In this episode, we are joined by author and book coach Mary Adkins, founder of The Book Incubator, a program for authors looking to write their best possible book. Mary spent six years writing and re-writing her first book before landing a book deal with HarperCollins, and as such, perfected her writing program! Now, she works to share this helpful information with other authors looking to reach their full potential. We had a great conversation with Mary and loved the many writing tips she had to offer. Be sure to check out what she can do for you over at The Book Incubator!
We learn how Mary operates her book coaching business, how she can be a “wedding planner,” cheerleader, and helpful industry guide to authors, and what her own writing career looks like. She also offers some great advice on how to give yourself permission to write that novel, as well as (gasp) writing by hand, and much more!
In this episode:
- We ask Mary about her writing journey, from academics to (briefly) working as lawyer to starting her own creative writing consultation business, The Book Incubator
- We dive into her book coaching career, how it got started, and how she helps others achieve their writing dreams
- She gives us a great “sneak peek” at what her Book Incubator program involves, and how it can help writers reach their goals
- Mary has some great suggestions for when and where to find constructive criticism, and how to find the best readers in your life who will offer the most helpful feedback on your writing
- We ask Mary her opinion on writing for the marketing vs. writing the book you want to write
- Mary gives us some great advice on how to give yourself permission to novel, and how this will help writers believe in themselves and their work
- She also offers great advice on how to go from idea to a fully-fleshed out novel, using her Four Notebooks method
- We ask Mary about her newsletters, how she utilizes them, and why she chooses to share details about her writing process with her readers
- Mary tells us all about the podcasts she hosts and co-hosts, The First Draft Club and Craft Talk Book Club
- We get to hear some great advice for writers struggling with their first draft, and how to gain more confidence while writing the dreaded first draft
- Mary tells us about her own writing journey, and the processes behind her three published novels, as well as her upcoming independently published memoir
- And much more!
Mentioned in this episode:
When You Read This by Mary Adkins
Persephone’s Children by Rowan McCandless
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Mary Adkins is the author of the novels When You Read This (Indie Next Pick, “Best Book of 2019” by Good Housekeeping and Real Simple), Privilege (Today.com “Best Summer Read”), and Palm Beach (New York Post “Best Book of 2021,” and “like a sandy beach, equal parts beautiful and uncomfortable” according to the Associated Press). Her books have been published in 13 countries, and her essays and reporting have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and more. A graduate of Yale Law School and Duke University, she teaches storytelling for The Moth worldwide and supports aspiring authors as an online writing coach through her program, The Book Incubator™.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Laura: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Laura, Kobo Writing Life’s author engagement manager.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, the promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Laura: Today we spoke to Mary Adkins, who’s a former lawyer turned writing coach, author and podcast host. She has released 3 novels and works with other authors to write, revise, and pitch their novels in her program, Book Incubator.
Rachel: We had such an interesting conversation with Mary as she told us how her own struggles to finish the first draft of her first novel led her to becoming a writing coach and creating her program, Book Incubator. She honestly gave some really big spoilers as to what authors can expect if they signed up for her program and gave really cool insights into her own writing process. We also talked to her about her podcast that she’s a host on. We talked to her about her newsletter. And she also told us about her newest project, which is a memoir that she is indie publishing. And it’s just so interesting how her writing process has shifted now that she’s writing something that is so much closer to home. Again, this was such an interesting conversation, and we hope you all get as much out of it as we did.
We are joined today by author and writing coach, Mary Adkins. Mary, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mary: So glad to be joining you.
Rachel: To kick us off, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Mary: Yeah. I live in Nashville. I have a husband and a son who’s 4 and a half named Finn. And no pets. I have lived here since 2019. We lived in New York before. I lived in New York for a really long time. And, yeah, I’m a novelist. I’m actually a former lawyer, too. I was a lawyer very, very briefly and then left the law to try to launch a writing career and ultimately did. I have a few novels out, three novels, that you maybe can find in your local bookstore. They have been there at one time if not now but you can definitely find online. And when I’m not writing, I teach writing. So, I work with authors who are working on books, mostly novelists but also people working on memoirs.
Laura: Before we get into your writing and your coaching career, I wanted to talk a little bit about the journey you mentioned going from lawyer to author. So, how did that jump kind of begin?
Mary: So, I have always loved school. I was like one of those kids that just really loved learning. I still do. So, I loved law school. I mean, I went to law school because I had always been interested in the law. But when I graduated from law school and started working as a lawyer, it was very different than being in law school. Go figure. And it was, kind of, a wakeup call for me because I had always loved writing, like creative writing, so much, and I had really always wanted…like, that’s what my soul wanted to do basically. I feel like many writers were like this.
