Irritation Doesn’t Sell Anything

December 3, 2019 § 7 Comments

Back when I was a professional circus performer, most of my shows were at “busker festivals”—large community events where a street or streets are closed to traffic, and shows happen throughout downtown.

(Not seeing it? Here’s an uplifting two-minute montage of the busker festival in Ontario I now direct, check out the flip at :52!)

A tradition at busker festivals is the Group Show, a closing performance with all the acts presenting 3-5 minutes each. Group Shows are fun for the performers as well as the audience—buskers bring out new material, tricks too difficult or dangerous for their regular shows, or they combine acts with other artists.

Sometimes there’s an inside joke. At a festival in Canada, performers swapped costumes and did bits of each others’ acts. Funniest of all was emcee Sharon, a not-contortionist dressed as a contortionist, running around shouting “I’m Suzie Splits! Buy my merchandise!” As she introduced each act, she added the slogan: “Next up, the amazing Aerial Angels! Did I mention you could buy my merchandise?” or “Wasn’t that juggling terrific! Buy my merchandise!”

We all loved Suzie Splits (not her real name). But what we remembered from her show was not her amazing bendy skills, but her constant merchandise pitching.

You may not be hawking souvenir t-shirts, bumper stickers or can cozies, but you might be selling something else. Workshops. Editorial services. Coaching. Writing retreats. Chances are, you’re also part of some pretty great writing communities. Which means you’ve seen the equivalent of Suzie Splits, tweeting about her book (now available on Amazon!), Instagramming about her retreat (look how pretty!), or posting about her great new service in a Facebook group (discounts for members!).

When you need that service, or have been meaning to buy that book, those announcements can be great. But most of the time, let’s face it, they’re kind of irritating. And irritation doesn’t sell books—or anything else.

How can you connect your services with your audience, without alienating the very clients you’re seeking? Some best practices:

1) Revise your bio. Every time someone sees you or your writing online, your bio should contain a clickable link to the most important thing you’re selling right now. If your website isn’t selling anything NOW, send people to the social media you enjoy the most, or a recent publication. Update Twitter/Instagram bios regularly to highlight your current work, whether that’s a new essay published or a service you’re offering.

2) Use your email signature. An automatic email signature saves time and reaches people outside your writing community. Responding to your lawn service? Maybe their daughter’s getting her MFA, or the main mower has a deep love of reading you don’t know about.

3) Promote one thing at a time. When I add my bio to a Brevity blog, I rotate what I’m pitching. Some weeks it’s “follow me on Instagram” or “join my newsletter.” Sometimes I’ll mention a conference I’m speaking at, or a workshop I’m teaching. But if I listed my whole calendar, readers would get lost in a mass of information.

4) Promote your friends…one at a time. Twitter feeds full of retweets of books for sale are worse than no promotion at all, because people mute or ignore spammy accounts. If I’m promoting a friend’s event or service, I skip promoting myself for a couple of days before and after, because I want the information to stick.

5) Ask your friends to promote you. When a friend mentions you in their newsletter, or on social media, that’s an endorsement, far more valuable than self-promotion. People want advice from their trusted friends more than an ad from you.

6) Guest blog. Writing a post for a blog with a substantial following raises your profile. Look for leaders in the writing community, like Jane Friedman, and browse their blogs. What can you write for that audience? Can you angle that topic to establish your own expertise or mention your service in the context of valuable information?

7) Most important of all: timing. At least 10 “gives” for every “ask.” This establishes you as a valuable, contributing member of the community, rather than a drive-by using the group as a captive audience. Gives can be sharing links or information, answering questions you have expertise or even just an opinion on, posting thoughtful questions for discussion, sharing funny/meaningful/frustrating/triumphant moments from your own writing process, making jokes or participating in Twitter threads.

The very best self-promotion is offering something people already want and are delighted to discover that you sell, because they already like you. They trust you. Because you’ve shown you want their community, not just their cash.

