19 Jobs Before Breakfast: Editor Alyssa Waugh on the creation of her I AM STRENGTH anthology, and running a small press

It’s August 10th, 2018. I’ve done little else since March besides work on I AM STRENGTH, an anthology my small press, Blind Faith Books, is producing to celebrate the everyday struggles and triumphs of women all over the world.

I AM STRENGTH book cover

I remember sitting in panel during a Wilkes residency and hearing that if you really wanted to be a writer, you would have to make sacrifices. There would be times you’d be sequestered in your hotel room working while listening to all your friends have a party down the hall. This summer I worked through drive-in movies, wing nights, dinners with my boyfriend, swimming invites, farmers market trips, and what would have been sitting out on the porch at sunset with a good book. I love the summer. So I feel my sacrifices were that in the true sense of the word, like giving up something you really love for Lent.

Blind Faith Books logo

When you start a small press, you agree to take on many jobs: manager, editor, promoter, interviewer, interviewee, designer, liaison, etc. You agree to become an expert in publishing, business, marketing, finance, law, and more. When producing an anthology, you are all of these things, all day, every day. I raised and distributed the funds, ran the submissions call, read the slush pile, wrote and sent acceptance and rejection letters, copy edited, did interior layout, and worked closely with the graphic designer to bring my vision for the cover to life. It’s not that I didn’t have help (Robert Antinozzi and Trilby Greene helped a lot, just to name 2). But I don’t have the luxury of delegating work that larger publishers do. When we say “small press” we mean small. Some days, most days, it’s a one woman show. There’s often no one to turn over a small job to. I just take the book from one step of the publishing process to the next. But that’s the whole idea of I AM STRENGTH. That women are superheroes. In the words of J.K. Rowling, we can “juggle 19 jobs before breakfast.” And we can do it all while bleeding, in heels, with underwire digging into our ribs, while still making time for our extensive beauty maintenance routines, while our looks are constantly being scrutinized, and while dealing with negative body image. Women work hard and excel at their jobs while being hit on, sexually harassed, or in the midst of unconscionable domestic violence. All this, of course, we rarely talk about.

We somehow started thinking it part of the superhero persona to suffer in silence—to never show “weakness.” I AM STRENGTH says let’s talk about them—the many slings and arrows endured by so many women on a daily basis. Let’s take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. On the book’s cover, a strong woman casts a shadow wearing a hero’s cape that isn’t otherwise visible, because only she knows the real burdens she bears. In the book’s Foreword, contributor Marinda K. Dennis speaks of the chains we all carry each day, and how the only way to free ourselves is to write our way out. She says “writing nonfiction gives a piece of mind, and peace of mind.” Let’s write about these uncomfortable truths, and in doing so, come to terms with them. Let’s talk about why so many women have a #MeToo story, and/or a domestic violence story. Let’s try to get to the root of the problem, and then fix it. Because if men abusing women is this common, we are failing to raise our boys right, and we are failing our girls by allowing them to be abused. This is why one third of proceeds from book sales will go to No Means No Worldwide, whose goal is to create a rape-free world—partially through teaching women self-defense and the power of “No,”—but more importantly, through educating boys to respect women and to respect consent. One third will also go to Girls Inc., an organization inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.

The anthology isn’t all sad stories, though. In fact, there are hardly any. Because even in the tragic, scary, stories, the woman telling it always finds a way to rise like a phoenix from the ashes to become her own hero. They’re very inspiring. The book is divided into sections: Body Positivity and Self-Love; Overcoming Abuse and Injustice (this section is the largest, and we turned even more away); Emotional Recovery; Defying Expectations, Reaching Our Goals, and Supporting Each Other’s Efforts; Fighting for Life Through Pain and Illness; Empowerment; and Odes to Women We Love. The stories come from places including but not limited to Alaska, California, Oregon, Texas, India, South Africa, Bosnia, Trinidad, Ireland, Iran, and right here in Northeastern PA. They come from women of different religions, cultures, ethnicities, and persuasions. And while each piece in the collection is unique, the struggles are so much the same. Sexism varies in degree according to economic stature, race, religion, and culture. But it exists everywhere, and affects all women. If anyone ever tells you we’re living in a post-feminist world where we’ve achieved perfect equality and sexism is no longer an issue—that women no longer have any struggles—show them this book.