But I had just sort of quashed that or I had thought, “Oh, I’ll write on the side. I’ll write at night.” And being a lawyer, in a way, was a gift because it was such a busy job that I didn’t have time to write at night, so if I wanted to make writing a part of my life, I really had no choice but to leave that profession. And so it, kind of, made it easy for me in a way, like an easy decision because I knew that I wanted to make time to write. That was going to be my priority.
And so I left law only seven months after starting as a lawyer. Like, I was a really, really shortly tenured lawyer, and I got a job tutoring freelance. And for the next, I mean, six or so years, I think, until I got my first book deal and started teaching creative writing, I was juggling tutoring people in graduate level exams like the LSAT for law school, and the GRE, and the SAT, and writing. So, I would tutor at night and write during the day, just working on that first novel for quite a number of years.
Rachel: I will say I really appreciate the optimism that you had that you would be a practicing lawyer and have time to write creatively at night.
Mary: I know, so delusional.
Rachel: That’s so interesting though, because one common thread that we see a lot when we’re talking to authors is a history in law. And I find it so fascinating. And a lot of authors will say it’s because when you are practicing law, especially if you’re a courtroom lawyer, you have to build a story. And so those creative elements are there, but I still find the crossover fascinating.
Mary: I do too. I think it’s really fascinating. And I don’t know where that crossover starts. Like, if it is, that writers often sort of get shoehorned into law because it’s something we tend to be able to take on pretty well. It’s a lot of reading and writing, and that’s what we like doing anyway. I think part of it is that, and then also, yeah, I mean there’s a lot of story overlap. There’s a lot of story in the law that’s really fascinating. In law school, I loved reading cases because they were all stories. It always starts with a story of someone who has a problem, you know?
Rachel: It’s so interesting, I don’t know. But continuing on the topic of your journey towards becoming a book coach, one of your multihyphenates is that you are a book writing coach. And so you have left the law, you’re tutoring, you’re writing your first book. What was it like moving from kind of struggling with writing your own first draft to helping others achieve their writing dreams?
Mary: It was super fun. The way that it happened was my first book was coming out. It’s called “When You Read This.” And I went on a little book tour, or not so little actually, 12 stops, like physical stops, not even virtual. This was pre-pandemic. And did this book tour, went to 12 different bookstores in different cities. Not all different cities but a lot of different cities.
And whenever I would start talking about my book and I would share about my process, there would be people there who would ask about the process. They would want to know, “How do I write a book? Where do I start? How do I get a book deal?” And as I would answer these questions, I realized that over the previous six years, I had through trial and error figured out a lot of things that could be helpful to somebody who found themselves in my shoes six years earlier.
And so not long after that book came out, just a couple months really, I was also a new mom at the time, so I was pushing my kid in the stroller while he napped. I was just taking a stroll and I thought, “Oh, what if I make my own online course on how to write a first draft?” That was all I took on at first was the first novel draft. So, I Googled how to make an online course. And I ended up… I don’t even remember how I found the first students, but I ended up with a first cohort of students going through my course, which I called the 12-Week Book Draft or maybe it was The 12-Week Novel Draft back then.
But it worked. I walked them through writing their novel drafts, and they did it, which was awesome, and they were excited, and I was excited, and then they were like, “Now, how do we revise?” So, I was like, “Guess we should do that next.” So, then I made a little revision kind of curriculum, and we went through revising. And then they were like, “How do we pitch?” And so I put together pitch materials for people who want to get traditionally published, and that was really how I kind of fell into it. And now I have a program called The Book Incubator where I walk them through all of those steps. So, writing the first draft, revising it, revising it again, and then deciding what publishing route you want to take and then helping them navigate that whichever direction they decide to go. So, it’s really grown to this much more comprehensive program, which is super fun. So, I love doing that, but I never would have… I never set out to do that, but now that I do do it, I love it. I love it as much as writing.
Rachel: And just to make sure all of our listeners are on the right page, can you kind of explain just in layman’s terms what a book coach is?
Mary: Sure. Yeah, I also didn’t know what that was until I became one. But it’s basically just like, if you were to be a professional athlete, you would have a coach. You would have like someone helping you get better and to just be there to both be your cheerleader and your guide. And that’s how I think of my role. I’m a guide who’s saving. I’m saving writer’s time by telling them like, “Hey, for me, this route has not worked that well. What if we try this?” Or based on the kind of book you’re writing, or based on your personality type, what if you try this? Both in terms of writing goals every day but also in terms of craft like, “Oh, this is the genre you’re writing? Here’s what we need to achieve. How are we going to get there?”
So really I’m like the wedding planner for their book but also their cheerleader being like, “You can do this. We can do this. We can get it done,” because I really do think of my goal is like to help them get to the finish line and to make it good, to help them make it good, to ask them the right questions and give them the right prompts to help them write their strongest book. So, that’s how I think of book coaching is… I don’t know a lot about sports, but I do think of it as comparative to a coach in sports.
