Monday, January 24, 2011

Interview With Michelle McLean, Author of Homework Helpers: Essays and Term Papers

Non-fiction and YA author Michelle McLean did writers everywhere a favor when she decided to tackle the oft-confusing, oft-overwhelming topic of writing essays and term papers. Homework Helpers: Essays and Term Papers (Career Press) offers students and authors alike a handy reference guide that includes step-by-step instructions and before-and-after examples of each type of essay discussed. Michelle was kind enough to stop by AC during her busy blog tour and share some of the tidbits and behind-the-scenes from the book.

AC: What inspired you to write a how-to book on essays and term papers?

MM: My brother needed help with a paper for one of his classes one day, and I looked up the rules to refresh my memory. Now, I have a MA in English and have written a lot of essays and papers, and I already knew the basics on what I was looking up, but every source I found listed the information in such a technical and confusing way that I had a hard time understanding it. And I already knew what I was doing. No wonder people who are already confused have a hard time!

I had just started my blog at the time and was looking for good subjects to discuss, so I started doing How To posts on several different subjects. But the posts on how to write essays, papers, and poetry got the biggest response. I started getting a lot of comments thanking me for explaining things in a way everyone could understand. I had a few friends encourage me to write a book on the subject, and it ended up turning into two books – one on the essays and papers, and one on poetry.

My goal with it is to help people, especially students, get through their assignments with the least amount of pain and confusion possible. Essays are something that everyone has to write, whether they want to or not. Being confused by the process doesn’t make it any easier.

AC: Can you share one of the important tips from the book?

MM: I think the most important thing is to take it one step at a time. People get so focused on the end product, they let it overwhelm them. Instead of stressing that you have 5 or 10 or 15 pages to fill, take it in small chunks. Just focus on picking your topic. Once that’s tackled, focus on choosing a few sources, not even getting information from them, just picking a few likely suspects. Once that’s done, you can move on to the next step, and so on. If you take it slowly, in small, manageable pieces, it’s much less stressful…and maybe even fun.

AC: The book was intended for students, but do you feel it’s applicable to other writers as well?

MM: Definitely. My book highlights specific kinds of essays, but the tips and processes I use can be applied to any type of writing project. I also include a chapter on proofreading that is handy for any writer. In addition, there are some types of essays included in the book, such as the narrative essay or descriptive essay, that are useful forms for people who want to write narrative non-fiction pieces such as memoirs or stories like those in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

AC: Describe the book’s journey to publication.

MM: For non-fiction, the book doesn’t actually have to be finished in order to sell it. You start with a proposal which includes an overview of the book, its market, competition, what you can do to help promote it, a section on you, the author, a table of contents, chapter abstracts or summaries, and two or three sample chapters. Since I knew my platform was a bit weak, I finished a good chunk of the book before querying.

Once I had my proposal ready, I queried agents. Now I’d queried a novel before, so I was prepared for a lot of rejections and long waits. But I was lucky enough to find my agent fairly quickly and we got to work tweaking the proposal a bit so she could send it out to publishers.

While all this was going on, I continued to work on the book and actually had it finished before the proposal went out to publishers, so I was able to show them the full book when we had a few who expressed interest. Ultimately, Career Press made an offer, contracts were signed, and I began working with some wonderful editors who helped me polish the book until it was ready to head to the printers.

AC: What was your greatest lesson learned during the writing and publication of this book?

MM: I think my biggest lesson was that I need to have balance in my life. I tend to either bury myself in a project while my house falls down around my ears, or ignore it completely. Deadlines loom and edits and rewrites need to get done, but if I push it too hard, then everything in my life, including my book, suffers. I had to find a happy medium.

I finally learned to give myself a break. If I needed a day off, I took it. I let myself play with my kids or read that book I was dying to read, or just sit and stare at the wall and enjoy doing nothing at all…as long as I was careful not to let it go too long :) And I usually came back energized, working better and faster than I would have if I’d continued to push. Everyone was happier. You’ve got to have that balance in your life. It’s still a struggle sometimes, but I’m getting much better at it.
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