Yes, But HOW?

January 28, 2020 § 9 Comments

vintage color poster of blonde woman in skirt and red sweater, hitchiking while holding broken red shoeYou’re close to done! It’s almost a book! What happens now?

I start querying, I guess?

Great! What agents do you have in mind?

Um…

When I finish editing a client’s book, I can usually give some suggestions, because I’ve spent ten years researching the query process. But my three or four names aren’t enough. Writers need to know how to find the right agents to query.

Start by setting your expectations: Yes, you may strike gold right away, but it’s more likely you’ll query 10-20 agents before revising your query, another 10-20 before revising your first pages, and another 20-50 after that. You may discover after 30 queries that your book is suited to a university press and you don’t need an agent after all, or realize you’d rather self-publish or use a hybrid service. By expecting to query 50-100 agents, in several rounds, you can be pleasantly surprised if Agent #16 is a big “Yes!” rather than moping over rejections #1-15.

100?!?!? How do I find 100 agents?

Search “literary agent” + [your genre]. Shady “publishers” like Austin McCaulay and their many-headed hydra of vanity presses will be right up top, so scroll down past the paid ads. You’ll find lists of agents assembled by places like Writers Digest, as well as agency websites.

Set up an Excel or Google sheet with columns for Agent Name, Agency, Genres They Represent, Open for Queries? Website, What I Liked About Them, What They Want (pages/attachments/etc), and any other categories important to you. Start clicking. Read each agent’s website and social media and enter their information. Enter other agents you like at the same agency. Some agencies say “A no from one is no from the whole agency,” but others don’t mind if you query all their agents in turn (not at the same time). Note their policy.

If an agent seems like a good fit for your book, write down books they’ve represented that you enjoyed or are like your book, anything nifty they said on Twitter, quotes from interviews that made you like the agent, etc. You’ll use this later for the “personalization” part of your query, where you tell the agent “This is why I’m querying you.”

If an agent is clearly NOT right—you hate a book they represented, something in an interview rubbed you the wrong way—write that down and color-code as a “no” for you. This helps avoid looking up the same agent twice.

Whoa, that’s a lot of information.

That’s correct.

Like it might take up to 20 minutes per agent, longer if I get sucked into Twitter.

Yes.

I hate Twitter.

You don’t have to join Twitter to read it, and agents often post their extremely specific and offbeat interests, like “I’d love to read a travel memoir by a WOC.”

What happens after I add an agent to my sheet? Do I query them?

No. Research and make entries until you’re done for the day. Tomorrow, you’ll add more agents. I recommend adding 3-5 agents a day, which will take about an hour if you’re reading enough to know if they’re a good match. Some agents will be closed to queries or not represent your genre after all. It’ll take a few days to add 8-10 agents who are right for your book.

Then query them. While you’re waiting for responses, keep working on your agent sheet. Next week, query 8-10 more.

This sounds time-consuming.

You’re shopping for a long-term professional relationship between two people equally excited about working together. Imagine it as dating, but you’re in the traditionally male role: Yes, you have to be into the other person…but they’re getting a lot more messages than you are, so they can be choosy.

What about paid query services? Or websites where I upload my work and agents find me? 

Sometimes a big job needs a better tool. If you spill a thousand grains of rice, get a broom. But let’s say there’s a thousand overturned china teacups, one of which is sheltering a mouse. (Whoever created this metaphorical task is clearly sick.)

You’re going to have to pick them up one at a time.

Querying is a one-at-a-time job. Agents recognize queries from “We do all the work for you!” companies, and they are an automatic rejection. Part of what your query demonstrates is “I know how to function in this business,” and that includes communicating with agents yourself.

Websites purporting to showcase authors to agents are taking your money and delivering you on a platter to scam agents and vanity presses ready to take advantage of a beginner. (Here’s why agents don’t use them.)

Consider joining Publisher’s Marketplace for a couple of months as a partial shortcut. Agents (not all of them) report their sales (not all of them). Lists of who’s selling in your genre include links to agents’ profiles with querying instructions.

When do I do all this?

Start building your agent list even before you finish your book—between drafts, when you’re letting your manuscript rest to come back with fresh eyes. When the time comes, double-check that the agent is still open to queries, and don’t query until the book is DONE.

Finding literary agents is tedious but not difficult. Most of this work can be done at only the cost of your time, and most of the information is free and online.

You got this, beautiful writer. You can do it.

