Posts Tagged ‘writing’

The Best Query Letter Ever Written

August 4, 2014

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):

***

 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Laura Fraser Talks about Shebooks

July 26, 2014

Fraser-cropToday we are going to interview Laura Fraser, co-founder and editorial director of Shebooks, a new publishing company devoted to promoting works by women authors and journalists. Shebooks publishes short e-books, either by subscription at Shebooks.net (you download a free app for your tablet or smartphone from the app store) or individually, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Kobo. Shebooks is a new model for publishing, inconceivable only a few years ago. I think of it as sort of a hybrid that mixes up characteristics of traditional book publishing, long form magazine publishing, and self-publishing.

Check them out at http://www.shebooks.net

Andy:  Laura could you tell us something about yourself and the work you did before founding She books?

Laura: I’ve been a freelance writer for 30 years. I started in journalism and published many magazine articles. My first book, Losing It, was an expose of the diet industry. My next book, An Italian Affair, was a NYT-bestselling memoir. My latest memoir is called All Over the Map.

Andy: What made you decide to start Shebooks?

Laura: Even for someone like me with a fair amount of success in the publishing and magazine worlds, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living. The space for long magazine articles had shrunk in women’s magazines, and the top shelf long-form magazines publish mostly men, even in 2014. That means fewer intimate memoirs about women’s lives. My last book didn’t sell well, so I became unattractive to the publishing world. Even with a NYT bestseller under my belt, it was like, “What have you done lately?” So I wanted to create a platform for women like me, essentially, where we could write high quality work and get it published.

Andy: In this day and age, do you really think there is still that much bias against women in the media? I work with hundreds of book editors. These days they are almost all women. It wasn’t always like that. Comment?

Laura: There’s a huge bias against women in longform journalism. Just go to vida.org, the organization of women in literary arts, and look at the statistics on men being the vast majority of writers published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. There is a bias toward what I would call external rather than internal stories, and women are more likely to write about internal adventures. Any broad stereotypes about male and female writers, of course, can’t be applied to everyone, but I think it’s fair to say that women’s experiences are under-represented in magazines in particular because so many more men are published. It’s less of a problem in the book world.

Andy: Tell me a little more about Shebooks’ publishing program. You aren’t like a typical book publisher. Most books are more than 60,000 words. Your books are a lot shorter. Why?

Laura: Digital publishing gives us an opportunity to publish things at the length they ought to be. Right now, there is a vast middle ground between, say, personal essays and a book. There are a lot of stories that should be told in less than the 80,000 words it takes to fill a physical object called a book. That’s why so many memoirs feel padded. I want to make a t-shirt that says “No padding.” Digital gives us flexibility. Also, people read digital on the go, in the little pockets of their lives. Many of us still like to curl up with a hard cover book, but if I’m traveling or commuting, I read on my device. I want to read high-quality stories rather than watch cat videos.

Andy: Ever thought about putting some of the best writing into an anthology? I think that would be cool.

Laura: Yep.

Andy: You have published two of my favorite clients: Mary Jo McConahay and Meghan Ward. Both memoirs. What other genres are you seeking?

Laura: Short memoirs are our sweet spot. We also publish journalism that isn’t very time-bound, as well as fiction. There are very few places to publish novelettes or novellas.

Andy: What’s the difference?

Laura: About 20,000 words.

Andy: Do you have any opinion about the big issues that are being debated in book publishing right now? Tell me what you think is the future of big New York publishers? Do you think self published books are the answer? Given the number of self published titles that sell in the high “two figures”, I’m not sure it is all it’s cracked up to be.

Laura: It’s all about flexibility and finding the right platform for your message. Sure, it’s great to go with a legacy publisher if you’re one of the 1% of authors they’ll pay attention to. Self-publishing still has the patina of being not good enough for the big houses. But that’s changing. As with digital vs. paper publishing, it isn’t an either/or situation.

Andy: It seems like Shebooks is kind of a hybrid. Something in the middle. Can you tell us about this?

