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.