March 5, 2020 § 7 Comments
You may have heard from a beginning writer, “What if an agent steals my idea?” Or “What if a publisher prints my book and sells it without paying me?” Or “What if someone pirates my e-book?”
You may yourself have wondered, why is it customary not to copyright one’s work before beginning the submission process? Isn’t registering with the Library of Congress protection for writers? Doesn’t that little circle-c scare off plagiarists and pirates?
In fact, putting the copyright symbol on a manuscript submitted to an agent or publisher is the mark of an amateur. While an agent isn’t going to turn down a fantastic book because the author jumped the gun on copyright, it is a tiny indicator that “This author may have misconceptions about the publishing industry and I will have to educate them as well as trying to sell their book. They will need more of my time than a savvier author might.”
In North America and Europe (and most other countries), all artistic work is copyrighted from the moment it’s created in a fixed form. When you write it in a notebook, or type it into a Word doc, you establish ownership of your creation. What registering copyright does is allow you to sue for damages. Until your work is actually published (at which point copyright will be registered with the publisher’s help, or by you as an indie author), or unless you are an author at the Stephen-King-Nora-Roberts level, there aren’t many damages to sue for.
Actual piracy—copy-pasting and repackaging the text of a book and selling it as your own—happens rarely. It happens primarily in China, India and Egypt, markets with avid readers and low per-capita incomes. Foreign pirates do not care about your registered copyright, and you will not be able to find and sue them. If you discover a photocopy of your novel in a Cairo souk, your best bet is to figure out how to reach those fans and sell them something else (or at least get an Amazon review!). In North America, most piracy happens with textbooks and in category romance, and pirated copies show up after the book is published. If you’re writing one of those genres, by all means do more research, and learn how to file a copyright infringement claim with Amazon. But for memoirists and most fiction writers, our enemy will be not piracy but obscurity.
What if someone in my writing group steals my idea?
Remember that party you went to, and that person came up and said, “I have a great idea for a book! You write it and we’ll split the money!” Remember how ridiculous it was that they had absolutely no conception that writing a book is difficult and time-consuming and puking out ideas is the easy part?
It’s not possible to copyright an idea, and ideas are rarely original. Execution is what matters. The level of labor, time and expense needed to rewrite someone else’s book is unlikely to be taken on by anyone good enough to actually do it. (with the notable exceptions of Shakespeare and Stephen Sondheim). Writers able to skillfully repurpose the plot of a stolen manuscript already have their own books to try and sell, and usually, their pride.
What if I query an agent and they take my idea and give it to another writer?
Legitimate agents receive far too many submissions already—if they like your idea but want a different take or another writing style, chances are very good they have already received another submission doing exactly that. They may well sell a book that sounds a lot like yours; they almost certainly didn’t need to steal it.
What if a publisher steals my book?
Legitimate publishers don’t make enough money off books from debut authors to bother stealing a debut book. Just like agents, they already got six versions of that story, and they picked the one they liked best. Even scam publishers don’t make money by stealing books—they profit by charging authors to publish. If they steal your book, who’s going to pay them?
Do your research. As you go through the submissions process, this reputable webpage from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America covers common scams (including specific, named agencies and publishers to watch out for) and Victoria Strauss has guidelines to finding a legit agent. I strongly recommend reading the archives of Writer Beware Blog for common scams and shady practices, as well as names of predatory publishers and fake agents.
Our greatest protection as unpublished writers is that nobody wants to steal our work. Yes, that sounds a little sad. But just as “worth publishing” is not “worth stealing,” so too does “not worth stealing” not mean “worthless.” Our second greatest protection is our own voice. What makes our work worth an agent’s time, a publisher’s investment, and a reader’s money, is what we bring to the page, beyond an idea or even a particular plot. West Side Story “stole” Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet “stole” Romeus and Juliet. But the transformation of ideas from one author to another resulted each time in something unique…and words so distinct, they are impossible to steal.