More info on querying here on Brevity:

Query 101

Defining Your Book (genre)

Readers Will Also Like… (comp titles)

The Late Bloomer’s Guide to Getting an Agent

The Golden Ticket (referrals)

And I’ll be teaching a live webinar Feb 1 (replay available) for Hidden Timber Press on writing queries, great first pages, and how to get a literary agent. Learn more/sign up here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Four Simple Ways to Promote Your Book Long After Its Release

January 16, 2020 § 9 Comments

Sweta S Vikram_BrevityBy Sweta Vikram

Remember the joy and pain of writing your novel or memoir or poetry book or short story collection or set of essays? Remember the pride, the emotional exhaustion, the enthrallment, and the physical pain of bringing your book in this world? The rush, the celebrations, the book events, the sleepless nights, the book tour, burning the midnight oil, the reviews, the media bytes, the interviews, the social media attention and all of that? But a few weeks or months later, everything begins to grow quiet. Initially, there might be gratitude for the breather but slowly the realization hits: the big day is over and there is an emptiness that envelops the author. Not everyone has a book come out every year, so how do you channel the creative energy in that moment of winding down?

My novel, Louisiana Catch was published by Modern History Press in April 2018. The book has gone on to win laurels and made home in many hearts. But let’s get real; while the book might exist forever in the literary ether, people’s minds only have so much bandwidth. Most of our books, unless you are Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway, are “forgotten” a few months after the book release day. And, if you work with a small to mid-size press, you don’t get a separate paperback release a year or 18 months after your hardcover book comes out.

But the creative heart feels restless. How do you keep your words, characters, story, and efforts alive long after the book birthday? No one but you can bring your book back to life.

Here are some possible ways to do so:

Collaborate: I recently went on a culinary and literary date with the characters in my novel Louisiana Catch. How did I do that? Well, I partnered up with culinary queen and chef Kulinary Karma. She read through the novel thoroughly and picked up on dishes and spices and herbs integral to the story—no, Louisiana Catch isn’t a cookbook. Kulinary Karma went on to create a fabulous spread based on what was mentioned in my novel Louisiana Catch. She hosted an elegant dinner party while I read from the book and talked about what each dish meant to the characters in the novel.

Innovate: I think it was Carrie Bradshaw in the popular television show Sex and the City, who said (I am paraphrasing here) that every fourth person in New York City is a writer. If you are doing what everyone else is doing, how does your book stand out? Create a niche. Not everything that we writers write is a tell-all tale about our lives unless you are writing nonfiction. But, even with fiction, there might be aspects of your writing that mirror your life choices and beliefs. What if they become your “signature” or professional identifier? For instance, having a daily meditation, yoga, and workout practice is key to my creativity. Both the female protagonist, Ahana, and male protagonist, Rohan Brady, in Louisiana Catch happen to be tuned into fitness. Mindfulness and wellness are integral to my work and teachings, which is something that my colleagues, peers, readers, and networks know. In early 2020, I will be teaching a creative and mindfulness writing workshop at an indie bookstore in NYC and creative-wellness workshops at a yoga studio in NYC. These are all opportunities for me to both directly and indirectly reintroduce Louisiana Catch to a room full of strangers.

Infiltrate: Indeed, it’s important to host literary events at bookstores and support both small businesses and your readers who shop from indie stores. Social media partnerships with book reviewers along with participating in book clubs and speaking at literary festivals are all integral to book promotions. But most of these aforementioned opportunities cross paths when your book is out. What happens a year later? You have to pay attention to the other markets your book addresses. What do I mean by that? Because the story in Louisiana Catch addresses impact of social media, women in leadership, violence against women, world cuisine, health and wellness, and women’s empowerment, I have partnered with yoga studios, organizations that empower women in leadership, restaurants, and nonprofits that fight to end violence against women to do innovative and informative events. Your readers could be in so many spaces, don’t forget that for one moment.

Educate: For the one-year anniversary celebrations of Louisiana Catch, a restaurant in Chicago hosted a party and created the signature drink—Sazerac—integral to the novel. We talked about why this drink is important to the male protagonist from New Orleans and the history behind it. I also highlighted the similarities between New Orleans and New Delhi—two out of the three cities I write about in Louisiana Catch. I have done Skype chat with book club members in Boston, Seattle, and the Bay Area 7-8 months after the book launch. Seattle Book Club organized a delicious dinner in honor of both the cultures. Yes, we talked about Louisiana Catch. But we mostly talked about current issues that were relevant to the book. Be it conversations around mental health, diversity, women’s safety, or wellness. The statistics and updates were startling to many. As a writer, having done your primary and secondary research on topics that pertain to your book, you can position yourself as a thought leader.

