Hello, It’s Your Book Proposal. Stop Ignoring My Calls!

September 27, 2022 § 4 Comments

Writing your proposal will help you finish your book.

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

You’ve been avoiding it for years, but deep down you know it’s time. I get your procrastination. What artist wants to work on a business document, let alone one with nicknames like “soul crusher” and “creativity killer”?  

Like you, I once banished book proposals to the level of hell that contains root canals, moth-ball-scented stickers, and elementary school violin ensembles. But working on my proposal—and helping others build ones that have sold—has given me a new perspective on how, and more importantly, when, to work on one.

It’s sooner than you might think.

Top reasons for query rejections include:

  • lackluster writing
  • not understanding your target audience
  • someone else already published your idea
  • being an unknown quantity.

While revising your manuscript is the only way to improve your prose, working on certain parts of your proposal before completing your manuscript can help with the rest.

Author Platform Assessment  

Of the parts of the proposal emerging writers like to avoid, the About the Author section ranks just below the Marketing Plan. We’ve been told size matters, and most writers fear their author platforms won’t measure up. Here’s the good news: you don’t need to be a social media influencer to sell your book. You must, however, be able to reach readers. Bylines, guest posts, podcast interviews, and speaking engagements are a few common ways writers engage with their audience. These platform side hustles have the added benefit of helping you identify and refine your book’s narrative arc.

Got platform envy? There’s a simple cure. Assess your author platform well before you begin querying. To do this, complete two versions of your proposal’s About the Author section. In the first, create a snapshot of your current reach, including publications, speaking engagements, social media numbers, and people who could possibly write reviews or blurbs.

If your pages include a lot of white space, don’t panic.

In step two, write an aspirational About the Author section that includes the things you’d love to do, as well as your ideal reviewers and blurb writers. This isn’t just daydreaming. Imagining your successes will make you more likely to take the steps needed to turn your aspirations into legitimate entries on your final proposal.  

Comparable Titles Spot Check

Comparable titles—“comps”—help you understand your topic’s landscape. Jane Friedman suggests narrative and traditional nonfiction writers do an exhaustive comp title search before getting started. I heartily agree. Who wants to write a proposal or spend years on a draft only to find out another author has beaten you to the bookshelf?

Memoirists might wonder when to begin their official search, given how long their projects might take. Start too soon, and you can end up with a list of great books that are no longer relevant. Start too late, and you might find out someone else has written a book about a similar experience from the same angle.

If you’re a memoirist, the best time to build your tentative comps list is after you understand your personal story, but before you’ve finished your book. This will allow you to identify which conversations your book belongs to. Once you know the conversations, and the gaps within them, you can figure out the fresh new thing you’ll say. This might lead you to explore your book from a different angle, research an element you might not have considered, or try a unique structure that ties everything together without feeling crushed by rejections, or like you’re starting over.

If you’re looking to publish traditionally, this is essential. Gone are the days when you can write solely about your personal experiences. Memoirs that are currently selling are about how the author’s life intersects with something else.

Carol Smith’s Crossing the River (Abrams) is about what feature writing taught her about grief. Poe for Your Problems (Running Press) by Catherine Baab-Muguira shows you how Edgar Allen Poe can help your neuroses. Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured (St. Martins) explores the cults we malign, the ones we unwittingly sanction, and the brutal conformity both require.

Finding your angle and pumping up your platform while working on your draft will give you the confidence to write clearly and query more effectively.

So what are you waiting for? Answer your proposal’s damn call!

___________________________

Want to understand the proposal and learn some tricks that will help you not just nail yours but motivate you to complete your book? Join Lisa for The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers on 9/28 and Writing the Proposal: How to Finish and Sell Your Nonfiction Book on 10/5.

American Idol as a Metaphor for the Writer’s Pursuit

September 22, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Evyenia Downey

Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash. 

Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win. 

I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?

Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.

I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission. 

My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.

By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.

Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.

I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.

I was wrong. 

So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you? 

How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?

I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening. 

I think that would be enough.
____

Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

What’s the Big Idea?

September 6, 2022 § 12 Comments

How arguing with yourself can sell your book.

By Allison K Williams

One key way to sell a memoir? From a “hot essay”:

  • a well-argued, passionate, strongly written essay or OpEd
  • published in a major media outlet
  • that garners attention online and off.