Rachel: Have you had to do a lot of research or trial and error with your own writing process to kind of uncover different methods to work with different writers?
Mary: Oh, for sure. Yeah. And I think that was where I didn’t even kind of realize that I had sort of amassed a bunch of experiential knowledge. But, yeah, I took writing classes. Over those six years that I was working on my first book, I took so many writing classes. I was constantly in at least one class.
And some of them would be great and others would be truly terrible. And I would realize like, “Oh, this is some…” For example, something I uncovered that definitely did not work for me, and so it’s not how I work with writers now, is the feedback-based model where as soon as you start writing any draft pages, you immediately subject them to feedback particularly from your peers.
So, that always squashed my spirit. Always. I never left those feeling good. I always felt burdened by a million things I was doing wrong. I needed to do differently, and I would lose my vision for the story. I would lose all my excitement about writing. And so it was really clear to me when I started like, “I’m not going to do it that way,” because I don’t actually think that was ever helpful for me. And in fact, I think I finally found my voice and I finally figured out what the story was that I wanted to tell in that first novel when I stopped listening to all that peer feedback.
So, there are some things that I intentionally do for everybody because they have become, kind of, defining principles for me just as a person and I’m not going to… I don’t really make exceptions to that. In my program, you don’t get feedback from your peers in the program, and that is very intentional and that’s true for everyone.
But there are other things that are a lot more flexible. Like, I’m not an outliner. But I’ve worked with some writers who love outlining and so I’m not going to tell them not to outline. Of course not if it’s working for them. So, it’s much more about helping the writers see what makes you want to write. What makes it fun for you. What makes you productive? What makes you want to show up and do it? Because that’s what we want to lean into. And for some people, that would be outlining and first-time people that won’t. So, it depends on what the thing is, you know?
Laura: You mentioned that kind of pit that you get when you get that negative feedback from your peers and how it kind of threw off your writing process. How do you help authors kind of find the balance between critique and trusting themselves?
Mary: That’s such a good question. So, I talk a lot about getting it from the right people at the right time. Like, the right time is rarely, if ever, going to be as you are writing a first draft. And in the case where it would be the right time, it would definitely need to be the right person like someone who knows how to give feedback to a writer, probably as a writer themself or a professional editor who knows where you are in the drafting process, who isn’t going to come in and be like, “I don’t like Ethan. I don’t like your character. Why don’t you set this in California? Why is it set in North Carolina?” Like, that kind of stuff just isn’t helpful, and it’s derailing.
And so the way that I teach it is that the proper…which is the same way that I do it, which is that, like, there’s a time and place where it becomes really essential actually. The feedback’s really essential, but it tends to be after the writer has figured out what the thing is that they’re writing. They’ve executed a version of it, they executed their vision, they have some version of it, and so they know what it is before we start kind of attacking it.
So, for me, that’s often after one full revision, not even after the first draft. It’s like there’s a first draft. Now I’ve gone in and revised at least once, fixed the things I see that I think need fixing, and now is time to introduce outside opinions. And then at that point, I think it can be really helpful to get feedback from a trusted reader. It doesn’t have to be a writer, a fellow writer, you know? Like a trusted reader, but maybe not your most critical friend. Maybe not like the person sometimes they’ll tell you…like, don’t go to the person you know who just hates everything just because you’re feeling in a masochistic mood or because you have this hope that like, “This will be the one thing they like.” I feel like we write…like writers, we do that kind of weird stuff sometimes out of, I don’t know what that is, fear. But go to someone who you really do think will give you very fair and honest feedback but not unnecessarily brutal feedback because that’s not going to be helpful either.
Rachel: And I also assume that when you’re looking for this feedback, you shouldn’t go to somebody like your mom who is just going to love and gold star everything you do.
Mary: Right. Same. Exactly. Not like the person who’s just going to be like, “That’s incredible.” You know, it’s funny too, because sometimes writers say, “Well, like, okay, I read this fantasy novel and I’m really struggling because I gave it to my brother and he hated it. He hated my fantasy novel. Like, now I don’t want to keep writing.” And I’ll be like, “So, what is your brother? Like, does your brother like to read fantasy?” “No, my brother hates fantasy.” I’m like, “That’s why he hated your fantasy novel.” You can’t give your romance novel to your husband who would never read romance and then be disappointed that he didn’t like it. Like, if you don’t like grapefruit, you’re not going to like grapefruit soda, you know?
So, I think there’s also… That’s an important thing to take into consideration, too. Like, ideally, you want to give it to someone who’s read in that genre before. And I know that we don’t all have a million friends to choose from, but this is where I think, like, in my program, people swap manuscripts and we facilitate that. So, you’re swapping with someone who is a good match for you, who’s going to read what you’ve written with a sensitive eye. And I think that’s a great place to find, like, in a writing community, finding a fellow writer to read your work. But, yeah, if not that, then at least someone in your life, ideally, who is a reader would be good.
