Pub Rants

Category: genres

Writing A Memoir Is Not Therapy

STATUS: It’s been a little exciting today. I have a debut author releasing in the spring and we’ve gotten these just incredible blurbs from NYT bestselling authors. Not to mention, we saw exciting cover art today as well.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RUNNING UP THAT HILL by Kate Bush

One of the biggest mistakes I see in query letters for the memoir is writers who spotlight how cathartic and therapeutic the writing of the work was and how they now need to share it with the world.

This is a big mistake. Why? Because writing a memoir is not therapy or shouldn’t be, so this is not a positive thing to spotlight. The truly terrific memoirists (ANGELA’S ASHES and THE GLASS CASTLE come to mind) understand that the writing of the work is an art form and only a certain amount of distance to the subject material can create that necessary objectivity so that the story can be crafted. Key word here is “crafted.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that some of these writers didn’t experience a positive benefit from taking what were harsh and extraordinary childhoods and putting those stories on paper. They probably did but that’s not therapy and what these memoirists actually understood is that readers aren’t interesting in any one person’s therapeutic story; these readers are interested in an inside look to a world they’ve never seen or have never imagined. A world that is unbelievable but true. A world that is unique but resonates with us. A story that captures a universal feeling and the reader senses the connection.

That’s what makes the memoir powerful. And if a writer doesn’t understand the difference of what I’m trying to explain here, he/she will probably never have a memoir published.

And whether the writer understands this or not is usually very obvious and clear in the query letters we receive.

It’s probably one of the biggest misunderstandings out there about this genre.

Memoir—The Most Popular Genre At Any Writing Conference

STATUS: It’s raining in Denver and we need the moisture so it’s a happy thing. Chutney is not so happy about the thunder though.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GO YOUR OWN WAY by Fleetwood Mac

Last week when I was out in New York, I did a panel at the Backspace conference entitled How to Publish A Memoir If You Aren’t Famous with my terrific author Kim Reid and David Patterson, an editor from Henry Holt (but not Kim’s editor). He’s simply another editor who handles the genre.

The session was packed, which rather stunned me. I shouldn’t have been. Lots of people want to write a memoir and it’s also the hardest project to get published by a non-celebrity. And here’s my little rant, very few people actually have stories that are big enough to capture national attention and hence, editor attention.

Honestly, I’m not trying to be mean when I write this. It’s just the truth, but the attendees ended up asking some great questions that ultimately might make good blog material so I thought I would talk about the memoir this week.

I even had one of the attendees email me out of the blue with a thank you. In her email (and with her permission), she wrote, “I enjoyed all three workshops I attended in which you were a presenter, but the memoir workshop was my favorite. It really helped clarify the genre and gave me a new perspective on what it takes to stand above the crowd in that area. I appreciated the workshop and the opportunity to talk with you and Kim Reid afterwards. I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, but I did hear what I needed to hear and I appreciate that.”

So I asked her to expand on that last sentence. She wrote me back and I think her email really sums up the essence of what makes writing and publishing a memoir one of the hardest genres to break in to. In short, most writers think they have an interesting enough story to share with the world and very few of them are correct in this assumption.

With her permission:

When you’re writing a memoir – telling your own story – the stakes are extremely high. It’s very personal. It’s easy to lose perspective. My parents divorced when I was a child and I had serious abandonment issues. So did millions of other people. I was in college in the 60’s and 70’s and participated fully in the sex, drug and rock and roll culture of the time. So did millions of other people. I got my master’s degree and had a great career. So did millions of other people. I had cancer. So did millions of other people. I had a business failure that resulted in bankruptcy. So did millions of other people. I turned my life around and ended up happy and healthy. So did millions of other people.

Aside from the fact that it was my life, what sets me apart from the millions of other people who had similar experiences? What makes my story worthy of being published?

People need to have a persuasive reason to read your story. Were you famous or associated with someone famous? If not, you have to find a way to tell your story that is so involving and compelling and unique that it grabs the reader from the very first sentence and never lets them go until the end.

