Thursday, February 28, 2019

How to Write and Publish--12--Agents and Contracts and Platforms, Oh My!

Let’s talk about more of the scary beasts in the publishing swamp: agents, contracts, and platforms.

In the process, we’ll note some of the differences between Mennonite and other publishers and conferences.

One conservative Mennonite publisher is Christian Light Publications. They also host a yearly conference that I’ve attended a few times. There’s no expectation that you’ll be writing for CLP if you attend. The stuff you learn is applicable anywhere.

I’ve also attended numerous one-day conferences and one week-long summer conference through Oregon Christian Writers. Their focus is writing for Christian book publishers such as Tyndale, Harvest House, and Moody, and also Christian magazines such as Guideposts and church take-home papers such as Live.


An agent is a go-between. He or she takes an author’s work and submits it to publishers. Most big publishers such as Tyndale or Penguin don’t accept work coming straight from the author. They insist you use an agent.

Agents are paid a portion of royalties—usually 10%--that an author earns, so they are motivated to get the author the best deal possible. Any agent who asks for payment up front is probably fraudulent.

An agent is also good at looking over your work and telling you if it’s publishable or not, and they are really good at deciphering all the fine print in your contract.

I don’t have an agent yet, but I’ve actually talked to a few of those scary creatures.

Last summer I attended the Oregon Christian Writers summer conference in Portland. They have an efficient system where you can sign up to talk to editors and agents one on one, in 15-minute slots.

One agent turned out to be Nick Harrison from right here in Eugene, whom I knew because he used to work at Harvest House and I ran into him now and then. Also his wife was a Yoder, once upon a time, so we have that in common, and her parents do machine quilting for a retirement hobby.

I signed up to talk to an agent whose list of preferred projects looked like a good fit for me, and she turned out to be Sherry Gore’s agent. Sherry is a Beachy-Amish writer from Florida, so that felt serendipitous. I wouldn’t have to explain what Mennonites are all about if I worked with her.

Then someone snagged me and said another agent would like to talk to me. That one was Bob Hostetler, who works for the Steve Laube agency and wanted to see if we were freindschaft and if I was interested in working on a book idea he had about the Amish.

So the agents turned out to be nice approachable people. I haven’t asked any of them to represent me, but it’s nice to know I have options.

And they are not as terrifying as I had feared.

At the OCW summer conference, I heard agents mentioned often, especially from the panel of book acquisition editors who answered questions about how to get our eager feet in the door. 

Not so at the CLP conference. I don’t think I heard the word once, which confirms that they are open to proposals directly from authors. 

In my experience, the same is true for other Mennonite publishers. Herald Press had contacted me about doing a book for their Plainspoken series, and I didn’t have time, but I sent a few other names their way. One of them was my daughter Amy’s friend Lori, who is an Amish missionary in Thailand and who writes beautiful stories and poetry. “Tell her to send me her idea for a book,” said the editor at Herald Press. No agent required.


If you’re writing a book for a Christian publisher, especially if it’s a Mennonite publisher, you might assume that contracts are not a big deal. If they offer you one, fine. If not, you’ll work it out with a verbal agreement because both you and they are honest, trustworthy, and Menno-nice.


Here’s my advice: Insist on a contract, on paper, no matter how Christian the publisher is. It should cover the types of rights they're purchasing, and for how long. Royalties, author discounts, what happens if they go bankrupt, and many more things you wouldn't have thought of including.

Take the contract they offer and have an experienced author, at the very least, look it over. An agent or a copyright lawyer would be even better. If the terms are questionable or outright unfair, negotiate or leave.

Carrie Stuart Parks, the speaker at a recent OCW conference, told how she published three how-to-draw books for a Christian publisher. Yes, there was that little line in her contract that said the publisher could pull from her books to add them to a compilation, and she wouldn’t receive royalties for that, only a set fee. But that seemed fair enough.

The publisher proceeded to take most of the content of her three books and put it into a compilation, for which she was paid a lump sum of $4000. That stopped the sales of the original books, and the compilation was a bestseller. She estimates that she lost $10,000 a year by agreeing to that little clause.

