A Publishing Contract: When Jupiter Aligns with Mars

December 14, 2022 § 61 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

Finally, after a year spent fretting over the difference between a synopsis and an overview, what to include in a proposal, which comp titles are actually comparable, and submitting my manuscript to more than 20 small presses I had three offers for publication.

The first was contingent on my changing the structure, because “essay collections don’t sell.” I’d need to rewrite the book in a more traditional memoir format. Excited to have an offer, I considered it; even spent some time working on the rewrite. But it went against my vision for the book. I want it to be read in the bite sized pieces a bereaved person can manage.

We bereaved can’t focus. Our attention spans are gnats, buzzing around our heads for seconds at a time. By the time we’ve read one chapter we’ve lost our place, can’t remember how we got here. Where are my keys? Did I feed the cat? What month is it? Do I even care?

The second offer came from a small press with some good titles and interesting cover designs, though after a call with an editor, that one didn’t feel right either. It’s hard to explain. The edges were jagged. There was a vague unsettledness and I felt myself holding back, my enthusiasm waning. But who am I to be picky? Shouldn’t I grab the first offer I get? Alliteration notwithstanding, what fun I would have withdrawing all those submissions. “I’ve accepted an offer of publication. Thank you for your consideration.”

Sure, we all dream of a traditional publisher, not necessarily one of the big five, but a press with some heft. A well-known name. An editor who shares our vision. A robust social media presence.  Some gorgeous cover designs. But the universe opened her arms to me through the little press that accepted my manuscript. To paraphrase the well-known song from the musical  Hair, for once “Jupiter aligned with Mars.”

The offer came from Apprentice House, a small university press in Baltimore, my hometown. Loyola University is my alma mater. It’s where I first started writing about my daughter’s suicide for what became my master’s thesis.

As I looked at the books Apprentice House had published, I noticed one by Michael Olesker, a former syndicated columnist for The Baltimore Sun newspaper. His wife was one of two midwives at the Baltimore Birth Center where my daughter entered the world. Although not present for the delivery, she came to our home the following day for a postpartum visit. Seeing her name brought me back, full circle, to the time of my daughter’s beginning.

When I started thinking about requesting blurbs, one of the first people I thought of was an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins whom I’d met because of a serendipitous flyer posted in an elevator when I worked as an RN at the hospital. He taught a popular course in bereavement in the Pastoral Care program at Loyola. I contacted him and he asked me to send the manuscript.

Whether I’ll get that blurb remains to be seen, though I marvel at how everything is finally coming together. I’ve seen it happen so often now, for writer friends. I still grapple with feeling happy about it. How can I be happy to be publishing a book that I wish I could not have written? Writing the essays in this collection was sometimes excruciating. Why couldn’t I put it behind me? Why couldn’t I move on?  

To write about grief, especially the suicide of a child, feels risky. The stigma is real. Will readers judge me? After all, what the hell kind of mother could I be? My child took her life and I’m capitalizing on it, seeking attention by writing a book. Even including some humor. What the hell is wrong with me?

I can only tell you that when newly bereaved, I wanted nothing more than to read authentic stories by real people who had survived the most terrible loss imaginable. Stories that would show me it was possible to find a place of bearable sorrow. I hope my stories will do that for someone else. 


Eileen‘s work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives,” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. “How to be the Mother of a Dead Girl” was a finalist in the Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Contest.  Eileen’s forthcoming essay collection received a Gold Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association and was chosen 1st runner-up unpublished book of the year.

Death Doesn’t Sell…Or Does It?

November 1, 2022 § 3 Comments

Publishing’s disconnect between “the market” and actual readers.

Karen Fine (photo: Constance Owens)

E.B. Bartels and Karen Fine met last summer and realized they have a lot in common: both drive bumper-sticker-covered Subarus, both published with nautical-themed imprints––and both faced obstacles getting their death-heavy books into the world.

Karen Fine: When I was querying The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality, I had many literary agents request material and come back with “too much death.” Eventually, I worked with an editor (Allison K Williams, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor!) who helped me reorganize the manuscript and trim some sad parts that didn’t add to the overall narrative. An agent who had asked me to revise and resubmit loved the changes and offered representation. What obstacles did you encounter when you were trying to place your book?

