By Shahnaz Radjy
Books Broaden our Awareness
“Books fall open, you fall in”―
Every book comes into my life in various ways. Some come from browsing GoodReads or suggestions that pop up when I open my New York Public Library e-book app. “From Sun to Sun: A Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying” made my must-read list when I emailed a writing group listserv from back when I lived in New York and mentioned that I was doing author interviews. Nina wrote back, and I am so glad she did!
Having lost a few loved ones over the years – my grandmother, my mother, my grandfather, a close friend – I’ve had experience with grief. Hasn’t everybody?
Nina’s experience is seeing and experiencing grief every day as it was her job to show up and accompany patients – and their families – in their end-of-life journey. Doing it with grace and compassion, Nina shares wisdom and insights around life and death in her memoir.
The Challenge of Writing a Memoir
According to Nina and Two Drops’ editor Marilyn Davis, who also wrote a memoir and a book about writing memoirs, many people are shy about writing a memoir because they don’t want to hurt anyone – and everyone remembers things differently. Not to mention that every family is its particular mix of wonderful, complex, and maybe even awful!
Advised by a copyright attorney in Manhattan, Nina tried to abide by the rule of thumb of using 14 de-identifiers for each character in her book – and found it incredibly difficult. She even tried to change some people’s gender and found that it didn’t work as the reactions and personalities got too warped in the process.
In the end, Nina changed names and a few key elements and decided not to worry – which she could do because she portrayed everyone in as positive and human a light as possible.
Inspiration in a Ziploc Bag?
Nina has learned to find beauty in suffering and get nuggets of love from difficult situations as a nurse. She realized that most people don’t have that same attitude, which ultimately inspired her to write “Sun to Sun.”
For fourteen years, Nina used a handheld Dictaphone to record anything that moved her or got her thinking while taking care of patients. When she moved houses eight years ago, she found all the microcassettes in Ziploc bags and decided to review them.
First, she found someone to transcribe the tapes. There were 42 patient stories, so Nina went through them and started cleaning them up, making complete sentences, adding memories. Nina read “All creatures great and small” and “Out of Africa” for inspiration. “West with the Night” added to her understanding of writing her book and may have contributed to the first line of her book.
Her Writing Process
Nina works better when there’s mild chaos around her, so she wrote seven hours a day sitting in a café. Now she had a draft and sent it to a friend whose husband is a literary agent. He passed it on to a colleague who had written many books on editing, and she suggested getting it down to 20 diverse patient stories.
Nina worked on that for six months, and when she sent it back, it got rerouted to an agent in New York City (NYC) who said, “You have to write these stories, but the only way readers will love the patients is if they get to know you – otherwise it comes across as too ‘reportorial,’ so go back and bring the reader into your life!”
Working with a Team
When the time came to take her work to the next level, she hired a copy editor and a line editor. Among other things, they ensured her tenses were correct! It was worth the investment, and Nina recommends hiring editors because of how hard it can be for writers and artists to “kill their babies” (or, as more often stated, “kill their darlings“) and edit with the right level of objectivity.
Her copy editor was a man who thought deeply and was emotionally open. He asked hard questions, such as “20,000 books are already out there about this; what makes yours different?”
The irony is that when she sent the next version back to the literary agent in NYC, she said, “it’s too personal”! That didn’t deter Nina. She found She Writes Press which offers distribution with Ingram, which she loved because the last thing she wanted was to end up with 200 books in the trunk of her car.
Nina got a professional freelancer, Catherine Casalino, to do her cover art.
Now It’s a Book; Where Will It Go?
Once Nina realized it’s all about reviews and search engine optimization (SEO), she focused on that for six months before going on a national tour.
Then, things took an unexpected turn: Dr. Dan Gottlieb, a quadriplegic who was the NPR Voice of the Family in Philadelphia, got her on his show. Terry Gross wanted to interview her too.
Now that the book is out there, the sky is the limit! There are talks about a fictionalized TV series and Nina is working with Jersey Flix, shooting the pilot starting September 19, while a screenwriter is working on a movie adaptation.
Peeking Behind the Scenes
According to her, some of the best things Nina did include:
- Sending her book in PDF format, double spaced and font size 12 to friends of hers who are voracious readers, inviting them to print it out and mark it up
- Inviting students in writing programs to review the first 50 pages for $50
- Sending Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) out, even if she felt she was bothering people – because “what if you get lovely emails back?”
- Listen to feedback from the right people!
Nina’s favorite part of the experience was finishing the book. She still can’t quite believe she did it. In the spirit of full disclosure, Nina tells me that she ended up taking two years off work to achieve this. She was lucky that her mother offered to cover her rent during this time to get her book out into the world. She hesitated but accepted because she’d do the same for her kids.
The most challenging part of the experience for Nina was public speaking. She prepared for every stop on her book tour, for example, but then she’d get up in front of her audience and think, “What am I doing up here?” – classic impostor syndrome – but she didn’t let that stop her, and focused on engaging with the audience.
Nina’s Advice to Writers
1. Find your “Template Books”!
Nina is the first author I spoke to who alluded to “template books”: works that are a melody to your ears that you’ve been reading over and over again since you were little or consider a reference. Finding your template books as an author is critical. And once you find them, you can see who their literary agents and editors are and query them.
2. Don’t be afraid to sound like someone else or too much like your sources of inspiration because you won’t.
Too much of who you are and your experience will seep into your writing, making it different. That said, you have to find your voice. Try things (maybe even writing a sentence backward!), and trust your gut when it tells you that something doesn’t sound like you.
3. Plan your day as though you’re going to work, but know your style and who you are
Some people are outliners, others are “seat-of-the-pantsers.” Either way, writer’s block just means you’re going in the wrong direction, that “the character doesn’t want to go there; you’re forcing them into a spot that you cannot describe.”
4. Find Mentors
Mentors aren’t the same as being a part of a writing group or club, which can seem supportive, but in some cases, may end up fueling your doubts and holding you back as a writer.
5. Learn how to accept feedback and criticism.
It may be painful, but take it and sit on it for 48 hours, and see what you can take from it. It’s an art and a process, but you have to find a structure that works for you – a method to the madness.
Most importantly, just write! The good news is that publishing has become “easy” as you can do it yourself.
When I asked Nina whether she had any new projects in the pipeline, we went down such a fascinating rabbit hole that our interview doubled in length.
There are three other books she’s working on:
- Adult Novel: where the protagonist is a nun and which qualifies as a military historical romance (this one came about because a World War II First Division Marine had read “From Sun to Sun” and asked Nina to write his biography – how incredible is that?)
- Children’s Book: about a country bird that gets blown into a city by a hurricane
- Young Adult Novel: inspired by the job she had when she was 16 at a home for severely disabled children
I love these projects because they are a wonderful reminder that if you’re a writer, you should never feel constrained by a specific genre. Instead, write what calls to you, and – with hard work and a good amount of “sweat equity” – the sky is the limit.
If you want to learn about these next projects, you can follow Nina:
Bio: Shahnaz Radjy
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania. Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
http://casabeatrix.pt/ shows the adventurous spirit of Shahnaz and her husband, François. First, they traveled the world working on farms to hone their skills, and since 2017 have been in Portugal. They bought an old farm in 2018, and are turning their biggest dream into an unforgettable farm/nature /disconnect-to-reconnect experience we’d love to share with you.
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