October 29, 2019 § 13 Comments
For some, writing is a solitary act, best done in the privacy of a room with a door. Others lack that luxury and find their muse on a favorite couch corner or in a coffee shop. You may require utter silence or prefer the murmur of voices, music and the hiss of espresso machines. While the setting and circumstances vary, it’s still a private conversation between your mind and the page. Alone, we grapple with ideas, wrestling them into shape.
Sharing our writing is the other side of the coin. Our thoughts, transformed in that magical, creative space, become part of a broader conversation.
Eight years ago, when I began to pursue my belated writing dream in earnest, I’d recently retired from a 35-year career in environmental protection. With what I now see as blind, beginners’ luck, I located a journal (thank you Duotrope) that accepted reprints of previously published work. An essay of mine (first published in a community college journal, American River Review) was reprinted in the Winter 2013 issue of the Still Point Arts Quarterly.
The Quarterly’s Editor, Christine Brooks Cote, also the founder/publisher at Shanti Arts, became interested in my father’s art (the subject of the essay). The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015) a full-color art book/memoir, became my first published book.
A book about an unknown artist by an unknown author, published by an independent press in an atypical format, was never destined to appeal to a wide audience. Yet thanks to the encouragement and support of colleagues I’d met taking classes and joining writing groups in my community, I was able to participate in half a dozen readings and events and share my father’s artistic legacy.
In the four years since, I’ve become enmeshed in my home town Sacramento’s literary community. One friend says of me that I, “write around,” a joking reference to my promiscuity in searching out opportunities to write and share with others. I’ve participated in workshops, classes and writing circles, convened submissions parties in my home, and provided comments on countless stories, essays and manuscripts for friends and colleagues.
Whenever I can, I attend readings and events to support other authors. I also read for literary magazines—beginning with Narrative, where I volunteered as an Assistant Editor for several years, and now as a member of the Hippocampus Reading Panel. Reading for journals is a rewarding way to give back to the journals we love; reading hundreds of submissions sharpens my internal editor.
As one outcome of my growing literary community, the launch for my second book, Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) was a vastly different experience than my first time out.
916 Ink, the literary nonprofit where I now work part-time facilitating writing workshops for area youth, hosted the event in their “Imaginarium”—an inspiring space filled with prompts, empty birdcages and whimsical clocks. Sacramento-based press River Rock Books, sold their recent releases alongside mine and 916 Ink staff were on hand to recruit volunteers and spread the word about the importance of creative writing in children’s lives.
Jan Haag, a friend and author who trained me in the Amherst Writers & Artists Method (AWA) and welcomed me into her AWA-style writing group years ago, introduced me. A handful of critique partners and fellow authors joined me in “acting out” scenes from Gray Is the New Black. Joey Garcia, critique partner, author, and founder of the Belize Writers Conference led an informal Q&A. One sister served up literary-themed cocktails, another dished out black-and-white snacks (I couldn’t come up with any appetizing gray foods!). The launch was a party, a celebration, not only of my new book, but of Sacramento’s vibrant and growing literary community.
The “then and now” contrasts continue: I forged enduring writing friendships at the first conferences and workshops I participated in five years ago, including One Story’s Summer Writers Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers Conference. Though we are spread around the globe, the writers I met continue to cheer one another on via Twitter, Facebook and on-line writing communities.
Journals that have published my work have been generous in spreading the word about my new book. Longridge Review interviewed me about Gray Is the New Black on their blog. Thanks to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, I’ve connected with dozens of creative nonfiction writers and readers over the past three years.
Writing, even when it flows, can be lonely work. Sharing, whether one-on-one, online, in writing groups or via publication, closes the circle. Finding visible, tangible proof of this widening circle has been one of the most gratifying outcomes associated with the publication of my second book.
Four years of forging connections has transformed my life as writer and author. The Beatles, then Joe Cocker, sang about getting by with a little help from their friends. I’m singing from that same songbook, with a lot of help from my friends.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance and The Reluctant Artist. Her essays and stories have been widely published in journals and magazines, including Hippocampus, the Rumpus, Brevity‘s blog, and Longridge Review. A perennially-blooming author, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Find her at www.dorothyriceauthor.com and on twitter @dorothyrowena.
