Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Memoir Cover: First Peek (Happy Birthday, Dad)

Today would have been my father’s 91st birthday. What do you give a man who, in life, said he never needed anything? How about his photo on a book cover?

I’m pleased that today of all days, I can show you the cover of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss.

That’s Dad strolling along the edge, doing something he loved—walking and observing the world around him. He’s on Newport Beach in Southern California, a moment captured during a 1997 trip. Everyone else—my mother, husband, and child—was elsewhere, and he’d offered to stay with me on the beach, the only place I found comfort that summer: I was pregnant and fighting off all-day nausea, vertigo, and an odd aversion to air conditioning.

I was content to sit in the sand, relief washing in on every ocean breeze, and was not in a mood to talk. Dad was typically taciturn and, as usual, only able to sit for a few minutes before he began walking, back and forth along a quarter mile of beach—but always within eyesight. I remember his glancing back every few steps to check on me.

I’m biased of course, but I think the art department at University of Nevada Press did a terrific job. I love the cover for the way it treats light and balance, color and feeling. But I also love it for the way he is halfway-off-the-frame, and in a kind of slow motion; that captures something the story inside tries to tell—about the way he proffered protection, punctuated by our mutual tendency to always be moving near one another, but never fully.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Hope you like the gift.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- October 13, 2017 Edition

> A fan of Ove Knausgaard? Watch his keynote lecture, "Why I Write,"  given last month at the Windham-Campbell Prizes at Yale.

> My former student, current friend and colleague Ryder Ziebarth, with wise words about fewer words, over at Brevity's blog.

> Speaking of eliminating needless words, at Hunger Mountain, Pam Houston talks (quite briefly!) about how weeding out "widows" sharpened prose in her new book (and if you're even a little bit of an old-time-journalism-lover, you get this).

> At a literary journal blog, I like good questions but shortish interviews, like this one at Barnstorm with Devin Murphy on his debut novel, The Boat Runner.

> But on the radio (or podcast), I prefer a longish ramble, like when Leonard Lopate, on WNYC, talked with Jennifer Egan about her new novel Manhattan Beach, (and a little of what she likes and doesn't like about how long it takes to write her books).

> It was fun to be interviewed, along with several other memoirists, in Andrea Jarrell's reported essay, "Shaping a Memoir from Essays" on the Proximity blog.

> I'm beginning my long-range book marketing/PR planning (six months and two weeks till launch day), so I'm bookmarking articles like this one at SheWrites, with 30 tips (mostly for indie authors, but plenty are useful for all authors).

> Finally, all that great advice about how to get the writing done when you have a job, kids, blah blah? One advice-giver admits, it's harder to follow than dole out.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Writer Gatherings: Planning Way Ahead and Afar, and also Right Here in Good Ole New Jersey

This week, I'm spending time wrestling a few proposal/ applications to events I hope to participate in next spring, summer, and fall. Typing "2018" so many times has me thinking about how quickly time moves, and sending these missives off (to conferences, book festivals, and the like) to far-flung locations also reminds me that much sooner, and much closer, I've got a few things percolating right here in my home state.

So, this one's for my New Jersey (and nearby) writing friends, a quick note about two upcoming events that might be of interest: staying still...and getting things in motion.

When it comes to getting things in motion, I'm talking about moving your work out into the world. Summoning up the courage and pressing SEND, to take all that fine writing and yank it out from your computer and on its way. To see what happens when you submit your writing. When you venture closer toward the great big world of getting published, whether for you that means an essay or short story in a journal or on a website you like, an article in the local paper, or your book manuscript on a shelf. Some days, it's all about faking confidence and saying what the hell. But first, you need tools, resources, tips, and tricks.

This weekend, I'll be presenting a two-hour program, "Ready, Set, Submit" with The Writers Circle in their Summit location. It's part lesson, part practice, and all brass tacks. If you're here at the blog often, you already know that I'm a no-B.S. person: I'll give it to you straight--and equip you with what you need to build and maintain a submission strategy.

This one's coming up quickly, but we still have a few slots left. Join me Sunday afternoon, October 8. Get all the details here.

Next up for Jersey writers: staying still on the page...well at least long enough to bring to your creative nonfiction work a strong sense of place, of where your story takes place, of setting and context surrounding where it all happens. 