Laura: Yeah, that’s such a good idea because writing can be really isolating. So, I love the idea of them having you as the guide but then also the cohort that they can kind of go through the journey with together. That’s really great.
Mary: Yeah, because you’re right, it’s so solitary. So, it just makes it feel, I think, less lonely when you know other people are at least on parallel tracks with you.
Rachel: One thing I wanted to touch on, and you kind of alluded to this, on your website, you mentioned that you started writing the book you thought you should write based on just the constant feedback cycle versus the book that you wanted to write. I’m really curious about your thoughts about writing to market and writing what’s popular versus writing what you’re passionate about.
Mary: Yeah, I’ve become like, for most people, pretty anti-writing to market. And I say for most people because I know there are definitely some people who are that rare species of really finding their groove with truly just writing what they think people want to consume, and they are fine with that, and they are fine with it like operating on that level and they don’t need to go deeper. And it’s almost like a mercenary kind of like, “I’m doing this so that I can make money and I’m good with that.”
And I think I’m kind of in all of those people honestly and, like, that’s amazing if you can really come at it with that approach and do it successfully. I find that that’s not the most common writer. More writers have sort of a sole book that… Right? They have this burning book in them. It feels personal. It’s like coming from a place kind of beyond themselves. By the time I start working with them, they’re like, “I’ve been thinking about this for literally 20 years.” In one case, 30 years. So, I think when that’s the book people want to write, I think writing to market can become meaning…like, trying to shape it into something people are going to buy or that you think is commercial can really squash the creative spark, which is not to say that it’s like… It’s a balance, right?
So like, if somebody does want to traditionally publish their book, they’re going to have to get a publisher to buy it. So, it’s like, okay, if they’re like, “I have this book in me, Mary. And how do I write it so that someone will buy it from me, so that a publisher will buy it from me?” I’m going to tell them some general guidelines that I think are going to be the most important like word count, you know? So if you’re writing a memoir, you can’t submit a 200,000-word memoir to Simon & Schuster and think they’re going to buy it. Like, it’s too long. Same with a 20,000-word memoir. That’s going to be too short. So, it’s like, “Okay, so let’s shoot for about 70,000, maybe 80,000 words. That’s going to be the sweet spot. A little longer is fine, but not 200,000.”
So, there will be some kind of parameters that are important to consider, but I think that’s really different. Length, for example, is really different than, “Let me write… What book is going to sell right now? I’ve heard that…” I mean, sometimes the writer will come to me and say something like, “I’ve heard that I need to have a 16-year-old protagonist set in this time period and place. experiencing a blah, blah, like a coming-of-age story, then that is what’s going to sell.” And it’s like, “That’s insane.” Not to insult the person who’s saying that, but that idea is of course like that’s like thinking like, “I’m going to have a successful restaurant by doing this exact recipe or whatever.” There’s a lot more magic involved than that, I think.
Rachel: I was just going to say, I really like the way you put it, that there’s more magic in something like that, because I do feel that sometimes when you’re trying to force yourself to write something you’re not passionate about, it just makes the whole process so much harder. And I’m saying this as like a non-writer, but as somebody who reads a lot, I just feel like it becomes so much harder. If you don’t like vampire novels but you’ve heard that vampires are making a comeback, you’re probably not going to have a good time writing the next Twilight.
Mary: No, exactly. And it makes it… You’re right. It’s so much harder on yourself. It’s like going on a date with someone you don’t like. You’re not going to have a good time, and it’s going to feel long. And you’re probably not going to be that charming.
Laura: Yeah, I agree. And I’ve said this before. I think when you’re writing to market, sometimes if it’s not something that you’re really passionate about, it comes out in your writing because it is harder. And then sometimes readers can tell that it’s not something you’re passionate about. Maybe it doesn’t have like the right voice that you would if you really cared about it. So, that’s something to keep in mind as well when making that decision.
Mary: I completely agree. I completely agree. It’s like that intangible quality. The writing falls flat in my experience. And I say this from my experience. When I have done this, I go back and look at the writing, and it does feel like it’s lacking that. It’s lacking that spark because I didn’t feel it as I was writing it.
Laura: Do you have kind of like a stumbling block that you find is common with your writers when they’re starting out?