December 27, 2018 § 8 Comments
Literary agents: can’t find one, wish you had one, wonder if yours is the right one. The web is full of complaints about agents, but fuller of questions about how to get one.
Anyone have experience with agent X, Y, Z? Is he/she trustworthy? Will they get behind my book and pitch it to publishers?
Then there’s the followup:
She loves my memoir but wants me to revise it.
He says my childhood needs tear-filled nights and more drugs.
They want Dad to swear and yell but he didn’t.
Those are harder changes for a memoirist than a novelist, who at least has latitude to invent. But how far should one go to meet an agent’s vision when it defies your own sense of the story you have to tell?
I must have been rejected by forty agents while querying my novel, Temper CA, about a woman, Joy, returning to the Gold Rush town where she grew up to attend her grandfather’s funeral. I wrote to agents who represented books like mine; agents recommended by a matching service (for a fee); agents I approached with recommendations from well-published friends.
Then I thought I’d found my soul mate. I sent Agent A my manuscript on a Friday and he emailed me on Monday: “Dear Paul, I read your novel through in one sitting. It’s very, very well done. My wife … thought it read like an Elizabeth Strout novel.” He sent the book out immediately to a publisher he was sure would be interested.
That was in February 2016. The publisher said no. Another publisher found the book too “quiet,” too slow out of the gate.
Agent A asked me to revise. Instead of Joy’s psychological crisis, A suggested an anti-heroine: “Everyone’s looking for literary fiction in which the heroine has an unapologetically dangerous side. Books like Gone Girl…The Girl on the Train…” His idea: Joy kills her grandfather but implicates her father. “Have the stakes build as she reveals some dark childhood story about the relationship between her, her father and grandfather… Crime novels are a much steadier market than ‘literary’ novels. If Camus were writing today, we’d no doubt market him as crime fiction.”
Keep the setting, keep the names, write a new novel.
When I got done with self-pity I set to work. I spent three months creating crimes, motives that crossed and double-crossed, secrets behind secrets behind secrets. What I didn’t do was turn Joy into a murderer. My agent’s disappointment was clear: “It’s been a long time since a novelist without a fiction-publishing track record took so little of my advice.”
I was hurt and angry, but I tried again. An alcoholic Joy killed her grandfather and implicated her bastard of a father. I felt like I was writing pornography.
To counter that self-betrayal I simultaneously wrote a second, parallel novel, closer to my original story, and sent him the thriller and the not-thriller. Maybe I could convince Agent A that my book was worth his time by letting him read it alongside his book.
The thriller grabbed him in the opening chapters, he told me, then it flagged. Too much backstory, memory, psychology. No publisher would be interested. He read twenty pages of the not-thriller and dismissed it.
I was done. A year after signing, we parted ways. I returned to earlier drafts, incorporated ideas from my year of inept revisions and rewrote once more. I made the novel mine again.
This story has a happy ending. A friend connected me with a former small-press publisher who wanted to represent a few writers. She liked my manuscript and offered suggestions about where I might slow down, dive more deeply. I had a residency at Playa, a beautiful sequestered landscape in Oregon’s high desert. I altered some stories—true and apocryphal—from oral histories of the Oregon outback and melded them into my Gold Rush town. I left Playa in September 2017 with a 60,000 word draft and spent the next month whittling to just under 40,000 words. I submitted my revised Temper CA to a novella competition—and promptly forgot I’d entered. So many years of contests and rejections: this one seemed as hopeless as the rest. In February 2018, I told a friend the book was ‘dead in the water.’
The next morning I found out Temper CA had won the Miami University Press 2018 Novella Prize. As I cried on the phone, I realized I didn’t know which version of the manuscript I’d submitted—there had been so many.
Temper CA, will be published in January 2019. Miami has been extraordinary in their editorial work and I feel lucky to have landed where I did with a book I’m proud of.