Along with the new Cedar Ridge Writers Series, I'll be working with about 12 writers at -- where else? -- a stunning location for this event: Cedar Ridge Farms in gorgeous Somerset County. There, our senses will be stimulated as we work inside a spacious renovated farmhouse, outside among glorious fields and gardens, all the while thinking about and writing the physical world into memoir, essay, and other forms of CNF.

It's a full day to explore an aspect of craft and story that goes way beyond description, in the company of a small group of like-minded writers.

The one-day intensive/workshop takes place on November 4. Get all the details here.

Questions? Email me!

Hope to see you at one of these...or something else in the future. I love meeting my blog readers in person!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Memoir Book Report -- Part IV: Title Roulette

This is the fourth in a series following my memoir as it moves from manuscript to published book. You can find the other installments here.

At a conference, I gave a short presentation, "I'll Take Titles for a Thousand, Alex,about creative titles for individual essays, short memoir pieces mostly, or chapters/essays in a book of creative nonfiction. I enjoy writing titles, though I'm aware many writers would willingly shred and rewrite dozens of pages rather than deal with titles. (We each are odd in our own ways!) I purposely limited my talk to short works, because except for making suggestions for the titles of a few clients' books, that's where my expertise lay.

But now I have one notch in the book title bedpost.

My memoir—to be published in May 2018 by University of Nevada Press—has a title: 

Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss

Phew. That only took three months, a hivemind of writer friends, the pros at the publisher, my agent, and hours of my time, buckets of anxiety-induced sweat, and way too many lists scrawled on a dozen or so yellow legal sheets. 

Here's how we got to the very best title for this book.

First, following my own advice, I always have a working title for anything I’m writing. So I had one, right from the beginning. Sort of. But it's hard to say, because when did the book begin? With the first pages I wrote about what happened to me after my father's death? That essay was titled "Two Weeks in Vegas,” and told the story of the time I spent in Las Vegas with my mother, beginning the morning after Dad died. But I didn't know then that piece would lead to a book. So that wasn't the first working title for the manuscript.

Six years later, with a dozen or so additional essays in hand, I began to think it might be a book of linked essays, and I typed this working title on page one: Father Figure. I soon realized this wasn't right, perhaps implying he wasn't a real father, or that it was about someone else.

Meanwhile, woven into the evolution of the title is the larger evolution of the book itself. As a memoir-in-linked-essays, I got great feedback on the writing, but a handful of publishers, a book coach, and trusted beta readers (writer friends) all said: transform the essays into a more traditional narrative memoir. I grumbled, procrastinated, and then finally I did it. (More on this process in a future Memoir Book Report post.)

As I rewrote and began to see the narrative arc emerging, I tossed out the working title. And another. When the new manuscript was ready, I began brainstorming title ideas, and landed on yet another working title, The Father and Daughter Reunion.

Right away, I knew I needed a subtitle—common in memoir not only to lure readers, but to give readers, booksellers, librarians, and others in the book world important hints about the story.

Back to the lists, where three word groups jumped out: "a love story," "a ghost story," and "a loss story." Because my father and I have "conversations" after his death, and because I came to know and love him better then too, I wanted to incorporate these ideas. And so I came up with the subtitle Every Loss Story is a Love Story.

Many people liked this subtitle (and even suggested it as a title) because it was lyrical, slightly mysterious, with nice rhythm. It sounded familiar but also new and surprising. But there were two problems: First, it too closely echoed the title of D. T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace: "Every Ghost Story is a Love Story,” a book I’d read with great interest. Though it’s a phrase Wallace used, it didn't originate with him (which Max detailed in a New Yorker article), many readers would link it to Wallace.

The other problem was that, taken literally, that subtitle wouldn’t resonate for readers who have had different experiences with the connection between loss and love. I knew I’d be changing it, eventually.

Yet, coupled with The Father and Daughter Reunion, that was the subtitle when the University of Nevada Press acquired the book in March of this year. Early editorial feedback mirrored my own gut feeling: we needed a new title. I was ready. Sort of.

First, I went looking for inspiration inside the manuscript, searching phrases, themes, objects, chapter titles, dialogue. Next, I looked at poems about grief. I wrote and wrote titles and subtitles, filling pages. Then I culled the lists, spent time on Amazon checking for books with too-similar titles, and on Google, checking for...well you never know what, do you?