Still, despite the obstacles, here we are, courageously showing up, speaking up, and hammering our cracks in the glass ceiling. Every woman has a song of strength to sing, and when our voices come together it creates a chorus that cannot be ignored. It was a privilege working with these strong women, an honor to be trusted with their precious memories.

Concerning the work itself, editing nonfiction is a strange thing. It’s not like fiction where you can tell the author what their character should do or where the story should go. The stories are true, the “characters” real. The editor must strike a fine balance between bringing out certain aspects of the story without compromising the honesty and integrity of the piece. Sometimes you must ask a writer to dig deeper into a painful or difficult memory, and persuade them to do the last thing in the world they want to do: relive it. In excruciating detail.

Of course, you always want your writers to feel comfortable, but if you’re not going to dive deep for those details, you’re not doing creative nonfiction right, and you may as well not do it at all. The best stories, the ones that stick with us, do so because the writer was willing to slice open old wounds and bleed all over the page. By the same token, once you have that profoundly vulnerable, beautiful piece, you must corral the cold feet that ensue as the book moves out of editing mode and closer to publication. It’s scary enough for an author to let go of fiction, worrying it isn’t perfect, that there’s a typo on page 59 you’ll never be able to take back once it’s out in the world. With nonfiction, people panic they’ve said something personally, and this piece will reflect them permanently once it is published. They question whether they’ve been clear enough in their messages. They don’t want to be misinterpreted. Maybe they have given advice to women they won’t be able to take back, and are now over-analyzing their phraseology. They second guess. Maybe they were too over-the-top in their calls to action. Isn’t it for every woman to decide for themselves whether they want to join the revolution? Who do I think I am? Last minute jitters, and me trying to stop someone from pulling brilliant lines out of their piece at the last second. Me, pleading with contributors not to make their story blander, weaker, at the last moment.

You also must find the balance between being detailed and being safe. Many women who wrote about their domestic violence situations did so under pseudonyms, while also changing the names of people involved. And still, many were afraid their abuser would see the story and know it was about them. There’s none braver than the women who told those stories despite the fear.

I’m in the final stages of finishing the book now, and soon it will be available for purchase. I’m relieved and ready to relax for the first time in 5 months (well, besides still attending to my adjunct professor duties). Still, I know that in about a week I’ll start the preliminary work on my next publishing project. I feel I am doing what I was always meant to do: using my writing skills in conjunction with my activism to help make the world a better place. Even though it means long days, long nights, and long shots, and there are few financial rewards, I love what I do. There’s no other feeling quite like fulfilling your purpose. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I agree.

I AM STRENGTH debuted on August 26, 2018 (Women’s Equality Day) and can be purchased here:


Please join the editor and contributors at these upcoming readings and book signings:

Big Blue Marble Bookstore, Philadelphia PA, Oct. 14th, 1pm

The Game Chateau, Wilkes-Barre PA, Nov. 3rd, 8pm

Barnes & Noble, East End Center, Wilkes-Barre PA, Nov. 11, 1pm

Library Express, Steamtown Mall, Scranton PA, Nov. 30th, 6pm

Writing and the Art of Anticipation

“The thrill is in the chase, never the capture.” – Doctor Who, “The Unicorn and The Wasp”

I cannot stress enough the joy that exists in wanting. My favorite writers share the idea that romance is less about kissing and having sex, and more about the anticipation of a kiss, and building sexual tension. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, this can go on for years. Chris Carter was able to stretch the relationship between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files for seven, right up until David Duchovny’s departure from the show. In other words, he kept us waiting until the last possible moment, and if viewers weren’t grateful, they should have been. Good writers know there’s an art in giving characters space to miss each other, time to want each other, and the magic of the tease.