Simple, right? Just write your piece and go viral! But first, let me tell you what the Powerball numbers will be this week…

Nobody can guarantee virality (not even people with millions of fans already!) Fortunately, your work doesn’t have to go viral for your hot essay to increase your audience and help sell your book. This contest has two first prizes: either hundreds of thousands of people engage with your work, or the right person does—the agent or publisher who loves your idea, or their friend/cousin/intern who brings your work to their attention. And the process of writing the essay itself will make your book-to-be even better.

What’s the difference between an OpEd and an essay?

“OpEd” comes from “opposite the editorial page,” and it’s how newspapers traditionally distinguished guest opinions from in-house, often unattributed pieces that represented the official position of the paper. Essays, in this context, are usually straightforward, first-person accounts of a significant happening or the evolution of a life around one main theme.

Essays ask questions. OpEds pose answers.

Essay titles are evocative. OpEd titles summarize the problem or the hook.

Essays start in scene. OpEds start with a lede—a single sentence that sums up the problem and your position on it.

Essays show your personal experience. OpEds show you’re an expert or have deep knowledge about your topic.

Essays use literary techniques to create emotional resonance and ask the reader to reflect. Opeds use rhetoric, supporting information & thesis/antithesis to make clear, logical arguments and call the reader to action.

Publishing a wave-making OpEd or a highly visible essay usually happens in intelligent-but-commercial media with a strong online presence rather than a strictly literary outlet. Places like Vox, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post or the New York Times.

Find your ideal essay or OpEd topic by looking at the themes in your memoir.

Rather than encapsulating your plot, think about how you explain your book. There’s the plot, and then there’s the part where you tell your fellow writer, “But what it’s really about is…” Mother-daughter relationships. Overcoming addiction. Loneliness. Whatever the larger element of your book is, the thing that will make a reader say to a friend, “Reading this will help with your problem, even though your story is different.” You might have overarching themes, and themes within scenes or chapters or subplots. They’re all fair game.

Pick one of your themes. Then articulate both the most extreme position you could take on that theme and its opposite. Something like, Alcoholics shouldn’t have children/Alcoholics should have children. Center your nuanced essay or powerful OpEd on the conflict between those two ideas.

Maids aren’t people/Maids are people.

Joining the Army is a secular choice/Joining the Army is joining a cult.

Falling in love is an unpredictable, organic process/You can fall in love using a formula.

Each of these essays sold a memoir that expanded on the essay’s theme. The process of writing the short piece also helped the author solidify and define the central conflict of their book. By thoroughly examining the view opposing their own and showing their fight against it, their struggle or journey gains more tension and uncertainty for the reader.

OpEds are more likely to build your audience and platform than nail an immediate book deal—but publishing an OpEd helps answer “why me?” in your memoir proposal. Why should your book be published? Because you’re the expert in this topic. How do we know you’re an expert? The New York Times thought so, so we’ll take their word for it. Getting your opinion into the world on a smaller scale paves the way for your full-length opinion to be taken seriously, as well as helping establish the importance of what you have to say.

Whether or not you write an essay or OpEd, and whether or not it goes viral, it’s worth examining your themes and your central premise, identifying their opposites, and exploring those opposites as fully as possible. As a memoirist, you already know what happened, and there’s a tendency to support our own view (and our eventual destination) from the beginning of the book. Your work as a whole will be stronger if you reflect the constant conflict between two opposing and strongly held (not necessarily equally valid, just strongly held) ideas. Every scene will be more immediate, more visceral. Because practicing arguing both sides brings you back to when you were in conflict with yourself—when the future genuinely was in doubt.

___________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. As a freelance editor, her clients’ work has appeared in The Sun, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The Ethel, and many more. She’ll be teaching how to pitch and publish essays and OpEds, from idea to publication, in Pitch, Publish and Get Paid Sept. 14th (yes, there’s a replay!) Find out more and register here.

Get Thee to a Writers’ Conference… and S T R E T C H

August 26, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Michèle Dawson Haber

Three weeks away from the terrifying milestone of putting my draft memoir in the hands of a developmental editor, I started to question the wisdom of registering for Hippocamp, the annual conference for creative nonfiction writers sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. I was in the final stretch of getting the manuscript in as good a shape as possible and attending the conference would mean five days off task at a time when I could least afford to get sidetracked. 

But I was stuck in a self-hating rut, weary of chapters and sentences that led nowhere, scenes dark and serious, and reflections so shallow not even a snorkel was required. The few remaining “[xxx]”s where more research was needed only paralyzed me further. I needed a break—I needed to stand on my tippy toes, reach my hands to the sky, wriggle my fingers, and lift my face to the warmth of the sun. 