Laura: We are a highly curated collection of short e-books. We’re closer to a legacy publishing model than self-publishing. We pay close attention to quality, to copyediting, to design. But we give our authors a 50-50 revenue split, which gives them incentive to help publicize the books. They make more; with legacy publishers, it’s about an 85/15 split. So we’re not like self-publishing at all, though there is less barrier to entry for a good writer who hasn’t sold a lot of books. The fact that we are a subscription service means that we don’t have to be hit-driven like the legacy publishers. We can publish a lot of beautiful little books and they don’t have to be bestsellers.

Andy: Any thoughts on the big bad Amazon.com? They have certainly been a windfall for ebook publishing. Do you think that maybe they are becoming too powerful though?

Laura: Amazon takes a 30% bite of everything anyone buys on their site. That leaves precious little margin for anyone else. You can’t just bitch about Amazon, though; it’s a big reality, so you have to work with it, or do a workaround so you can make money—as we’re trying to do, by subscription from our own e-reader app, leaving Amazon out of the picture.

Andy: Ok. Let’s talk about your Netflix-like subscription model. Describe that and tell me how it’s working.

Laura: We have a growing library of short e-books, publishing at a rate of 2 per week. When you subscribe, you get access to our whole library. When you stop subscribing, poof, they’re gone. Right now we have 60 short e-books in our library that you can’t find anywhere else. Yes, Amazon has more, and so does Oyster, but we’re like a boutique where you can walk in and know that everything is quality.

Andy:  Since Shebooks is so different from traditional book publishing, how do you go about promoting it? Who’s your audience and how do you reach them?

Laura: We’re still figuring all of this out, but of course we rely a lot on social media. We are also doing deals with women’s magazines and brands to help leverage our brand. For instance, we had a memoir contest with Good Housekeeping which brought Shebooks in front of 25 million readers. We’re doing more partnerships like that.

Andy:  Shebooks are available at the usual online venues, but you are also selling them yourself. What is working the best for you?

Laura: It’s financially better for us if people subscribe directly from our website so Amazon doesn’t take a big bite. But we’re happy to have people read our books wherever they find them.

Andy: How can writers submit to you?

Write@shebooks.net. We take only well-written, polished submissions of about 10,000 words, give or take. My sole criterion as editorial director is that I have to feel compelled to keep reading!

How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

February 22, 2014
San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

Do Editors [and Agents] Edit

November 18, 2013

When I first decided to become an agent, I had an image of my job as being something between  a  real estate broker and a judge on American Idol.  It hasn’t  turned out that way at all. I find  most of my time is devoted to shaping and editing book proposals and manuscripts. In other words, I’m an editor.

The conventional wisdom you hear at literary cocktail parties is that editors no longer edit. It’s not true, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But what is true is  your book better be perfect when it goes to the publisher, because the acquisition editor is not likely to spend a lot of time visualizing how to reshape a flawed project. Well, ok. I’m sure when Sarah Palin presented her editor with a real stinker of a manuscript, HarperCollins did some significant editorial work; although, as they say, “you  can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

I just read a fascinating essay in Publishers Weekly by Marjorie Braman, who was an editor at several of the large publishing houses for 26 years. Recently she left publishing to devote herself to freelance editing.  The title of her piece is: “What Ever Happened to Book Editors?”  She says some pretty damning things about the role of editors (and of agents)  in commercial publishing today.  Listen to this:

 “A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, ‘We don’t pay you to edit.’ The real message was: ‘Editing is not crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.’ After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, ‘Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.’ In other words, ‘If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.’ One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time….

“I’d been through a lot of upheavals in the business, and one of the more insidious, but telling, things I’d seen happen as publishers cut back on staff was the expansion of the role of editors. Need a copywriter? No, we’ll get the editor to write the flap copy. Is the art department understaffed and overloaded? No problem, the editor will come into the art meeting cheerfully armed with ideas.

“Need a blurb for the book to get the sales department excited? The editor…  will get just the right quote from just the right author (whom she’s never met, but for whom she somehow has a home address). It’s a snap. Oh, and bring some publicity and marketing ideas to the launch meeting, too, while you’re at it. And that’s what editors get paid for. It’s fun, but it’s not editing. Working with the authors—which most editors love to do—has become something the editor must do ‘on the side.”

