Like many emerging authors whose first book is a memoir, I had an experience that was so jolting and life-changing, the only way I could process it was through writing.
Janine Kovac – 16 November 2017
The Back Flap
When Janine Kovac gives birth to micro preemie twins nearly four months before they are due, she channels the grace and strength that carried her through a successful ballet career. The human body has amazing healing powers if you just know how to listen to it. But old habits bring up old haunts and bitter memories—the futile quest for perfection and a career-ending injury. In the sterile, fluorescent world of the NICU, ballet breeds hope as the twins make a miraculous recovery. Can it also bring resolution to the dancer so many years after the abrupt and painful end to the career she loved so much?
About the book
What is the book about?
My micro-preemie twins were born nearly four months before they were due and spent three months in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) hooked up to breathing machines and heart monitors. The son I called the Red Baby was born weighing one pound 12 ounces while his brother the Blue Baby weighed one pound nine ounces.
I responded by dressing in the most colorful clothes I could find. I was determined to channel the grace and strength that carried me through a successful career as a ballet dancer. No one was going to see me cry.
The twins didn’t just survive, they thrived. And I thought that was the end of it. I didn’t expect to grieve. I certainly didn’t expect to revisit—and come to terms with—old resentments from my long-gone ballet days.
When did you start writing the book?
I started writing this book in the fall of 2009 when I discovered that I was pregnant with monoamniotic-monochorionic twins. While I started with posts on a private blog to keep friends and family informed of our situation, I always imagined the story as a book. I’m not sure if I would have had the same determination if I’d known then what it takes to actually publish one!
How long did it take you to write it?
Seven and a half years.
Where did you get the idea from?
Like many emerging authors whose first book is a memoir, I had an experience that was so jolting and life-changing, the only way I could process it was through writing. The more I wrote, the more I expanded my artistic community—through classes, writing groups, workshops, and residencies. This outreach and education was like a positive feedback loop. It strengthened my writing and it also inspired me to get involved in my local literary community, which exposed me to more workshops and writing opportunities. By the time I was ready to publish, I’d built solid friendships with the people who would later edit, promote, and sell my book.
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
The subject matter—micro-preemie twins who spend three months in the hospital—is a hard read. It took me several revisions to be able to pace the story so that the reader wasn’t so overwhelmed with bad news that she just put the book down. The ballet thread was instrumental in providing relief from the main narrative while also fleshing out the back story. But it took me several drafts to figure this out.
I also struggled with the truth of what happened. I coped with our NICU stay by floating in a state of near-denial. When I went back to write the scenes, I had to insert all the fear and panic that I’d stuffed deep down. Initially it was very painful to revisit those memories. And then I broke through some kind of wall; it was cathartic to revise and craft those sentences. It gave me an opportunity to feel tenderness and compassion—so much so that I reached a place of emotional closure before the book was finished. At that point I had to make a choice: put the book in a drawer because I’d achieved a sense of peace or do everything possible to make sure the book got published. I chose the latter.
What came easily?
All of it and none of it! Each big-ticket item (dialogue, scene structure, cover design) came with its own challenges and learning curve, but once I figured out what I wanted to say—oh! this scene is about panic! or that plot point needs to be hinted at earlier—I got into a groove. It felt like gliding. Even the parts that I dreaded (jacket copy, for example) got easy once I trudged through a few drafts.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
Well, my book is a memoir, so all of the main characters are real people. That said, because of privacy concerns, all the doctors and nurses have been given pseudonyms and the patients who are mentioned are compound characters, borrowing traits from several different people.
We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
In my younger days (before I was brave enough to really try this thing called writing), I read Milan Kundera over and over and over. Immortality is my favorite, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being a close second. These were the first novels I’d ever read that unfolded through an unconventional structure. In Immortality, Kundera weaves a second narrative with Goethe and Beethoven into an existing story about a middle-aged woman in modern-day Paris. Two-thirds of the way through, an obscure detail tells you something very startling about her. It should be a spoiler, but it’s not. Reading Kundera showed me that a novel does not have to be a straightforward narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning can fold into itself like a pretzel; the end can happen in the middle.