To draw up (one’s body) from a cramped or stooping position

And so, I left the house, boarded a plane, and took myself to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once at the hotel, I wandered the maze of halls, weaving between wedding parties, bodybuilders, and young parents attempting to lift the spirits of travel-weary children. Revolving glass doors, four fluffy white pillows, endless escalators, mac and cheese with pepper jam, phantom elevator bells, herb and flower market scents, and giving in-person hugs for the first time to all my zoom writer friends—how good it was to get away from my keyboard!

But changing scenery by itself wasn’t going to alleviate the guilt I felt about not working on my revisions. Would the content of the conference sessions help me overcome my inertia?

To reach out (extend)

Opening the conference menu of deliverances, I scanned the options, my subconscious looking for comfort and safety—sessions that would affirm I was on the right path. What was I thinking? This was a writers’ conference, hadn’t I come to challenge myself? The session choices were all a stretch, each representing an alternative approach to my well-worn perspective: Second person POV, writing about religion, writing like a musician, the art of the interview, writing about trauma, recognizing implicit bias, adding humor to your writing, choosing your voice, or structuring your memoir like a novel. They all excited me, I wanted to attend all these and more. The offerings promised to extend my writerly comfort zone and that was exactly what I needed. 

Over the next two days I knocked off as many sessions as my attention and energy allowed. The presenters of these sessions gave me fact-checking and research tips to help me fill in knowledge gaps, awareness of implicit biases that may worm themselves into my writing, strategies to lighten up my more serious chapters, and ideas on employing different voices to heighten the realism of my narrative. Other sessions provided me tips on querying, networking, editing, and getting my essays into literary magazines. There was such a variety in the presentations that no emerging writer’s questions went unanswered. 

To go as far as or past the usual limit of something

Attending a writing conference involves a kind of stretching—I reached beyond my comfort zone and opened myself up to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Supported by the friendliness and generosity of the presenters and my fellow attendees, I was reminded that progress and growth are possible. Nothing underscored that conclusion better than the keynote address by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn’t expect that hearing this brilliant writer’s experience of writing her memoir, In the Dream House might increase my confidence, but when she talked about her struggles with processing, structuring, and revising, I felt I could make peace with my own floundering. All writers wrestle with similar things—struggle does not equal failure. As she said to a rapt audience, “Writing a memoir isn’t simply recording what happened—that’s called a diary—writing a memoir is fundamentally an act of shaping real life into a meaningful, beautiful, interesting story. And that is fucking hard.” In the moment I needed it most, Carmen Maria Machado validated my effort and my art.

I could have stayed home and had five days more with my manuscript (well, maybe a bit more if you add the time it took to write this essay), but I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the same impact as attending the Hippocamp conference. It wasn’t just the acquisition of knowledge that I gained—being and learning in a community of writers gave me the clarity and inspiration to come back home and attack my work-in-progress with fresh vigor. I have new strategies to call upon now and clearer insight into what needs fixing. Will I finish revising by my deadline? Who knows—but I’m more ready than ever to work hard and lean into that stretch called writing. 

__

Michèle Dawson Haber is a writer, potter, and proud Canadian who currently resides in Toronto. She is working on a memoir about step-adoption, family secrets, and identity. Her writing has appeared in Salon.com and The New York Times. More at www.micheledhaber.com.

Get Out There Like Gaga

August 5, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Jason Prokowiew

On the press junket for A Star is Born, compilation videos show Lady Gaga repeating the story of how no one wanted to cast her as an actor, but Bradley Cooper did. She said:  “There can be 100 people in the room and 99 don’t believe in you. And you just need one to believe in you, and that was him.” Though I laughed at the repetition, I took the story to heart. If Lady Gaga could stomach rejection, couldn’t I? Is success a numbers game built around not giving up?

Today, I applied for a writing residency at Millay Arts as part of my commitment to submit my work 100 times in 2022, be it to residencies, fellowships, magazines, or potential agents or editors. As I hit submit on my second application to the program in four months after getting a perfectly nice rejection in May, I reached my goal five months early. 

Before this year, I’d submitted my writing sporadically; each rejection knocked me off my game. By not submitting, I kept myself safe from the feeling of rejection…and also kept myself pretty safely removed from getting published. 

As someone as dedicated to his weekly therapy sessions as he is his writing, I’ve tracked where this fear comes from with my therapist. Growing up as the fattest kid in my school, I was significantly ostracized from social circles. I was also clocked pretty easily by my peers as “gay” even before I knew I was. I lived that stereotype of the kid picked last in gym class—and picked on first. 