This is not what I expected when I first became an agent. As a bookseller on the outside, I imagined the structure of publishing as a kind of a dualism: the creative side (writers and editors) and the business side (sales, financial, and executive). Or to cite the old cliché, “publishing is the marriage of art and commerce.” Well, according to Marjorie Braman, it’s become kind of an S&M relationship with commerce holding the whip.

Maxwell Perkins

Maxwell Perkins

When we think of the editor as literary hero, we always come back to Maxwell PerkinsA. Scott Berg wrote a brilliant biography of him in 1977, Max Perkins: Editor of Geniusthat helped cement his iconic status.   Perkins was an editor at Charles Scribner from 1910 until his death in 1947. He worked with some of the greatest writers of the  century; but he will always be remembered as the man who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. It’s probably safe to say that Perkins’ role in the creative life of these three geniuses was fundamental to the masterpieces that each of them created.

There is the famous story of Perkins’ work with Thomas Wolfe, a great writer but one without discipline. In Wolfe’s first book, Look Homeward Angel, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words (about 300 pages) from that novel.

My experience with editors is a mixed bag. Although I haven’t worked with anyone like Perkins, there have been some who have done  brilliant and detailed editing and have made good books into great books. There have also been the other kind that Braman describes.

So that leaves me having to do a lot of editing. This is particularly true with fiction. Fiction is hard to sell, and there are many talented writers out there. So everything that I submit has to be perfect. And, yes, a good acquisition editor will then make it more perfect. Editing didn’t come easy for me. In my career as a bookseller, I spent much more time opening boxes than shaping imaginative works.

What I found astonishing when I started working in fiction was how little perspective the author has. But after all, why should she? The stories and the characters have been living in her mind sometimes for years. These characters have probably taken possession of the consciousness of the author. But what does the reader think? An author doesn’t have a clue. That’s where I come in.

There is  a concept in Zen Buddhism called “beginner’s mind”.  It means one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person who really matters. I read the manuscript out loud and listen to my voice and try to think what the reader thinks. Am I bored? Do I believe this character? Do I care? Can I visualize this scene? Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the language powerful or clunky? Readers are unforgiving. If they get bored, hate the character, find the story improbable, anything where they fall out of that trance-like state that we call “willful suspension of disbelief”, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. (And probably tell all her friends not to bother to buy it.)

As I’ve gotten more experience working with fiction, I find that I’m losing that ineffable quality of the beginner’s mind. I’m becoming more mindful of things like, point of view, how back story is managed, voice, overuse of literary clichés,  the kinds of things people learn about at writers workshops and conferences. Craft.  And those are important too. But I  still always want to put myself in the role of the reader. That’s what’s crucial.

Editing has been fulfilling for me. Sometimes I feel like I have made an important contribution to the creative process. Maybe I’m not Maxwell Perkins. But when an editor calls me up and says, “I want to make an offer on this book. It’s brilliant!”, it makes me feel pretty good.

Bill Petrocelli -Bookseller and Novelist

November 11, 2013

circle of thirteenpetrocelliToday we are going to interview Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of the legendary Book Passage in Marin County. Bill has recently written a novel, The Circle of Thirteen that has just been released by Turner Publishing to rave reviews. Lisa See said of it: “In The Circle of Thirteen, Bill Petrocelli has created a story that flashes forward and backward through time, creating a futuristic world that bears some striking similarities to today. The Circle of Thirteen is a true celebration of the power of women in the face of great odds.”

 Andy: Bill, thanks for letting me interview you on “Ask the Agent.” We’ve been friends for a long time as booksellers. Probably more than 30 years. And we fought all the great fights together defending independent bookstores against the corporations. But you never told me that you wanted to write a book. When and why did you decide to write The Circle of Thirteen?

Bill: I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, more than anything else. Although I’ve been heavily involved in bookselling for many years, during that time I managed to write two non-fiction books as well as a lot of articles.  As to The Circle of Thirteen, I began thinking about that story six years ago. And once the idea formed in my head, I couldn’t let it go.

Andy: The novel is bold and unique in structure. It’s sort of a science fiction novel, but not really (even though it takes place in the future). You structure it with flashbacks, but both the “then” and the “now” take place in the future as well. I don’t see that very often.  It’s a political novel with a strong feminist message that addresses real issues of today. Weren’t you trying to keep a lot of balls in the air? It must have been pretty hard to shape the story.