When I sat in your workshop and truly listened to what you, Kim and David said, I realized my life is interesting to me and my friends, but in order to make it interesting to others, the telling of it needs a lot of work.

Between this workshop and the few minutes of time I had with you and Kim after it, I had the answers to the questions for which I traveled 2,400 miles.Was my manuscript good enough to be published? No.Was I ready to query? No.

Your workshop really helped clarify the genre and gave me a new perspective on what it takes to stand above the crowd in that area. That’s why I said I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, but I did hear what I needed to hear and I appreciate that.

So how was I able to sell Kim’s memoir NO PLACE SAFE since she isn’t a celebrity?

I’ll tell you.

1. She had a compelling story about coming of age during a national tragedy otherwise known as the Wayne William children serial killings in Atlanta. (In other words, her memoir had a backdrop with a greater scope).

2. She had a unique perspective. Her mother was a lead detective on several of the cases—one of the first female African American detectives in the state of Georgia–so Kim had an inside view of the case unfolding and she was a teen straddling two universes—her black neighborhood where kids were literally disappearing off the streets juxtaposed next to her all-white exclusive private school across town where she had won a scholarship and where the news of black kids dying didn’t seem to touch.

3. There have been other works published about these killings both in fiction and nonfiction but NO ONE ELSE has told the story from the perspective of being a daughter of a cop involved in the investigation. Of having a mother who basically disappeared for two years in order to keep other people’s children safe—even when she knew that could put her own kids in jeopardy. Of becoming an adult at basically age 14 so she could help raise her younger sister.

Isn’t that compelling? My just writing about it gives me shivers.

4. This story is back in the news as several of the cases have been re-opened and coverage is happening today in TV/Radio etc and will continue.

5. Kim had access to private files that her mother had kept about the cases.

All of these things together just made for a bigger package that allowed me to sell Kim’s memoir. Some other thoughts tomorrow.

Tips From A Borders Buyer

STATUS: I put another project out on submission this week. That’s always exciting.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? NO SURRENDER by Bruce Springsteen

When I was at the CRW conference this weekend, I had a chance to hear Sue Grimshaw give a talk to a room of already published authors. Sue is the Romance buyer for Borders and has the inside scoop on buying for that industry but I think some of her tips can cross over to other genres.

First, some interesting general factoids:

1. Readers do pay attention to author quotes on the cover.
(Good to know so going after those blurbs can be worthwhile)

2. On the Borders e-newsletter, readers have more click-throughs on author letters to the reader than on the Borders coupons.
(I don’t know what this means but it sounds like readers like to hear from authors and feel personally connected).

Some interesting romance-specific factoids:

1. Sexy covers continue to sell well
(so take that shirt off…but only if you are a guy)

2. Paranormal is still selling well. Readers like tortured heroes. Vampires are in abundance so think outside the box.

3. Sales for historicals are still flat.
(So if you are a fan and want this to reignite, go out and buy more books. Editors, however, are asking for historicals—as long as they are sexy).

Some marketing hints:

1. Have a website but also have something that brings people back to that site time and time again.

2. Interview your own characters. Readers love to know the hidden back story that might not be in the novel itself.

3. Post an excerpt on your website but not necessarily the opening chapters. (Sometimes readers might mistake that for having already read the book). Use a tension-building, exciting, or slightly sexy excerpt instead.

4. Get thinking about Book Trailers. Borders does feature them on their site and in their e-newsletters.
(Professionally done folks. 1 Minute or less. And if in romance, shadow the hero. )

5. Get to know your local booksellers. Sign stock (and yes, it’s just a myth that book stores can’t return those copies because they can). Have your own autograph stickers on hand though.

6. Ask your editor/publisher about a pre-sale tools such as Shelf talkers.

7. Advertise in industry publications.

Been There Done That?

STATUS: Busy day continuing all my negotiations.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SO IN LOVE by Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark

On Saturday morning (way too bright and early for my taste), I spoke on a women’s fiction panel at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

I decided to tackle the theme of overdone story ideas that we’ve been seeing lately. I promised to share it with the blog readers but I do have to add one caveat.