In therapy I’ve considered how any sort of rejection registers not only as truth about my skills but also my very worth; whereas support for my work registers as luck or sympathy. For decades, I’ve applied this formula with almost no active thought. 

When I was a junior in high school, I gained some traction with my writing, and my angst-ridden, coming-out poetry dominated the pages of my high school literary magazine, in a year when the magazine’s faculty advisor was a sabbatical replacement. When the regular advisor returned my senior year, I heard rumor that he was disappointed in the quality of last year’s magazine, where all my work had landed. I heard his rumored opinion as truth, and it was only in this past year, in my forties, that I challenged these thoughts, and recognized that his “nay” felt like an indictment of my fraudulent posing as a writer, and an absolute truth. As a second example, when I was applying to college writing workshops, one professor told me I wasn’t ready for her advanced, selective classes. Another admitted me to his courses and encouraged me for years. I wondered, though—was the first professor honest and the second merely kind?

Between 2004, when I began tentatively querying agents about my memoir, and the start of 2022, I only submitted my work to about 20 agents or publications. Each rejection felt like a validation of what the naysayers said, and I slinked back to my laptop, trying to muster courage to try again. I often didn’t find it. 

Recently I’ve been encouraged by the writer Emily May, a member of my writing group, who published a piece last fall that had been rejected more than a dozen times. I asked her about her resilience and saw the image of her on our Zoom workshop explaining that with each rejection she brushes off her shoulder and says, “Okay, next,” and tries again. If my brave, talented colleague could move past rejection, couldn’t I?

I also felt ready this year—weekly therapy sessions on the schedule—to face rejections, feel my way through them, and decide what to do with them: let them be the end of trying or just brief hurdles. Each rejection got easier and sank in far less. I’ve practiced brushing off my shoulder like May, and it felt good, a reminder that I can choose to give opinions the weight of dust or the world. 

So far, in my year of 100 submissions, I’ve received 49 rejections, 19 acceptances, and have 32 pending submissions. After some of my work was published, I connected in new ways with estranged my family, often featured in my writing. I’ve been to a writing residency in Tennessee where I wrote two new pieces, an essay and a book review, that were accepted for publication. I have six more residencies on my schedule in the next 18 months. I’ve received eight full manuscript requests from agents, and recently recorded a story I wrote for an episode of the television program Stories from the Stage. The benefits of putting myself out there are great, but more importantly, the fear that once stopped me from submitting—the fear of the omnipresent “no”—doesn’t stop me now. 

That “one out of 100” person I needed to believe in my writing was me. 

*

Jason Prokowiew earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. He’s the author of Raised by Wolves, a braided memoir about his Russian father’s adoption by Nazis during World War II and how his father’s trauma carried into parenthood. His writing has appeared in Scene Magazine, Edge Media, and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. He recently graduated from GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. He’s received residencies and grants from Sundress Academy for the Arts, Prospect Street Writers’ House, Gullkistan Center for Creativity, Write On, Door County, and a Contributor Award in Nonfiction for the 2022 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He runs his own law office dedicated to disability advocacy.

It’s Not As Bad As You Think

July 11, 2022 § 12 Comments

Jane Friedman analyzes 2022 memoir deals to determine the role of platform in the author’s success.

Reprinted with permission, from The Hot Sheet.

In the last decade, I haven’t hosted a single class on the business of publishing that hasn’t led to at least one question along the lines of “How many social media followers do I need to satisfy an agent/publisher?” or “Do I need to join [social media outlet] to get a book deal?”

Is it really the case that writers need a sizable following to land a book deal? Some agents and editors would have you believe that, and they might ask for platform information by default in a query/submission form. In some cases, namely nonfiction, one can understand why it might be essential. To write and publish a weight-loss book or a guide on financial planning, authors need credibility, and an online following of some kind (podcast, blog, newsletter, etc.) signals attention and trust. No one wants to publish a book by an uncredentialed, average Joe who doesn’t seem to have colleagues, relationships, or a relevant network for spreading the word. Social media serves as a frequent shortcut for determining whether someone has standing in their community or engages with their community, but it’s not the only measure.

Unfortunately, this social media shortcut increasingly causes writers to chase their tails and focus their energy in a way that could decrease their chances at a deal. However, I can’t deny that the biggest publishers and literary agents gravitate toward celebrities, influencers, and others who have strong followings or media connections.

