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.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Art of Waiting while Writing...Writing while Waiting

Often, writers chat about The Art of Waiting (Waiting, not Writing). Only we don't call it that. We call it, "Why the hell isn't that editor/ agent/publisher/whoever getting back to me?" Or, "It's been X days/weeks/months, so he/she/they must hate my essay/poem/ manuscript/idea." 

Sometimes, the fine Art of Waiting sounds like "F*#k it, I give up."

We have better days, when we act like artists and sensitive souls and try to convince our skeptical selves that all is well.

My father used to say (before cheap long distance, cell phones, and 24-hour news): No news is good news. If he didn't hear from a child who was traveling, on a date, or away at college, he'd assume no planes crashed, the young man was behaving, and no one was flunking out.

I'm rarely that Zen, so I typically wait with nerves jangling, the "dead in a ditch" tape on continuous loop in my head until my kid texts me back.

As a writer, I've learned to wait. And not assume the worst. Usually. Until I decide—based on nothing but a quiet email inbox—that my work, or I, have been found wanting, or forgotten. But then I have an extra busy day myself, notice that I haven't even replied to a text from a close friend, and decide that perhaps the news I'm waiting for is being handled by a similarly busy person. Or that the wait is taking precisely as long as it has should. Still, I worry as I wait.

This past spring, I had to wait for some of the most important news of my writing life, and as the calendar plodded on, I noticed a call for submission on the theme of "Waiting and Motherhood." There's nothing better for a writer who's waiting than to stay busy…writing.

What came to the page—titled, "From Boys to Men," in the lovely online magazine Motherwell—is an essay I love. It traces the most critical wait of a mother's life: those twenty-ish  years while we wait to see if our handiwork yields the desired result: a mature (okay, mostly mature) adult child that, unlike the first pancake, turns out just fine. Great, in fact.

I love writing essays in the second person, which is what I did here; the prose seemed to materialize on the page that way and the POV seemed right from the start. I thought it might be interesting reading at this time of year, as so many parents are sending their almost grown children off to college, again or for the first time.

Here’s an excerpt:
 "… First, you wait to conceive, wait for the fertility tests to reveal what flaws and whose, wait for the drugs to work, wait for that positive pregnancy test. You try to, but can’t describe the fearful waiting through a high risk pregnancy, the anxious waiting of prenatal testing, the watchful waiting for boy number one to blossom. Wait for the right time to have the second baby, wait after the miscarriage to try again, wait for that strangle-throated boy number two to leave the NICU.Wait. Hope. Pray. Wait.Two years later, you wait…"

You can read the whole (shortish) essay at Motherwell. And if you're inclined, you might share it from that page, as a few thousand folks already have. (This has NO affect on my bank account; it's just a nice thing to do if you think it's worthy, and I know the editors would love it. You can also check out the rest of the Motherhood and Waiting series.).

Meanwhile, if you are waiting for something—acceptances, something to get published, an agent requesting pages, a publisher offering a contract, admission into a writing workshop—I hope you are able to borrow Dad's advice. 

And maybe, write something else?

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- August 11, 2017 Edition

> Publishers Weekly reports that The Great American Read, to be broadcast on PBS next spring, will focus on how reading fits into American life, the top 100 American books, and other literary news, over eight episodes.

> When a much-loved author stops a book tour, citing a need to protect his mental health, as Sherman Alexie did, people notice. And some, like Melanie Brooks writing in Modern Loss, are applauding the strong message his action sends about the repercussions of writing about grief, the topic of Alexie's new memoir.

> Is the content of books getting more empathetic? An article in The Guardian, "Up lit: the new book trend with kindness at its core," says yes.

> Kind of odd and kind of cool. RecommendMeABook shows you the first page of a book without (at first) any author or title info.

> What happens when a self-designed writing retreat yields only blank pages? Mary Katherine Spain's intuitive post, "The Work," says that was just what she needed, after all.

> With so many reputable writing programs and workshops, any good writer should be able to find a spot. But what if you're a writer of a certain age who noticed that no one that age ever gets into your program of choice? Someone is suing the Iowa Writers Workshop.

> I've been exploring the (new-to-me) blog, Published to Death, where Erica Verrillo rounds up news, observations, book/writing marketing tips, submission calls, writing conference listings, and more.