I reached out to trusted writer friends, some who’ve published memoirs, some who hadn’t; all whip-smart and able to consider both marketing issues and literary concerns. I added friends who buy books by the boatload. And my family.

I gave them—as well as my agent—14 possible titles, and 11 potential subtitles—disconnected from one another, in random order. I wanted to see what titles they thought matched which subtitles. I also asked for original ideas, and had lots of fun—and pulled out a bunch of hair—sorting through the responses.

At the same time, the publishers’ editorial and marketing teams were shuffling possibilities too. While I was fretting and spinning, my agent—who can instantly clarify for me things I’m naturally inclined to make overly complicated—helped me see the value in considering not only the lyrical, literary, dreamy, poetic titles I tend to gravitate to, but also more straightforward options. This was good advice. The lists grew. And narrowed.

Finally, a deadline loomed, and I sent off my suggestions to the publisher—ten possible titles and seven subtitle candidates. Then I waited. And kept replaying the list in my head, questioning everything I had and had not considered, admonishing myself for not including more of the titles still on those yellow sheets. A few days later my email pinged with my final title. And I relaxed.

Right away, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, felt right. It struck me, my agent, my family and friends, as intuitively on-target.

Right away, I started coaxing my fingers around the new keyboard combination, wanting to immediately get quicker at typing it, wanting to feel it flow from my fingertips, as if I’d been typing it forever.

And now I can’t imagine having anything else on the book cover. Speaking of covers…I got a glimpse of the art last week. But that’s another blog post.

Find the rest of the Memoir Book Reports here. If you're interested in seeing the slides that accompanied my presentation about titles for short works (at the HippoCamp conference), go here.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- September 22, 2017 Edition

> It's book award season, and over at the PBS NewsHour site, we can watch and listen in as "National Book Award Nominees Share their Advice on Books, Fear, and Love."

> Meant to post this a few weeks back: one of my favorite authors, Roger Rosenblatt, with an insightful essay in the New York Times on "The Invisible Forces that Make Writing Work." 

> Speaking of favorite writers, here are two more of my crushes -- Elizabeth Alexander and Atul Gawande in conversation on the New York Public Library podcast (#182).

> Carolyn Howard-Johnson has advice on "Making the Most of Writers' Conferences" at the BookBaby Blog.

> Who knew there is a Book Signing and Event Directory, to track book tours of authors you want to see? I haven't had a chance to explore the site yet, but just the idea is intriguing.

> Finally, what's not to like about reading a book or two while at sea? How about thousands of books on the world's largest floating bookstore? (h/t @KateWhouley)

Have a great weekend!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Guest Blogger Pam Lobley on How She Wrote a Parenting Book Without Really Meaning To

I met fellow New Jersey writer Pam Lobley when we were paired together on a panel at a book festival this past summer. Pam has been a humor columnist for The Bergen Record, one of the state’s largest newspapers, and for three years she wrote the “Now That’s Funny” column for (now defunct) New Jersey Newsroom. She has also written for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Today.com, Huffington Post, BlogHer, Sammichespsychmeds.com, Carolina Parent and others.

Please welcome Pam Lobley

It was a rainy day in March. I was sifting through a stack of signup sheets for summer activities for my kids. My two boys were eight and ten at the time, and I usually planned plenty of summer activities to keep them busy. But we were already so frantic and over-scheduled that I couldn’t imagine signing them up for anything. 

I asked my friend Jane what her kids were going to do. Jane, obviously feeling just as overwhelmed, snapped, “Nothing! We’re having a summer from the 1950s.”

Wow! That sounded like just what we needed, too. An old-fashioned summer with no plans at all. We did it, I wrote a book about it (of course), and then I began to shop the book around.

To me the most interesting aspect of my memoir was the juxtaposition between the  “ideal” 1950s image of a relaxed summer for both kids and parents, and our current frantic, stressed-out family lifestyle of summer days packed with tightly organized classes and programs, and me in the car all day ferrying kids to and fro. I read quite a bit about 1950s family life and laced the book with insights from my research. I even had some very funny quotes from 1950’s magazine ads:

 In this friendly, freedom-loving land of ours … Beer Belongs – Enjoy It!
                                                    1955 United State Brewers Foundation

Learning about 1950s family life–the bad and the good–gave me a huge dose of perspective on my own outlook, and in the book, I wrote about how it changed me, and the ways it seemed my kids had also benefited. My working title was “A Summer from the 1950s.”