E.B. Bartels (photo: Small Circle Studio)

E. B. Bartels: I also had the “too much death” problem––which was hard when the book is about death. When I was querying agents and later editors, the feedback I got was: “If people love animals, why would they want to read about animals dying?” Meanwhile, when I talked to friends, family, random people I met, about what I was writing, people got excited. They told me how much they wished they had a book like this when their pets died, and then would tell me about every pet they’d ever had and how that pet died. It was a confusing disconnect between what publishing thought the market was and what the market actually was.

KF: I wrote my book in part because I felt that people could benefit from knowing more about a veterinarian’s experiences with the loss of both my patients and my own animals. Did you feel a similar need to write about this taboo topic, to help people gain a greater understanding of death and grief?

EB: Definitely. I wrote Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter because I wanted to have a greater understanding of death and grief, and I feel like a lot of people are also hungry to have that understanding. Whenever I brought the subject up, people really wanted to talk about it. I was giving them the okay to share all these feelings they’d had no outlet for before. After so many of the interviews I did for my book––even the really hard ones with a lot of tears––people would say, “I am so glad I got to talk about this.” I think American culture is closed off from talking about grief and death in general, and even more so about disenfranchised types of grief, like the death of a pet or a miscarriage.

KF: Your book was such an enjoyable read; I feel as though the title says it all – grief can be pure and loving. How did you come up with your title?

EB: I was inspired by one of the most famous human-pet relationships in pop culture––Snoopy and Charlie Brown. I also liked the exasperated tone because it mirrors the frustration around pets: good grief why do we keep doing this to ourselves if they’re only going to die in the end?  No one forces us to fall in love with these adorable, loving, kind creatures only to have them die on us, ten to fifteen years later. But having pets is such a good thing it makes the grief worth it––thus Good Grief.

KF: What kind of feedback have you been getting from readers?

EB: I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have thanked me for this book––saying it brought them closure and comfort thinking about pet deaths that happened decades ago. People have also been excited to share their own pet memories and stories, so much so that I started an Instagram account for the book to post them all. I like to think of it as a virtual pet cemetery.

KF: Your book has an interesting structure which worked so well for the subject matter – as a new writer, it’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. How did you decide how to organize the book?

EB: Each chapter starts with one of my own personal pet stories, and then I move into reporting on a specific element of pet death. I wanted to blend the personal with the researched because that’s my favorite kind of nonfiction to read (like Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui or On Immunity by Eula Biss), but also because I found when doing interviews, people were faster to open up when I shared my own experiences first. Talking about your feelings about pet death is scary, and it’s easier to do when you know you’re talking to someone who gets it. I like to think of my pet death stories as an offering to the reader––a way of saying I’ve been there too, you’re not alone.

KF: You’re ahead of me in the publishing journey; my book’s release is March 14, 2023. What advice do you have for me?

EB: As I am currently battling a miserable cold after doing book events nonstop for three months, my advice is to take care of yourself! Get sleep, spend time doing non-book-promo-related things, drink lots of fluids, and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint. Especially for books like ours about evergreen topics. Don’t buy into the hype that you have your three weeks and then the publishing cycle moves on. People are always going to have pets, and those pets are, unfortunately, always going to die.


E.B. Bartels holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Toast, and The Butter, among others. She is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter (Mariner). E.B. lives in Massachusetts, with her husband, Richie, and their many, many pets. Find her at www.ebbartels.com, on Twitter @eb_bartels, or on Instagram @goodgriefpetsbook


Dr. Karen Fine is a holistic veterinarian who writes about the human-animal bond, holistic veterinary medicine, pet loss, grief, and narrative medicine. Her memoir, The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality (Anchor/Penguin Random House) will be published in March 2023. She co-edits Reflections, a digital journal on Veterinary Narrative Medicine, and has written for Bark Magazine and Inside Your Cat’s Mind. Find her at www.karenfinedvm.com.