Bill: It takes place in the future, but I don’t really consider it science fiction. Probably it should be called “future fiction” – or maybe even “speculative fiction.” The idea for the book was to look at the expanding role of women and the potential backlash against them. I decided to set the story a couple of decades into the future, because I thought that would give me the best setting – really, a better perspective on things.

The challenge was to find a time that was far enough removed from the present to get away from day to day politics but still be close enough to seem relevant to the present moment. I decided that I couldn’t write the story in the form of a saga – a story with just one event after another – because I needed to maintain the tension and keep the important elements of the story at the center of things. That’s why I decided on one main narrative line that occurs over a period of two weeks with a series of flashbacks that feed into that story.

Andy: And that  raises the question of how to write flashbacks in a future setting.

Bill: You’re right – that’s a big challenge. And you’re the one who first pointed that out to me several  years ago. After we talked, I went back and reworked the story to try to do two things. First, I wanted to make sure that all of the transition signals were clear – dates, places, and all that. Readers needed to know where they were at any given moment.

The second thing, I believe, was even more important. I had to be relentless in maintaining the point of view of the narrator at key points in the story. I re-wrote most of the book so that it was the first-person voice of my principal character, Julia Moro, who is the Security Director for the United Nations. So when the flashbacks occur, they are  mostly told through her recollection. That allowed the reader to listen to her re-counting of earlier parts of the story with just enough information to get the feel and texture of what happened.

Andy: When I left bookselling, I became an agent, and   started working at the other end of the publishing food chain. It was pretty eye opening for me. What have you learned from this experience? How has it made you view the process of publishing differently?

 Bill: I’ve learned all kinds of things that I hadn’t really focused on before. A lot of it has to do with timing. How much lead time do you need for submission? For editorial feedback? For book promotion? Each of these things operates on its own calendar, and they’re quite different than the calendar that booksellers follow.

Andy: Book Passage is probably the most marketing driven bookstore in America. You have events practically every night. You have classes being taught by famous writers, book fairs, writers conferences. It’s a real three ring circus (in the best sense). Now you have to market your own  book to bookstores. How has your own bookselling experience helped you do this?

Bill: My experience in the book business has helped a lot – there’s no way to deny that. Mainly, my years as a bookseller have given me an entrée into bookstores. It’s also made it easier for me to talk with the people who report on books and bookselling. The people at the blog: “Shelf Awareness”, for example, have been incredibly helpful.

But even with all that, I’ve had to do a lot of the same things that other authors have to do. I have a wonderful agent, Lisa Gallagher, who helped open a few doors at key moments. But I’ve had to create my own website, hire a publicist – and even work with a publicist who specializes in book blogs.

Andy: You’re also a legendary figure in retail bookselling. Is that helping you get the book into the stores? What are other booksellers saying about it?

Bill: Legendary? I don’t know about that. If anyone is legendary, it’s my wife, Elaine, who really understands bookselling as well as anyone in the country. But I do know other booksellers, and I’ve gotten a lot of nice support for the book from many of them.

Andy: When I first became an agent, I avoided representing fiction. Now I have dipped my toes in it. It’s really tough to sell. There are a lot of good writers out there who can’t find publishers. Publishers are making their acquisition decisions based on marketing, not aesthetics. And they will tell you that most of their fiction titles aren’t selling. Any thoughts why?

Bill: Now that I’ve been promoting my own novel, I have a better idea why it’s  so difficult. It’s different than promoting a non-fiction book. With  non-fiction  you can talk about your credentials on the subject, you can stress how important the book is, and you can focus your message to specialized audiences. But none of that is true with fiction. You can talk all you want about your book, but until someone reads it they don’t know how good it is. The real test is the quality of the writing.

Andy: Any thoughts about how to get these books to readers better?

Bill: I have no secret formula for making it easier. I think the only answer is to get as many advance reading copies in the hands of booksellers, other authors, and prominent people – anyone who can read it and give a positive blurb that can then be used in marketing.

Andy: Ok, Bill. Here’s the $64,000 question. I couldn’t help notice that your book is for sale at Big Bad Amazon and almost as Big and Bad Barnes and Noble. Want to share your discomfort with us?