I once explained how street performers make money to a reality-show investor: “We do the very best show we can, for free. At the end of the show, people like us so much, they joyfully give us money, even though they could easily just walk away. Our job is to make them thrilled they have the opportunity to pay us.”

As creatives, that’s our job. Hang our paintings on the gallery wall for everyone to see until a buyer walks in. Donate our time and information to groups who need it, as we can afford to give it. Establish our skills and knowledge and ethos so clearly that when we do (finally!) announce a product, our audience is excited we’re letting them buy.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Rebirth Your Book retreat in Costa Rica with Allison and Dinty W. Moore coming May 2020 (please buy our merchandise).

Readers Will Also Like…

November 19, 2019 § 10 Comments

If you’re querying a memoir, or writing a memoir proposal, you need “comps”—Comparable or Comparative or Competitive Titles, depending on who’s defining, but they all mean books like yours.

In a query, comps help the agent understand where your book fits in the market. Comps can be titles or authors:

My memoir, Not Just Good Hair: The True Story of an Anchorman will appeal to readers of Walter Cronkite’s A Reporter’s Life and Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News

Complete at 70,000 words, Plummeting Beats Paperwork: How I Survived Everest and My Million-Dollar Divorce combines the humor of Tori Spelling’s Unknown TerriTori with the adrenaline rush of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

Lydia Yuknavitch meets Marie Kondo in this memoir of decluttering my own psyche after trauma.

In a query, pop culture, movies and TV are fair game, if and only if you are confident your manuscript will wow the agent like the show does, or it truly ties into a major cultural moment.

Parking Daniel Craig’s Lambo: My Celebrity Assistant Life will appeal to Bond movie fans with my behind-the-scenes stories from the Skyfall set, and to readers of Page Six, for whom I debunk rumors about Craig’s underwear, tattoos, and what really happened at the Oscars.

Big Little Lies meets The Parent Trap in I Would Have Killed Her Myself: Mourning the Twin Sister I Hated.

Remember, if you use non-book comps, you are literally comparing your work to media with million-dollar budgets and saying “my book’s that good.” You’ll need a very strong hook to make a non-book comp seem logical, rather than overly aspirational or flat-out deluded.

In a proposal, comps show how your book fits a pre-existing market and appeals to the same readers. Describe the content, what’s great about that book, and (gently!) express how your own manuscript is different/better/fills an unmet need. For example:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How To Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King (1994, reprinted 2004, revised edition HarperCollins: 2010)

With chapters on dialogue, exposition, POV and interior monologue, this book seeks to replicate the process of working with a professional editor. Some reviewers complained the book seemed overly compressed and “hard to follow.”

SEVEN DRAFTS: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is clear about how each type of draft builds on the previous round, and lays out specific steps for the writer to take in each draft.

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At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreider (Thomas Nelson 2017)

“In this candid, funny, thought-provoking account, Tsh shows that it’s possible to combine a love for adventure with a love for home” (publisher’s description). This book embodies the travel-without-itinerary concept, but with a focus on family travel and homeschooling rather than GO EAST YOUNG WOMAN’s solo expeditions.

Your proposal’s comps section includes 3-5 titles that are:

  • Current within the last 1-4 years.
  • Good sellers, to show a healthy market…
  • …but not bestsellers. Eat Pray Love is a phenomenon, not a realistic comp. The exception is if you have a clever/fun comparison, or it’s unavoidable, i.e., you wrote about going to Italy, India and Indonesia as a deliberate recreation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey.
  • Not written by celebrities, because “famous person speaks” is its own genre.

How to find your comps:

  1. Walk into your local chain and indie bookstores and figure out where your book will be shelved. Write down the other titles on that shelf.
  2. Repeat step 1 at the library, then ask the librarian what other books she’d recommend like those.
  3. Enter the writers’ names at Literature-Map, to find similar authors.
  4. Look the books up on Amazon. Or, if you’ve skipped directly to this step, look up a big-deal book in your category. Scroll down to Product Details  a ranking section that looks like this:
    Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #108,983 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

    Each of those subjects is a clickable link that will take you to the rankings of all the books in that category. Look at the top 50 books on each list.