Honestly, you don’t have to do any of these things. But, I can promise you that your book being forgotten isn’t an easy feeling. Reviving it, every now and then, is encouraging. It takes work, but it’s worth it. Think of all the years you spent creating each sentence, section, and pages. No amount of work can be too much to reintroduce your work to the world. It can be on a small scale, but every bit helps keep your words alive. You need to do what works for you and feels authentic to you.
___

Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe.

Biting Ants and Dengue Fever: Facing My Own Character in Memoir

January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

RashBy Lisa Kusel

A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.

“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”

“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”

“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”

“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”

“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.

“Did I—what?”

“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”

“Well, I guess I learned—”

“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”

“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”

“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.

As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.

Should I tell the Bali story?

More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.

Could I tell the Bali story?

I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.

I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?

I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.

By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.

But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.

And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.

I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.

Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.

So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.

I gazed deeply into my own navel.

And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.

I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.

Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.

After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.

“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”

“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.

“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.

More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.

And I’m really glad I did.
_____

Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LisaKusel12 and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lisa_kusel/

 

Seven Stages of Submittable

January 6, 2020 § 14 Comments

AlisonPhotoBy Alison Lowenstein

Submitting:

After meticulously crafting a brief cover letter and biographical statement, you upload your work of creative genius, along with a twelve-dollar submission fee. You press submit and enter a period of limbo when you see the essay, along with your many other submissions–ranging from haikus to flash fiction, logged as Received.

Dreaming:

Every evening you visit the web page for the literary journal you submitted to and imagine yourself on their homepage. Fantasizing that within minutes of the essay being on the journal’s website you get a book deal or at least an inquiry from a literary agent.

Rebuilding Your Confidence:

You reread your essay to remind yourself that you truly are talented and any editor tasked with navigating a content management system to review a virtual slush pile will be delighted to read the layered work rife with metaphors and allusions to religion, literature and a variety of high and low brow works of art.

Judging Those Who Don’t Publish:

To pass the time, you silently judge your friends who aren’t vulnerable enough to submit their creative work to literary publications like you do. You think about your old college roommate who was lauded in the alumni newsletter for discovering a procedure to cure blindness, who as far as you know has never published in JAMA, while you have had three poems and an essay featured in literary journals with a circulation of over 2,000.

In Progress:

Your heart skips a beat when you see your status finally changes from Received to In-Progress. You imagine your essay being discussed at an editorial meeting where the words “brilliant” and “we made a serious discovery here” will be uttered several times by an enthusiastic staff comprised of unpaid grad students and a lecherous aging professor. After two months, when your status hasn’t changed to Accepted you start reading the masthead of the journal and craft impassioned letters to the editorial board about how they better make a decision or you will be forced to Withdraw the submission. You wisely never send these letters.

Perusing Social Media:

You follow many notable writers and other literary icons on various social media platforms and cringe when you see them mention work they’ve recently published in the literary journal you submitted to and haven’t heard back from in four months. In addition, you follow the editors from the publication you submitted your essay to and wonder how they could tweet several times a day, while it takes them months to make a decision to Accept or Decline on Submittable.

Acceptance:

It’s been six months and you still religiously check your Submissions page, but there has been no change in status. You regret not sending your essay out as a multiple submission and blame your monogamous nature as a reason for this mistake. Late one night in a fit of rage, you make your way over to the Discover page and search for other journals accepting creative nonfiction. You submit to a contest that has two hours left before its submission window closes, and a series of online and print journals, spending a total of one hundred and four dollars on submission fees. The following morning you receive an email congratulating you and you log onto Submittable and see your status has changed to Accepted.
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Alison Lowenstein is a freelance writer and author of children’s books, guidebooks and plays. She’s written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Modern Loss, Gothamist, New York Daily News, National Geographic Traveler, Travel and Leisure.com, and many other publications and websites. You can find her at www.brooklynbaby.com. Follow her on twitter @cityweekendsnyc.

Of Fact, Fiction, and Resisting Literary Classification

December 20, 2019 § 6 Comments

By Sheila O’Connor

SheilaPhotoThis is true: I didn’t know how to “classify” my hybrid book, Evidence of V.  I knew I’d written a deeply researched book that made ample use of fact, of archival documents, and narrative nonfiction. I knew it was inspired by the factual truth of my maternal grandmother, a fifteen-year-old dancer who in 1935 was incarcerated for being pregnant with my mother. I knew the intention of the book was to illuminate this little-known U.S. history of imprisoning thousands of girls for immorality and incorrigibility in the first half of the last century.

But, I also knew it was a book that welcomed fiction.  In brief, lyric flash pieces collaged between the research and the facts, I attempted to recreate the missing character of V, the talented young singer unjustly sent to the Minnesota Home School for Girls, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  My artistic impulse to imagine V to life through the act of fiction, grew out of my long-time writerly belief that imagination often yields a second kind of truth. An emotional, lived truth.