I got an agent who loved the idea but after a rewrite, the feedback from publishers was that the title sounded like the story of my grandmother’s summer, which appealed to no one. We needed a new title, and I knew it had to resonate with stressed-out modern moms. After weeks of thinking it through, Why Can't We Just Play? What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy was born.

The book sold to a publisher whose focus is creating books that help families be happy. This thrilled me because that’s exactly what I felt I was doing – writing a memoir that would help other moms be happier by adopting a less frenetic family summer.

But now the agent and the publisher began to see my story as a parenting book. Maybe this was obvious to everyone else,  but came as a surprise to me. I thought parenting books were books by people who were bona fide parenting experts. I was not a therapist or teacher or doctor - just a mom who had a certain type of experience, and wanted to pass it on.

What they understood is that just because a book is on the parenting shelf at the bookstore, it doesn’t have to be advice from an expert; it can also be adventures in parenting: stories, personal insights, lessons learned. Why Can’t We Just Play? fits that description exactly. In addition, it portrays a strong viewpoint,  namely that kids simply need more time to play without instruction, guidance, organization, or adult expectations. Free play is vital for good childhood development, and it is getting increasingly squeezed out of kids’ lives. That viewpoint gave us a strong marketing angle.  

Treating my book as a parenting book rather than a memoir also made it much easier to market after it was published. When I do a podcast or write a column, I can talk about a variety of childhood issues: overscheduling, down time, recess, screen time, signs of stress in kids, or the ways that free play teaches kids independence. I have many different angles to discuss – all of which can lead back to the book but stand on their own as interesting topics apart from my personal experience. An author constantly needs to find new ways to talk about their book as they try to sell it, so this is very beneficial.

As I shifted my vision of my book from memoir to parenting, I learned a bunch of things, including these:

- There must be a  “take-away”. Non-fiction books need a concise and readily accessible message. During rewrites, I had to hone in on what the reader would take away from my book.

- The title needs to be crystal clear in expressing the book’s message; being overly clever wouldn’t work. My original title, “A Summer from the 1950s” did nothing to give a potential reader the idea of my book.

- Trust the agent and  publisher. They understand  which aspects  will appeal the most to readers. All my favorite things -- the funny quotes, the historical insights, my sense of humor – they knew that these were the least interesting things to readers. When I talk to readers myself now, I see that they mostly relate to my feeling of overwhelm, and are interested in my struggle to slow down and give my kids more time to play. All of which I am very happy about; it’s just not how I originally viewed my memoir. I mean … my parenting book.

Because of my experience, I have gained a keen new appreciation for non-fiction books. Which is a good thing because my kids are older now, and I have a lot more material. Naturally, I’m working on my next parenting book. Hopefully I’ll get the title right the first time.

Learn more by visiting Pam’s website, or connecting on Twitter or Facebook.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- September 15, 2017 Edition

> This-just-in department: "House Votes to Save Library Funding, NEA and NEH" according to Publishers Weekly.

> As they mark their 10th anniversary, Fiction Writers Review is featuring interviews from the archives, including this one with Jesmyn Ward about "Getting the Sough Right" on the page.

> Speaking of Ward, her novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is on the 2017 National Book Award longlist.

> Bookish offers its Fall 2017 Nonfiction Book Preview. And now I need an eighth day in every week.

> Shelf Awareness reports how some Florida bookstores are getting back to business after Irma, and what one publisher is doing to help.

> Thomas E. Ricks tells the story of how his latest book was vastly improved during a long, thorough revision/rewriting process, after his editor trashed his initial manuscript.

> The WOW! Women on Writing newsletter features (and connects to) myriad topics of interest, including craft and technique, submission, publishing, and marketing issues facing writers. I'm pleased to be featured in the current issue in "Success Stories From You," amid so much other helpful information.

> Here's what's new in the just-published 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. (Or, as it's known in my house - Mom's Paperweight.)

> Wondering if the newish American Writers Museum in Chicago is worth a visit? Wonder no more.

> Finally -- We've all seen the article or blog post about how publishing a book is like birthing a baby or having kids (I even featured a guest post like that.) But the way Austin Gilkeson does it at The Rumpus in "Congratulations on Publishing Your First Baby" is an entirely new and fun take on the trope. Enjoy!