  5. If a book is not in the top 50, it is probably not popular enough to be a good comp. If a book is in the top 5, it may be too popular. Choose titles with ranks <200,000 in Books and <5000 in their smaller categories. It’s also a good sign if the book has 50+ reviews.
  6. Read reviews and note what readers love and what they complain about, and the book’s description. Use these to sum up the content, say what’s great about the book, and a respectful statement of what this book lacks that your book brings. Remember that book’s agent may read your proposal, and you want them to nod in agreement, not get irritated at your criticism.
  7. Think laterally. The best comps may mirror one of your themes or plot arcs, rather than being a similar story. For example, an author writing about learning to be a good parent might use comps about climbing a mountain, negotiating with terrorists, or running a restaurant, rather than strictly parenting memoirs.

Finding comps can be tedious, but it doesn’t have to be painful. It’s a series of bite-size tasks to do when you want to work on your book but you’re getting interrupted a lot. And hey, make sure to say hello and buy a book when you’re in that indie store—they’ll be hosting your reading in a year or two.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She would like to inform you that after the fun of six months of proposal writing, it’s entirely likely you’ll be revising the whole thing with your agent (thanks, Janet!). Follow Allison on Instagram for writing, memoir, and writing retreat news!

 

Don’t Do It Yourself

November 14, 2019 § 11 Comments

A book in your hand, ready to sell. The satisfaction of seeing your memoir in print. A calling card at conferences. Sweet, sweet profit.

It’s the siren song of self-publishing, and it’s calling you.

Leap over the gatekeepers! Look at all the crap they publish every year!

How many more celebrity tell-alls do we need?

Good writing should be what counts!

Sometimes it feels like bad or even just average writing is published every day while one’s own quality work goes begging. We worry that it’s all about who you know—and it partly is. Whether we have an MFA—and it partly is. Whether we’re already famous—and it definitely is. If you’ve truly “done the work,” why wait for someone else’s permission to live the dream? Especially if you’re sitting on a stack of query rejections.

But the magic combination of quality and marketability that makes a memoir sellable to a traditional publisher is also the key to self-publishing success.

It’s very, very hard to sell a self-published memoir without a clear hook and a specific reader demographic. (For fiction, books must fit a narrow genre that sells ebooks like mad). Authors may self-publish because they believe “the establishment” is overlooking their vast talent or snobbishly closing the doors to success. But traditional publishing wants to make money. If a book is likely to make money, the establishment will buy it and try their best to sell it. Meanwhile, presses large and small buy quite a few brilliantly written, medium-marketable books, hoping sales will surprise them as they enjoy the warm glow of nurturing new talent. Tremendously marketable books may not be great from a literary standpoint—but saying a popular, badly-written book is a bad thing is like insisting everyone finish their broccoli before having ice cream. Financially, every ghostwritten celebrity memoir keeps afloat a whole raft of mid-level authors.

Maybe agents and publishers focus too much on “platform.” Why should you have to be a speaker or a widely-quoted expert or write op-eds or be a social-media star? Can’t you just write a good book? But the paradox is that if your book is truly fresh, well-written and strong enough to sell without platform, agents and publishers will snap you up. The horrible, unspoken second part of “sorry, you don’t have enough platform” is “and your book isn’t groundbreaking enough to spur me to overcome that challenge.”

Excellent and painstaking writers often miss that crucial variable, and it’s heartbreaking to pour tremendous time and effort into an unsellable book. And unless you hit big—50,000+ copies sold—self-publishing poisons your numbers. Low previous sales make it considerably harder to traditionally publish later; you also spend the “debut” excitement that sometimes sells a book.

A publishing deal is a corporate investment in your career, an endorsement that tells readers, “We bought this book and you should, too.” True, publishers aren’t bringing as much sales clout to the table as they used to. But if you’re not ready to hustle for your traditionally published book, self-publishing isn’t going to help.