This is not the book Agent A read two years ago. The story did need more volume, though poisons and patricide weren’t the right noisemakers. I did need to get out of the gate faster but that didn’t mean a hundred-page dash. Joy isn’t always a trustworthy narrator, but that’s part of what she herself needs to learn, not a way of deceiving a reader. Temper CA is the story I hoped to tell about family and landscape, failure and forgiveness. Agent A praised the book I wrote, then told me it didn’t work. Thanks to his misguided suggestions, I produced a book he would not like.
Agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world and as fledgling writers we’ll do almost anything to get in. But not quite everything. Learning what we can’t do teaches us about what we can, who we are, and what we want our literary worlds to be.
Paul Skenazy taught Literature and Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published essays, stories, and book reviews in a range of newspapers and magazines, as well as critical work on James M. Cain and other noir writers. Temper CA will be available January 8, 2019. You can preorder the novella through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.
Photo credit: Shelby Graham
May 31, 2018 § 11 Comments
On Tuesday, we talked about publishers soliciting authors in the guise of a publication offer.
That’s not a book deal. That’s a (slick) commercial for their services.
But for some authors, “hybrid” publishing works. Could it be right for you?
Old-school vanity publishers know their terrible reputations, and many have rebranded as “hybrid.” They charge authors a “contribution” that pays their costs and a healthy profit margin. They don’t care if your book sells—they already made their money. You may end up with cartons of unsold books, text badly or not-at-all edited, dreadful covers, crappy page design.
True hybrid presses offer a legitimate package of publishing services. It costs more than self-publishing—they still profit before selling your book—but you’re not doing it all yourself. Hybrids can provide a smoother publication process, bookstore placement, reviews, and some of the legitimacy of an imprint.
Is hybrid right for you? Well…
1) Do you want a long-term writing career?
“At least I’ll be published” is the worst possible reason to go hybrid. Low first-book numbers make it harder to sell a second book. It’s better to be a debut author than one who’s sold under 10,000 copies—publishers want a positive track record or no track record at all.
Going hybrid, at least one of you thinks you won’t sell many copies. If the publisher thinks you’ve written a bestseller, they don’t need your money. If you think you can do better, pursue traditional publication or explore self-publishing.
But if you’re up for tenure, a reputable hybrid press gives you a resume credit. If you’re launching a public-speaking career and selling books after every motivational speech, you’re busy marketing yourself—let them handle cover design and proofreading.
2) How much energy do you have for marketing?
Even Big-Five published authors end up marketing their own book. But hybrid (and small independent/university) presses often lack media contacts. Does your potential publisher display at industry events like the Frankfurt Book Fair or BookExpo America? Do they have readings or signings at regional book festivals? Do they have a list of radio station managers to contact? Check their social media for links to author interviews and reviews in national media. If they can’t market your book in places that cost money or connections to enter, they aren’t doing anything you can’t do yourself.
If you’re newsworthy in a way related to your book—you just summited Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen or Sherpas; you gave six organs as a living donor; you’re a former child actor just out of rehab—then marketing isn’t your obstacle. Hybrid away!
3) Are you in a hurry?
Traditional publishing takes time. Your book comes out much faster with hybrid or self-publishing—sometimes at the cost of lower-quality editing, design and printing. But good hybrids have an established editing and design pipeline to scoot your book right through. If you’re dying of cancer or facing a major book-selling event next month, you may want to pay for publishing.
4) Do you want your book in bookstores?
Traditional presses can get your physical book on a shelf. Bookstores have near-zero desire to carry self-published books, so that’s where an imprint helps.
Go to your favorite bookstores and check for books by your potential hybrid press. Give titles and ISBNs and ask a clerk they’d stock those books or only special-order them.
Ask the hybrid press about returns and the retail discount. If it’s not “we take returns” and the industry-standard 55%—red flag!
5) What’s the royalty split?