You have to know that there actually isn’t anything wrong with any of these story ideas. What I’m trying to point out by sharing this list is that if you highlight the story idea as being what’s original about your query, you’re probably going to get a pass because these themes are so common, they don’t come across as fresh.

So if you have tackled one of these story ideas for the basis of your novel, you have to not only focus on that idea but what else that makes the story original or a story that readers will want to read above all other novels with the same theme. Does that make sense?

For example, a couple of months ago I blogged that we had received numerous queries about a main protagonist winning the lottery. People read into that statement by thinking that our agency would never be interested in any story if the lottery theme were present. I just want to say that wouldn’t be true.

That theme IN AND OF ITSELF wasn’t enough to capture our interest because it had been done and done again. However, a lottery theme coupled with some other interesting and original element could potentially capture our attention.

There’s a big difference. So don’t assume, after I share this list, that we would never take on a story with one of these themes. We would. I’m just sharing that the theme alone won’t sell us on reading sample pages.

Overdone Themes In Women’s Fiction

1. 40-something woman discovers her husband is cheating with younger woman and decides to divorce and remake her life

2. Trying too much to be like THE JOY LUCK CLUB – 4 women, who are friends, and we “discover” how they are dealing with the various issues in their lives.

3. Breast cancer – a woman who finds out she has it

4. A heroine in her 40s or 50s who wants to remake herself and does so by moving, or starting a new career, or having plastic surgery, and the impact of that on family

5. A heroine who finds out she is adopted and goes on a hunt to find her birth parents

6. A heroine who wants some sort of change in life and goes about remodeling a house (sometimes with her husband and sometimes alone). Usually if this is done alone it’s because her husband has just passed away.

7. A heroine who is invited to her high school class reunion and the emotional upheaval that creates. Sometimes it revolves around an old boyfriend or crush, and sometimes it’s just the simple dealing-with-aging-and-time.

Shelf Space Needed

STATUS: I worked on a couple of submissions today so I spent a lot of time on the phone chatting with various editors.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WEREWOLVES OF LONDON by Warren Zevon

I had one interesting conversation with a children’s editor during my calls today. She mentioned that they had heard the news about a month ago that Barnes & Noble stores were not planning to expand their Young Adult section despite strong sales in that realm and a burgeoning need for shelf space to house the upcoming titles.

Consequently, they were being a little more cautious about what YA titles they took on because the main seller of YA is B&N and if the stores weren’t going to be accommodating titles for lack of shelf space, it could doom some releases.

But before we angst over the doom and gloom possibility of this forecast, just remember that lack of shelf space has been the issue in the adult trade world for years and yet, new writers debut, get noticed, and sell.

Still, it’s not happy news to hear that perhaps B&N thinks the market a little too crowded and the current shelving is what you see and what you get.

Boston’s Back Bay

STATUS: TGIF and one more day before I head home. I’ve had a great week but I’m ready.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? I PUT A SPELL ON YOU by Bryan Ferry

Today was a hoot. Not only did I have lunch with an editor but we popped over to Downtown Crossing to visit a “famous” tea room to have our fortunes told.

Poor Jennifer Kushnier of Adams Media. She got the news that she’ll have three baby boys in her future. All I got was “in 12 months, I’ll be living in abundance.”

Hey, I’ll take the latter.

At noon I met Jennifer at the restaurant Turner Fisheries in Boston’s Back Bay area. Yep, I broke my fast of only meeting with children’s editors.

She bought a book from me called THE DIVORCED GIRLS’ SOCIETY: YOUR INITIATION INTO THE CLUB YOU THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER JOIN by my authors Jennifer O’Connell and Vicki King. (It’s a nonfiction book that will be out in the fall and will be spotlighted in the AM booth for Book Expo).

As most of you know, my agency doesn’t tend to do nonfiction projects. In this case, Jennifer O’Connell has been a long-time client of mine so I was happy to take on her nonfic project and sell it.

So for those of you in the NF field, Adams Media should probably be on your radar since the editors there will consider unagented submissions. Just do your research first.

Jennifer summed up their focus as this:

Adams Media specializes in prescriptive, practical nonfiction that has a national (not regional) appeal. Their goal is to know what drives readers to that shelf in the bookstore and then to have an AM book there that will answer that end user’s question.