Two of my friends were ill-used by a now-defunct Mennonite publisher who changed remuneration on one author and also hedged and delayed about offering a contract. They held the other’s manuscript for a full year without making a decision, during which she couldn’t shop it around anywhere else, and then decided not to publish it because it was a bit too controversial.

Insist on professionalism. Don’t let them Menno-guilt you into a verbal agreement, vague terms, or royalties far below the industry standard. They are running a business, not a non-profit ministry, and they shouldn’t tell you otherwise. You may be a beginning writer, but if your work is worth printing, then you are worth being taken seriously.


This is your reach, influence, and readership. It would include blog readers, your email list, your newsletter list, Twitter and Facebook followers, groups who ask you to speak, and people who buy your books or read your magazine articles.

At the OCW summer conference, I heard about platform everywhere I turned. It seemed to be the terrifying qualification that every decision-maker insisted upon and every writer was desperately trying to build. I met far too many grandmas who finally had time to write their book and were hoping to have an acquisitions editor look at it, only to be stymied by that elusive platform qualification and the online and technological know-how it required.

I was told, numerous times, that in the old days you could sit in your attic and write, and the publisher took care of publicizing your work to readers. But today, the author is expected to fire up that train and keep it going, full steam ahead.

My nephew Jason has written a book on suffering, and I pitched it to a few agents, editors, and authors, because I think it is that good. They all evaluated its quality, but they seemed more interested in my nephew’s ability to keep cranking out books and, of course, his platform. Is he on Twitter? Does he have a podcast? Well then. . .

It seemed so wrong.

These are the tactics that “worldly” publishers have adopted, due to competition, ebooks, bookstores closing, focusing on a few big-name authors, and a host of other reasons. Christian publishers have followed precisely in their footsteps.

Another angle of the platform emphasis, which I have heard from a number of writers, is that, similarly to what Good Books did to me, publishers consider your blog “theirs," even if this wasn't specified in the contract. Suddenly they dictate what you post. You’re supposed to make lots of noise about your new book, and everything in your posts is supposed to fit the theme of the book. So if they published your book on cooking with turmeric, you’re in trouble if you post about caring for your grandma, unless you added turmeric to her soup.

I also sensed that the emphasis on platform is a big reason why writers are saying, “I go to the Gentiles.” If you have to do all that publicity either way, you might as well publish your own books. So self-publishing is making a neat end run around the big publishers, who are wringing their hands but not changing their techniques.

However. It was not so with the Mennonite publishers. Again, the word wasn’t mentioned at the CLP conference. Maybe, with the vast interconnectedness of the Mennonite world, it simply isn’t necessary. One mention in the catalog and everyone is informed.

Or maybe CLP and others know that promoting your own work goes against long-held and ingrained Mennonite tradition, and they are wise enough to work with the tradition instead of against it.

I wish I could send all the confused grandmas at the OCW conference to a Mennonite publisher.

Tomorrow: self-publishing books, and a list of decisions you need to make.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How to Write and Publish--11--Royalty Publishing: My Story and A Few How-To's

My one self-published book was doing well, considering, so I wanted to offer it to publishers.

But where to begin?

I did what you should do: looked carefully at books. Which ones were kind of like mine in content and tone? And who published them?

One day I read Dorcas Hoover’s book House Calls and Hitching Posts. “That’s it!” Folksy, human interest, connected to the Amish. I looked inside for information about the publisher: Good Books, in Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

I copied the address. I knew very well this wasn’t the “right” way to approach a publisher, but I wanted to act before I lost my nerve. I put a copy of Ordinary Days in an envelope and added a letter saying who I was and the story behind the book. Would they be interested in re-publishing it?

Yes, said the Goods. They would. 

They also let me know that they very seldom did reprints of this nature. I duly considered myself lucky.

They sent a contract, and I signed it in spite of the fact that it contained “options” which meant that Goods would get dibs on my next book, something my writing group adamantly advised me against.

Goods had said they see this as a long-term investment in me and my work, with other books down the road. I thought it made sense to do a series of similar books. Also, they promised to keep them in print even if the sales weren’t amazing, which is different from most publishers. So I signed. I still feel like it was fair.