Self-publishing, you control the price and get all the profit. Traditional publishing trades a chunk of the net for marketing and reputation. Hybrids take what you agree to give them…on top of the money you paid to publish. Before buying their package, make sure you’re OK with your percentage.
6) Do they want subsidiary rights like audiobooks, TV/movies, or foreign sales?
Red flag. These should stay with the author who pays to publish. It’s unlikely the press will market these rights anyway, and they don’t have enough skin in the game to demand a percentage.
7) Will they edit? What are the editors’ qualifications?
Is your book really done? Like really, really done? Is there still a nagging feeling in your heart that it could be better? Ask what kind of editing will be done, and by whom. “Our in-house editor proofreads” is not the same as helping your prose sing and your story hang together.
8) What are their actual, printed books like?
Order a couple titles. Is the paper thinner than you expected? Do you see typos, blurry print, bad layout? Is the cover art just plain ugly? Pull out books in the same genre from your shelves and make a table display. Do the hybrid books belong?
9) Due diligence!
- The Independent Book Publishers Association has set guidelines for hybrid presses. This is the bare minimum of legitimacy.
- Search the publisher name + “scam.” Search again on Absolute Write (make a free account for better info).
- Check Writer Beware, a wonderful resource that details bad-faith agents and publishers.
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have a list of what to watch out for when approached by a publisher.
- Read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer for a greater understanding of the industry.
Going hybrid might be the right choice for you. But go in with your eyes open. Hybrid publishing is not a “book deal,” it’s a package of services you purchase. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This summer she’ll be at Cedar Ridge Writers Series, VCFA’s Postgraduate Writers Conference, and Hippocamp. Come say hello!
May 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
You open your email, and O frabjous day! A publisher has come calling! They’ve seen your work in a literary magazine and wonder if you have a chapbook, or would like to be in their anthology. Or you didn’t win a contest, but your work “shows merit” and “deserves to be published.” Maybe you wanted a faster process than querying agents, or figured your work better suited a small press, so you cast out to a few publishers, and one has bitten.
You read a little further. This publishing house “considers work for both traditional and hybrid publishing.” If your book is seen as better suited to a hybrid deal—perhaps due to “the difficulty in placing the books of new or untried authors, as well as the general increased competition in publishing today”—the publisher feels “that it may be necessary to ask for a contribution from you.”
Maybe it’s even right up front: We’re a hybrid press. Our package costs $XXXX, and you can add on additional services at $XXX, $XXXX or $XXXXX.
The email is reassuring. Someone has recognized the quality of your work. After all the hype about “platform,” someone wants your book based on your writing. You don’t have to hit 10,000 followers or make mailing-list spreadsheets. It’s a relief.
But most of the time, it’s not true.
Not (technically) a scam or a fraud. But a well-designed system to separate hopeful authors from hard-earned dollars, waste their time and leave them with unsold, often un-edited and poorly-designed books.
Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? That maxim goes hand-in-hand with another cliche: You can’t cheat an honest man. You can only sell a five-dollar diamond ring to someone who thinks he’s ripping you off.
Writers who seek hybrid publishing “deals” aren’t grifters. But they are to some extent sidestepping the work of getting published. Submitting and pitching to small magazines, medium journals and mass media. Blogging/newsletter-ing to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes while we’re in the middle of the process. The process that sets us up to be able to sell books once we do get that publishing deal.
Most authors who pay to publish end up doing the real work anyway. Pounding the pavement to get their book in a few stores. Emailing the target audience (key demographic: “everyone I know who has ever read a book”). They’ll do that work with a larger cash investment than traditional publishing and far less potential monetary reward than self-publishing. Their copyright may end up in the publisher’s hands—the publisher who may also now own all their subsidiary rights.