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Home from Hippocamp with a Bunch of Thoughts about Writers Conferences

I’ve begun, and put aside, several drafts of a wrap-up post about my time at Hippocamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, this past weekend. (I was both a speaker and attendee.)

Partly I hesitated because it’s getting more difficult to distill every good thing I want to say about my personal experience and history with this conference (which, since it began in 2015, has come to feel like a kind of home base). But also because I wanted my post-conference report to be something useful to any writer who happens upon it, regardless of genre, location, finances, or personal conference experiences, etc. 

During several periods in my writing life I attended no conferences, and other times I could get to just a few, dictated by a confluence of budget, geography, logistics, day-job demands, family logistics. When I could attend, I had to be picky. 

I came to understand that a conference will not make me a better writer or a more published writer by itself. But the right conference can helping make one into a writer who better knows how to identify, create, pursue, participate in, and evaluate the writing life, career, projects, and submission/publication plan that will work best for me, and make me happy.

So, I thought I’d offer this list, and hope it has some value for others. All these things line up for me with the Hippocamp conference, and by extension might help you pick conferences.

What makes a writing conference right:

. It directly, seriously, fully, and openly addresses, embraces, and celebrates the genre or category of writing most important to you. If you can find it, specialization rocks! One big reason I love Hippocamp is that it’s focused on CNF writing. Yes, I learn a lot at conferences that aren’t so specialized, but a hyper-focused event means you are with your tribe. Everything that happens, each break-out session, panel, reading, or other element is for folks who write what you write.

. Enough of what’s on offer is for writers at your skill and/or experience level. Yes, it’s good when some sessions push you to extend your reach; that’s good for learning what to aspire to. But do you want to spend all day, or most of many days, feeling either completely overwhelmed because you have no idea what the speakers are talking about, or bored and antsy because you already know and have mastered what’s being covered.

. The mix, intent, and focus of material jives with what you want and need now. Only craft-related sessions? Hands-on (“generative”) sessions? Lecture style only? Workshops (with feedback)? Presentations with opportunities for Q-and-A? Marketing/submission/querying skills?

. The size fits. I love a mid-sized conference best so I can make personal connections. Small to mid-sized events usually also foster casual, follow-up interactions with speakers and presenters at meals, breaks, and just wandering about the venue—another thing I like. (I do occasionally like a huge conference, but for very different reasons.)

. The conference organizers respect every attendee, and don’t play favorites. This is one of those intangibles that, for me, can make or break a conference experience. At Hippocamp for example, I’ve heard attendees describe the organizers in ways you might reserve for your favorite teacher, coach, or BFF: they listen, help, and care. Every person on the grounds is IN THE CLUB. (I’ve attended way too many conferences where some writers are made to feel inadequate and lesser-than because they don’t “have a book,” are not sufficiently well-connected, and find themselves feeling left out in an us-and-them kind of way.) At Hippocamp, the club is everyone in the room. Look for that.

. The fees make sense. Who wants to be someplace where you feel the conference is mostly interested in your wallet? I happen to like conference fees that also include meals, coffee, snacks and parking; offer hotel room discounts; and small goodies that make me feel welcome. If I can get that, and it also lines up with reasonable travel costs, I’m in. (Don’t go broke attending conferences.)

. Everything’s included, but there’s also an a-la-carte add-on menu. One year at Hippocamp, I paid for agent pitch sessions, other years not. Twice I took a pre-conference workshop. Choices like that can add value to your time away from home, and (for someone like me who likes to cram every hour with something useful), make the conference a more robust writerly experience.

. There’s a little bit of fun built right in. Door prizes? A casual open mic? Fun snacks? Optional, casual meal meet-ups for when it seems everyone else has made dining plans? We’re writers, not robots, and only some find it easy to organize themselves socially.

My door prize from Hippocamp!
. The conference encourages, and facilitates, continued learning beyond the time limit of each program element. I like to leave a session with something that I’ll consult later (besides my own notes) -- handouts, recommended links, the speaker’s email address or resource website, maybe something I’ve been urged to generate during the session. Even better if (as is the case with Hippocamp), I can find some speakers’ entire slide presentations on the conference website later. 

. There's a balance between too much and just enough. One day? Four days? Five break-out sessions running concurrently? Or 25 to choose from simultaneously? A crammed daily schedule or one with breaks and free (writing?) time built in? Each is likable for different reasons, by different writers. What do you like at a conference?