Good Books eventually published three books.  The covers were done by Wendell Minor, a top-notch cover artist. The editor who made corrections was careful and respectful. If I planned to travel anywhere, Goods set up a book signing, if I asked.

With time, though, their tone changed. My books of family stories were fine, but what they really wanted was for me to write fiction, specifically and only for them. Amish fiction was popular and, I assume, they wanted to ride that wave as far as it would go, and I was obligated to them, you know?

Well, why not? I didn’t have a clue how to write fiction, but I was willing to try. For practice and fun I wrote a short story and posted it on my blog.

Very soon, I heard from Goods. We need to talk, they said, like your dad says We need to talk, after Stephanie’s mom tells your mom how you were driving last Monday, taking the girls to Aunt Rosie’s. Mr. Good let me know in no uncertain terms that if I wrote any fiction at all, it belonged to them. I was not ever to post any more fiction on my blog.*

I tried to explain, feebly, that this was my blog. Mine! What I put there was none of their business. And the silly story I wrote wasn’t meant to ever appear in a book.

My reasoning was firmly squelched, and so was my eagerness to write fiction. Whatever creative door had begun to swing open in my mind immediately closed with a loud clang and stayed shut. 

Some time after this, I sent the manuscript for a fourth book of essays, and Good Books decided not to produce it. That freed me from all “options” obligations, and I happily proceeded with self-publishing.

A few years ago, Aunt Susie called me. “You need to go online and look up Lancaster Online.” So I did, and there was the news that Good Books had just gone bankrupt.

What is it with my publishers going down in flames?

The next year was full of frustration, as I couldn’t order any more inventory and I needed books for sales and retreats, and also letters from lawyers and scrounging for news from other authors about what was actually going on.

Finally, Skyhorse Publishing bought out what was left of Good Books, paid our back royalties, and let us order books again. They have been wonderful ever since and recently put my three books together into a new book called Sunlight Through Dusty Windows, but first they let me buy the remaining stock of my three books for a low price.

I’m glad I’ve experienced both having a publisher and self-publishing. It’s taught me the advantages and disadvantages of both. Neither is risk-free, entirely pleasant, or necessarily lucrative.

How to submit your work to a royalty publisher.

The following is borrowed from Carrie Stuart Parks, the main speaker at the Oregon Christian Writers conference I attended recently. This is the standard process for working with Christian and secular publishers.

Steps to publishing nonfiction:
A. Query
B. Proposal
C. Contract
D. Write the book

Steps to publishing fiction:

A. Write the book.
B. Query
C. Synopsis and partial
D. Full manuscript
E. Find an agent
F. Contract

The truth is, I am as inexperienced at this process as you are. So I was sitting here Googling “Query” and “Synopsis,” when it occurred to me that you also know how to Google.

Here’s my own how-to list. 
1. Study what’s out there. Notice who published the books you enjoy. Go to the library or bookstore and look for books in your genre (category or type). Read book catalogs. Think about what sort of publisher you want—secular, Christian, Mennonite. Large, small. Local or anywhere. General or specific.

2. Learn about the process. Read how-to-write magazines. Take the plunge and go to conferences, where you will learn more in a day than you would in a month of self-study.

Writers tend to be introverts, and we think we can learn it all on our own from books and then seclude ourselves in our attics and type out manuscripts of flaming excellence. Trust me, you will be mingling with hundreds of other introverts, and you will learn so much, plus you’ll meet people who can put in a good word for you.

3. Learn from mentors and your writing group. Two women in my writing group landed 3-book deals, one in the last month and another in the last couple of years. I know that when I’m ready, they’ll be happy to walk me through the process. 

Tomorrow: the scary monsters: agents, platforms, and contracts

*Publishers like to commandeer your blog for themselves. It's unethical. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, February 25, 2019

How to Write and Publish--10--What is Book Publishing/Making the Decision

Should you self-publish a book?

We talked about Grandma’s life story. That definitely works best as a self-published book.

But what about your book of poetry, your novel, your parenting how-to, or your family’s cookbook?

First, let’s talk about “regular” or “royalty” publishers. These are companies like HarperCollins, Penguin, and Random House in the secular world, Revell, Bethany House, Thomas Nelson in the Christian world, and Carlisle Press, Herald Press, and Rod & Staff Publishers in the Anabaptist world.