Mary: Yes, and it is permission. I work with so many writers who need permission to write a novel, which I totally get because I was in the same boat. So, to go back to my story, I quit my law job to be a writer, but I thought I was going to be a writer of nonfiction because I truly did not believe that I was capable of writing fiction. I had no confidence. I had zero confidence. And in fact, I put together an entire book proposal for a nonfiction book, and I was submitting it to literary agents, emailing them, submitting it. And one of them wrote back and said, “I can’t sell this, but do you have a novel?” And I actually did have a novel idea. I had also heard the advice, “Never tell someone no if they ask if you had something else.” So, I thought, “I can’t say no.” So, I said, “Well, I don’t have the novel, but here’s an idea for a novel that I’ve had.” And he wrote back and said, “I love that idea. Write it and send it to me.” And that was my permission slip to try to be a novelist. And I’m so grateful. This person never became my literary agent, but I’m so grateful to him now, because he really is the reason I became a novelist. He gave me permission to try.
And I feel like that’s what I do for so many writers now. I mean, you mentioned lawyers a second ago. I work with so many lawyers who find me because they are secretly Googling. They find my website because they are secretly Googling, “I want to write a novel.” They haven’t told anyone they want to write one. They’re a little bit embarrassed. They feel like they’re not capable of it. And then they do it. And it’s really good. But not just lawyers, lawyers, teachers, a few people in the medical field, a couple of ministers, but people who tend to… Most of the people I work with are professionals in other areas, and they have had this book idea either recently or a long time ago, but there’s very…not always but very often a small part of them that really does need to be given permission before they’ll let themselves do it like, “You can do this, and you’re not silly for trying. And it’s worth finding the time to do it.” And then I often find like once they get that, a lot of times they’re like, “I wrote 30,000 words this week.” It’s fun. They’re just like skiing downhill.
Rachel: My next question is a little bit selfish because this is something I struggle with, but how do you help writers who have that idea who are like, “I got a great idea for a story. Here we go,” go from idea to a fully fleshed out novel? Because an idea is only the back cover copy, and you need a lot more of that for a book.
Mary: Right. So, I teach a method that I used for myself, not for my first novel. My first novel, like I said, took me six years to write. So, that was a lot of trial and error. But for my second novel, I did use this, and I used it again for my third, which is called The Four Notebooks Method. And it’s just a way of basically breaking down… First of all, it’s writing by hand, which I should say at the top because that is… I know that’s weird. A lot of people don’t do that. But I do teach writing by hand because that is what I do. And writing a novel draft by hand across four notebooks because four notebooks will, if you do it the way that I like to teach, which is like writing on 100 pages and roughly 120 to 140 to 180-ish words a page. So, basically you’d have to get a notebook that has… I forget which is sheets and which is pages. If you’re writing on the front of all of the sheets, it’s 100 pages. So, it’d be like a 200-page or sheet notebook. I, again, forget how they market it, but like a bigger notebook for me. That is what the…like an extra large Moleskine for that brand would be that notebook. If you write on the frontpages of four notebooks of 400 pages total, unless you have insanely big handwriting or insanely tiny handwriting, that will often end up being a good length for a book. It’ll be anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 words, which is really solid for an adult novel or memoir.
And then each notebook, I give a kind of like an assigned story role. So, like in the first notebook, we’re fleshing out a problem that the main character has. In the second notebook, we’re trying to solve that problem. In the third notebook, I call that the big drop. It’s like where the solution doesn’t work and there’s some kind of comeuppance. And then in the fourth notebook, which I sometimes call that “The Wild, Wild West,” because that’s when I like… It’s really fun to let the characters take over and just tell you what they have figured out.
Yeah, so I have a loose structure that I like to share in case people want to do that, and there’s also a way to… You basically use that concept even if you want to type and do it digitally. You don’t have to do the notebooks by hand. But most people do if they can physically because it is freeing, and there’s a lot of research that shows that handwriting taps into the same parts of our brain that are active when we’re reading, which I think is really cool, but typing doesn’t because I think… I found that to be true that writing by hand does feel closer to reading than typing does for me. I don’t know if you all relate to that at all, but I found some science behind that, which I thought was really interesting.
So, not all writers are going to use that method. I definitely have people in the program who are like, “I don’t quite want to conform my story to that structure.” It’s built around the three-act structure, which is not how everyone wants to structure their story, but a lot of writers do find it a helpful kind of template to start out with because it’s not too prescriptive. There are a lot of templates out there that are super prescriptive like 15 beats or, you know, that are really like break it down. So, it’s not to that level, but it does give some structure so that it doesn’t feel like, “Yeah, I have a story premise, and nothing else, and I’m just going to go and see what happens.” For me, that’s how I wrote my first novel, but I then had to rewrite it about 20 times. So, for many of us I think that’s a little bit too much freedom.
Rachel: I think the handwriting thing is really cool. Do you ever have any trouble understanding what you’ve written though as somebody who has horrifically messy penmanship sometimes?