Bill: I have no discomfort with that. I want the book sold through as many places as possible, but I haven’t done anything to encourage sales through Amazon or through the chains. I’m trying as hard as I can to get people to buy it through their local independent stores, In fact, if you go to my website at http://www.williampetrocelli.com, you will see that my buy-link goes directly to the websites of about forty independent bookstores. I’m hoping that more authors will pick up on this idea and link to the independent stores whose support for their books is so important.

Andy: Are you working on your next novel?

Bill: I am, but I put it aside while I’m been trying to promote The Circle of Thirteen. Every now and then I find those characters talking to me, though, asking me where I’ve been. I need to get back to it. It’s a different kind of story, but hopefully it will be just as provocative. One of the characters is a bookseller, so that should give us something to talk about next time.

Bill will be speaking and reading from The Circle of Thirteen at the following venues:

Tues. Nov. 12, 7 PM. Powell’s Books, Portland, Or.

Thurs. Nov. 14,  7 PM. Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Ca.

Sat. Nov. 19, 7 PM. R. J. Julia Books, Madison, Cn.

Wed. Nov. 20, 7 PM. McNally Jackson, New York, NY.

Sun. Nov. 24, 11 AM. Miami Book Fair, Miami, Fl.

Beth Kephart on Writing Memoir

August 29, 2013

Handling_the_TruthFINALFINALbeth2Today we are going to talk with Beth Kephart about writing memoir.  Beth is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir published this year by Gotham Books. She is the author of five memoirs, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Beth teaches creative non-fiction at The University of Pennsylvania.

Andy: Beth, there are a lot of books out there about the art and craft of memoir writing. Why did you decide to write Handling the Truth?

Beth: Handling emerged somewhat despite myself. I was full of this love for the young people I meet and teach; I wanted to celebrate them and what they taught me. I grew intent, too, on sharing my thoughts about the many memoirs that have inspired and instructed me and to liberate this much-tarnished form from some of the damaging mythology. Finally, I felt compelled to save others from the mistakes I’ve made, and to offer cautions.

Andy: Let’s start with the basics. What’s a memoir? Or to clear up a prevailing misconception, how is memoir different from autobiography?

Beth: I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not, which of course I do in the opening pages of the book.  Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.

Andy: In my work as an agent, I get pitched a lot of memoir. There seems to be an endless number of projects dealing with dysfunctional families, surviving cancer, interesting travels to exotic places, and the like. You mentioned in the book that Neil Genzlinger called memoir “an absurdly bloated genre.”  And my experience with publishers is that they are pretty cynical about these well-mined themes. Aside from an appreciation of good writing style, do you really believe there’s anything new and important to say about some of these overworked subjects?

Beth: I think we have to stop imprisoning memoirs in marketing categories. The minute we start to think that we are writing an illness memoir, say, or a grief memoir, is the minute that we’ve lost sight of the bigger possibilities of the personal story. It’s never just about what happened. It’s about what it meant. Memoirists must continue to look for new structures, new ways of asking and answering the big questions. Look at what Joan Wickersham does in The Suicide Index, for example. That is a book about the aftermath of a father’s suicide. And it is a story you’ve never seen told like that before. It’s a story that makes you think newly on a familiar topic, precisely because Wickersham has been inventive with structure and smart about elisions and inclusions.

In the end, someone will categorize Wickersham’s book as a suicide memoir—perhaps. But it’s clear that she wrote it with bigger ambitions in mind. It’s clear that she was not suffocated by a label.

Andy: You speak at length in the book about honesty in writing memoir. There’s a tension between telling your story accurately and shaping a story that is artistically true and aesthetically pleasing. Can we really remember a dialogue that took place twenty years ago. Do we really recall our feelings about visiting Gramma’s house for the first time?  How much are memoirists permitted to invent? Or maybe just fudge a little bit?

Beth: I’m a pretty big stickler for telling the truth, as much as possible. I don’t believe in the deliberate fudging of facts, the rearrangements of time, the reassignments of characters, the remapping of locales. You start making it up on purpose and you’ve lost the heart of the matter. Memoir writing is, in some ways, like writing a villanelle or a sonnet. You are bound by the rules of what happened, by what you remember, by what you can research (don’t forget, memoir writers, about the power of research to help support the telling of story). The truth constricts your work. It also shapes it. Find a way. Don’t make it up. And when you don’t remember, just say so. Your credibility matters.