To determine how much an author’s social media following might be driving book deals, I decided to analyze recent deals and research the online presence of the authors. For this exercise, I looked only at deals reported to Publishers Marketplace in 2022 in the category of memoir. Why memoir? Because it is exceedingly challenging to secure a memoir contract, and it’s an area dominated by celebrities and others with media connections. You can often tell immediately why the publisher took interest in the book. In those cases where an “average” person landed a memoir deal, I wanted to see if they had a significant online presence. If not, I think it’s a reasonable assumption that the book was bought on the merits of the writing or story itself.

I found 159 memoir deals in 2022 that fit my requirements (I excluded books by late authors or those I felt weren’t, in fact, memoir). Then I divided those 159 memoirs into the following categories:

  • Celebrity memoirs: books by actors, comedians, athletes, musicians, etc. Examples include Chelsea Handler, Tom Felton (Draco in Harry Potter), Henry Winkler, Kendrick Perkins.
  • Current events: books by people who have unique insight into stories making the headlines, such as the Russian-Ukrainian war, unionizing at Amazon, gun control, reproductive rights, etc.
  • Platform focused: books by people like Instagram personality Taylor Wolfe and TikTok personality Madeline Pendleton Hansen, who are identified in part by their online presence.
  • Media angle or connections: books with a built-in media angle (e.g., the author is the largest supplier of crystal meth in San Francisco; the author is the first-ever Black Radio City Rockette); books by people who work in the media (like CNN correspondents or New York Times employees).
  • Established writers and authors: books by people who have a track record as an author or journalist.
  • All others: no obvious platform- or marketing-related reason for the deal that I could discern.

Of course there is considerable overlap among these categories. Books about current events could be slotted under media angle because they are more likely to get media coverage, and established writers and authors are more likely to achieve visibility in the market due to the success of their previously published work. So it’s an imperfect categorization, but it can still help us understand how and why books sell.

Here’s how the deals fell out among these groups.

A breakdown of all memoir deals reported to Publishers Marketplace in 2022

The good news? The largest percentage of deals is for “all others” or the type of author I described earlier as the average person who is not yet established and lacks a media angle. Of course, you could look at this in a more pessimistic way and say celebrities, influencers, and those positioned to get coverage suck up half of all book deals. Nevertheless, let’s look at “all others.” Who is publishing them, and what does their platform look like?

Notably, of the 37 deals for “all others,” 11 signed with the Big Five and the rest with independent houses. Those independent houses include publishers such as Black Lawrence Press, Row House, Hub City Press, Post Hill Press, Melville House, and Catapult, among others. That tells me that visibility or platform does play a role in the size of publisher willing to make an offer. In comparison, 70 percent of celebrity memoir deals were with the Big Five houses.

“Average” authors who scored a memoir deal usually had little or no social media following. Most had a modest online presence—usually Instagram and Twitter, sometimes Facebook or LinkedIn, along with a basic website. But their following is in the two, three, or four figures, not enough to attract a deal. With one author in particular, Sarah Mandel, I struggled to find any trace of her online and had a hard time differentiating her from others with the same name. HarperCollins bought her memoir about her sudden diagnosis of and remission from terminal metastatic breast cancer.

The “average” author with the biggest following was Imani Barbarin, who is writing a memoir about what it means for her to live with cerebral palsy. She’s published work in major outlets, has a speaking agent, and has a robust following on Twitter (160,000) and Instagram (115,000). Simon & Schuster bought her book. But she is not typical. Here’s a quick snapshot of others that are typical of what I found:

  • Patrick Hutchison sold his memoir to St. Martin’s. It’s an expansion of a piece he wrote for Outside magazine. He has no website and 52 followers on Twitter.
  • MFA graduate Margo Steines sold her memoir to Norton. It’s about the ways in which she has pushed her body to the brink. She’s published in a variety of literary outlets and has 291 followers on Twitter.
  • Adjunct professor Nicole Treska sold her memoir to Simon & Schuster. It’s about creating a life for herself in New York while wondering if she can overcome her family history of crime, drugs, violence, and mental illness. She’s published short fiction in small outlets and has fewer than 1,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined.
  • Molly Roden Winter sold her memoir to Doubleday; it’s about her open marriage. She has fewer than 500 followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook combined.
  • Carolyn Dekker sold her memoir-in-essays about teaching and family life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Black Lawrence Press. She is a professor who has published in some journals and has about 200 followers on Instagram.