Mary: So, I don’t, which is why I think I didn’t realize that that would be a thing. That’s a problem. Yeah, and I feel terrible. Like, I’ve worked with a couple writers who are like, “I can’t read what I wrote. What do I do?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I should have seen that coming too.” I mean, one solution that we’ve come up with—and this actually works well for a lot of people—is instead of handwriting the whole thing and then transcribing, they transcribe at the end of every day or every writing session, and that helps because they do kind of remember, so it just helps decipher. Because, yeah, if two months have gone by and you look back, you’re like, “I have no idea what that says. I don’t remember writing that.”
Laura: I also love the handwriting idea. It’s nice because it’s kind of like going back to when you’re in school and you’ve got to like handwrite all your writing and stuff. So, it’s kind of like a little bit of that inner child. But also I think it’s good because I find sometimes when we try and do NaNoWriMo, I’m constantly distracted by everything on my computer. So, it’s good to just like handwrite and not look at anything else that’s going on.
Mary: Same. You don’t have the alerts popping up.
Laura: Yes, exactly.
Mary: And being like, “I’m just going to check,” or in my case, I can blame it on alerts but really it’s me. I’m like, “I’m just going to check my email right now.”
Laura: We also wanted to talk about your newsletters a little bit. So, you send out your biweekly newsletter to your mailing list, which includes a sneak peek of your writing process. So, what is your writing process like? And why did you decide to share this so publicly? What exactly do you share in the newsletter?
Mary: So, I found that when I, in my program, would give some behind the scenes… So, for example, I’ll teach The Four Notebooks Method and tell people what to do. And then they’ll be like, “Can you show us an example?” And so I’ll take a photo of my handwritten notebook and turn it into a PDF and share my screen. And when I’ve done that, people are like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so helpful to see,” which makes sense to me now that I think about it just in the same way that I love seeing writers’ first drafts. I mean, I think there’s something that’s so disarming about it because you realize like, “Oh, this is messy.” Even though I can read my own handwriting, it’s still messy, right? And it’s like just words on a page, and there are things crossed out and placeholders.
And so I think there’s something about seeing that that seems to give people that permission. They feel like, “Okay, this isn’t anything like… It doesn’t start out polished.” And so I just try to share more of that, more of that kind of permission giving behind the scenes stuff more widely through my newsletter. That’s how I do that.
Rachel: And when you’re sharing, kind of, the behind the scenes look on your writing process, are you also giving your mailing list an exclusive sneak peek on what you’re working on now, or is this previous drafts of your already published books?
Mary: Sometimes. Often it’s previous drafts of already published books. Most of the time it’s that because of, honestly, like what we just talked about with feedback, whatever I’m presently working on, it’s so vulnerable and raw that I kind of… I usually don’t want to open it up to… I don’t want anyone to tell me what they think, because I will take that to heart. I will let it shape the direction of the thing, and I don’t know that… I’m often like, “I don’t know that I want you to be able to shape the direction of the thing.” I don’t even know what the thing is yet, you know? So often it’s like, “Yeah, it is backward looking.” It’s like, “Here’s an example of…” Because I save all of my drafts, so it’ll be like, “Here’s an example of a second draft,” or like, once I shared the first few draft openings of my second novel like, “Here was my first draft opening, here’s the second version I wrote, here’s the third version, and here’s the final version,” so they could look and compare, but I didn’t share that until after that novel had come out.
Rachel: I really want to get into what you’re working on now, but just before we jump into that, when you’re not busy writing or book coaching, you’re also the host on two podcasts or co-host on one, host of the other. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about them?
Mary: Yes. So, one of them is called “The First Draft Club,” and that’s just me just solo, sharing writing advice, and it’s really fun. Traditionally, it’s just been me sharing some tips. And I say traditionally because I think in the next season… We’re taking a little break right now, but I think in the next season, it is going to be more behind the scenes like a little bit more like, “Let me talk to you about what I’m working on now, and how that’s going, and why I’m doing it this way, etc.”
And then, the other podcast is called “Craft Talk Book Club,” and that is where my friend Nicole and I, Nicole is a fellow writer and an author and writing coach actually, and she and I read books. She’s a nonfiction gal. So, we swap. Every other month, we do fiction. Every other month, we do nonfiction. And we pick a recently published novel or memoir, and we dissect the craft choices that the author made. It’s so fun and nerdy, and I love it. We started that one because we realized we were doing that anyway. We would basically have a two-person book club, but one focused on craft where we would read a book and talk about what the author did. Since we’re both writing coaches, at one point, it was like, “Should we? This should just be a podcast. Let’s just start our conversations and do a podcast.” And so that’s what we did.
Laura: Yeah, it must be hard to kind of turn that writing coach off when you’re reading. So, you might as well use it for some podcast content.
Mary: Exactly. Exactly.
Laura: Is there one piece of craft advice you’ve uncovered through the process of “Craft Talk Book Club” and how has it kind of changed your approach to writing?