. The organizers want your feedback. Whether it’s a matter of listening sincerely to an in-person complaint or suggestion during the conference, or providing and urging attendees to fill out post-event surveys, I like it when speaking up about what didn’t go quite right, what was stellar, and what might be a good future addition (or deletion), feels welcomed.

I’m sure I’ve left something out. What do you love about, and look for in the conferences you attend? 

Images: Crowd illustration - Flickr/Creative Commons-openDemocracy; others, mine.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- September 8, 2017 Edition

> Need to scan old, perhaps not-great-condition photos for a writing project? Google has a new app that looks as if it might be the answer. I'm itching to try, and wish I'd known about it a few months ago when scanning pics for my forthcoming memoir. (h/t Simplemost)

> I loved this essay at the Woven Tale Press, in which Beth Kephart draws writing inspiration and insight from the painter Andrew Wyeth. (Well, of course I love it. I've admired Beth's writing for 20 years, and thanks to my own inspiration--via friend and writing supporter Christina Baker Kline (whose latest novel was inspired by Wyeth's most  famous subject) -- I visited Wyeth's Cushing, Maine painting base this summer).

> Congrats to the new "Debs" -- five authors, from different genres, whose books will all debut in 2018, and who will be taking readers along for the ride via frequent blog posts at The Debutante Ball. 

> Excellent tips for aspiring op-ed writers, from columnist Bret Stephens at The New York Times.

> Finally, buying your way onto the bestseller lists. And getting caught. Here's the long, gossipy, tweet-laden, multiply-updated story. And the shorter, concise version of how the New York Times reacted.

Have a great weekend!   (And if you happen to be spending it at the Hippocamp Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, please do say hi!)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Memoir Book Report – Part III: The Pitch Session that Changed Everything (even though it was "unsuccessful")

Third in a series following my memoir as it moves from manuscript to published book (May 2018). You can find the first two installments here.

I mentioned in the last post that I'd drop back now and then to glimpse what transpired before I knew my book had found its home. A lot happened before—some of it perhaps helpful to those currently seeking a publisher for a memoir (or any book, for that matter).

Dropping back to spring of 2016, one year exactly before I signed with University of Nevada Press, I began to query small traditional publishers who accept un-agented work—boutique literary publishers, some university presses; and I entered a few book manuscript contests.

Except for the contests, this meant I needed a compelling query/cover letter. That's where my background in public relations, and experience getting assignments for freelance articles helped—and also hindered me. It's one thing to be proficient at tooting the horn of a client, as PR pros do, and landing article assignments about topics that I'm interested in but that aren't as passionately close to my heart, as my memoir. It's quite another to evaluate, position, and pitch your own work—and harder still to separate one's writing self from one's memoir manuscript.

My first query/cover letter was good, but not great; a bit too workmanlike and overly focused on literary craft. I was, perhaps, trying to follow too much differing advice: mirror the voice of the book – give the full narrative scope as you would a novel – highlight the published excerpts – focus on author background and publishing history – sell the takeaway – emphasize the emotional arc. In the first six months, I got a handful of requests for opening chapters, and was long-listed for one contest. But no requests for the full manuscript.

I had an inkling I wasn't being my own best advocate. I was too close to the work and could not really see what to do differently. Mind you, I routinely help revise and edit others' query letters and synopses (many of which have led to publishing deals), but you know what they say about doctors who treat themselves (they have a fool for a patient!).

We all have blind spots, and it would turn out mine were labeled: (1) Thinking too small. (2) Thinking too much like a writer.

I attended a writers conference in fall of 2016 and—reluctantly but thinking why not—signed up for three slots in the agent pitch sessions. Faced with a strict five minutes to interest them in my manuscript and answer their questions--across a tiny round table, with 20 other tiny round table pitching conversations happening in the room--I had to frame my story in a compelling way that cut through the noise and what I can only imagine is the mental exhaustion agents experience in such a setting.

Did I mention that I love talking to new people, listening, and learning from them?

The first two were polite and seemingly enthusiastic, asking me to send them chapters. Just as important, I was able to see—on their faces, in their body language, the way they moved their gaze from me to my pages—and to hear—in their tone of voice, pauses, inflection—which of my words, descriptions, phrasing, and focal points were resonating. And which were falling flat.

