Online Editor’s Note: I first met Isabelle Gecils, an October 2014 graduate of the Stanford Writing Program, when she read an excerpt of her upcoming book Leaving Shangrila at San Francisco’s premier annual event, LitQuake. She so impressed me during her reading that I requested her card after our graduation luncheon and saved it, knowing there would be a chance to introduce her to others when her book came out. Gecils’ was born in Brazil but her immediate family hailed from six different countries: her father from France; her mother and grandmother from Egypt; one grandfather from Turkey; another grandfather from Lithuania; and a second grandmother from Poland. She grew up belonging nowhere and everywhere. She says, “There is a certain amount of freedom in that.”
Kirkus Review declares Leaving Shangrila: The True Story of a Girl, Her Transformation and Her Eventual Escape, “The poignant life story of a woman who escaped a restrictive past to embrace an independent future.” Although it publishes on May 10, 2016, the book is available for pre-order now.
Gecils graciously agreed to share her journey to publication with Little Patuxent Review readers.
I handed over my final manuscript of my memoir, Leaving Shangrila, to Otis, my book advisor, with a sigh of relief. A feeling of pride swept over me.
“This is great!” Otis said.
“You’ve built a great foundation,” he said. “Now all you have to do is build the house.”
After I’d spent ten years getting to this point how could he think that I’d only built a foundation? “The house is already built. It even has a roof.” I felt a mix of frustration and panic that three full revisions of my manuscript had not resulted in a complete structure in his mind.
“Then after you congratulate yourself for getting this far, turn on your computer, get back to your writing, and make it better,” he said.
Here’s the truth: Despite having traveled from San Francisco months earlier to ask my Portland-based advisor to guide me, I had only reluctantly accepted the advice I professed earlier that I had wanted. After his proclamation, I labored over my manuscript for the next six months under the nightly glow of my computer screen. I deleted entire sections, expanded on dialogue and scene, added complexity and depth to characters, and filled in plot holes.
Heeding Otis’ advice improved my manuscript, and I felt confident that my fourth draft was as good as I could make it. I registered for the San Francisco Writers Conference, the premier writer’s conference on the west coast which last four days.The event is packed with 100+ sessions for writers — from the craft of writing to the business of publishing.Thus, armed with multiple printed copies of a 107,000-word manuscript and a book proposal — drafted with guidance I obtained from a Google search on how to write proposals — I arrived with a singular purpose. My goal? Find an agent and a publishing deal for Leaving Shangrila.
To achieve this goal, I registered for speed-dating sessions with agents. Ironically, these sessions fell on Valentines’ Day. To prepare, I first attended a panel where the agents introduced themselves and talked about the genre in which they were interested but, most importantly, their criteria for showing interest in an author and her work.
“You have one chance – and only one chance – to impress me,” said one agent.
My palms felt sweaty.
Another agent added, “Your book must have a hook from the very first paragraph. If it doesn’t, your manuscript will get its 10 seconds of fame before I place it in my discard pile.”
The agents fed off one another as if scaring aspiring authors was some kind of sport.
“This must be your very best work – no typos, no grammatical errors, no half-developed characters, no holes in the plot,” the next one said.
The stakes were high. Despite my bravado, I didn’t feel ready. I spent the following two days preparing for my speed-dating event, honing the pitch for Leaving Shangrila, my deeply personal memoir which I was sharing with strangers for the first time.
Then what I had longed for came true. A publisher, not an agent, said he was intrigued. He asked for a copy of the manuscript and the book proposal that I had been lugging around on my shoulder for the previous three days just in case someone would want a copy.
But I told him no.
Why? Because as I listened to what the panelists said they wanted, I recognized that my manuscript still wasn’t ready. My hook needed work. In fact, my entire book still needed revision! Despite all the efforts I had put forth to get to that point, my manuscript was not yet ready for prime time.
I spent the next month incorporating what I learned during the conference. I purchased “How to Sell Your Memoir: 12 Steps to a Perfect Book Proposal,” by Brooke Warner, and wrote a brand new proposal.
Only after this latest revision was complete did I send the newly polished manuscript and the book proposal to the two publishers I met at the conference. I also wrote query letters to agents who had shown some interest, and to a few who had not, feeling confident that now that I had refined my pitch, they might reconsider their previous lack of interest. And within a little over a month, Leaving Shangrila had not one, but two offers!
I still wasn’t finished: the publishers said that they would publish my book, provided that it was professionally edited first.Recognizing that I had done the best I could, I hired a professional. After another two months, I held the sixth iteration of Leaving Shangrila on my hand.
Transforming the manuscript into a book is a wonderful, but lengthy process. After a few months had gone by, I received the beautifully designed interior proof that showed me what my book would look like. Feeling such excitement, I randomly opened the interior proof pages, took a picture of it, and immediately posted it on Facebook, happily sharing about this huge milestone.
Within minutes, I received comments from my many friends. “This is great.” “This is awesome.” “You are an inspiration.” Feelings of pride and more than a couple of tears of happiness fell.
While basking in my glory, one message arrived that knocked me off my perch.
“You used a word incorrectly,” she said, pointing it out, not just to me, but all my friends, how I mistakenly used the work “bellied.”
While pondering how could we have missed this error during the editing process, things got worse. I received another message within an hour, pointing out an obvious typo. No one seemed to believe that this book had been edited six times.
Here we were one day away from sending the final proof to the printer. I read the manuscript to find more errors. Unable to see them, I hired a proofreader.
She found 100 errors!
Naturally, I complained to my editor.
“We’re all humans, after all,” she said. “One hundred errors in a 107,000-word manuscript is a 1% error rate. It’s to be expected.”
But I couldn’t accept it. I instinctively knew that this many mistakes would end my writing career before it even started.
In sharing my despair with a friend, she generously offered to do an additional proofread. I was already behind schedule, but I felt this was the right direction to take. My friend found an additional 160 corrections!
I painstakingly fixed them all. Rather than resubmit the manuscript at this point, I followed the advice I heard (yet ignored) so often: I read the book aloud – to catch what no one could by simply reading the manuscript. Apparently, the eye places words where it expects them to be. I read every single word of my book before feeling that indeed this was the best version it could be.
I had called my book “finished” so many times only to be proven wrong, having to do more work. I felt humbled by this experience and grateful for surrounding myself with people who were willing to help make Leaving Shangrila better.
Here are the lessons I learned:
- Edit your manuscript, multiple times
- When you think you’re done editing, edit it one more time, start-to-finish
- Have other people (whom you trust to give you good advice) read your work – during and when you think it’s finished. Take their advice, and then edit your work again
- Hire a proofreader and check her work
- Read the book aloud to yourself, start-to-finish
And only when you checked off all these milestones can you confidently say that you have reached the finish line. Of book production, that is. Celebrate getting here. And then get ready for the next step – publishing!