Sometimes Ted Lasso Isn’t Enough

April 14, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Lynn Haraldson

A few months ago, my partner and I were sitting at the workbench in his garage, sharing a beer and talking about nothing in particular, when a 1970s Cheap Trick song, “Voices,” came on the radio. I was humming along until, halfway through, a lyric stopped me cold. I looked over at the man I’ve been with for nine years—now paging through a Polaris catalog—and thought, Oh no! I’m in love with someone else!

In the many years since my husband died, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in grief. When I started writing a memoir a few years ago about my experiences in the aftermath of his death, I knew I couldn’t write from a detached place. I planned ahead and established supports—my therapist on speed dial, Ted Lasso on the DVR— for those times when grief got overwhelming.

But it wasn’t grief that prompted a writing timeout. “Voices” made me realize that—while I’d never stopped loving my husband—I’d fallen in love with him again, on the page. And that, I decided, was a problem.

Sometime during the third or fourth round of edits, when I went deeper into my past in search of the tiniest details, the ones that prick the heart and make a scene more intimate, I’d added more physical details about my husband’s body, and the ways and times we danced, laughed, slept, showered, and made love. It was often emotionally difficult to write, as I expected it would be. It also reignited feelings I haven’t felt for him in a very long time.

I thought if I listened to “Voices” few more times, the feeling would go away, like when you rub a sore muscle and it relaxes. I found the video on YouTube, but as I sang along, the harder seventeen-year-old Me fell for the farmer boy who would become my husband.

I shouldn’t feel this way! I told myself, even though it was the same phrase that—for decades after his death—kept me from grieving at all, or at least grieving productively, openly, and honestly.

Guilt tagged along, and I felt like I was cheating on both my partner and my memoir. How could I stay true to my partner and to my central theme of normalizing grief, without saccharine, starry-eyed in-loveness screwing everything up?

I needed supports beyond Ted and my therapist. First, I opened my dog-eared copy of Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief:

This is how the AfterGrief tends to show up…A random site or sound or smell pushes a memory up to the surface, and time does it’s funky little twitch. The future pulls back and the distant past rushes up close, both compressing into the present. Then is now and now is then, and later ceases to exist. The images are dazzling in their clarity. If I’d known they were coming today, I might have planned better.

Ah…so instead of identifying the song as a sensory trigger and letting it be what it was, I immediately jumped to, “This is bad!” OK, got it!

I went to Megan Devine’s website, Refuge in Grief: “Beauty doesn’t so much fix anything as it creates more space in your heart.”

Had I learned so much about grief that I forgot how it intersects with love? Love is beauty! I took a deep breath and indulged the in love, and let it sit in my heart in all its bubblegum gooiness. It was…lovely. Love and grief intertwined like helixes, rotating in unison, one strand no less than the other.

After addressing the what and why of this love feeling, I addressed my memoir as a writer. I opened Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book and reread “Memoir: Character” to remind myself not to turn my late husband into a “Mary Sue”—a too-amazing, too-special character, too good to be true. To make my late husband—and our relationship—real for readers, I must include—along with love—moments of vulnerability and conflict, to show, rather than tell, the story of our life together in all its messy stickiness.

I could do that.

Just when I thought I’d earned that Ph.D in grief, I had to relearn that feelings aren’t bad guys. If I feel guilty or tell myself to “get over” a feeling, then it’s me, not my feelings, creating the problem. Feelings—the good and the ugly—give authenticity to writing. Blame, guilt, and “shouldn’ts” contribute nothing. In the next draft, I faced my feelings, and—after a generous break and offering kindness to my experience—let my words do the rest.

P.S. When I told my partner I was in love with my late husband, he hugged me and said, “Yeah, I’ve known that since I met you.” Hunh…

Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. Her memoir, An Obesity of Grief, is currently in the hands of the query gods. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. She writes at LynnHaraldson.com and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @ZenBagLady.

I’m Ready to Admit I Haven’t Read The Year of Magical Thinking

February 11, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Catherine Lanser

I consider myself a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve been reading and studying the form for more than 10 years, but until recently, I was hiding a secret. I had never read much Joan Didion.