Evidence of V_Front Cover_HiResDuring the years I focused on writing Evidence of V, I didn’t consider what I’d call it, beyond “a hybrid text.” Instead I attempted to create a literary work that mirrored the negative space of absence—absent people, absent language, absent truth—and my own inability to piece together a cohesive narrative of my fractured history or family. As I’ve done with every project, published and unpublished, I allowed form to follow function regardless of the genre. Collage? Assemblage? Hybrid text? A Book-in-Pieces?  A Lyric Puzzle? At different points in time, in conversations with editors and agents and fellow writing friends, I called it all those things.

Early readers called it a poetry collection, creative nonfiction, a lyric sequence, a book of flash. Later, in his generous description of the finished manuscript, the poet Ed Bok Lee calls it among other things a “police report, ethnographic study, noir screenplay, historical account, existential spreadsheet” and “several other forms that are uncategorizable.” For so long, its inability to be labeled energized me. The book’s nerve came in part from its refusal to conform, its mirroring of a family legacy of noncompliance.

And yet, when Rose Metal Press—a publisher committed to literary works that move beyond the traditional genres—prepared to launch it, a subtitle was requested and required. What to call this text so that readers, booksellers, reviewers, grants and contests have the ability to name it, to place it in a category? In my mind, the book was as much a work of nonfiction as fiction. As much poetry as prose. Settling on any of those designations risked narrowing the scope of what it truly was. And yet, how to be sure the book would be read from start to finish, not as a collection of disconnected, separate pieces, say a collection of poetry, or lyric essays, or flash (all of which it also was), but as a work with a forward moving-narrative trajectory that opened on page one? In addition, there was the question of invented texts which was completely clear to me: the intimate details of V’s young life had been imagined.

The need to classify Evidence of V felt fraught with narrowing, with a kind of genre compliance I’d resisted from the start, but eventually we settled on a subtitle: Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions. While it wasn’t without compromise, and perhaps not entirely accurate, in the end I’d advocated for calling it a novel, in transparent admission of all I had imagined, and in support of the way I wanted readers to enter and exit the book.

And perhaps more importantly, I considered it a statement on the truth and formal innovation I felt the novel form could hold. And yet the need to “genre” V immediately distanced it from discussions of poetry and nonfiction, despite the fact that pieces of the book have been published and recognized as both. And stranger still, most readers continue to refer to it as a work of nonfiction even with the designation of novel on the cover.  As one reader recently told me: “I thought the facts were fiction. They were that impossible to believe.”

Evidence of V is only a single text, but it’s one in a line of published hybrid texts that resist classification. And what to do with these incorrigible texts? Is there a future where agents and publishers, bookstores and journals, grants and contests and residencies, and MFA programs across the country, recognize the validity of the hybrid? Is there a possibility that literary gatekeepers and genre zealots will invite these hybrid books into their company without saying all they’re not?  All the ways hybrid texts have failed to conform.  Is there a way we can resist the need for tidy genre classifications in our desire to keep things clean?  Or at least work toward genre inclusivity as the hybrid text continues to claim its voice within the literary landscape?

In the case of Evidence of V, I made a choice to write a book that’s nonconforming, incorrigible, exactly like the girl for whom the book is named.  Fortunately, the price I’ll pay for that decision is significantly less than the six-year punishment my grandmother endured for her refusal to conform.  A book is just a book, but if Evidence of V has done its work, I have to hope it will find its willing readers, and maybe a literary gatekeeper or two, will open up the door.
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Sheila O’Connor is the author of six books, including her most recent hybrid novel, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts and Fictions (Rose Metal Press). Inspired by her maternal grandmother’s incarceration as a pregnant fifteen-year-old in 1935, Evidence of V combines imagination and archival documents to shed light on the history of committing “immoral” girls.  Sheila is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.

 

Writing: To Listen

December 6, 2019 § 11 Comments

Mokes and MorganBy Morgan Baker

I sit at the computer on the round table in the tiny dining room in our rental house in Hawaii and listen to my dog whine because I didn’t take her to the beach this morning. “Tomorrow, I promise,” I say to her. She knows. She lost out today and I feel guilty, but today, I’m writing.

Yesterday, I gave my husband a draft of the feature piece I was working on – he’s a writer and a former editor. I knew he’d be honest. He told me it was choppy and needed better transitions and more reporting.

I sat quietly, trying not to feel sorry for myself. I knew he was probably right. I went into a decline. What was I doing? I started questioning my ability to write – feature stories and essays.

