Pub Rants

Category: Publishing/Publishers

Writing A Memoir Is Not The Same As Writing “My Memoirs”

STATUS: I’m going to be bald by the end of this week because S&S makes me want to pull my hair out. I’m ready to channel my inner Miss Snark…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RAPTURE by Blondie

In other words, what is the difference between writing a memoir versus writing an autobiography (and there’s a huge difference, trust me).

When I’m at a conference, it makes me cringe when writers announce that they are writing their memoirs. Why? Because that means they are writing their life story (including “I was born in 1940 (or choose a year) in Biloxi, Mississippi–or choose wherever”) which is an autobiography not a memoir.

In publishing, famous people have biographies written about them or they may write their own autobiography (Personal History by Katharine Graham comes to mind) but the keyword here is “famous.”

For publication purposes, if you aren’t famous, there is no market for your “memoirs” and a large publishing house will not buy it. Now that doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t write his or her memoirs (what a powerful way to document the family history etc.) but don’t imagine that it’s going to be appropriate for publication to a wider audience.

Once again, I’m not trying to be harsh or mean. I’m simply trying to clarify the difference because it’s obvious in the query letters that we receive that a good majority of people don’t understand that there is one.

An autobiography is a chronicle of a person’s life history.

A memoir is a story (with a story arc not unlike what occurs in a novel) told through a prism of one particular life experience and it usually focuses on a finite period of time and not the person’s life as a whole. A memoir has crafted scenes that build on one another to reach a pivotal moment. An autobiography has remembrances of important events throughout the author’s life and how it unfolded from that person’s unique, inside perspective. They can be separate from each other and don’t need to build to a climatic moment.

Big difference. And here are some suggestions for those interested in writing a memoir. Read the top ones out there. Study how they are crafted. What makes them powerful? What stories did they tell that captured national and international attention? How are scenes created? What is the climatic moment? But most of all, pay attention to the author’s distinctive voice. By doing so, you’ll see what made the most successful memoirs popular and publishable.

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.

Agent Assets

STATUS: It’s after 5 p.m. but I’m reading a client manuscript and just really enjoying my job at the moment.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? F.M. by Steely Dan

I think that a lot of aspiring writers simply assume that an agent’s job is to find projects and sell them and that’s it.

I’d like to posit that my real job is to be a troubleshooter but that’s getting a little off track. As I was walking Chutney this afternoon, I got to thinking about all aspects of my job and what I could share that would show my blog readers a different facet of what an agent does and why an agent could be valuable beyond just negotiating your contract.

So here’s a good example.

This afternoon I had a three-way phone conference with me, my client, and a prospective editor potentially interesting in buying my client’s novel.

Yes. You read that right. A phone conference with an editor who has not yet offered for the work.

I’m assuming I don’t really need to point out the value in having this type of conversation with an interested editor. What I want to highlight here is that this type of event is part of my daily job. It’s not even all that unusual.

This is just one way an agent can be a valuable asset to an author, but I bet most writers wouldn’t even think to include it in the job description of what agents do.

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.

Don’t Read Into It Too Much

STATUS: Today I’m in Boston to meet with editors out here.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RIDE LIKE THE WIND by Christopher Cross

I think it’s important not to read too much into this week’s posts. It’s too easy to say “darn, editors aren’t looking for what I’m writing” or “yippee, they are” and believe it’s a sure thing.

Not really. Editors just talk about what’s uppermost in their minds at the moment of conversation. They could get back to the office and think of 5 other things they wished they had said.

Not to mention, every editor I’ve talked to this week has told me that a fresh, original voice trumps everything.

So maybe right now they are tired of seeing submissions for let’s say a vampire paranormal YA. Surely the market has seen enough of them! But then that manuscript lands on their desk that changes their mind because the voice is so good and the story line is incredibly original. They love it and sure enough, there’s room for one more.

Happens all the time.

A writer’s voice is the singularly most important aspect of writing and I hear that from editors with every conversation.

A writer can have a good, high concept idea but without voice… it’s a car with an engine but it’s not going anywhere.

And plot can be fixed. Voice can’t. You either have it or you don’t.

So if you are a struggling-to-publish writer, honing your voice should be your top priority.

Children’s Scoop Continued

STATUS: Tired and ready for bed. Folks. As a reminder. Most editors do not accept unsolicited queries/submissions and if you are interested in getting your work out there, your best bet is to research and target agents to submit your work.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? not listening at the moment

It’s late so I only have time for a quick blog entry. Today I had lunch with Wendy Loggia from Delacorte (a children’s imprint at Random House).

We ate at the yummy Ruby Foo’s on Broadway (which is an editor hang out by the way). You can always spot publishing folks here around lunchtime because of the close proximity to the Random House Building.

Wendy mentioned that she would love to see a MG or YA mystery (think a modern Joan Lowery Nixon-type author who can reinvent something fresh).

Hum… seems to be a common refrain that I’m hearing from various editors.

She also mentioned that although she personally loves these types of stories, they’ve seen a lot of Hollywood-type books or stories revolving around a famous character or a pop star. Booksellers are starting to glaze if sales reps try and pitch a new story that includes one of these elements.

Wendy also asked if I could remind my blog readers that the Delacorte Contest for first middle-grade novel and first YA novel. These contests are just about to open.

And here’s an interesting insider tidbit. The Delacorte editors (all of them—including the publisher and the editorial director) do a fun, bring-your-own-lunch meeting every Friday during the contest just to read the contest submissions. So, entries aren’t schlepped off to the editorial assistants. All the editors do read the entries and vote. They might not pick a winner every year but if they do, that winner is published. If you look at some of the past winners, you can see that the contest has launched several careers.

It might be a fun possibility if you are interested in that sort of thing but note that it’s the standard RH boilerplate contract so keep that in mind.