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,, Huffington Post, BlogHer,, 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!)