That’s it in a nutshell. What works are books where the title presents the problem and the subtitle provides the solution.

For example (and this book was plucked out of their slush pile): DATING THE DIVORCED MAN: SORT THROUGH THE BAGGAGE TO DECIDE IF HE’S RIGHT FOR YOU.

You pretty much know what that book is about and you pretty much now know what Adams Media is about.

Back in the office on Monday.

Fiction Mirrors Life

STATUS: Spent some time on the phone with tech people trying to figure out why I was receiving emails but not able to send. Fun that was not!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THAT GIRL by Stevie Wonder

On Sunday, I went out to dinner with my husband and a couple of his friends that he’s known since grad school. One of the former school chums brought her 15 year old son to dinner with us (who, by the way, was only 7 last time we saw him—sheesh time flies).

He probably thought I was the biggest dork on the planet but he was very kind when I peppered him with questions about his current teen life.

So this is what I discovered.

He likes hip-hop—be it with graphic lyrics or not.

He plays rugby (they have that sport in high school?) but liked that I play Ultimate Frisbee and he might want to give that a try.

He calls himself “preppy.” ( I hadn’t heard that term in a while!)

His best friend calls himself an “EMO.”

First time I’d ever heard the word but I guess this is quite the rage at the moment in high schools (and yes, I did start feeling a little ancient). “Emo” is short for “emotionals.” According to him (and yes, I understand that one source is hardly scientific), EMOs like to wear tight jeans (really straight leg), color their hair (but they don’t always have to), and like to listen to death metal or something that might be similar (that was a little fuzzy for me and the bands he named weren’t ones I recognized).

I felt like I had been given a peek into a secret world.

Then last night I was reading a partial that I had requested and boom, what did I see in the sample pages? A reference to EMOs.

I felt cool for about 10 seconds.

But I highlight this story to point out one thing. If you write contemporary young adult, you’d better know what’s going on in the young adult world. Teen readers can spot a fake or a preachy adult in a New York minute.

And as an agent who reps YA, I need to know what’s going on in the contemporary YA world too.

So, I see more dinners with my friends’ teenage kids in my future. As for the tween set, my nieces have got my back….

Market Savvy

STATUS: I’m battling myself to not leave the office early. It’s 70 degrees out. Must go to Park. Must take Chutney for a walk RIGHT NOW. No, I must be good and wait until at least 4 o’clock when it might be reasonable to pop out early to enjoy the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FALL ON ME by R.E.M.

I have to say that I really enjoyed reading the discussion in the comment section of last Friday’s blog so a quick thank you to all who chimed it.

It’s clear to me that writers who have considered the question of market will not run into a problem when querying a work—even if it’s not clear exactly where the work might fit.

Writers who understand and have analyzed the issue will figure out how to label it (literary fiction in an SF setting for example) or decide to not even try and really focus on the storyline in the query.

It’s hard to explain the issue of market savvy versus not when I can’t share a real query letter received that so exemplifies when it misses. The closest example I can give is that when writers miss, it’s usually because they describe the work in an odd manner so it ends up sounding like some strange cross between nonfiction and fiction (my work is women’s fiction that embraces many principles of psychological self-help that will really help readers). Or something like that.

That’s when Sara and I end up shaking our heads in wonder about the aspiring author’s cluelessness regarding the market. If I want psychological self-help, I’ll read a nonfiction book for it. I don’t read a novel to get those principles. I’m much more interested in the story unfolding and how the characters will grow and develop (and if those psychological self-help principals are subtly interwoven so I don’t notice it but it does enhance the story, all power to the writer—but it doesn’t need to be highlighted in the query.) Did I explain that well?

But I do agree that sometimes the most interesting and original fiction can come out of the exercise of writers bending the genres. I personally love that.

Several years ago when I first shopped Shanna Swendson’s ENCHANTED, INC., we were in a little quandary about what to call it.