Flying solo might still be right for you. Consider:

  • Do you have the money/skills to make a professional cover that fits the genre and serves as clickbait? Do you have the judgment to let your favorite image go in favor of a cover that sells books?
  • Do you have the money/skills to design the book interior and handle ebook conversions to multiple formats?
  • Do you have substantial personal clout in a field or organization strongly and specifically interested in your book, with 5000+ members who will purchase your books and evangelize on your behalf?
  • Do you have 10-20 hours a week to follow up on press releases, place supporting articles in mass media, chase interviews, and urge friends, family and strangers to review your book on Amazon and Goodreads?
  • Do you have the money/skills to build a website with a secure e-commerce portal?
  • Can you pay a PR person to do some of this stuff, or put in another 10 hours a week?
  • Will you wholesale to bookstores at the standard discount, even though intuition screams “why do I have to give up another $2/copy?”

There’s more—a lot more—to successful self-publishing, but contemplating this list is a good start.

The publishing world is not full of cruel gatekeepers, but people who genuinely value beautiful work and also need to make a buck. Very few writers create work of transcendent beauty surpassing the need for clear connection to an existing market. Ask yourself, is this the best book I can write? Do I know exactly who will want to read it? Do I have a realistic and extensive plan to reach those people? For both traditional and self-publishing, the gate is only open when the answer is yes, yes, yes.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats. Join her in Dubai Feb 26-March 4, or with Dinty W. Moore in Costa Rica May 18-24. Or follow her adventures in writing on Instagram.

The Biggest Book Fair You’ve Never Heard Of

November 7, 2019 § 4 Comments

2.5 million.

I thought I’d misheard the number when the Consul General of the United States mentioned the attendance of the eleven-day Sharjah International Book Fair in his welcome speech at the American Authors Reception. The same number showed up on Wikipedia—I figured maybe it was inflated for PR purposes.

“Where would they all park?” asked my agent.

Then I read the program. Almost 2000 exhibitors are here—publishers, distributors, government culture agencies, bookstores. (If you’ve been to the annual AWP Conference, they have around 500 exhibitors. So multiply that overwhelm by 4.) Admission is free. There’s a Comic Station, a Cookery Corner, and a Social Media Station, a weird blue cube in which I talked to a deeply attentive audience about writing for social media. The main lobby outside was so crowd-loud I needed a handheld mic in what was functionally a closed room. Today’s Women in Publishing Summit is expected to have nearly 300 people, including yours truly.

The entire publishing industries of the Middle East and North Africa are here; two full days are devoted to international rights sales. The region includes 411 million people; it’s not a stretch to imagine six-tenths of a percent of them work in publishing or government agencies promoting their national literary tradition. Throw in India (at least 80 Indian publishers are here) and you’re selecting bookstore owners, editors and readers from another 1.3 billion people. And they don’t need to park—most of them flew here and Uber-ed to the convention center. Many of the locals have drivers.

On the exhibit floor, there were books in Arabic, English, Hindi, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. A local chain bookstore displayed new books at 40% off. A historic publisher from the UK displayed priceless engraved first editions in glass cases. Here, Borders still lives and they’ve got a booth. There are names I’ve heard: Anita Nair, Steve Harvey, Orhan Pamuk, Bernice McFadden, Amitabh Bachchan, Macmillan, Amazon, the American Library Association. Vikram Seth explained to a hall packed with schoolchildren that he’d have written more books if he stopped playing Candy Crush.

There are a lot more names I haven’t heard, Arabic, Indian and Persian authors packing the auditorium, their book-signing lines snaking through the cavernous main hall. Then again, I hadn’t heard of Sharjah until I moved to Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is actually seven independent units—I’d call them city-states if they weren’t plopped in the middle of spacious desert, but the principle is the same. Everyone’s heard of Dubai and most people know Abu Dhabi. There’s also Ras al Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al Quain, and Sharjah. Sharjah is next-door to Dubai, it’s 100% dry (no alcohol or rain), and it loves books.