For non-fiction and writing inspiration, I turn to Anne Lamott. She is able to be honest, humble, boastful, self-deprecating and proud all in the same paragraph. I found it so challenging to write about my flaws in a way that didn’t make me sound like a total jerk and I had an even harder time writing about my positive attributes. Lamott is a total genius here. Sometimes I’d read parts of Bird by Bird or Operating Instructions and ask myself, how did she do that?
Do you have a target reader?
I didn’t write with a target reader in mind; I just tried to write as honestly as possible. The universal theme in my book is the paradox of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst and if you’ve ever had to be in this space of opposites, I think the book will resonate with you.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
I write three pages front and back every day and I go through a journal about every three weeks. I try to wake up early and finish my pages before the rest of my family rises, but sometimes it’s not possible. My early morning writing is often junk (sometimes I can’t even read my own handwriting), but it doesn’t matter. Those three pages are the only truly judgmental-free zone of my writing. It won’t get revised or evaluated. I find that to be extremely freeing.
Sometimes that’s the only writing that gets done that day. Other days I can fit in a good three-hour chunk of time to write. On those days, I turn off my Wi-Fi, put my phone on silent, and set the timer. I write for forty-five minutes followed by a fifteen-minute break. During the break, I fold laundry or take a walk—no email or Facebook or other writing. Then I start the timer again. (This timer trick comes from novelist Ellen Sussman.)
If I’m really lucky and have the whole day to write, I’ll write and revise for three hours in the morning, go take a yoga class, and then do another chunk in the afternoon. My afternoon writing isn’t generative or editorial but is still writing-related. Sometimes it’s research or website maintenance; the sort of thing that needs to get done but that I tend to put off.
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
I do everything! I outline and use it until it doesn’t work anymore. I make a wall of post-its. I chart character trajectories. I had one outline that was all doodles and pictures. Often I outline what I’ve already written—like reverse engineering. This helps me spot where the story sags. Because I’m a dancer, when I’m stuck, I picture my book as a ballet. Where does it need to breathe? Do I need an ensemble scene or a solo? Where’s the tension and when is there release?
Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?
“Finished” is a very slippery word. How do you know when you’ve finished until you’ve edited? How do you edit if it’s not done yet? For small scenes, I tweak and polish as I go. But for big structural issues, I wait until I’m done with a draft before I go back address what doesn’t work.
Did you hire a professional editor?
I hired two developmental editors who worked together as a team. They are friends of mine, and for a few years, we wrote together every week as part of a generative writing practice. As a result, they knew many of my stories that eventually ended up in the book—anecdotes that I initially didn’t want to admit to anyone. I’m really lucky to have had this safe space to share deeply embarrassing scenes and then have generous and talented editors to encourage me to share stories they’d heard.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
Yes! I write my three pages in silence (always) but once I open the computer, I listen to music. It’s the same playlist and it’s mostly classical music, although there are a few pop songs thrown in. I start every writing session listening to the track “Serra Pelada” from Philip Glass’s Powaqqatsi. It’s got lots of whistles and for me it says, “Time to start writing!”
Did you submit your work to Agents?
I submitted my work to about seven agents whom I’d met at writing conferences and through writing groups (specifically, the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Lit Camp, and Write on Mamas). I knew that because these agents knew me personally, they’d respond to my questions. I didn’t want to wait months just to get a rejection. This group included an agent who had sold a similar kind of memoir several years earlier and an agent who’d had a micro-preemie herself. When I submitted, I raised the question of self-publishing.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
When all seven agents praised my writing and my plan to self-publish, I knew that the strength of the writing would not be enough to sell my book to a traditional publisher. I was left with a decision: I could cold-query agents for a year or so until I found the one person who loved the book so much she’d go to bat for me, which might mean another year of finding the right press and then another year before my book would be in bookstores, or I could do it myself. I’d self-published an anthology with my writing group Write on Mamas and felt confident that I could hire editors, graphic designers, layout professionals and publicists.
