Monday, May 09, 2011

The writing process

In the winter of 2009-2010, I sat down to relive my vivid and often emotional journey surrounding my bike tour from Banff to Mexico during the 2009 Tour Divide. I usually came home from work around 11:30 p.m., fed my cat, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and sprawled out on my bedroom floor in front of my tiny netbook computer. I often stayed up typing until 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and then I'd get up the next morning at 9 or 10, briefly peek outside into the white and gray morning, close my blinds to shut out the already minimal light trickling in from Alaska's winter sky, and type until I had to go to work at 2. If the morning was slightly more inviting I would go for a bike ride, and on my day(s) off I would occasionally venture outside my weird hermit lifestyle to visit friends. They'd ask me what I'd been doing and I'd shrug. "I've been .... sick." And to be honest, I felt sort of sick. My outdoor adventures and physical exercise had fallen by the wayside. I was one-track steamrolling through that book. Working on it brought a wash of intense memories and it was often the best part of my day. I took this strange and uncharacteristic behavior as a sign that I needed to make a major change in my life.

That's the short story about how my Tour Divide book came to be written. The major change I decided to make was to quit my job in Juneau and move to Anchorage to further pursue this project and perhaps start up another writing project. With the fun part all done, though, I was loathe to deal with the tedious work of analyzing and editing my text. I read a dozen books on the traditional publishing market and set to rework my simple adventure memoir into an elaborate book proposal package, which I modified, personalized and sent to six carefully researched agents. Four got back to me. Two weren't interested. Two requested my manuscript. One said he was intrigued but was unable to take on new clients for at least another six to eight months, and left it up to me to get back to him. Another gave me particularly positive feedback. She seemed very genuinely interested in representing me and asked me to send her my "platform" for further consideration.

Platform? I had a simple story; I didn't have a tell-all celebrity expose or amazing new diet or analysis on the war in Afghanistan, or anything one would normally associate with a focused marketing platform. I had already grown weary of the whole tedious process and applied for a new job in Montana that I was almost certain I was going to land. It had suddenly become a bad time to be mired in a big book promotion blitz. So, grasping at a meager hope that the word had suddenly come to mean something different than what I had studied, I asked her to be more specific. The response was both expected and discouraging. "How will you promote your book? How are you going to reach out to your audience? What networks are you a part of? What speaking engagements can you line up? Do you have resources for a potential book tour? Etc." I had dabbled in self-promotion two years earlier with "Ghost Trails," and was already starting to wonder what traditional publishers even offered beyond editing, printing and a stamp of approval. Since modern digital publishing and networking make editing and printing easy commodities to obtain, I was beginning to resent what seemed like an awful lot of work for a simple stamp of approval. With her assertion that I'd be responsible for essentially all book promotions, even the potential funding of them, the agent confirmed that all of my time and efforts could only achieve that one thing - a stamp of approval from an established publishing company. And not even a guaranteed one. "Screw that," I thought. "I'd rather have a job." I put the Tour Divide book back on the shelf. I never even wrote the agent back. Dropped one ball and burned one bridge. I did not consider it a loss.

The book industry ... ugh. I was glad to leave that dream behind. I did not want to be a professional author for the same reasons I would never want to be a professional cyclist (even if I had the talent to do so.) Writing and riding are things I do because they're fun, they're fulfilling, they're challenging, and because they soothe my mind, nudge me out of my comfort zone, and ultimately reward me with a solid sense of well-being. Trying to leverage activities that bring personal joy and fulfillment for profit brings up too many unsavory (if necessary) duties. When I left Anchorage for my new job in Montana, I decided that even if things hadn't turned out they way they did, I would rather work a blue-collar drudgery job and write and ride for fun than write for a living. In December, I had my book edited and gave more serious consideration to publishing, but I really had too much going on to deal with it.

But then life continued to happen, and despite my efforts to renew my convictions, the dream continued to smolder. When I came to California, I decided it would be fun to try to write again, even if just for a while. I could always get that random job later. So I sat down again. I tried to close the blinds against the warm California sun that threatened to lure me outside. I took a few article assignments, received a few small paychecks, generated a few intriguing project ideas. But I couldn't focus on anything. I certainly couldn't write. That Tour Divide book was still looming on the shelf, like a discarded gift box begging to be reopened. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I had no choice but to move that project forward.

(to be continued. I'm actually at the Seattle airport awaiting a flight to Calgary that's just about to board. I'm headed back to Banff for a week of mountains, snow-lined scenic highways, and mountain biking on the Maah Dah Hey Trail in North Dakota. As with most things I do, this blog post is running longer than intended. But I'll write more on this soon. All photos in this post are from runs with Beat and friends on Mission Peak and Black Mountain this past weekend.)


  1. I didn't realize the sacrifices, frustrations, and hard work involved with writing and publishing a book(s) Ghost Trails and the Divide Race itself are both amazing. Thank you.

  2. I listened to a piece this morning on npr about
    Sounds like their efforts are motivated at least partly by the obstacles you mention. Frustration for the writers and overhead for the publisher. They seem to be republishing older books in e-format but are also taking new writers. Thanks for putting so much effort into your blog. Love it!

  3. Thanks for this post, Jill. I've been agonizing over sending out a few magazine article query letters. I love to write, but the thought of trying to go commercial is intimidating. Good luck with your new book. I loved the last one (and reviewed it for the BellaOnline cycling site).

  4. Hi Jill,

    Your blog is amazing! Would you be interested in being profiled on We're always looking for inspirational people to share their stories of being active.

    Let me know if you're interested!



  5. Hi Jill,
    Despite your trials and tribs, I and many others can't wait for your divide book. You are a gifted writer.

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  7. Here’s my comment, I’m sure no one needs to read it: I guess it’s my hope you might publish your bike ride story because when I was young my infinitesimal-by-comparison bike rides (not races) were about the most special things I did. Because of my old connection with bike rides I followed your Tour Divide audio of phone calls and reports, yours and of that the others for the phone audio. You actually performed an incredible, I think, feat in riding on a mountain bike off pavement an average of 112.75 miles every single continuous rain or shine day until finished with the 2,740 miles, setting a new official record in the doing. I hope you and/or your editor(s) or other associates/consultants find it worth a further shot, but realize of course that you might not. Maybe the story could be serialized it in a bike magazine or in a health/outdoor magazine or in a woman’s magazine.


Feedback is always appreciated!