This is how it works, vastly simplified:

You offer them your book manuscript.

If they decide to publish it, they buy it from you.

You both sign a contract.

They edit, design, print, advertise, and sell the book. You do not bear any of these costs.

You will get paid through royalties, which is a small percentage of the money that they get. Usually, you’ll get some money before the book sells. This is called an “advance” because it’s an advance on the royalties they hope you eventually earn. You won’t get any more royalties until this advance is paid off in their books. For example, if your advance is $1000 and your royalties are 50 cents per book, you won’t see any more checks until they’ve sold 2000 books.

You sell your work and all the rights to it. You can’t reprint any of it without the publisher’s permission, nor can anyone else. You can’t put it on Kindle or make an audio book.

Usually you can buy copies of your book for about half of the retail price and resell them to other people. You can’t buy copies and then stock them at your local bookstores. 

Advantages of having a publisher:

You don’t have to invest any money.

They do all the hard work to get it in print.

They have a much wider potential readership than you do.

They put the book in catalogs and make it available online. If you’re lucky, they arrange radio interviews and book signings.

Bookstores will consider your book if it’s from a reputable publisher.

Disadvantages of a publisher:

You’re selling your projects and all the rights to it.

You have no control over anything.

It can take years to find a publisher who will accept your work.

Increasingly, big publishers focus their energies on the big-name books and authors, and the less famous authors don’t get much attention. This is less true for the smaller publishers.

Also, increasingly, publishers insist on authors doing a lot of their own publicity. They look for new authors who already have a platform—speaking, article writing, or an online presence—and expect them to vigorously promote their own book. They also expect you to produce at least three books for them and aren’t interested in one-hit wonders. An exception is conservative Mennonite publishers.
It can be a tough decision. Generally, the experts in the field recommend that fiction should go to a publisher. But recently a woman in my fiction writing group, who is nearing the end of a very marketable (I think) novel, expressed her misgivings at signing away all the rights and ownership to her own work.

I don’t blame her.

And yet. The work and expense of producing and selling a novel are potentially enormous.

Other works such as children’s picture books, how-tos, poetry, devotionals, textbooks, and cookbooks are a tough call. If you have something polished and ready, but you’re not used to the process, I would recommend offering it to publishers first.

If they accept, you’ll learn a lot without any financial outlay.

If not, that might be your sign to pursue publishing it yourself.

As explained in the post about my self-publishing story, the swamp is full of people who would love to help you with the publishing process. Some of these call themselves publishers but they’re actually not really, as they never buy the rights to your book. They only help you get it in print.

Some of these are reputable, such as the long-standing church-cookbook producers.

Others are not. We note that WinePress went down in flames after they printed my first book. [Coincidence, I hope.] I just now did a quick search for a church-cookbook publisher and found one that explained the process and said, “Now that you know how simple it is, click here to get started!” That should be a warning right there, I would think, judging by Aunt Vina, who gave me her church cookbook and said emphatically that that is the first and last book she will ever be in charge of publishing.

With publishers, publishing helpers, and everyone else in the field, do your research before you commit. Ask around, read reviews, talk to authors, editors, and printers. A publisher with integrity will encourage you to talk to their authors about the experience.

To repeat what Sally Stuart told me, you’re a good candidate for self-publishing if:
a) You write non-fiction
b) You already have an audience
c) You don’t mind storing a thousand books in your garage
I would add:
d) You have money on hand to invest in the process.

Sometimes, it’s a tough call, and some books are unusual and ambiguous, like my friend Donna's piano-music books for children.

Pray about it, ask around, don’t take huge financial risks, and go with what seems wisest.

*     *     *
One Person's Story: Dorcas Stutzman and her new book, Dear Daughter

   I did self publishing.  It just makes sense for me because we have a pretty broad platform of reach and also because I really love to have my fingers in the process.  I have my own editor and proofreaders who know me well and who I trust tremendously not to take away from the meaning of what I am trying to communicate. That is a direct answer to prayer and I am so grateful.