Loves.

Books.

UNESCO named Sharjah the World Book Capital for 2019, recognizing “the best city program aimed at promoting books.” The Book Fair is under the patronage of the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. The Sheikh (who holds doctorates in History and Political Geography) not only opened the Book Fair and hung out (or whatever one calls casual royal interaction), he welcomed the American authors at a reception at the US Consul General’s house.

Can you imagine the highest government official in your home country not only making time for the big cultural event photo op, but sticking around to enjoy the scene, then heading over to a house party to personally welcome another country’s visiting authors? (Maybe if you’re Icelandic.)

This gives me hope in the world. That even in an absolute monarchy, in a region of the world where human rights as we conceive them in the West are not a particularly high priority, even in a place where a lot of women write books because it’s a socially acceptable activity when you live with your parents until you get married and something’s gotta fill that time, there is a love of literature so profound that high society, top officials, royalty, Nobel laureates and movie stars have all showed up to celebrate it.

It also gives me hope that keynote speaker Steve Harvey earned a negative review for his “outdated views about family and the roles of men and women” in local paper The National. Free speech is not a right in the UAE. Newspaper stories are approved, and people with power are condoning that statement. Books published locally go through a three-permit process, including submitting one’s manuscript for government approval—but plenty of books published elsewhere are distributed in the Emirates. We all know words can change the world, bring communities together and cross international borders. Honoring literature is honoring ideas, and it’s moving to watch that happen here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’s hosting a writing retreat (including a full manuscript read) in Dubai Feb 26-Mar 4. Two places are still open if you’d like to check it out.

 

Moments Not Things

November 5, 2019 § 16 Comments

photo by Sara Tasker @me_and_orla

I’m taking an Instagram course. Which is the sort of ridiculous thing that exists these days—you paid real money to learn about Instagram? From who, some kind of Instagram guru? Wait, don’t you already teach about Instagram?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve argued before that writers don’t need ten thousand followers for our literary community and/or platform; we need about a thousand engaged followers. People who actually want to have a conversation with us, and for whom Instagram is a free and convenient way to do that. My captions aspire to mini-essay status, and I do, in fact, have conversations with other writers. People I admire; people who (I hope) admire me right back. I’d like to have more conversations (please join me!), and I’m missing a key ingredient: better photos.

While I love and advocate for words on Instagram, there’s no escaping that it’s still primarily a visual medium. Many of the people I interact with I’ve already met in real life, at a writing conference or an event. If I want strangers to slow their scroll and interact, I need photos that pop, that say “there’s more to find out here.”

The course teacher’s photos are amazing. The visual impact is such that scrollers become readers, pausing to look at Sara Tasker’s posts and read her words, click over to her blog, maybe buy her book. One key concept she teaches is “Moments not things.” For example, a plate of beautiful cupcakes, arranged just so, pink frosting sculpted into dainty swirls. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s just a picture. Add a child’s hand reaching into the frame, one finger sneaking some icing, and now it’s a moment, the first sentence of a story, with the rest told in the caption.

This applies to people, too. What’s more precious: The photo of a kid posed stiffly in front of a photo backdrop? Or the hurried shot of “First day of school but she’s late for the bus so I’ve got her running and waving while I thrust the 7TH GRADE sign into the frame”? One is a moment. One is a thing.

As writers, this is the difference between telling and showing:

We were so poor we qualified for public assistance and had to buy the cheapest groceries. My mom was ashamed and tried to hide our broke and hungry state.

It’s not bad, but it’s still telling. An exercise I learned from Andre Dubus III was to take a series of abstract concepts and express them through a concrete situation or action.

Poverty:

We made dollar-store macaroni and cheese with water instead of milk.

