Madison Utley speaks to author, editor, and Stuart’s “critique partner for life” Windy Lynn Harris upon the fourth anniversary of the publication of her book Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published.
Q: Talk to me about the conception of this project.
A: The idea actually came from my friendship with Stuart—which, believe it or not, began on LinkedIn. I had read a copy of Blueprint Your Bestseller, his first book, and thought: “Wow, this is really useful.” So when his name popped up as a suggested connection on LinkedIn, I sent him a note that said: “Hey, I just read your book and it was great.” He wrote me back saying, “That’s very nice for you to say. Would you be willing to fill out a survey about it? I’m actually working on book two now and I’d appreciate your insight.” Little did I know that Stuart and I would go on to become critique partners for life.
But at some point in there, Stuart said to me, “You help people get published all the time. You’ve done so many talks on this. It feels like a big enough idea to be a book.” I wasn’t sure, but he pushed me to write down a table of contents to see if I had enough material. I came up with an outline that was 30 pages long. When I sent it over, he was like, “So yeah, this is a book.” Stuart said he would help me figure it out, and that my next assignment was to actually write some chapters.
Q: Once you decided to go for it, what did the writing and publishing process look like?
Stuart essentially walked me through the entire process I had read about in Blueprint Your Bestseller to figure out what I was really talking about and what order it should go in. When I was finished with the material, Stuart told me he had a relationship with a certain publisher and asked if I wanted him to make a connection for me. I was like, “Of course!” He did that, and I sold the book. I didn’t have to show it to anyone else. I didn’t have to get an agent. So I think part of success can just be that you’ve got to be in the room. Be a literary citizen. Make connections. When you have a question, ask it.
As writers, I think we need to be able to recognize when we meet somebody we click with and say, “I understand you’re looking at the world of writing or stories in the same way as me. I think we have something in common. I could use your help and you could use mine.” You have to find your tribe in that way. You need trusted readers to give you the honest feedback that you need to hear.
Q: Did you think about giving up at any point during this time?
A: Absolutely—and that came out of fear. It wasn’t because I didn’t have enough material. I worried, “There’s not a lot of value to this. Anybody could figure out how to do it if they took 20 hours of research time. Why would they pay me to consolidate it?” I had to come around and say, “Because they don’t want to take that time. They want to go to one resource and find out exactly how you do this.” It took a while to realize I had a new package to offer that wasn’t somewhere else on the shelf out there, and that it was going to save writers’ time.
Q: What kinds of responses have you gotten over the past four years?
A: The response has largely been, “I didn’t realize how easy it was to get my work out there.” It’s really surprising how quickly writers get published once they have the path opened to them. Truly, we can all find the right place for our work. Getting a book published can be like a salmon swimming upstream, yes, but the world of writing short stories and poems and personal essays is completely different. With shorter works, we handle our own projects. And if you market your polished work, you can get it published. It’s just that simple.
Q: What has the publication of this book done for your career?
A: Immediately, it gave me a fantastic platform to meet more people. The credibility of having a published book beside me made it easier to market myself and suddenly doors opened without me even having to ask. It was a complete 180 from me raising my hand above my head to having to turn opportunities down because I was all booked up.
Q: How do you see your business evolving into the future?
A: My business model is currently changing a bit; I’m doing less traveling and more editing, which is exactly what I eventually wanted to happen. I’m making less time for speaking engagements because my favorite thing to do is the editing work with short story and essay writers, and I have a waitlist of those clients. It seems there are enough of my books out there in the world that people are finding me organically and through word of mouth.
I’ve also partnered with my author friend Susan Pohlman to host an annual writing retreat. We did our very first last month and it was absolutely wonderful; that’s going to become a focus in the future. We had 14 short story, essay, memoir, and novel writers all together at a lakehouse in Pennsylvania. The retreat provides a getaway for writers to have some relaxation and writing time, but it also facilitates extensive craft discussion and practice, like an MFA course crammed into a long weekend. With our combined experience, Susan and I feel sure we can figure out how to get any project published no matter what it is. And if we don’t know an answer, we’re confident we know somebody who does. And finally, the retreat is a chance to connect with other writers. Like I’ve said from the start of our talk, cultivating community and finding appropriate critique partners is just so important.