My Good Reads list says I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking in 2009 but quit after a few pages. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Her dense writing made me feel self-conscious, as if I wasn’t good enough, the same way a woman I used to volunteer for did.

“Evelyn” was the head of an educational nonprofit, and I was helping her lay out her quarterly magazine. She dropped names of people in her movement and at the local university in the same way I thought Didion would. Evelyn’s large sunglasses and smart matching suits with twin sets looked very 1960s to my 1990s eyes and similar to Didion’s favored clothing on publicity photos.

It had been years since I snuck over to Evelyn’s house to drop off the last proofs at her doorstep. I thought of her when I saw her obituary in 2021 and again this fall, a few months before Didion’s death, when I finally read the book. 

This time, after struggling through the opening pages, which describe how the first lines were drafted, I continued on. Now older and married, I did have something in common with the author.

I had almost lost my spouse to a heart attack only three years after we were married in 2014. At 47, he was three years older than his father had been when he had his first heart attack. Her text still felt heavy but I continued reading.

Since 2009 I’ve read nearly every memoir about death, illness and grieving as I wrote my manuscript about my father’s stroke and my brain tumor. Though Didion was bereft at the loss of her husband John, I could think of a stack of books that felt more heartbreaking. 

The lines I highlighted are clinical and focused. Didion tells us she wrote the book not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death. She explains how words, which she has used her whole life to find meaning, failed her following John’s death. As the title suggests she begins to think like a child does, as if she can change the course of time and bring him back with her actions.

I think about Evelyn. During the time we worked together her husband faced and lost a battle with cancer. When I saw Evelyn months after the funeral in her home, his sweater remained draped over the back of the desk chair where it had always been. Over the remaining time I worked with Evelyn, the sweater never moved as if he might put it on at any minute. I compared it to my mother who cleaned out my dad’s closet, removing nearly everything in the five days between his death and the funeral. Didion talks about giving away her husband’s clothes but keeping his shoes because he would need them should he return. 

I had practiced this sort of magical thinking in my life during my illness. First as a teen, when I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone about the “spells” I had I could make them go away. Hiding them for eight years I imagined the other diseases they might be, such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but still told no one.  

I also practiced this outcome-based imagination after I learned the spells were seizures caused by a brain tumor. When my dad suffered a stroke only a few years after my brain surgery to remove a tumor from my temporal lobe I wondered if it was my fault for not being thankful enough for surviving.

While Didion’s prose didn’t necessarily feel sad, she made me feel emotions I hadn’t in reading other memoirs. Near the end of the book I’ve circled large paragraphs of text and scribbled notes between the line breaks. As I read it now, my heart catches.

She quotes the Episcopal litany: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” About a half page down she repeats the line and I have underlined the last three words, “world without end.”

Didion describes how she found this line as an antidote to meaninglessness as a child by interpreting it as a description of how the world’s geographic structures were always changing.

I remember this childhood prayer as a Catholic prayer I would say before I went to sleep.  I began to recite it one night when I was about seven. I thought the lines would bring me comfort when I could not sleep. Instead, they left me in a state of terror.

As I said the words, I felt myself flying out from my body until I could see the endless universe of blackness surrounding me. It was the first time I understood death and eternity. Only later, did I learn that the out-of-body experience I felt could have been related to the temporal lobe seizures and migraines I soon began to have.

Didion thinks about this line as she contemplates the “unending absence” of grief. Again, she finds some comfort, finding that they mean we must let the dead go. As nature keeps on changing so do we.

I have thought about the place where my tumor was in my brain as the absence. It has remained a solid grey spot of unchanging size among the folds of my brain for almost 30 years. My cells die and are reborn. My brain reroutes and learns but this spot cannot grow. 

Still, somehow, I do. I am not the same person I was when I hid my seizures. Or that didn’t know how to act around Evelyn. I am not the person who tried to read this book in 2009. I can admit that now. 

Catherine Lanser is a writer from Wisconsin who is working on her memoir. She has been published in Ruminate, Essay Daily, and many anthologies. @catherinelanser

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