We went through Justice, Fatherly Love, Motherly Love, Betrayal, Jealousy, Sexual Deception, Shame, Pride, Loyalty and a few more. I took the workshop two years in a row, and both times, every writer in the room had vivid, concrete experiences that could be turned into useful elements of their memoir or novel. Sometimes, pinpointing the moment led to an even larger theme:

My mom resewed her underwear for us…but we weren’t poor, it was that dad controlled the money and wouldn’t let her have it.

As I take the lessons of the course into both my writing and my photography, I’m looking at the world differently. The huge, shiny food court I see every day? Sure it’s part of my world, very “Dubai,” and different from many people’s experience, but it’s a thing. The janitor resting, head down on his arms on the plastic table before the mall opens, because he’s dropped off by a van that gets here too early? That’s a moment. If I do the research, maybe it’s also a story.

Whether you’re writing only in words, or including photos in your work, your Instagram, or your personal album, find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story. Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats: coming up, Dubai (Feb26-Mar4) and Costa Rica (May11-18) with Dinty W. Moore.

Why Can’t I Do This At Home?

October 15, 2019 § 19 Comments

I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?

If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?

Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:

Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript

Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar

Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time

It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.

photo by Tawnya Bragg

At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”

A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?

Probably not.

Sorry.

But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.

We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.

We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.

Defining Your Book

October 10, 2019 § 5 Comments

Researching agents and working on queries brings up the key question, How should I describe my book?

Definitely with a plot summary. For queries, that’s a 1-2 paragraph description of the protagonist, their major problem, their biggest obstacle, and a couple of key events. For an elevator pitch, that’s 1-2 sentences like “In SITUATION, CHARACTER must ACTION against OBSTACLE towards GOAL or else STAKES.”

Queries thrive on comps—”My book will appeal to readers of Not-Super-Famous-But-Widely-Recognized-Book and Medium-Notable-Book.” With comps, don’t aim too high (Eat Pray Love is a phenomenon, not a comp), too low (a book that sold poorly is not a selling point), or overly aspirational (no Nobel-Prize winners).

Genre describes a book’s content, by what the label on the bookshelf says. Romance. Thriller. Fantasy. Genre is much less specific than Amazon listings with subrankings like “#3 in Memoir-Women Writers-Zookeepers-Penguin Specialists.” Memoir is a genre, but it will be shelved with Biography, or based on the written experiences, somewhere like Travel or Addiction and Recovery.

Tricky but useful, category helps us pick the right agents to query, and entice those agents to read our manuscript. Category is not content; it’s who will read this book. Young Adult is a category containing the genres YA Mystery, YA Romance, etc.

For memoirists and novelists, the most relevant categories are commercial, high-concept, book-club, upmarket and literary.

  • Commercial means the book is not too hard to read—usually 7th-10th-grade level—and appeals to a wide range of readers. The DaVinci Code is commercial. Commercial books sell in grocery stores and airports as well as bookstores.
  • High-concept books can be summed up in one fresh, intriguing sentence: “A man’s wife frames him for her own murder” (Gone Girl). “An autistic boy solves the murder of a dog, told in his own voice” (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). Gone Girl is high-concept commercial domestic suspense; Curious Incident is high-concept book-club fiction. High-concept books often top libraries’ reserved lists, and have front-facing displays in bookstores.
  • Book-club books are commercially accessible, but showcase deep issues. The book’s themes or plot tie into a larger cultural question. The blurb for Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light (crisis in an abortion clinic from multiple conflicting perspectives) sums this up well: “…a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel.” Enough meaty ideas for a club to wrestle with; not slanted too far to one side; a compelling plot readers don’t need an MFA to understand. These books show up in Oprah and Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson’s lists, and as community-reading books.
  • Upmarket means smarter-than-average, but with wider appeal and more action than full-on literary fiction. Upmarket books are less likely to depend on a twist ending and are read for the quality of writing as much as for the story. Wolf Hall is upmarket historical fiction. H is for Hawk is upmarket memoir. These books show up in Booker Prize and National Book Award lists.
  • Literary is a quality of the writer’s voice rather than a genre or category. Sometimes literary means “written really well, but it’s hard to sum up the plot.” Literary novels tend to be “quiet” and character-driven with emphasis on theme and mood, but there are also literary mysteries and historical fiction. For querying, it can sound arrogant to call one’s own work “literary,” (and it begs judgement of your writing craft) so instead use literary comps, mention your literary previous publications, and in your personalization to the agent, stress your attraction to literary books they represent.