     I have used Schlabach Printers for each of the books I have written largely because I liked what I saw them produce for others and I personally like the colors and styles of what they create so it seemed to be a perfect fit for me.  It has been an incredibly happy and creative relationship between them and myself.  I literally have no complaints.  They have successfully designed  each of my book covers to match what I saw in my mind.  They have given life to interior artwork ideas I had and brought creative  polish to them.  They have worked up pull quotes for me.  They have been helpful on every level and I would highly recommend them to anyone. 

     I know self publishing is not for everyone.  It can be a lot of money to put up front for five thousand or so books at a time and the storage space needed even if you have a market for them.  It can also feel a bit lonely at times and can produce massive amounts of self doubt! 

     In the end though, when you hold the finished product and you run your hand over the embossed cover (that you agonized over adding) you can’t help but smile with a genuine heart level happiness.  

     I may never write a best seller or be known for my writings, but yet I have been beyond privileged to have had the opportunity to share from my heart in written word. I don’t take that for granted.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

How to Write and Publish--9--Self-publishing, My Journey

My self-publishing journey:

Which is more dangerous:
1. Wading through an alligator-infested swamp at night, with pythons dangling from the mossy live oaks and malarial mosquitoes whining all around you?
2. Self-publishing a book, with smiling greedy helpful people at every turn insisting that for an entirely reasonable sum they can turn your work into a beautiful, polished book, edited to perfection, with an embossed cover, and available in bookstores, that the world will soon discover the wonders of, with only a tiny extra fee here and there?
You might want to choose the swamp.

One September a few years ago, a friend and I shared a table at an authors' fair. While many of the booths had authors selling their books, I was surprised at how many tables featured “publishing services.” Big well-designed signs promised to take your book from manuscript to finished product, emphasized by sample books with colorful, glossy covers. Editing! Design! Coaching! Covers! Ebooks! Postcards! Marketing!

At one table, they promised to take your files and turn them into an actual book on CreateSpace, finished and ready. For $1500.

Truth: you can turn your own files into an actual book on CreateSpace. For free.

Some of these people and services seemed legitimate, offering real services for reasonable prices. Others seemed like swindlers, preying on the desperate.

It felt like an alligator-infested swamp, and I was glad I was in my safe boat of having a trusted book designer and a well-known printer.

However, the only reason I could recognize the alligators was because I had navigated the swamp some time before and met my share of hungry crawling creatures.

In 2003, I had been writing a newspaper column for four years. A number of people had asked me if I had a collection of columns to sell, so I was thinking about publishing a book of these essays.

A friend of mine helped me pitch the idea to HarperCollins in San Francisco, but they weren’t interested. From my writers’ group, I knew that it can easily take five years of work before you find a publisher. If I already had people asking for it, maybe self-publishing was the way to go.

I went to an Oregon Christian Writers conference and found Sally Stuart, the queen of the Christian publishing world and the author, for many years, of the Christian Writers Market. “How do I know if I should self-publish?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Three things. Do you write non-fiction? Do you already have an audience? Are you ok with storing a thousand books in your garage?”

My answers were yes, yes, and yes.

This was way back when self-publishing was still considered “vanity publishing,” ebooks didn’t exist, and print-on-demand was at its beginnings. I had no idea where to start, but I knew I needed a lot of help.

I found a Christian publisher called WinePress, in Washington State, with a new print-on-demand division called Pleasant Word, all headed by a nice older woman named Athena Dean. As I recall, they used to have their materials at OCW events and seemed like a good fit for me. I decided to go with Pleasant Word.

This is what was good about the experience:
They were clear about their prices. They designed a cover exactly like I wanted it. They communicated well, with one exception. It was easy to order books. You didn’t have to order all the extras. For example, they offered all kinds of postcards, advertising, and radio interviews, all for a price. I didn’t want them, and didn’t have to pay for them.

What wasn’t so good:
I had a tight deadline for printing the books, because I wanted the books for a ladies’ retreat. I emailed in my manuscript and didn’t hear from them but assumed all was well. Someone there had dropped the ball, which I didn’t figure out until it was almost too late. I should have called immediately to verify that they got the document.

Part of the price covered the cost of an editor going through the book. I asked for an exception, since a newspaper editor had already worked on all these pieces. They said no. It was their way of ensuring a quality product. Sadly, the editor tweaked and altered in the most annoying ways, and I had to undo the damage afterwards, page by page. Later, Athena Dean told me that that editor is no longer with them.