But the third agent delivered the true value of those 15 minutes. He prompted me to re-evaluate how I was thinking about my book and how I'd been positioning it when querying. He listened to my initial 45-second spiel, asked a question or two, skimmed the first few pages (we'd been instructed to bring along).

Then he said something like this: Let's assume it's a given that your work is beautifully written, well structured, highly polished. I’m not your MFA mentor; you don't have to convince me you're a good writer. I want you to tell me who your ideal reader is and why they will want to read this instead of a bunch of other books. Tell me why your book would interest someone who is not in the literary world. What might this memoir mean to someone you don't know? What's the message? Think big.

Wouldn’t most writers have wanted an hour to draft, revise, and rewrite something in response to that? But he was waiting for me to reply, then and there, across that tiny table, in that buzzing room. For maybe the first time, I allowed myself to imagine my manuscript as a finished book, one that deserved space on a bookstore shelf, a book that went way beyond little old me telling my story. A book with bigger sweep. With something to say to strangers, something of value.

After I finished talking for a minute or so (rambling, more like), he smiled and said, That's more like it. Now I'm interested.

This two-minute exchange changed everything.

It shifted my thinking back to my early PR days. Now I was the client with a product to publicize. What makes this client's product (book) not only great, but preferable to others? What—in sales terms—is the (book's) Unique Selling Proposition? Why this product (book) and not another one?

I had been thinking of, and perhaps positioning the manuscript as a creative project, entirely me-driven—which is how one must think of a manuscript while writing it—instead of a book, one of many competing for attention of readers. It now had to stand out as something completely separate from me, separate from my writing brain, my personal life, even from my reasons for writing it.

When I left the pitch session, I found a quiet spot in the hotel lobby, pulled out my computer and wrote an entirely new query letter. There would be six more months of querying, but those were dotted frequently with requests for chapters, and, in the end, five requests for the full manuscript.

Although it was an in-person unplanned meeting—during which I talked about my book—with the director of my future publisher (and not my revised query letter) that led to the offer I'd accept (I eventually had two offers), I credit that agent I met in a nerve-wracking pitch session six months before, for setting me in motion on a new track. His challenge that day changed the way I thought about, and talked about, my book. And that changed everything.

Other posts in the series – Part I (Contract signing, waiting period; working with a university press); Part II (Final manuscript revisions). 

You can find tips on preparing for pitch sessions at this post from Susan Breen

Images: Flickr/CreativeCommons -- Heart-shaped book pages (TimGeers); Conversation silhouette (TerenceChang/Peautlen); 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- August 25, 2017 Edition

> Flesh out your fictional characters by thinking of them as...horses? Yes, says Roz Morris.

> This Quartz piece's stance is a bit strident, but I do agree that sometimes talking, talking, talking about writing projects can often drain them of creative energy. 

> Indivisible and the Op-Ed Project offer some tips and guidelines for writing editorial advocacy materials (scroll down).

> Literary journals open and close to submissions according to predictable--and often unpredictable--schedules. AuthorsPublish offers this list of journals that are always open.

> Ever have someone scrawl in the margins of your work: Head Hopping! or POV shift? ...and not be precisely sure what this means or how to avoid it? Here's a primer.

> Brag Box Times Two: 
           Since I'm already partial to stories in which the weather is a kind of character, that makes this flash piece, written by my former MFA student Bethany Petano, twice as nice.
           Many congratulations to my former client Kathryn Sollmann, on her book contract with Hachette for Ambition Redefined: Creating Lifetime Security (Without Neglecting Your Family or Yourself) in a More Flexible Workplace. It was a pleasure working with Kathryn on the book proposal that helped her land the agent who sold her book! 

> Finally, you have until August 26 to leave a comment on Melissa Palmer's guest post and maybe snag a complimentary copy of one of her books.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Author Interview with Carol Smallwood on her new poetry book, Prisms, Particles, and Refractions

As part of my MFA research thesis, I interviewed a dozen women memoir writers, and had enough overflow information to write several essays and articles, two of which appeared in Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012). Carol Smallwood co-edited that book, has edited or co-edited several dozen other anthologies and collections, and has written six books of her own poetry. The latest is Prisms, Particles, and Refractions (Finishing Line Press). I read the galley the day of the solar eclipse, awaiting the sky to darken during a bright New Jersey afternoon, which felt right: the timing, the way the light was shifting in my office, what the poems have to say about light. Carol agreed to answer my nosy questions.