Remember that part about “the process that sets us up to be able to sell books”? Memoir, creative nonfiction and self-help are hard to sell without “platform.” Basically, the number of people who will buy your book or spread the word about it. Platform can be:
- social media followers (10,000+ real followers who engage with your posts)
- a speaking career (at major events where books can be sold)
- group membership (i.e., a nationwide service club or large religious organization; a class of people like “patients suffering this disorder”)
- writing articles or essays about the book’s subject matter, and publishing them in medium-to-major mass media or significant literary journals
- a public career like radio show host or TV presenter
Without platform, a traditional publisher doesn’t want to buy the book because they can’t sell the book. It’s also hard to self-publish without enough people to sell the book to. Unfortunately, so many books come out each year that, without a built-in audience, it’s rare for readers to discover and purchase any single book. Novelists still market hard, but for some there’s an existing base of blogs, reviewers, and genre fans to help the book get momentum and word-of-mouth. Nonfiction books by non-famous people are usually not newsworthy, so the writer needs an existing audience who will spread the word and buy the book themselves.
One of the things you can do to start momentum for your work is to revise sections of the book as possible magazine or newspaper articles, and seek publication in mass media. You can also turn chapters into self-contained essays to submit to journals. Whether you end up with a traditional publisher or a self-supported plan, getting your work out there will help future sales, and help you gauge your audience. Memoirists who publish a “hot essay” (the legendary venue is Modern Love, but there are plenty more places) often get offers from traditional publishers, or have agents seek them out.
Legitimate publishers have writers beating down their doors. Unless a writer recently did something very newsworthy, made a big splash with an essay, or regularly speaks at large events, publishers don’t come to us. We go to them. Self-publishing is totally legit, but you can coordinate it yourself, and publish with Createspace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Ingram. That’s more work, but usually costs less, and you make all the money and keep all the rights.
Sometimes a true hybrid publishing deal can be the right choice for some authors. On Thursday, we’ll talk about what a good hybrid deal looks like, why you might want one, and questions to ask the publisher.
September 7, 2017 § 28 Comments
More than a year ago, I completed a draft of a memoir I’d been wanting to write for a very long time. It’s hard to say when the need to tell this story began. I started keeping journals as a pre-teen, and I’ve continued to fill notebooks throughout my adulthood. I signed up for my first creative writing class when I was 32 and pregnant with my oldest child. While my kids were toddlers, I began exploring my memory, crafting short pieces that I wasn’t sure would become a connected whole. In 2009, when I was 41, I applied to graduate school with the intention of writing a cohesive memoir. After I earned my MA, it took another two years to figure out how to shape my story from beginning to end.
Strangely though, since I finished the draft, the urgency I once felt has faded. It’s been usurped, I think, by fear—fear of being seen, of being known, even though being known is what I wanted most, because I’d felt unseen and unheard for much of my life.
My fear is multifaceted. My story cannot be understood without saying who and what have caused me to feel small and invisible. Some writers have waited until the secret keepers died before telling their stories. We are conflicted by our loyalty to those from whom we’ve always sought permission to speak. We don’t want to inflict pain, despite the pain we’ve experienced ourselves. We are afraid that if we tell our stories, ties to important people in our lives might be irreparably damaged or, even worse, severed altogether.
I’m uncomfortable with the possibility that by publishing my memoir I may hurt someone close to me, but I’m also afraid I’ll be hurt myself by the reactions of my loved ones. Am I resilient enough to withstand the very real possibility that some may try to discredit my own lived experience?
Was I fair in my writing? Did I talk enough about good moments, happy times? Then again, maybe my telling is too subtle, tries to make things sound too normal, when so much was not normal at all.
After so many years of writing, I’m no longer sure I’ll try to publish this book. I’m already a better person and a better writer for having completed the draft. I’ve begun to trust my voice and I’ve learned to see a long project through to completion. I kept the promise I made to myself to finish writing the story.
But I suspect that if publishing my memoir wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t be sitting here anguishing over it. My original need to be known lingers and won’t be satisfied by confining my story to my hard drive. I want to connect with others who’ve had similar experiences, to help them also be heard and seen and known.
Money’s always nice, but I didn’t set out to write a book as a means of earning income. The respect of the literary community, though, does matter to me, which raises another fear—that my writing isn’t good enough to communicate my experience clearly and my motivation for telling this particular story will be misunderstood by readers who don’t know me in real life.