Upmarket, book club and literary works are usually shelved together in Fiction or Nonfiction unless they are specifically another genre; high-concept and commercial books are out on display tables. If you’re unsure how to classify your book, walk into a bookstore and notice where your book might be shelved. What else is on that shelf, and does your work fit in? If someone reads the most popular book on the same shelf, and they pick up your book next, will they feel like they’ve discovered something amazing in a realm they already love?

Write your book first, with no regard for how it will be classified or sold. Use your creative spirit to get your story on the page before worrying about labels. But once you’re ready to query, locate your book’s place in the world. Chances are it has some friends—and those book-companions will help you reach the readers who need your words.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her stable of work-in-progress includes one nonfiction writing reference, one commercial thriller, one YA book-club fiction, one YA literary thriller and a probably misplaced optimism about her ability to sell them all. On Instagram she writes book-club memoir—follow her @guerillamemoir.

Aaaaaaand We’re Back!

October 8, 2019 § 5 Comments

He’s so writing a memoir about this

Query letters. A necessary evil towards the great good of publication. A hoop to jump through towards representation; a lure to draw in the publisher perfect for our story.

Some lucky authors have essays go viral, build enormous social media platforms, or have NYT-bestselling cousins willing to refer us to their own agent. Most of us undertake the slog, often querying a hundred or more agents and revising our query and the manuscript itself many times along the way.

There are some terrific querying resources out there, notably Query Shark, which focuses on fiction but teaches powerful query-letter lessons for writers in all genres. Jane Friedman’s website has information on memoir and narrative nonfiction queries. Absolute Write’s forums are a place for honest chat about specific agencies. QueryTracker helps us chart our progress. Manuscript Wish List shows us which agents might be right for our book. And here at Brevity, we shared suggestions for the actual process of preparing and submitting to agents.

But it is generally more difficult to learn best practices for memoir, rather than fiction, queries—and Brevity is here to help.

The Brevity Podcast returns in November, featuring an interview with Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers, and a conversation with the Query Shark herself, literary agent Janet Reid.

That’s where you come in.

Podcast host Allison K Williams will discuss memoir queries with Janet, using some examples from Brevity readers & podcast listeners. We’ll assess your clarity and style, how you cover the standard query-letter elements, and talk about what you might do differently (or are already doing well!) to increase your chances of representation.

If you’d like to send in your query for a shot at having it discussed on-air, please paste it into an email, followed by your first two manuscript pages (also pasted), to brevitymagpodcast at gmail.com. Deadline for consideration is October 20th. We won’t use author names on the air, but we will be reading all or part of the query letters chosen, so only submit if you’re willing to have your words read on the podcast, please.

Querying can be overwhelming, intimidating, and depressing. But you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to do it without guidance. Help is out there—and it’s coming to your ears.

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Brevity Podcast Host Allison K Williams, and Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will also be leading a retreat in Costa Rica in May 2020.

 

 

The Cost of Kindness

October 3, 2019 § 24 Comments

“I’m so excited about your new draft,” I say to my dear writer friend.

“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.

I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.

In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.

My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.

And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.

Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.

I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”

I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.

  1. Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
  2. Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
  3. Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
  4. Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.

Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore at the Rebirth Your Book finish-your-manuscript retreat in Costa Rica, May 2020.

So Sue Me

September 10, 2019 § 9 Comments

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Anne Lamott’s maxim is some of the most-quoted writing advice in the memoirist world. Followed closely by: Write the book first, worry about hurt feelings later.

That doesn’t stop us from worrying our way through the first—or even final—draft.

If I write about my mom hitting me, can she sue me?