Andy: Sometimes I tell an author that their memoir might work better as a novel, a roman á clef. But writing a novel is very different from writing memoir. Do you have any advice to writers who are undecided about which path to pursue?

Beth: Read books that fall on both sides of the line. Vaddey Ratner, in writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, recreated her childhood but also gave herself room to change some of the personal details. Everything in that book comes from a known experience, from something lived throughout the Cambodian genocide. And yet Banyan is a novel. Ratner never lies, but she still writes from a pure, authentic place.

Writing fiction is just as important and personal an enterprise as writing memoir (I write both). But be clear about what you are doing. Count the trade-offs and decide.

Andy: But even if you are writing memoir, the story has to be compelling or else no one will read it. When I get a rejection from  an editor (which happens far too often), one of the standard explanations is that there is no “narrative arc.” Well, real life doesn’t always correspond to a classic 3 act narrative structure. What’s a memoirist to do?

Beth: Stop thinking chronologically. Chronology can be—not always, but sometimes—the death of memoir. It locks people into saying this happened, this happened, this happened. It can be claustrophobic. Be inventive. Study Howard Norman or Rebecca Solnit. See what they make of their lives. See how they selectively shape the interesting stuff and leave out all the filler.

Andy: In my work with authors, particularly those who write memoir and fiction, I’m always amazed at how little perspective they have. Characters and scenes that have been living in the heart and mind of the author for years may leave the reader cold. And as you said, the reader is always in the room.  I tell my clients that the reader is king and is usually unforgiving. If the first page is boring, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. That seems particularly challenging to memoirists. After all, everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. Why should we care about someone else’s?

Beth: We only care if it speaks to us in an inclusive fashion. We only care if the right questions have been asked. The celebrity memoir is often exclusionary, and in fact, the celebrity memoir is often (not always!) not a memoir at all but an autobiography. Patti Smith and Diane Keaton are celebrities, but they’ve written true memoir—they’ve made their life stories relevant to the rest of us by wondering out loud about the nature of love, the nature of relationships, the nature of fidelity to another. Edna O’Brien is a celebrity author, but her “memoir” is less a memoir than a recounting of events and famous people/places. We are all just people in the end. A memoir’s purpose is to lower gates and open doors. Boring books are self-inflating, self-congratulatory, and, ultimately, self-isolating. If we are boring someone at a cocktail party, we are also likely boring them with our memoirs.

Andy: You write a lot about style in memoir. You have, for instance, a whole chapter on weather. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that writers seem to look down on the weather these days. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal “It was a dark and stormy night” is often considered the worst first line in all of literature.  Were you trying to tweak a few noses  at the literary snoots when you wrote that chapter?

Beth: I’m not writing about style so much as writing about ways of remembering our lives. Too often people stare at the events of their lives and don’t stop to think about the ambiance or mood, the meaning, the possibilities in all that “background” stuff. I’m not suggesting that memoirists go out and fill a book with storms and sunshine. I am saying, use everything you’ve got, every sense, to find your personal story. And then figure out what it means, and what is worth keeping. And sometimes weather will signify. And when it does, recognize the opportunity.

Andy: You distinguish between real memoirs and “pseudo memoirs.”  I’ve never heard that expression before.  In your analysis a pseudo memoir is not the same as a bad memoir. Can you discuss this a little?

Beth: Ha! I love the question. Pseudo memoirs are half steps toward the truth. They speak of lives that have not been fully explored, examined, wrestled with. Bad memoirs are bad memoirs. Badly written, badly structured, and published for the wrong reasons. Sometimes all a pseudo memoirist needs in order  to write a real memoir is more time and more reflection.

Andy:  And here’s the $64,000 question: what’s your favorite memoir?

Beth: Can’t do this! Handling the Truth discusses nearly 100 memoirs, many in detail. So there is the first memoir I loved (Natalie Kusz’s Road Song) and the one I most often teach (Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family) and the books I’m still discovering now (Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place). But come to my house. See all my shelves and boxes. I’m in love with a lot of books.