> Finally, my emailed Summer Newsletter has been sent out. You can also read it online. And subscribe.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Guest Blogger Melissa Palmer on How Time is the Line Between Loving and Hating Her Own Book

Sometimes, one is matched up, by the organizers of a book festival, for a panel with other authors unknown to yourself. Usually, those panelists turn out to be rather terrific. That was the case when I was included on a panel at BooksNJ earlier this summer (Women's Perspective on Writing Memoir) and I met Melissa Palmer a few minutes before our panel got underway. A bonus was that she's also a New Jersey author, funny and smart, with books in several genres, including Baking for Dave (young adult novel, published 2016); A Life Less Normal (memoir, 2015); and Twin Oaks (literary fiction, 2014).

Please welcome Melissa Palmer

Last year I started a book I was so excited to write, my first horror novel. I love horror. It’s what I was raised on as a little baby writer. I love horror so much it took me almost thirty years to write my own.
            Because I wanted it to be good.
            In fifth grade, I wrote a magnum opus about a bug monster; in sixth, I wrote a ghost story about a man in a mirror (not at all like Michael Jackson’s). Then, I never wrote horror again.
            I’ve continued to be a connoisseur of horror, but I knew that writing good horror is tough. So I waited.
            Then last year when a scary book idea came to me, I all but jumped through my keyboard to get it all down. I felt ready. For the first time I wrote with a daily word count goal. (I’ve never done that before.) Every day I set out to write a minimum of 1,000 words, then upped the ante by setting a personal hard deadline for the project’s completion. My normal “schedule” bounced between one paragraph days and ten page days.
            Normally, I am a stickler about every word, whittling down passages by paragraph as I write. But I was so eager to get Husk out into the world, I approached it like a machine, tapping away mechanically each day to get that first draft done.
            Can you see where this is going?
            Somewhere around my “deadline” I realized something terrible. My book was crap. Like any hopes of horror writing I had in sixth grade, I put Husk aside.
            I focused on my happy stories. My novel, Baking for Dave, was released and I got to go to BookExpo America and show it off. Smiles and warm fuzzy feelings abounded.

            Then something strange happened. It was a dark and stormy night in Transylvania. Actually, it was a gorgeous day in New York City. Walking through the Javits Center during BEA, I noticed an odd thing, and I gasped. NO HORROR! There were thrillers sure, lots of twisty, missing person capers, but there was a distinct absence of good old fashioned scares.  
            I had to step in.
            After a year away, I picked Husk up again. Reading old work can be jarring, like looking at old high school pictures. How much you’ve grown and changed is evident in one glance. All your flaws stick out like giant overbites.
            I’ve spent the summer of 2017 picking through that old manuscript: fussing, reworking, and CUTTING. So. Much. Cutting. In so doing I’ve discovered one thing.
            A good story is told in the things you don’t write.
            Maybe it’s the summer talking, but I took a hint from the film version of Jaws. What makes that shark so chilling is all the time we don’t see it. I cut a lot of exposition, explaining, and so many passages that made me ask myself out loud, “WHY IS THIS EVEN HERE?”
            Reading old work makes you question yourself. It will make you wonder when it was you forgot how to write. But overall, you learn some valuable lessons.


> Choose the approach that works for you.

One look at my Husk manuscript and it was evident. Word counts don’t work. FOR ME. When I was obsessed with hitting word goals, the quality of the words I chose took a hit. Style wise, I’d rather get 100 quality words then 1,000 full of crappy metaphors, repeat phrases, and way too much telling. The word count, FOR ME, made for rushed, shoddy writing. Some people swear by them. Not this gal. As a writer you need to find what works FOR YOU.

Write the story as if you love words, but edit as if you hate them.

Of course a horror great swears by the age-old writing advice “Kill Your Darlings.” What Stephen King suggests works for all writing. Too many words kill pacing. Too much showing kills suspense. Too many words kill the story. So even though you love your words, sometimes you have to 86 them. 

Go dumpster diving.

For a year I considered my horror story garbage, but when I picked it up and sifted through the mess I made, there was treasure hidden inside. You may have a story you think is “horrible.” The odds are it isn’t. Sometimes we get so frustrated with what we are doing, or we put so much pressure on ourselves as writers, we don’t see the proverbial diamond in the rough.

> Take time off.

This links with the above sentiment. Time away from a project gave me the mental space I needed. (Think of it like being lost in the middle of woods, then returning later with a Google Maps view of where you are.) When we pull far enough away, the path becomes clear.  

I am so glad that I took up this book project again. Last year it had begun to feel like an onerous task to write. The product, something I hated. Now I’ve found a book I truly love. And…It’s scary!
Note from Lisa: Melissa would like to gift one blog reader with a signed copy of one of her books. Simply leave a comment here on the blog by Saturday, August 26, and specify which book you'd like. (Must have a U.S. postal shipping address.) Melissa will also answer any writing-related questions left in comments during that time.
Visit Melissa at her website or read her articles at Huffington Post. You can also follow her on Instagram @melissapalmerwritesbooks and on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Memoir Book Report: Part II -- Final Manuscript Revisions

This is the second in a series, following my memoir manuscript from contract to published book.