Bottom line: A platform isn’t required to secure a book deal if the writing or story premise appeals to the agent or publisher. However, platform has become a frequently cited reason for rejection. I see it as an easy-way-out response, because it is nearly impossible, in the short term, to build a platform big enough to merit a book deal, and agents and publishers know this. (My guess is they would rather not state they don’t believe in the work.) Fiction writers and memoirists especially should spend less time worrying about social media numbers and more time addressing questions like “Why should anyone care about this story?” or “How can I write a better story?”

Publishing expert Jane Friedman writes The Hot Sheet, full of publishing industry and market news every two weeks. Not yet a subscriber? Get two free issues.

Want to know more about what kind of platform will help you? Sign up for Jane’s webinar I Need a Platform, Pronto! August 21st.

The Power of the Editor

June 13, 2022 § 26 Comments

By Cathy Shields

Forty years ago, while taking a college course in children’s literature, I set out to write a children’s book. But my career as an elementary school teacher interfered, and my publishing dreams evaporated. When I became a mother of a child with a disability, the next twenty years blurred the boundaries between order and chaos.

By the time I took another creative writing class, my children were teenagers, and I was in my late forties. The teacher wielded his pen like a sword, a grizzled old guy who yelled at students when they couldn’t explain where to place a comma in a sentence. Still, he walked around the room cajoling us with, ‘write what you know.’ I wrote about my chaotic life. The idea for my book jelled with a theme which revolved around raising a child with disabilities.

I joined writing groups to help develop my skills; I learned about first, second, and third persons; first, second and third drafts, how to identify weak verbs, how to self-edit, how to revise, and the differences between passive and active voice. Fast forward another two years. I attended my first writing conference, ready to query my manuscript. I met an editor who taught the craft of memoir. After I described my book, she told me the next step should be a developmental edit.

I did not yet understand what an editor could do and, unwilling to make the financial commitment, I relied on my writing groups and scores of beta readers for feedback on whether my book was ready before I began researching agents. Responses bounced between form rejections and silence. After fifty queries, I got one request for a full manuscript and within two weeks, a rejection.

Would I ever get my book published? I thought my story about how I faced an internal struggle to accept my child with intellectual disabilities, had universal interest. The theme: learning acceptance. I had fought my child’s diagnoses until I gradually came to the realization that my daughter did not need to change, I did. Perhaps I had revised the story so many times that I had become shortsighted. Maybe it was time to find an editor.

The one I found appreciated the story I was trying to tell, and with her help, I revised and sent out a new round of queries. A well-known press showed interest; I had a request for the full manuscript. I am still astounded that I emailed them to get more insight into the rejection.

Their response?

Too much reporting about doctors and specialists.

I sought out a new editor. This time I asked writer friends for recommendations. The person I chose, Monica, taught creative writing at a university and had published a memoir about a difficult subject, the imminent death of her baby. Although her editing wouldn’t guarantee I’d get my book published, I believed her insight could add a new perspective to the narrative arc of my story.

Two weeks later, I received the revised manuscript. The sculpting almost made me cry. The opening scene disappeared; the one everyone told me had to remain for my hook, the one where the doctor labels my child profoundly retarded.

In her editorial notes, she wrote: Don’t give the whole story away in the first chapter.

She moved scenes and pointed out where I needed to build scenes or add dialogue, but she hadn’t twisted my voice into her own words. What she had done was fiddle with structure. That’s when I finally understood the power of a good editor. Monica was the surgeon, I, the intern. She taught me what to cut away to repair and restructure.

I sent out the newly edited version in my next batch of queries, surprised when I received multiple requests for the full-length manuscript. None of this would have happened without my writing community, the previous editors, my beta readers, and the editor with eagle eyes. Last week, I signed a contract to have my memoir, The Shape of Normal, published with Vine Leaves Press. The book will be out in the fall of 2023.

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Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir THE SHAPE OF NORMAL A Mother’s Journey from Disbelief to Acceptance, (Vine Leaves Press 2023), Catherine explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her stories have appeared in Mother Magazine, 50 Give or Take, Kaleidoscope, Uncomfortable Revolution, Write City, and Manifest-Station, and her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. She resides in Miami, Florida with her husband who she’s been married to forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. She blogs at www.cathyshieldswriter.com or you can follow her on Instagram @cathyshieldswriter.

Witness: Selling Memoir Without Platform

June 9, 2022 § 12 Comments

Memoirists have it rough. Be a great writer. Tell a compelling story. But first, shake your tail on TikTok until a million people know who you are!

I’ve written before about how platform isn’t social media—social media is an amplifier for messages you’re already sharing in other venues, and a way to stay casually in touch with your audience and your literary community. I divide platform into two categories:

  • Audience grown from the author’s entire life’s work and career, in which the book is a logical next step conveying their existing mission to the world.