Was it paranormal chick lit? Or was it fantasy? We ended up calling it paranormal chick lit for submission but in truth, that wasn’t quite right. Maybe today I’d call it lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy (and how many descriptors can I put on that?). That’s actually more accurate but three years ago, nobody in publishing was calling stuff “lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy” so we opted for the first option.

It can be annoying but we do have to name things when going on submission.

And I personally like to hear how writers consider their own work (even if it ends not being completely on target). It can be very telling about how writers perceive themselves, what they want from the work, their career, their style, their direction etc.

Knowledge is Power?

STATUS: Spring in Denver. It’s Friday! I should pop out early. On Monday, it’s going to be 70 degrees. How could I possibly work? Time to take the laptop and hit the park.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LOVE IS STRANGE By Mickey & Sylvia
(and yes, that’s from the DIRTY DANCING soundtrack)

So this morning, Sara and I got into a big discussion about why it might be important for authors to know where their books fit in the market.

Certainly it’s the agent’s job to understand that (and some would argue—more so than the writers) but why are we, as agents, adamant that writers should to?

Well, we had a lively discussion because we wanted to tackle the concept from all angles. Should that responsibility be lifted from the writers’ shoulders? But then we delved into our query letters and what a difference it makes when writers do demonstrate that knowledge.

I hate to harp on all the queries we receive because isn’t that a dead horse. No need to keep beating it, but ultimately we decided that when writers have that market knowledge and use it correctly, it makes a difference in terms of helping your query letter stand out.

So, here’s our list of why writers should know where their books fit in the market.

1. Knowing clearly demonstrates your publishing professionalism

Right or wrong, we are suckers for that. I want to work with writers who are savvy about the world they want to be a part of. Call me crazy but the more you know as a writer, the easier my job is to help you get published.

2. Here’s a surprise that came up in our discussion. This might be a big assumption and a strange bias but we both agreed with it. Knowing shows that you are a reader and we naturally assume that folks who are good readers will potentially be good writers.

You’d be amazed at how many people I talk to who are “dying” to write a novel and yet don’t read on a regular basis. I’m not certain I get the disconnect there.

3. Not knowing shows your ignorance (and I don’t mean these people are stupid—just that they are lacking in knowledge).

Now, we understand that there will always be people who don’t know what they don’t know and that’s not a reason to dismiss the query letter. We will still read and consider it but right there, we now expect the writing in the query to rise above the standard to compensate.

Is that fair? Probably not but I’m just trying to tell you how it is. If a writer doesn’t know the genre or the book’s place in the market, it would be better to not even try and label it rather than mislabeling or doing so with a strange genre assortment.

Let the story speak for itself by writing a darn good query letter.

Literary Can of Worms

STATUS: Just got news that my author Linnea Sinclair’s GAMES OF COMMAND has hit the extended USA Today Bestseller list. No, it wasn’t the top 50 (that would be really exciting) but it’s a start—especially after being out on the shelves for only one week.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MY HOMETOWN by Bruce Springsteen

I just had to chuckle when reading the comments from yesterday’s blog. Who knew what can of worms I was opening by simply trying to define what is literary for edification.

Where in my post do I denigrate genre writers? Simply because I mention that “literary” writing is usually recognizable or defined by level or art of the writing doesn’t mean that genre writers don’t also achieve that. It’s simply that the industry doesn’t DEFINE them as literary. Folks, I don’t make the rules. I simply try and point out that they exist. That there is an expectation an editor has if I pitch a work as literary fiction. They are expecting whatever it is they consider to be literary—and in the way I took a stab at defining. (Mitchell, Robinson, Roth or whoever you put on that list.)

In fact, I posit that there are many terrific literary writers who write genre fiction (Dan Simmons, Diana Gabaldon, and Anne Rice immediately pop to mind) but that’s not how they are labeled in the industry.

They are labeled science fiction/horror or historical fiction (or as some would argue for Diana’s earlier works, romance), or fantasy despite the literary quality of the writing. Do I think that’s fair? No. But it’s the truth in this industry.

That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Still, I love when blog posts spark discussion because it has long annoyed me that literary genre writers don’t get the credit they often deserve simply because they don’t happen to write what is “traditionally” considered literary.