I’ve read takes by successful authors on the fallout from publishing their own stories—a gazillion different opinions on the ethics of memoir—and I’ve developed my own pretty strong opinion: I think everyone has the right to tell their own story, being careful to include only what’s absolutely necessary from the overlap with others’ stories, and that it’s best for each writer to trust their own judgment when it comes to anticipating consequences in their relationships.
It turns out that I’m the one who must give myself permission to release my memoir into the world, negative reactions be damned.
If I decide to publish, I’m certain someone will find something in my memoir to criticize. It’s possible some people won’t understand my story or won’t like me very much for publishing it. Will I like me if I publish it? Will I like me if I don’t? Will I respect myself? Answering these questions won’t banish my fear, but will help me find the courage to proceed.
Karen Pickell holds a MA from Kennesaw State University. Her work has appeared in Bluestem Online Quarterly, Conte, and in several independently published anthologies. She founded the website Adoptee Reading Resource and she blogs at karenpickell.com. Originally from Ohio, Karen currently lives in Florida.
October 8, 2015 § 8 Comments
At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:
I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.
Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.
Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.
Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.
Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?
Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.
As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”
September 24, 2015 § 13 Comments
Like many of our readers, I’ll give up my paper books when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I love them like I love the Oxford comma. I fill my shelves with books I adore, books I might like to read someday, and books so multiply-read I can open them at random, enjoy a section over lunch, and reshelve them without feeling incomplete.
The projected digital apocalypse worried me as both reader and writer–would having my book on paper no longer be an option when the time came? Was I just silly, as a constant traveler, to resist loading up a Kindle with everything I could possibly read on the train? Was I contributing to the coming devastation by downloading Harry Potter 7 to my phone and reading it under the covers, squinting at my close-held phone through one un-contact-lensed eye?
The New York Times reports that digital sales have slowed sharply, falling by 10% in the first five months of 2015. Readers–even young digital natives–go back and forth between devices and paper. The American Booksellers Association counts more independent bookstore members in 2015 than they had five years ago.
Digital’s still strong–the statistics don’t include cheap, plentiful self-published e-books, and Amazon’s unlimited-e-book service is somewhere in the mix–but it’s nice to know print isn’t going away any time soon.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her latest essay, “Write About Indians” is part of Drunken Boat‘s Romani Folio this month.
April 27, 2015 § 5 Comments
Wouldn’t it be nice?
Sure, your literariest of literary essays are coming to Brevity (don’t disillusion us!), but it’s also great to get a personal essay into a major market–high circulation, millions of clicks, sometimes a fat check. It can be intimidating to get started, though.
You probably already know the first step: read everything you can in the specific venue in which you want to publish. As Sara Mosle wrote in The New York Times,
Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first “Talk of the Town” story. “Talk” articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 “Talk” pieces, one after the other.
I’ve done the same with the New York Times Modern Love column, even sitting down and analyzing story structure like I did back in high school English class, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I have pages in my notebook with lists of potential stories, organized by where I think might buy them. When it’s time to write, I flip through and choose an idea to work on.
But what next? How do you pick the story that suits the venue, how do you make your pitch (selling the idea) or submission on spec (selling an already-written piece) stand out? At Writer’s Digest, Susan Shapiro has a great list of guidelines and helpful tips for getting a personal essay into a major magazine or newspaper. She covers what to write, how to write it, and how to send it. My personal favorite:
6. Take Action
Often I see pieces by beginners about a conflict that isn’t resolved. They are stuck in a bad relationship or lousy addiction that has no ending or solution in sight. It’s hard to write well about drinking or drugging unless you’re sober and drug-free, and it’s hard to have perspective on your dating woes if you’re still single. Instead of staying stuck, chronicle your plan to change. I’ve written humorous essays and even books about visiting my worst old boyfriends to get their take on why we broke up, interviewing my mentors for advice, quitting all my addictions, and seeing eight shrinks in eight days (going speed shrinking instead of speed dating). A.J. Jacobs famously spent 12 months getting healthy, and another year “living Biblically.” Gretchen Rubin searched for happiness. Ryan Nerz traveled around the country trying to win eating contests. Maria Dahvana Headley said yes to any nice single guy who asked her out (and met her husband along the way). My student Kayli Stollak joined JDate with her divorced Jewish grandmother and wound up with a blog, book and TV pilot called Granny Is My Wingman.