  • Audience created to support a forthcoming book, built from more intense work over a shorter time

Ideally, both kind of platforms build on what you already love to do and have spent your life caring about. But you don’t actually need any platform at all. Memoirs can sell with very little public presence: perhaps a few essays establishing the author’s public affiliation with the topic; an awareness of where the audience for that topic exists and how the book can reach them before and after publication; just enough social media that the author understands how to use it when the time comes to amplify their messages around the topic.

The key word here is topic.

A memoir exclusively focused on a personal story is almost impossible to sell—to an agent, to a publisher, to the reading public—without either an enormous public platform, existing connections in publishing, and/or National-Book-Award-level prose. Sorry. That’s the breaks. Work on your writing, figure out the reader takeaway, query small presses, consider self-publishing.

But a memoir centering a topic—an issue percolating through the zeitgeist; a closer look at a past cultural moment; something wrong with society that you personally experienced and impacts a lot of other people—is much more likely to gain the support of a traditional publisher.

In a topic-centered memoir, you’re not just the narrator—you’re a witness.

Your story is still important, but in the larger sense, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader, and a larger issue they’re already fascinated by, or that it’s important for them to become fascinated by, as told by someone with personal experience. Your story weaves in and through the topic, paired with research, interviews or anecdotes, with thoughtful commentary, and importance beyond your level (or lack of) personal fame.

Unlikely to sell: This dead person meant a lot to me and gosh it took a lot to move on with my life.

More likely to sell: Planning for death in a climate-crisis world.

Unlikely to sell: I tried to kill myself and recovery was financially incredibly hard.

More likely to sell: A look at our troubled healthcare system from the perspective of both caregiver and patient.

Unlikely to sell: I survived a violent crime.

More likely to sell: How our nation handles this particular violent crime is deeply wrong.

Each of the selling authors is not just the narrator, but a lens on a larger cultural concern. Their story is an example of why we should care, or an illustration of how we could handle our own situation. Not just what happened, but why it matters.

What does writing a topic-centered memoir look like before and during the writing process?

Brian Watson recently wrote about starting out with hybrid intentions but generating a personal-story focused draft:

My outline followed a unique format—one I know now is called hybrid memoir. I wanted to intersperse the things that I experienced with some thoughts about the culture as it shifted around me. There was data on the number of AIDS cases and fatalities swelled in the US. I could describe how Japan’s gay community evolved in the years before the Internet. And so much more.

When I started writing in September, however, the memoir—its original title, I Should Be Dead By Now, was grim—almost wrote itself. My first draft, completed on the last day of 2020, set most of the interspersions aside. The exorcising of memory consumed me to the tune of nearly 110,000 words.

But early readers (including me!) loved his now-few digressions on the history of gay porn, Japanese culture, and coming out in the 1980s. Watson set out to revise his entire draft, even though it felt like an enormous undertaking:

The research might have struck me as too much work when the actual, coherent transcribing of my memories was already a lot of work. Or I might have worried that those cultural backgrounds and deep-dives would bore readers.

Will it sell? We’ll find out soon (go Brian!). But many agents and editors I’ve spoken to agree: it’s much easier right now to sell a memoir with a larger cultural focus, one that illuminates something we’re all thinking about right now—or should be.

Ask yourself, how does my story reflect an important moment in our history or a problem we should all be aware of? How are my experiences reflected in and reflective of my culture, and how should that culture change? What will I need to research or investigate to support my point of view about this topic?

Traditional publishing is far from your only viable path. Maybe the memoir you personally feel called to write centers entirely on your own story. Maybe you already write National-Book-Award-level prose, or have 8M followers on TikTok (go you!). But if what you really want is to traditionally publish, to see your book in the wider world, and to reach more readers who need your words, it’s time to explore—and write!—how your story speaks to culture.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Struggling with getting your book into the world? Tired of form rejections? Join her and publishing expert Jane Friedman for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected—a sharp, honest look at what your concept, query and first pages need to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Webinar June 23 (yes, there’s a replay!). More info/register here.

My Story Went Viral: What I Wish I’d Known First

May 31, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Diane Forman

I never expected my story to go viral. Over two million views on a widely read commercial site. 11.5K likes and emojis on Facebook. Over 2.2K comments. The piece was syndicated and posted on Yahoo, Singapore News and elsewhere. A friend saw it as a top trending news story on her phone. A viral piece and huge readership—just what I’d been striving for as a writer!