Yet when I recite the quote above to my writing workshop full of high school girls, one of whom just read me a first-kiss scene that she is particularly proud of, I am met with skeptical stares. “No kissing in the first book of a series,” I’ll say, “and if it’s a standalone story, absolutely no kissing until the end.” It’s easier said than done, and even I’ve been tempted to write that sensual, romantic first-kiss scene too early in my novel. To myself, my students, and writers everywhere, I urge you: Don’t do it! Build romantic suspense instead.

The X-Files did this so well, it is in fact, the best I’ve ever seen. All the affection had to be shown through the characters’ concern for one another. Chris Carter mastered the art of keeping from the audience what they thought they wanted, which was for the characters to get together and accomplish their goal. What audiences really want is to want the characters to get together. We wait seasons for them to kiss, but once they do, that anticipation dissipates and things get boring fast. You can never get that first kiss or the feeling of wanting it back. Afterwards, characters become a sort of mundane couple sickening us with their constant cloying cuteness. Think Jim and Pam on The Office. I remember reading a fan comment about four seasons into the show that said: “For once in a show I just want the characters to get together and be happy. Is that so much to ask?” No! Bad fan! And yes, it is a lot to ask for, because you are essentially asking the writers to terminate the anticipation you feel when tuning into their show every week. Will this be the episode they finally get together? Think about it. Did you enjoy the show more when Pam was an unattainable goal for Jim, or when they were happily married and working on baby number two? This question is rhetorical given that we’d already seen the latter storyline with baby number one. Pam gets pregnant because there is nothing left to do with their story. The best parts are over. Remember when Jim was in emotional agony because Pam was engaged to Roy? Remember feeling that pain with him? That was good stuff.

I know I’ve been talking T.V. shows here, but it applies to books as well. A book becomes a series when the first one hooks us, usually because our main character meets a new and intriguing person and they spend the length of that book chasing one another and a goal. By the time we reach book two or three, and the characters have already gotten together, most of their time is spent kissing and arguing over who’s prettier. Think Edward and Bella in Eclipse. However, if done correctly, we’ll still be waiting with bated breath for Katniss to choose Peeta or Gale, or to see what happens between star-crossed lovers June and Day in Marie Lu’s Legend series. Lu kept me waiting until the very last page, and I thanked her at the end.

But using T.V. as an example seemed appropriate since this Friday I found myself on the page of one of my favorite new shows, 12 Monkeys, discussing the relationship of the two main characters with another fan. In order for me to get to this stage in a relationship with a new series, several factors need to be in place. First, the concept has to hook me. In order to get me to the second episode (a rarity for me), it must be well written with well thought out story lines. But how do we reach the stage where I’m on the internet talking to other nerds about the show? Thirdly, and most importantly, there must be interesting characters that want something and make me want it for them. That’s anticipation.

We’ll keep tuning in for a stolen glance…a meaningful moment…a hand hold…a hug, that moment where their lips almost touch but some awesome story-related snafu interrupts it.

This fan and I shared concern that Cole and Cassie might kiss by the end of the first season. There were a few moments already that showed the characters growing closer, and it’s romantic to be sure. We love to see them dance, appreciate art, and be generally adorable despite the time-oriented plot device keeping them apart. I’m loving the development, but I do hope they keep that first kiss at bay. So far, the writers are doing a good job of emotionally attaching me to Cole and Cassie, making me want what they want, a difficult feat in so few episodes. I want Cole and Cassie to be happy together. I just hope the writers continue to keep from me what I want. Because that’s what I really want.

Perhaps, like the students taking my workshop, you’re reading this right now with eyebrows raised, thinking I’m off my nut. Don’t believe me? This theory is backed by science, which you can read more about in the Daily Mail, and upheld by writers long before me. After all, it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” My fellow story lovers, I wish you long and hopeful travels wrought with anticipation.

Jack and Carter of Stargate SG-1 separated by a forcesheild in the episode “Divide and Conquer.” They will never share a kiss in the series that is unaffected by an alternate universe, disease, or memory.