As an editor myself, it’s always more interesting to read an essay about taking action and succeeding or failing than it is to read a more ruminative piece in which the author literally or figuratively sits still.
Whether you’re ready to submit to a national mass market or not, Susan’s advice is solid for writing any personal essay. Focus, be timely, know your audience, get feedback.
Check out Susan’s piece here.
March 19, 2013 § 7 Comments
Once upon a time, I had an agent. And not just any agent. A glamorous, big-time agent with a firm in London (not even New York–London!). I found her through an introduction from a professor of mine, and she enthusiastically took me on. She called my manuscript, a memoir about my experiences in the tiny West African country of Cape Verde, a gorgeous, lyrical memoir, a work that would open readers hearts and minds.
I was flattered, I admit.
I saw stars. I saw book deals and bestseller lists and maybe even a movie version featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. No, Natalie Portman. No…
There ensued an exciting year of transatlantic emails and phone calls. The agent did several rounds of submissions to big presses both in the U.S. and abroad. I received a number of tantalizingly close rejections.
Then: silence. I tried to convince my agent to submit to smaller presses, but she wasn’t familiar with small presses in the U.S., and didn’t seem eager to pursue that path. I had other things going on, anyway. A baby. A graduate program. A move to a different state. Another baby.
I published my first book, a collection of poetry, with a university press. Again, my dreams of grandeur–or at least a book prize, maybe a review in a medium-sized literary magazine–came to nothing. Three reviews on Goodreads. A box of author copies under my bed.
Then, almost fifteen years after I’d written my memoir about Cape Verde, I pulled it out again on a whim. I’d seen a small press in Chicago featured in Poets and Writers, and thought, why not?
To my surprise, the press accepted my manuscript less than two weeks after I submitted it. No agent. No high-power negotiations. There wasn’t even a contract.
But I was intrigued. There was something so endearing and energizing about this passionate, committed bibliophile producing books in his Chicago apartment. Plus, he seemed to have a lot of marketing acumen to go along with his enthusiasm. The press took both an up-to-the minute, tech savvy approach, with free e-books, as well as a hip, handmade print edition. They took advantage of the democratic nature of social media to sell their books. The press appealed to both my inner revolutionary, and my inner literary conservative. (Also to my inner wannabe hipster.)
I signed on (figuratively).
Unlike with a big press, or even a university press, there was no two-year wait from acceptance to publication. Within three months, book was edited and proofread, the cover chosen, acknowledgements written. I was an integral part of the entire process. It was a true collaboration, and the editors were incredibly solicitous and accommodating. The cover we decided on was one of my own photos from Cape Verde.
While the university press I work with offers much of this intimacy and responsiveness to the authors, their marketing efforts are modest and fairly traditional. My indie press, on the other hand, is highly invested in selling copies and generating buzz, and works with an independent publicist, who has already proved invaluable in finding avenues for promoting my book.
The first edition of my book is just going to press now (or rather, just now being hand-assembled in my publisher’s living room). I’ve already seen photographs of the small, bound hardback–it looks beautiful!–and am eagerly awaiting the mail delivery that will place the final product in my hands.
In some ways, the journey is just beginning. But already, I couldn’t be happier with my choice of publishing with one of the many innovative independents that are taking advantage of all the advantages that technology–both very new and very old–have to offer.
Eleanor Stanford is the author of Historia, Historia: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography), and The Book of Sleep (Carnegie Mellon Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, and many other journals. She lives in the Philadelphia area.