If I tell that secret, will anyone talk to me at the family reunion?

My sister told me I better not write anything about her…what if I change her name?

Yesterday on the Brevity Blog, Lisa Sellge wrote about sharing her finished manuscript with people in it, the hedging and self-protection writers do within that process. But even before the final draft, many writers fear a family explosion, resentment, or even legal action.

We can’t control how our loved (or unloved!) ones will react. We can only be as truthful as we can, allowing ourselves the distance to write from analysis as well as from emotion, showing why other people behaved as they did, as best we can tell from hindsight. It’s our choice to brace for anger from a parent or sibling, or practice verbal judo with a smooth, “I can see how the story would be different from your perspective. Let me know when you write about it.”

What if they threaten to sue? In the USA, you can sue anyone for any damn reason you want. Even if you signed a release, even a big scary release with ACCEPT ALL RISKS FOR INJURY AND/OR DEATH on it. In most American jurisdictions, no-one can sign away their right to sue. Releases provide evidence that a suit is baseless, because the signer accepted responsibility, but they don’t stop anyone from filing paperwork and demanding their day in court.

So why aren’t alcoholic parents and pedophilic religious leaders stampeding into court to bankrupt and destroy the fragile writers telling their own stories?

Money.

It’s expensive and time-consuming to pursue a civil case, and they aren’t easy to win without a phalanx of top-notch attorneys laying out extensive documentation of the kind most non-memoirists rarely preserve. Unless the suit is against an insurance company with the potential for a huge payout (as in medical malpractice, accident and wrongful-death cases), lawyers rarely take civil cases without an up-front retainer.

Say your poorly-behaving former spouse has five figures to spare and a sense of vengeance strong enough to waste every dime. First, they must lawyer-shop until they hear, “Sure, you’re not crazy at all and I’d love to take on a hard-to-prove case against someone with no money.” The lawyer must then find a judge who doesn’t laugh them out of court and agrees to consider your spouse’s hurt feelings.

If the suit actually makes it to court, the person you wrote about must prove three things:

  1. You lied
  2. You lied on purpose to hurt them
  3. Your story hurt them in terms of hard cash or public reputation
  • The truth is always a defense against libel. Police reports. Affidavits from your friends. Photos or videos. Your convincing presence on the witness stand.
  • If you accidentally didn’t tell the truth, that’s still not actionable. A plaintiff has to prove you lied on purpose or were very careless, not just that you were mistaken or have a different opinion. Memoir is inherently our opinion; it’s also worth adding caveats like “As I remember it…” or “what it felt like was…”
  • Damages are meted out based on actual, provable harm. By portraying people’s behavior in interpersonal relations rather than their ability to do their job, you are unlikely to damage their finances or their reputation enough for a judge to believe they need redress. You can say your doctor cheated at golf; criticizing his medical ability could do him financial harm and he’s likely to have records to prove it.

Our final protection against being sued?

Most of us aren’t worth suing. We don’t have enough assets for a long-shot winner to take. In most jurisdictions, a lawsuit can’t take your homestead. Your homeowner’s insurance is unlikely to cover libel, so your angry relative won’t be suing them. Generally, if you have enough money to be worth suing, you can already afford your own excellent lawyer to tell you all this. If you don’t have that kind of cash, it’s almost never worth the time and money for the plaintiff or their attorney.

I am not a lawyer. This is emotional, rather than legal, advice. But emotional fallout from a published memoir is far more likely than legal action. Instead of fearing a suit, spend that time being as honest as you can on the page, letting other people’s actions show who they are and being clear about what you remember and what’s a best-guess. Read Tara Westover’s Educated to see how she honors competing stories while insisting on her own truth.

Threatening to sue is easy. Actually suingwinningand collecting damages is pretty darn hard. Be fair, be kind, write the best book you can that tells your own true story. If someone threatens to sue, smile gently. Tell them, “I can see you feel really passionate about getting your story out there. I hope you write a book.”

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her travel-adventure postcards at TinyLetter.

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