In the midst of all this angst during my rewriting, I thought about quitting. This is hard work and I’m not getting rich doing it, so why not just give up. But it’s not like I have anything to do instead.

I said to him in the thick of my frustration, “I’m a better teacher than I am a writer.” I’m not sure that’s really true but as we just moved from Cambridge, MA – where I taught Magazine Writing and Creative Nonfiction for more than 30 years at Emerson – to Kailua, and left most of my teaching behind, I needed to rationalize the loss.

I need to be strong enough to listen to feedback from my husband and editors when they have suggestions for making a piece more specific or they don’t want the pieces I’ve written, which sometimes feel like hits to my ego.

The truth is no matter how many essays I write that don’t get published or how many pitches I throw out that don’t get picked up and despite all the rewriting I do on the features and essays that do get picked up, I don’t know what else I would do with myself if I’m not writing or in the classroom.

I’m a writer. Plain and simple.

I write to hear what I’m thinking. I write to learn. I write to share ideas. It’s a way for me to be heard.

I write essays about moving to Hawaii, about teaching, about my family’s life-threatening food allergies, about being an empty-nester, and about growing up in multiple homes. Whether I’m writing an essay about my dogs, or a feature story about dead end marriages, I learn something new each time and that is exciting.

Plus I don’t give up easily. As a friend just reminded me, I’m tougher than I think I am. I can withstand the comments and rejections, after the initial sting, just like I could handle the move from Cambridge to Hawaii, better than I thought. The remarks just spur me on. I’ve written two memoirs that I hope will someday get published. But the truth is, published or not, I needed to write them. They were stories I needed to tell. All the years of research, interviews, writing, rewriting and looking for agents wasn’t for naught because I told my stories.

I take an on-line writing course several times a year to make sure I keep writing – to have the structure in my life and ears to hear what I’m working on. When I was packing up my house in Cambridge, I took two back-to-back flash courses that saved me when the packing got too hard and sad. I sat down and worked on short pieces – about a party I had in high school and a time a bike was stolen from me while I was riding it -that kept me super focused.

Writing not only helps me understand today, it helps me understand yesterday as well.

I have been writing for 40 years now. It sure doesn’t feel like that when I start a story, it feels like I’m writing for the first time. I’ve written feature stories about travel, business ventures, health issues, children’s development, and now I’m working for a new publication writing about issues with which older readers are dealing.

Every time I start a new project, I worry about how I am going to do it – start it, develop it, finish it. I worry about finding sources for my feature stories. I worry about interviewing those sources. I worry about writing essays and whether I have interesting topics to write about.

As I told my students for thirty years, the best way to start any project is to jump in and know you’ll make a mistake or two along the way. Don’t edit as you write, it’ll slow the process down. Chances are, they, and I, are better prepared than we realize. Interviewing a source is often just like having a conversation with someone you think is interesting.

Writing anything starts with writing crap. Sentences may run on, descriptions might not be tight enough. You just have to let that happen. Staring at a blank computer screen isn’t going to help. I have learned that I simply have to start writing and once I have those bad sentences, on the screen or paper, then it allows me the opportunity to rewrite, and as another friend told me after she read a book proposal I’d written and gave me some helpful notes, “you’re good at rewriting”.

I love rewriting and I have to remind myself of that. It’s when I get to make the piece really come to life and make it sound the way I want it to. I can talk about the birds singing in the background as I write a piece about moving to Hawaii, and the cars going through the rain puddles in front of my house in another essay about walking my dog in my new neighborhood, or on an article about gratitude.

After seething for a bit when I was writing the feature piece that Matt critiqued, I went back to it and looked at where he thought I needed smoother transitions and I realized, to my horror, he was right. I put in more transitional words and phrases, linking paragraphs. I looked at the places where he wanted more information and after much interior debate, I sent two additional emails to new sources, one of which returned my request for an interview.

Finally, I reorganized the material in the story, putting the how-to solve answers in the end of the piece instead of in the middle – duh – and sent it back to Matt with the subject line Better?

He wrote back. “Much.”

Phew.

It’s still a work in progress, but I’m ready to put a leash on my dog, knowing a change of pace, as we walk through the neighborhood of Palm, Monkeypod and Mango trees, is good. Mayzie jumps up from her bed and twirls in delight when she sees the leash in my hand and then sits calmly while I snap it on her collar and we’re off.
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Morgan Baker has returned to Cambridge after almost a year in Hawaii, where she walked her dog to the beach for the sunrise, and explored O’ahu. She is the Managing Editor of The Bucket and teaches at Emerson College. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, Under the Gum Tree, Writing it Real, and other publications. Find her at https://www.bymorganbaker.com or @mmorgbb

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.

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