggie and Lillian, I figured it would be great if they would create a timeline and a family tree. Maggie would create the family tree to give an overview of her and her husband’s family within a frame of Chinese and Hong Kongese history. It would give meaning to the choices the families had made within a historical context. Lillian created a timeline to highlight the big events in her life.
Both Maggie and Lillian worked on their ‘assignments’ and it turned out great. Now I had a few key elements that I could use for my own preparation.
– This is especially a great tool if you’re writing an autobiography, although you could argue that a fictional book character needs some background to be as real as possible too, so it might work anyway. –

2. Brainstorm questions and ideas

I knew I had to focus. When I just started blogging, I easily wrote about 48 different subjects in one blog. When I started writing for a magazine the editor politely asked me if I could stick to one single subject per column? Right. How to do that?
A writer-friend handed me a brainstorm technique: Think of a dish, such as salmon, and think of 20 different ways to serve salmon. It’s all about being creative with that one single subject. If you can do that, you can apply it to your blog, column and interview questions.
Okay! I, for example, wanted to get more information about how Maggie lived and under what circumstances. I asked myself what the reader would like to know and what I would do if I were her? I would think of a possible answer Maggie would give me and thought of a fictive next question. I grouped those questions and thought of 10 more questions per subject. It resulted in endless white sheets with post-its with a lot of questions that I later categorized and translated to the actual questions.

To sum it up:

Brainstorm ‘Salmon’
Subject -> write down as many questions as possible -> categorize the questions – > think of 10 more questions -> ask ONLY the relevant ones during the actual interview.

It works for me and it makes it easier to relax during the interview and chat as if I didn’t prepare. I use it when writing columns and articles as well.

3. Fail to prepare? Prepare to fail.

If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. That’s a fact. You might have a nice, short conversation if you don’t prepare. If anything, the information gathered is probably not very useful. Yes, of course you can fill in blanks later and ask questions to clarify things you’ve written down. BUT you don’t want to waste your time or worse, waste the time of the people you’re interviewing. Besides that, you want to be relaxed and being prepared takes away half of your stress upfront.

The interview went well, I’ve had a few more and started wondering what my next step would be? I thought this would be the right time to have another chat with Sarah who guides me in my writing process. Was I doing the right things?