I was completely unprepared for the aftermath.

It had taken me several years to gather the courage to write about my daughter’s estrangement, and this was well after we were reconciled. Reconciling took a great deal of time, space, personal change and effort to break long-established patterns. I wrote the story as a commercial rather than literary piece, citing not only my own experience, but research on estrangement and shame. I ended with hope because fortunately, our story had a happy ending.

I pitched the piece for Mother’s Day, a difficult holiday for many, with a personal goal of offering hope to those suffering from estrangement. I’d spent several Mother’s Days alone and would have loved to read an aspirational story of reconciliation on that day. 

My story was accepted for publication rather quickly, and the editor was responsive and compassionate about the content. But when the proof arrived prior to publication, I was taken aback by the title, which shouted “clickbait!” Having mostly written for literary magazines, I’d seldom had a title chosen for me. Certain my daughter would balk, I e-mailed the editor and expressed concern. According to him and his team, readers decide whether or not to click on a story in under a second— they were sure the title was a win. Against my intuition and better judgment, I agreed. I’d never had a story run with the promise of so many readers, with so many potential likes and tweets.

The story ran on Mother’s Day, in a subsection of the main site. My bio linked my website, and within hours I had dozens of kind emails:

Your love and insight were inspiring…

Your words were a balm for my broken heart…

I thought I was the only one who had ever gone through this…

Thank you for your story of hope. I read it over and over again. 

Over the next day I received over 150 messages from both grieving mothers and estranged daughters. There was some criticism, but most comments were appreciative and thankful. A few asked for writing support or wanted to join one of my writing groups, an unexpected perk. Several people wrote tomes of their own painful experiences. Some asked for the names of therapists, or provided their phone numbers and asked me to call them, or pleaded for help in reconciling with their own estranged children. In no way was I prepared for those questions. I am a writer and teacher, not a therapist.

But then the story appeared on the publication’s main site and its Facebook page, and things got ugly.

I was already concerned about the title, including the words “Perfect Mother.” Any cursory reading of my piece would indicate I never believed I was. But readers bashed me for calling myself perfect. They labeled me dysfunctional or mentally ill. Some said I was entitled, a terrible mother, and it was no wonder my daughter left. Some called me a narcissist or pathetic or mewling. The amount of vitriol was astonishing. At first I didn’t let the comments bother me, but after a while, I had to stop reading. Over the next days, I was so overwhelmed by hundreds of messages from my website, from both desperate parents and bitter haters, that I had to temporarily shut down my site.

This was a very tender spot of my actual life that strangers on the internet were trashing.

Many publications, commercial and literary, can continue to repost our pieces on social media for more clicks, and I couldn’t bear more insults. I contacted the editor, asking if he would consider changing the title of my story and removing personal information from my bio. Fortunately, he agreed.

When I decided to publish this piece, I knew people would wonder about my daughter’s side of the story, which was a fair question. I anticipated some criticism of my acknowledged codependent parenting. But I never imagined that my personal story would go viral, and that thousands of strangers would assault my character and call me names for writing a piece I believed was honest, loving and hopeful.

Would I place a story like this again in this type of publication, even with a wonderful editor? While I can’t control a reader’s response, I will better trust my instincts and intuition. I’ll think more carefully about the potential readership. I will never again consent to a title that makes me uncomfortable. Despite the number of people who thanked me, felt less alone in their own situations, and reached out in numerous ways—fulfilling my goal—I’d consider all angles before doing it again. I was and am proud of the piece, and know my words were comforting and affirming to many, but the hateful comments didn’t just bounce off. Our stories are pieces of our hearts, and we have to think carefully about how, when, where and even if we want them in the world.

Diane Forman has published in Boston Globe Connections, Intima: a Journal of Narrative Medicine, WBUR Cognoscenti, and elsewhere. Diane lives, writes, and teaches north of Boston. See more at dianeforman.com. Twitter: @WriterForman

Do You Need an MFA? The Absolutely, Positively Definitive Answer

May 10, 2022 § 16 Comments

Not condescending at all!

I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.

I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)

My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.

Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.

What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.

A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.

Is it worth it?

Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.

No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.

Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.

No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.

Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.

No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”

Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.

No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.

If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.

Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.

No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.

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Novelists, learn to transform a floundering draft into a structured, powerful story with engaging characters and a strong hook, plus techniques to improve your writing, right away. Join Allison K Williams for POWER UP! Structuring Your Novel a virtual masterclass at the James River Writers Conference.

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