This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revisions processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.
I “discovered” Melody’s nonfiction writing several years ago, when I was moderating her panel at the Texas Book Festival with the release of her first book This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. As a bit of a lifelong peregrine myself, having frequently relocated to new towns, I loved her suggestions on creating community and making home where you are—learning to love where you live, rather than trying to find “the perfect place.”
Since then I’ve been a huge fan of her newsletters, which are always pithy, engaging, and informative (she has some of the best links to fascinating and funny material of any newsletter I subscribe to). And with the release of her latest book, If You Could Live Anywhere: The Surprising Importance of Place in a Work-From-Anywhere World, Melody continues what she terms her obsession with “this concept of place and how it affects us and how we make choices about where we’re going to live.”
But she didn’t originally set out to become a writer on place and belonging–in fact she didn’t set out to be a writer of nonfiction books at all. Melody wanted to major in journalism, but quickly shifted to English lit to avoid the math requirement. “That was literally my thought process there–I’ll just do English and then I’ll never have to do math again,” she says.
She knew she loved to write, but didn’t really believe there was a career to be made out of it. “It just felt very mysterious and faraway.” But after graduation she worked for an academic journal, shifting to part-time when she and her husband and young child moved to Utah, and realized she had the opportunity to pursue freelance writing.
Launching a Writing Career
She researched how to break in and started pitching, landing an initial assignment with a small local free publication, and worked to parlay that initial success into “slightly bigger and better things,” she relates, eventually landing a 350-word piece in a national publication, Parenting magazine, on games to play with your baby. “I was right in the middle of that world then, and this I was what I was deeply interested in anyway.”
She continued to build on her successes, eventually landing assignments writing profiles for Woman’s Day, another national. “That was sort of the next breakthrough for me–realizing that I really liked writing about people.”
That trait of writing what personally appealed her, leaning into her own experiences to find material, is what finally led Melody to her first book. When she and her family relocated yet again—this time from Austin, Texas, to Virginia—she found herself floundering for a sense of belonging and engagement in her new hometown, thinking, “There should be a book about this process and there isn’t, and maybe I’m the one to write that.”
She began working on it over the next three years: figuring out the structure of the book, still doing freelance magazine work, and trying to develop the extensive proposal required for pitching a nonfiction book—especially without “a massive platform,” as she puts it.
That was when self-doubt set in. One night she told her husband she was thinking of dumping the whole idea, and he encouraged her to take a month off of everything else and just work on the proposal—which she finished.
She then spent another month researching agents in Publisher’s Marketplace so she could send specifically targeted queries to agents who had sold similar books and might be a good fit—including those who were transplants to New York City for whom the book’s themes of place and belonging might resonate.
Melody queried the first ten or so agents on her wish list and got requests for proposal from almost all of them, and offers from three.
The agent she chose—at Fletcher Company, the same agency who represented Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project, which Melody felt was a strong comp for her own—sold the book to Viking for a healthy advance, and nearly seven years later the book is still selling.
“I think it has been a slow burn,” she says. “It’s very much a word-of-mouth book. But I feel good about it. I feel good that it’s still interesting to people, that people are still picking it up, it still sells reasonably steadily and I still get people reaching out in some way to tell me that it’s meant something to them…. I think as a writer that’s really meaningful. That’s what you hope for—that this book makes a difference in someone’s life. To me that’s always mattered more than earning out your advance.”
Adapting to the Challenges of Publication
One unforeseen struggle for Melody lay in marketing the book. “It’s deeply uncomfortable for me. I’m not super active on social media–except lurking on other people’s posts. I have a hard time posting about myself and my work and book.” She realized, though, how much she did enjoy creating her newsletter, and dedicated herself to that.
“The other thing that came as a shock to me was, ‘You’ve published a book; now you need to talk about it all the time,’” she adds of the many podcasts, radio interviews, and events that marketing the book entailed. “The whole reason I become a writer is because I hate that. I’m an introvert and I don’t feel really successful at that.”
But Melody reminds herself how much she likes having done that type of marketing: “While it’s happening it may or may not feel good, but when you’re done it’s always a rush. I’ve met some amazing people doing speaking and had some really cool interesting opportunities because of it. But it definitely makes me hugely nervous beforehand, so I’ve had to learn to deal with that.”
Melody’s Advice for Building a Nonfiction Career
I asked Melody to share her advice for writers looking to succeed in nonfiction.
- Start small and build on your successes: “There are so many avenues to write online, there are so many avenues to self-pub your own work. Anything that gives you a chance to get your words out there is useful and it’s a useful proof that you can do this. At the end of the day it’s sort of a portfolio career, meaning that your work is what sells you, and being able to show that you can do this.”