About a year after they printed my books, WinePress was engulfed in scandal—read more here. A church took over the company, Athena Dean blew the whistle on the new publisher’s six-figure salary while employees weren’t getting paid, and worse. 

By this time, thankfully, my books were printed and I had all the inventory I needed.
WinePress went out of business in 2014.

Talk about narrowly avoiding the alligators in the swamp.

It didn’t take me long to discover the #1 drawback of self-publishing: I had to do all my own marketing. Maybe this isn’t so bad for Englisch authors, but if you’re still half Amish, sounding the trumpets in the streets about your book is simply torture. Should I advertise? If so, where and how? How could I get bookstores to carry my book? Should I do a mass mailing?

I had an audience in my newspaper readers, but how could I let them know about the book, since the paper didn't want me to write about it in my column?

Mostly, I relied on word of mouth and selling at events I was invited to. When I had sold 1500 copies, I was pretty sure a publisher would take me seriously. Impulsively, I sent the book and a letter to Good Books.

They signed me on.

I was so happy. 

The Goods at Good Books published three of my books, including the re-publication of that first one, and they were wonderful to work with, until they weren’t. I’ll write about that later.

Then I went back to self-publishing in 2012.

Everything had changed.

All kinds of websites, most notably Amazon’s CreateSpace, made basic self-publishing easy and free. Social media created an instant platform and easy publicity. Self-publishing was serious business and no longer considered vanity publishing. Ebooks were everywhere.

However, books from CreateSpace still had that self-published look, which I wanted to avoid. My friend Bob Welch recommended his friend Tom Penix, a graphic designer at the Register-Guard. “Expensive but good,” Bob said.

So I hired Tom. He found an appropriate font for the titles, laid out the pages, and wrote up all the copyright information. He scoured the internet for the sort of teapot illustration I wanted and bought the rights to the picture from the artist in England. The artist cheerfully popped the teapot lid for us and added the puffs of steam. Tom designed the cover and acquired the ISBN and bar code for the back cover.

Then he arranged with the printer, Friesens, in Manitoba, to print 2000 books. 

Tom didn’t do editing, however, so before Tom did the layout I hired an editor to go over the manuscript. 

I watched and listened, but Tom did the work, and I was delighted with the results. Later he did the same work for Footprints on the Ceiling.
Meanwhile, I signed up for an account with Kindle and put both books online as ebooks.

By the time I wanted to do Fragrant Whiffs of Joy, the newspaper was short-staffed and Tom was doing the work of four people. So I acted as a general contractor.

I emailed the artist in London to do the artwork for the cover. She agreed.

I hired our daughter to edit the content, someone else to do the line editing, and a third person to take the artist’s work and design a cover in an Adobe program.

I found a printer, AB Publishing in Michigan. Their designer did the page layout for a small fee. They helped me buy the ISBN and write up the copyright information.

And, of course, they printed the books. 3000 of them this time.

I felt like I had come into a good and pleasant land of flowers and sunshine. I hope my swamp and alligator days are all behind me.

Here’s my rule for self-publishing: ask lots of questions, do lots of research, learn from your mistakes. There’s something addictive about the process: you always want to apply your hard-earned lessons to yet another book.
Two updates: the artist in London, Laura Hughes, became quite well-known the last few years and even won an award for a children’s book. It was presented to her by Princess Eugenie. So that is my six-degrees separation from royalty.
Laura Hughes also did this artwork for my Muddy Creek Press brand.

Also, Tom Penix’s daughter Phoebe moved to Washington, DC, where our son Matt has lived for about five years. They met via a tiny bit of manipulation from Tom and me, but mostly, Phoebe’s grandma says, from the Holy Spirit, and they are now happily dating. 

Matt adds, So as Mom mentioned, Phoebe and I met and started dating due to a little helpful meddling from her and Tom Penix. 

One other detail: "Footprints on the Ceiling" has Phoebe's footprint. Tom inked her foot and used it as a model for the cover.

You never know what adventures will come from your writing.