LR: As is the case for many poetry books, many poems were first published in journals and websites, over several years. When / how in the course of writing single poems, and seeing some published, do you get a sense of what belongs together in a collection/book?

CS: It is very fitting you asked questions about light on the long anticipated solar eclipse day! After several have been published, one gets an overview on what works and I can see a theme. The new collection I’m compiling now came about from one its poems being in the Thirteenth Annual International Ultra-Short Competition (sponsored by The Binnacle at The University of Maine at Machias: Honorable Mention Ultra-Short Edition 2016). The poem, “We Select”  became the Prologue to A Matter of Selection dealing with making choices, selections.

LR: In the Foreword, Lisa Zaran praises your book for "its vision and identification of darkness". Your Introduction says that your poems are "aimed at capturing some of the aspects of light—light that our eyes detect and light also as metaphor." Can you talk about the inspiration, opposites, and influences of light and dark on your writing?

CS: Poetry with me begins with a clash,  or what is called in creative writing classes: juxtaposition. And of course metaphor is vital also so the theme of light is one full of application.  How we see has always fascinated me especially since taking a college class which examined rods and cones in vision.

LR: One of my favorites is "Cuttlefish" because it asks a reader to consider things that aren't typically thought of together – fish, underwater darkness, light, bioluminescence, being able to change one's body. Can you comment on where this poem came from, and what you like about it as its author?

survive by matching their
environment, changing the
color and texture of skin
in a blink of W-shaped
pupil eyes; they dazzle
with light patterns like
some marquee—if that
doesn’t work, they exit
in an inky cloud

CS: This poem was in my first chapbook to be published: On the Way to Wendy’s (Pudding House Publications,  2008). It came from watching a science program on PBS because how they managed to survive was so amazing.

LR: As I read, I was continually reminded of how much depends on light or its lack, how emotions are tied to visual light cues: everything from lacework and its openings that let in light; the light between snow as it falls; the technical upside-down qualities of human vision; the sun, stars, black holes. I'm curious if light is something you have always observed? After writing so much about it, are you still seeing the world as light? Or does that keen focus wane after the themed poetry collection is complete?

CS: You covered the light cues very well, Lisa. I’ve not even scratched the surface about understanding light and it continues to be something to wonder about; its implications with us are unending. My interest in light perhaps began with a professor having us write questions we wanted to know in a freshman psychology class. He really liked my light questions which reinforced my interest.

LR: I wondered if "Live With It"—a poem about experiencing a seemingly permanent jagged black lightning bolt across the vision in one eye—was perhaps autobiographical and maybe a trigger for the light theme? Or am I just asking that awful question readers ask novelists about what parts of their fiction are "true"?

CS: The jagged lightning did happen (fortunately only once) but it wasn’t the beginning of my collection on light.

LR: When reading about light, one might expect to encounter gardens, the sun, the outdoors, space, etc. But other physical locations also repeat in several poems – the eye doctor's office, the library, Wendy's,  the hospital, Nicolet City, the deep ocean.  Intentional, or coincidence? What might a reader take away from those less expected settings?

CS: Usually my inspiration comes not far from what I literally see which is a tiny amount of course—each of us has their own worlds, settings, from which we see. I didn’t start writing poetry until years after editing anthologies largely for librarians as I was afraid it was beyond me after literature classes in grad school on classics like John Milton. After retiring from public schools, I wrote a novel and feeling I had nothing to lose after that rough learning experience, tried poetry which was as if jumping off a cliff (had no idea if it was good or bad) and was amazed when I began getting journal acceptances. Writing poetry and editing at the same time provides a good balance for me.

LR: There's an interesting mix of both free verse and formal poems, and some prose poetry. Is that how you write, alternating between forms? Do certain topics demand one specific form over another? Or is it the other way around: you want to write free verse, or you want to write something formal, and so then cast about for a story to tell in that particular way?

CS:  A few days ago I tried writing about Sirius, and The Big Dipper, as triolets and villanelles but what I wanted to convey wouldn’t fit the rhyme schemes so will have to try free verse or maybe a  pantoum, sestina, cinquain, or others. What I saved  trying to write them hopefully will be of use yet.

Learn more about Carol by visiting her page at Poets & Writers, and browse her books here. Another interview with Carol is found over at Literary Mama.

Image: courtesy Carol Smallwood. "Cuddlefish" reprinted with permission.