Mary: Oh, yeah. So, the most recent book that we analyzed is a memoir published by a Canadian author, Rowan McCandless is her name. And she has this beautiful memoir called “Persephone’s Children” that actually has won a few awards in Canada. And it’s really unconventional in that it’s a collection of essays. It’s like a memoir in essays, and they are hermit crab essays. So, if a listener doesn’t know, a hermit crab essay is when you take a subject and you write an essay about it, taking on the form of something else. So, you could write an essay about a relationship, but in the form of a report card or a doctor’s note or an application for a mortgage. Anything goes. And that’s how her collection works. So, she has a word search. She has a quiz. She has a little play. There’s a script in there. And it was really fun to read that book and discuss it with Nicole on our podcast. And it also has really opened me up to… had a conversation with the writers in my program this week about how we can all be more open to forms and exploring different forms in our work. So, not just feeling like, “Oh, it just needs to be traditionally narrated prose like third-person, ‘he did, she did, they said.’ ” So, that was really cool, and I’m still thinking a lot about that book.
Rachel: That book sounds incredible, and I will be adding it to my to-read list. I love books that have like interesting form because it just makes the reading process so much more fun.
Mary: Yeah. And it flies by. So, you’ll read it in a sitting like I did because it’s like there’s just so much… There are drawings or illustrations. It’s really cool. Yeah, I loved it.
Rachel: And just to touch on the other podcast, first of all, “The First Draft Club” is an excellent name for a podcast.
Mary: Thank you.
Rachel: Like, I love it. Do you have a piece of advice for writers who are currently struggling through that just dreaded first draft?
Mary: Yes. My favorite piece of advice is to save editing for later. Just don’t edit as you go. You don’t need to. Sometimes I’ll tell people like, “Your editor is not good yet. They’re like on-the-job training. They don’t need the responsibility yet. They don’t know what the story is yet that they’re editing. So, they’re just not good at their job yet. They don’t have the qualifications.” So, don’t give them the scalpel. Let them watch. They just need to be watching even though they’re really eager. And usually if people stop editing as they go on their first draft, usually people end up writing their first draft a lot more quickly than they were when they were trying to edit as they go. And that is also really confidence-building and momentum-building, and it makes for a better first draft I think because then they can really get in the flow without overthinking every sentence or wondering about their word choice, because a lot of that will come later, and I try to reassure writers that, “You’re going to have a chance to come through with your editor voice and tweak and refine. You’ll have that chance.” It’s like the next phase. You don’t want to do it at the same time as you’re really just trying to let creativity be in the lead and just get those words on paper.
Rachel: Yeah, I think it’s really hard to remember that no one is going to see this first draft but you. The first draft is for your eyes only. And then you can go in, make some revisions that make you comfortable to share it.
Mary: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Laura: It’s really hard to turn off, like you said, the inner editor’s voice, but it really is so important because, like Rachel said, no one’s going to see the first draft but you, and there’s this quote that says the first draft is really just getting the words onto the page and that’s so true. You just want to get it all out there, and then you can go through and edit later. But it’s way easier said than done.
Mary: Way easier said than done. I love that. And I’ve also heard the phrase, the first draft is like you telling yourself the story, which I also really like.
Laura: You have three published books out now. So, how has your writing process evolved with each book?
Mary: Well, the first one was just a hot mess. I mean, as I mentioned, like it took me six years and I wrote it stream of consciousness. I just didn’t have any… which, look, I don’t regret that, but I learned through trial and error, but I probably rewrote it 20 times.
And then the second one I wrote with a newborn at home, so like a brand newborn like five weeks old. So, I really didn’t have the same kind of luxury of time. I probably only had two hours a day to write because that’s when I had childcare. So, I had to get a lot more efficient. It was also when I developed The Four Notebooks Method because for the first time, I found that I would stare at a computer screen and go blank, which had never happened to me before on my first book. So, it was just a new experience, but I was very intimidated by a computer screen. So, I started handwriting because it felt less daunting and found that I could actually handwrite and that’s why I ended up handwriting that novel.
And then that worked so well, handwriting, that I, by choice, handwrote the third novel. So, by the time I wrote my third novel, I wasn’t as intimidated by the computer screen. Like, that anxiety had gone away, but I had just loved handwriting, so I just went right back to it. So, it was all really different. Actually, the second and third novel were very similar, but the first novel was a really different experience.
Rachel: And is this handwriting method something that you are currently employing on your next project?