I also knew that my next book would have a wider appeal. I was confident that doing the nuts-to-soup of self-publishing would help my next book in every respect. It would build my platform and strengthen my community bonds.
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
After I made the decision to self-publish my memoir, I published a trial run of another book—a mini-book of about 10,000 words. I did everything on that effort: I copyedited. I proofed it. I designed the cover and created the cover template. Unfortunately, it shows. So when it came time to design the cover for the “real” book I hired a professional. I sent her several chapters from different plot points. She came up with three initial concepts and that prompted me to ask myself, “What did I want in a cover, anyway?” I went to the bookstore and looked at covers that caught my attention. I looked at my favorite books in my bookshelf. I also researched online, looking at books and thumbnails of their covers.
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
In many ways my marketing plan has evolved much the way the attempt to outline my book did. At first I hired a publicist who designed a very specific marketing plan that started nine months before my pub date. As the plan unfolded, it became clear which line items were not going to work and which line items would. For example, my efforts to ping friends and writers from different circles generated a lot of energy but my goal to blog weekly was a complete failure. So, in the same vein of how I revised the structure of my book, I revised the structure of my marketing plan.
And much in the same way that thousands of words get discarded in the revision process, I discarded many of my marketing ideas. Ideas, I realized, are cheap and plentiful. Send copies to book editors at newspapers! Pitch to book clubs! Apply to appear at writing conventions! But each idea requires an enormous amount of work to execute successfully. There’s research involved. There’s a cost-benefit analysis. The Minnesota Star-Tribune, for example, receives 1000 books a month. Was it really worth the time and money to send them a copy? On the other hand, the book editor of the San Antonio Express-News was a close friend of a colleague. It made sense to pitch someone I could contact personally.
I’m also up against my own complacency. I’m really happy with how the book came out. I ended up saying pretty much what I wanted to say. Which is great—but the price tag is that I’m surprisingly unmotivated to hit the pavement and sell books. I’d much rather bury my head in my next book. If I didn’t have a marketing plan or didn’t have paid social media strategists prodding me to sell books, I might peter out after my book tour.
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
Be generous. There is plenty of room for all of us. Support writers around you. Join a writing group (or start one yourself) and support the organizations that support the art of writing, not just the industry of it. For me this means going to readings and buying books at my local indie bookstore.
I also learned a tremendous amount through volunteering. Six years ago I volunteered to help with events for San Francisco’s literary festival (Litquake). I’ve been involved with the organization every year since. Through Litquake I’ve learned more about writers, writing, publishing, and connecting with readers than I’ve learned at any conference or workshop. I’ve learned which indie bookstores will go out of their way to support local authors, what kind of passage makes for a good read. I think unless you’re in an MFA program, it’s really hard to find a mentor as a writer. Volunteering and helping host book events gave me mentors to learn from.
Where did you grow up?
El Paso, Texas
Where do you live now?
What would you like readers to know about you?
When I was a ballet dancer, I was so critical of everything—myself, the dancers around me. It made me afraid to take risks. If I’d been braver, I would have made opportunities for myself to become a choreographer. When I look back, I see that those chances were there but I was too scared to try. I made excuses for myself.
It’s too late for me to become a choreographer on the scale that I would have liked to aspire to and it makes me sad. It’s one of the few things that I truly regret about my past. I’m determined to approach writing differently. I don’t want to look back on these years and think, “I did again. I was afraid of not being good enough and so I didn’t do anything.”
For me, the real failure is the failure to try.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a second memoir. This one is about a family of five that dances in the Nutcracker and explores what it means to integrate our creative lives with our family obligations.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my book and my creative process!
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