- Use the process to develop your skill and craft: “The more opportunities you have to write about even things you’re not super excited about, like credit cards and cleaning tips, which I have done, the better you get at it.”
- Be patient and persistent: “It is a long haul sometimes. You may need to do some years of legwork to build the platform you need to publish a book, and that’s okay.”
I also asked her to share some of her editing and revision process, which, true to form, she did in an informative, thorough, yet delightfully entertaining way.
How Melody Warnick Revises
I have to trick myself into writing. I tell myself, “I’m just going to do an outline!” I set Pomodoro timers, then let my “five minute” breaks stretch to 20. Sigh.
Revising, on the other hand, I can’t get enough of. This may be the one place where saying that doesn’t make me sound like the insufferable kid in eighth–grade English who’s all, “Hooray, we get to diagram sentences!” (I was her too.) But the revision process taps into the puzzling part of my brain. Rearranging and organizing and cutting and coming up with the just-right gorgeous word is like playing a game. I mean, not always. Sometimes it’s horrible too. But I’m about five times as likely to enter a flow state doing revisions than I am doing writing, and for that reason alone I’m like, Serve it up.
Here’s how I approach it:
1. I force myself to get the writing down. I strictly adhere to Anne Lamott’s “crappy first draft” idea. When I was writing my second book, I forced myself to crank out 1,000 terrible words a day (which I faithfully marked in a calendar, à la Jerry Seinfeld), telling myself all the while to not think too hard or reread too much. I just needed a draft, and everything would get cleaned up in the revision process.
2. I save a copy of the Word doc. I’m paranoid about making something worse or accidentally murdering some irreplaceable darling, so once I’m ready to revise I’ll save the doc as “Article revision 2” or whatever. And I keep repeating this step, anytime the edits are about to get real. Some things end up at “Article revision 8,” and yes, I have a problem.
3. I read and reread. I think I’m a bit of an aural writer; I need the words to sound right together. So I read the piece I’m revising over and over again, sometimes out loud. Basically I’m looking for problematic writing, which could mean almost anything. Sections that don’t make sense. Sentences with ugly metaphors. Quotes that aren’t working as hard as they should. Paragraphs whose tone is a little off. Sentences that are convoluted. Sentences that I’ve pared down till they’ve become too simplistic. I keep reading and reading and cutting and rewriting till things sound right to me. Or till they’re shorter, because I always write longer than I should.
I’m also one of those people who absolutely obsess over beginnings. The first few sentences in an article or paragraphs in a book section have to be just right or I can’t possibly carry on. Even when what needs my attention is five paragraphs in, I’ll start reading it from the top to verify that everything that gets us there is okay. (With a book the top is usually the start of a section, not the start of the whole book, thank goodness.)
4. I work big to small. Revising is kind of like Marie Kondo-ing my work. First we have to move out all the ridiculous crap and rearrange the major pieces of furniture. But eventually we get to bring in all the cute Container Store bins and pretty the whole place up.
5. I save more things. If I’m feeling skittish about eliminating certain lines or paragraphs, I’ll copy and paste them into a separate doc called “Extra.” Things very rarely make the reverse journey from “Extra” back into the final version, but it gives me some small comfort knowing they still exist in the world.
6. I sweep for final problems. When I was revising If You Could Live Anywhere, I started keeping a list of pet words and phrases I used a humiliating amount. One of my very last acts of revision was doing a find-and-replace search and making sure these vocab words did not show up more than a couple times. (I’m sure when you read it you’ll find all the ones I missed.)
7. I try to take the criticism. Here’s my dirty little secret: I don’t really ask people to read my rough drafts. With my first book, This Is Where You Belong, I made my husband read it before it went to my editor. Feeling weird about my lack of beta readers, I even asked a few friends to read the first chapter. But for the second book, If You Could Live Anywhere, not a soul saw it beyond my editor at Sourcebooks. Not even my husband.
I’m telling myself it’s just a time crunch thing. Because I write nonfiction, I’m generally on deadline and I haven’t worked in beta-reading wiggle room. But the truth is I’m a little neurotic about criticism (also about praise, go figure), so I just leave it to the professionals. With their edits, I might have a pang of “Ugh” initially. But after lots of magazine work, I also have a “they’re the boss” deference and I don’t tend to argue, instead telling myself they know what they’re doing. It’s my editorial form of radical acceptance.
8. I stop. Here’s my other dirty little secret: I have a really hard time reading things I’ve written. It’s torturous. There’s this odd, echoing quality to the work, like listening to a recording of your own voice. Is that me? Is that what I really sound like? I HATE that. (Writing a book: not always great for the mental health.) That can lead me to obsessive over-editing, trying to fix this problem that isn’t really there. By the last round of proofs on This Is Where You Belong, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at it again. Five years later I was finally able to read a chapter and think, “Hey, this is okay.”