Mary: No, actually. So, that was also interesting. So, my current thing I’m working on is a memoir. I’m writing a memoir about a year of how I had multiple pregnancy losses in a year and how they transformed me and how I live. And so I’ve been working on a memoir about that. I’m actually in the pretty late revision stages. And I’m going to independently publish this to change paths. I’m really excited about it and I’m hoping to publish sometime in the next year. But writing that, mostly I typed it, and I don’t know why. I just did. I mean, I basically followed what my instinct was, and my instinct this time was like just to type. There definitely was a kind of sense of urgency to this story. Like, I would say I definitely felt more of a sense of urgency with this book than I have with my previous. And I don’t know why that might have lent itself to typing but it did. I mean, I can see why it might have lent itself to typing. You can type faster than you can write, right? So, I did find that with this one it really poured out, and I would go to the computer. That’s what I found myself going toward was the computer, not the notebook. So, no. I broke my own pattern.
Laura: I would love to ask you about your choice to independently publish this book. Why did you decide to choose this path?
Mary: So, yeah, it’s been really interesting. I never would have seen myself going this route, but I actually found when my literary agent and I were approaching publishers, some of them had ideas for the book, wanting to take it in a direction that was not what I wanted to do, like writing about fertility at large or writing more like cultural commentary, and I really was like, “Mm, I don’t really want to do that.” I want to just write my story like a very personal one woman’s experience type thing with the goal of reaching, well, whoever wants to read it, of course, but the reader that I have in mind is someone who’s going through that because that’s what I wanted to read when I was going through that. That was one reason.
And then another reason is that I wanted a much shorter timeline. So, the traditional publishing timeline is so long. I didn’t realize until it happened to me, but really it’s kind of two years or even more from when you signed the book deal to when your book hit shelves to the point that sometimes my book would come out and someone would ask me something about it and I wouldn’t remember writing it. So, that’s a really long time, and this story that is in my memoir is so personal that I couldn’t imagine talking to readers about it in years and feeling that way like they are connected to the story in real-time and I have moved on. Like, I didn’t want that. That didn’t feel good.
Right now, I’m still really connected to the story. I’m still working on it. I’m still polishing it. I’m working with an editor, and I want to still feel like I’m in it when people read it so that we’re talking on the same… We’re on the same wavelength, you know?
Rachel: I know you’re still in the revision phase, but has there been anything about indie publishing that surprised you so far?
Mary: I’m so early. I don’t know. I’m terrified of doing it. But, I mean, I’m sure I will have answers to that question later, but I’m just so early. I’m basically just in the stage of working with an editor, trying to find a cover designer, if anyone knows anyone good. And then I’ve talked to friends who have done it. I feel like I’ve done my research to figure out what are kind of the do’s and don’ts, but I haven’t yet done it myself. So, it’ll be an adventure.
Laura: It’s kind of overwhelming when you’re first going into it because there’s so many different opinions. There’s so much stuff to research and look into. And then it’s kind of all like you wearing the different hats. But I do think that it makes sense for the choice that you’re making with this memoir because indie publishing does really allow you to have full control over everything. And for such a personal story, I think it really makes sense.
Mary: Yeah, thank you. I think it was a relief. It was a relief when I decided to do it because I thought, “Okay, I’m good. I’m not going to have to turn this book into X, Y, Z.” I can literally just do it the way that I want to, and that feels really good, you know?
Rachel: That’s the biggest perk of indie publishing that we hear is just complete creative control. So, just kind of going back to writing coach brain, do you have any book recommendations, not necessarily nonfiction, but any book recommendations for aspiring writers?
Mary: My favorite ones are “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert, “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. Those are my two favorite creative books. And then probably my favorite book on fiction writing is “The Art of Fiction” by John Gardner. It’s really, really good. So, those are all my tops.
Laura: We’ll make sure we link to those in the show notes so everyone can download.
Mary: Oh, great.
Rachel: And just before we let you go and get on with your day, where can listeners finds you online?
Mary: They can go to my website, which is maryadkinswriter.com, and it’s Adkins with a D like Dog, or thebookincubator.com which is the program that I run if they just want to specifically look up that program. And I’m also on Instagram as @adkinsmary but I just pictures of my kid there. It’s pretty domestic.
Rachel: And I realize I forgot to ask this. With The Book Incubator, how often do new sessions begin?
Mary: So, people can join any time. We enroll people every month, so then they can come in wherever they’re starting. So, they come in and first thing we do is have an onboarding meeting and figure out like, “Where are you in the process. Let’s choose your next steps.” So, yeah, it’s open.
Rachel: Amazing. We’ll be sure to include links to your socials, to your websites, all that jazz on our website. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Laura: Yeah, thank you, Mary.
Mary: Thank you all.
Laura: This is great.
Mary: It was super fun. Thanks so much for having me.
Laura: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Mary’s books or learning more about Book Incubator, we will include links in our show notes. If you are enjoying our podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Rachel: This episode was hosted by Rachel Warden and Laura Granger with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker, and huge thanks to Mary Adkins for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.