Next: your self-publishing journey

Friday, February 22, 2019

How to Write and Publish--8--Grandma's Life Story

People often tell me things like:

“I want to write my life story for my grandchildren, but I don’t know how to begin.”

“Somebody needs to write about Grandpa. He’s had an amazing life. Would you consider doing it for us?”

“Grandma wants to write her stories, but she doesn’t know how to use a computer.”

I’m a writer, I often speak to seniors’ groups, and I am fascinated by people’s stories, so this subject is important to me.

Whether you’re the grandparent, the child, or the grandchild, this is a post just for you.

First, let’s affirm that this is a worthwhile project. Reflecting on life is a good exercise for anyone. When you write about it, you start to notice threads and themes. Ideally, you find a theme of redemption.

Also, when your parent or grandparent is gone or has dementia, suddenly you think of all the questions you’d like to ask them, and it’s too late.

The second thing to establish is that your goal isn’t a published, bestselling book. That sort of goal will tempt you to manipulate the story into something it isn't meant to be, hamper the free flow of memories, and make you vulnerable to false promises from pretend publishers. Your goal is to write down a life, primarily for the younger ones in the family.

If you like, you can limit this to a small and quite manageable project, as my sister Margaret did years ago. She got Mom and Dad to write down five or six stories from their childhoods, and Margaret added a few she recalled them telling her. She typed them up, added pictures, and had them copied and bound at a local printer.

Our children loved this book.

For a bigger adult-book-sized project:

1.       If you can make this work as a group project, wonderful. Usually, it needs two committed people: the grandparent telling their story, and one younger person who knows about computers and online research.

2.       Gather what you already have, like the letters on fragile onionskin paper that Uncle Johnny gave me, that Dad had written to him during the CPS years. Pictures, letters, postcards, journals—all of it will be valuable.

3.       This will all look like a huge task. You’ll start to think—We’re not writers. Why don’t we hire a writer to do this? The truth is, unless you’re quite well off, you won’t be able to pay a writer what he or she is worth.

Also, unless the subject of the book is a celebrity or historical figure, it’s unlikely that you can publish and sell enough copies to pay for a writer.

Usually, this is a work of love, not money.

4.       My method for my own future memoir—and all kinds of writing—is dozens of jotted notes to jog my memory. The other day I found a paper that said, “Going to school in the manure spreader.” That will be worth about 2000 words I think. Seriously, the manure spreader. What a reputation we must have had in the neighborhood. Ok, I digress. If you’re writing your own story, I recommend these jotted notes. Once we pass age 50, ideas show up once and then they’re gone. So capture them while you have the chance.

Also, if you can, recruit the children and grandchildren to jot lists of stories they recall Grandma telling them or pieces of history that are unclear.

5.       Choose a method and start recording stories in detail. Grandma can type on a typewriter, type on a computer if she’s managed this skill, or write longhand and then someone else can type it up later.

She can talk to another person who can take it all down as she speaks.

She can record her stories on a computer program like Audacity and save the files to be typed later. There are also talk-to-text programs and online transcription services. I am not an expert at any of this, but I know they are handy for people who would rather talk than write.

6.       Decide on a basic structure for the book. Do you want to move along chronologically, starting with birth and marching straight through the years? Are there eras that deserve more focus, such as the Depression and the war years? Do you want the book to follow separate themes such as travels, education, work, and family? Or do you want a general theme such as God’s guidance or surviving catastrophes or recovery from loss? If so, you’ll select more stories and memories that fit that theme, and omit others.

7.       A simple accumulation of memories makes for a fine book, but it’s good to ask “What does this show us?” about each incident. Does it show Dad’s personality, what Depression life was like, or God’s provision? Does it show the beginnings of your fear of speaking up? This will help shape your story and give it another layer of depth.

8.       As the stories accumulate, assemble and sort the memorabilia you’ve gathered. Letters and such can be included whole, quoted from here and there, or used only to verify events and dates. Photos can jog memories and can be included in the book at your discretion.

9.       If you’re the person helping Grandma with her book, one of the biggest decisions is whether and how much to alter and edit her story. On the one hand, it is her story to tell and she needs the freedom to tell it. On the other hand, if she talks about Uncle Elmer’s gambling habits and Cousin Ethel’s dirty floors, you’re going to have a family uproar--louder if you're Kropfs or Smuckers and quieter if you're Yoders, but an uproar in any case.