Late May and most of June were dedicated to final revisions. I happen to love revision; that precious second (third, two-hundredth!) chance to work on precision, so the reader will understand what I'm trying to say, describe, recreate. Making sure I do, too. And, in the process, often discovering new, perhaps tiny but crucial points.

As I mentioned in the first installment, the best part about making those revisions was being deeply immersed in the world of the book for weeks. This allowed me to be more curious about things I'd already written. Now, I could think more about those events that helped shape the narrative and ask myself additional questions. Was there anything new to learn, to weave in?

The memoir's main story is about my reconnecting to my father after his death, while I was in the middle of marriage, motherhood, and an MFA. Several important flashbacks and backstories though also come into play, helping a reader understand how Dad and I once interacted earlier and the particular world we occupied.

The memoir writer works hard to recreate that vanished world. I'd thought I'd done that—and where I'd struggled, my earlier beta readers had pointed out where more work was needed, and I'd attended to it months before. And yet, coming back to the manuscript again, I saw places where that world wasn't quite as clear as it could be. The revision recommendation notes from my publisher highlighted a few areas I thought were done, done, done.

At first, reading some of those revision recommendations, I had a sense of "Nah, don't think so." But when I let the ideas settle in my head for a few days, I realized it wasn't about anything being "wrong" with the manuscript. Instead, these were opportunities for better clarity and richer storytelling.

For example, I was urged to write more scenes about our family's first class travels when I was a child and teen, as my father's income rose; to introduce and develop the character of my childhood BFF earlier in the text (she frequently traveled with us and still figures in the story 40 years later when Dad dies); and to expand the material about my life in the competitive world of horse shows (which my father financed).

As I re-read and re-read the manuscript—three times through, with pencil, sticky notes, and highlighter in hand—I saw where there were still openings and that filling them would only enhance and deepen the story, more effectively inviting in readers who'd otherwise have no means to visualize certain events and understand their emotional significance.

Then, I began addressing each of the revision recommendations I had agreed to. (A few, I had successfully argued against.) Some of this involved excavating original draft pages from the files, locating notes I knew I once made but didn't use the first time around, to get at the needed information (hence, the many piles and sticky notes all over my desk, above).

First, I "fixed" easy things—deleting bits of repetitious material; fleshing out a secondary character; clearing up one chapter's confusing timeline; smoothing a few tense shifts; moving a couple of passages into places that made more intuitive sense.

Next, I concentrated on writing new material. A vintage postcard triggered a flashback about the Las Vegas hotels we stayed at long before my parents built their dream home and retired there. Paring a section about my father's smoking led to a new passage about how I once smoked to mask feeling like an outsider in the rarified air of horse shows populated by heiresses.

When I set out one morning to write a scene from our family's grand European tour when I was a nine-year-old, what emerged were a few sweet and loving exchanges between me and my father I hadn't thought of including—and which became the new prologue.

As I wrote more about my BFF, I asked her over for coffee, so she could read some new material—and as we talked, I learned something I wasn't expecting, and that information helped me round out an altogether different paragraph that had been bugging me. I asked my sister to read some pages and fill in small details of family history that perked up a few sentences. I worked through with my husband a chapter that peeks behind the curtain of some private marriage and in-law moments.

Doing all that and seeing how much it improved the manuscript gave me the emotional fortitude to take a long, second look at how I'd written of my relationship with an often prickly family member with whom I was often at odds. In a sense, I took myself back to Memoir Writing 101: Don't Be a Victim on The Page. I had to ask myself how much of this other person's behavior and its effect on me was, in some respects, about me, not them.

Along the way, I noticed how several things could be improved with a simple red line—a big X through sentences, paragraphs. Some became irrelevant in light of new, better material. Some became redundant as other areas grew in depth from revision. Though I preach it often, I was reminded yet again that DELETE is not only an option, it's often a friend.

Once I felt the revised manuscript was in top form, I asked my husband and elder son to read it in full, for the first time. They each had a few good suggestions that made their way into (or out of) the book.

Finally, I proofread. And proofread again. Prepared the manuscript in the exact format the publisher requested. Held my breath, and hit SEND.

Days later, I found a typo. I marked it on my hard copy, which I'd printed on pale purple paper. Just because. I didn't panic because I'd learned well already: writing is solitary, but publishing a book is purely collaborative. I'm looking forward to working with my copy editor.