Also, if she repeats herself a lot, you should cut it down, with her permission. If it’s poorly written and hard to read, it will need some gentle edits.

Of course it will need basic proofreading—spelling and such.

The more it’s her words telling her story, the more authentic it will be and, in the long term, the more valuable. 

That is my opinion and you are allowed to disagree.

10.   I recommend an online printer for this kind of memoir. Here are a few possibilities:
Create Space (
Lulu (
48 Hour Books (

At these sites, you upload your document, and they help you format the book and design a cover. Then they’ll “print on demand,” which means printing the amount you need, when you need them, usually for a reasonable price.

You are hiring them to print the book for you. They are not publishers in the traditional sense. Sometimes you can order extra services such as advertising your book or putting it on or Ingram, the big book distributor. I don’t recommend these services, especially for this sort of book.

11.   If you don’t want to work online, find a local printer and see what they can do for you. For a memoir, 50 copies is a good number for a first printing—more if you have a large family, less if it’s small, using Mennonite standards for “large” and “small.”

Here are a few printers that friends of mine have recommended.
Carlisle Printing (
Schlabach Printing (
Masthof Press (

12.   If you find that people are passing the book around and asking for more, and you’re ordering 50 or 100 books at a time to meet the demand, then it might be time to re-publish the book with a professional cover, an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and bar code so bookstores can carry it, and a copyright page with all the necessary information. Or you could talk to a publisher about buying and re-publishing it.

13.   Putting a book together is not an easy process, but the generations to come will thank you.

Our Story:
Mom was the storyteller of the family. She is gone now, and I keep thinking of questions to ask her. One of these years I want to write her story—not so much a chronology of her life but a collection of the stories she used to tell us. I hope I can get my siblings to write down their memories for this project. I never pushed her to write her story because she told us so much of it verbally, but I should have encouraged to write more of it.

I wanted Dad to write his life story because it had so many intriguing historical elements—Civilian Public Service and settling Mennonite refugees in Paraguay, for example—and because he told us so little of it.

He spent four summers at our house and spent many hours on the couch with a lap desk on his thin legs, writing with pen—or “ball point” as he said—on paper. Our daughter Emily transcribed his work. I did very basic editing—turning MN into Minnesota, for instance.

Writing the book did not turn Dad into a storyteller, which should have surprised me less than it did. He still preferred dry recounting of events. But that’s ok. It was his to tell.

I felt that there were two big gaps in his story: he wrote very little about his and Mom’s courtship and life together and almost nothing about his relationship with God.
“Ach, I don’t want it to be a romance novel!” he said. All right then. We left it as it was.

Dad’s grammar and sentence structure were excellent as always, so we didn’t change that at all unless he repeated himself.

Dad chose the title: A Chirp from the Grass Roots, an imagery of a little cricket on the farm with something to say. He wanted sheep on the cover.

I was going to take my time with finding a printer, but suddenly I heard that he was going to a family reunion in three weeks. What a perfect book launching that would be, surrounded by a few dozen nieces and nephews. So I went online and found 48 Hour Books, where their turnaround time is literally 48 hours.

I contacted my friend Ellen Gerig who takes beautiful photos of local scenes, and yes, she had a picture of sheep in a field that I could use.

48 Hour Books had a great tutorial that walked me through formatting the pages. I added a few photos at the end, which wasn’t too difficult or expensive, since they were not in color. I uploaded the cover photo of sheep and also one of Mom and Dad for the back cover, and someone there helped me design the cover layout. I wrote the copy (words) for the back cover.

The cost was around $6 per book. If you ordered 100 copies you got 25 more free, so that’s what I did, and they reached Oklahoma in time for the reunion. I’ve ordered at least two more printings since.

It has not been a money-making venture at all, but I’m so glad I pursued it. One reader told his daughter who told me that Mr. Yoder is a much better writer than his daughter. I was delighted that Dad got a rave review.

Your grandparents' stories deserve to be written down. So do yours.

Here's Dad and Ernest Witmer signing books for each other.