Thank you so much, Andy, for these thoughtful questions. I hope anyone who wants to learn more and to read about some memoirs that aren’t in my book (some additional exercises, some additional essays) will consider visiting my blog, www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com, or buying the book.

Andy: And thank you, Beth. As I said earlier, in the business of book publishing, it’s pretty easy to get cynical and discouraged about memoirs. Every once in awhile, you need to remember about those great ones that changed your life. Your book was an inspiration. Oh, yes, and by the way, I just wanted to say that my last book deal was for a memoir. Yes!

Flaubert’s Kettle

June 24, 2013

“Human Speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” – Gustave Flauflaubertbert,  Madame Bovary

 

I see a lot of writing coming over the transom from people who seem smitten by metaphorical imagery. Unless you can write it like Flaubert, I recommend finding another way to depict whatever it is you are trying to describe. The metaphors and similes I see usually don’t work that well. When you start using these figures of speech, it’s easy to fall into cliché. (I advise writers to “avoid metaphorical imagery and clichés like the plague.”) Editors and agents tend to view this kind of writing as characteristic of the novice and a sign of the writer’s insecurity. Like you’re trying too hard. You don’t have to model yourself after Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. But still… to paraphrase Freud, sometimes the best way to describe a green tree is to just call it a green tree.

Sometimes I Really Do Discover Writers at Conferences

May 25, 2013
Tawni Waters

Tawni Waters

The first time I met Tawni Waters was  at the  San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference this February. I  was  participating in  the workshop on “voice” given by Dinty Moore. At the end of the class, Dinty asked us to do an exercise, to write a short piece  and read  it to the class. Just before my turn to speak, a woman in back stood up to read what she had written. That was Tawni. It was electrifying and astonishing, particularly given the fact that we only had ten minutes to write it. When I stood up, I was nervous. I’d never given a public reading of my own writing. What made it worse was  having to follow Tawni. I felt as if I was the guy who had to give the speech after Lincoln at Gettysburg.

I returned to Oakland to find Tawni’s manuscript for her literary novel in my email. When I started reading it, I could tell right away that she had talent  — a lot of talent. But for a number of technical reasons, I didn’t think I could sell it. She asked me, almost apologetically, if I would look at another novel that she had written some years before.

When I started reading  Gold Dust, I knew at the end of the first paragraph  this was something  special. As I continued, I became more excited with every page. But I also kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. That usually happens with novels. They sort of peter out after about 50 or 100 pages. But Gold Dust just kept getting better and better, until late at night, when I reached the end, I  was crying like a baby.

When I told Tawni this was an amazing young adult novel and I wanted to represent it, she was excited to find an agent, but she didn’t realize the novel was YA. It’s the story of a teenage girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico, living with a violent and abusive father, and, at the same time,  discovering  she is a lesbian. The town is dominated by a fire and brimstone minister, who is particularly homophobic. The book tells how the heroine, Mara Stonebrook,  finds the courage to triumph over these obstacles.

We sent it out and started getting lots of interest from multiple publishers. Last week we sold it to Simon/Pulse, one of the most successful and prestigious YA imprints. They are thrilled with it. So am I.

Tawni Vee Waters is a writer, actor, college teacher, and gypsy.  In 2010, she won the Grand Prize in the Solas Awards Travel Writing Competition. Her travel essay on San Miguel de Allende was featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2010.  She teaches creative writing at Estrella Mountain College in Phoenix.  Her young adult novel, Gold Dust, is being published by Simon/Pulse in Spring, 2014.

 

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

Questions to Ask Before Starting to Write Your Book

January 11, 2013

I see a lot of non-fiction book proposals that are based on wishful thinking about whether the project is publishable. If writers asked some basic questions before beginning the process, they would save themselves a lot of time and grief. They would either refine their concept into one that is attractive as a commercial publishing venture, or they would realize that the idea is ill-conceived. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself.

1. How many books am I trying to write? You have no idea how often I speak to prospective authors who can’t decide which of their many fabulous ideas they want to write about. So they try to shoehorn all of them into a single book. I see short descriptions in proposals such as : “This book is a self-help book about curing back pain with elements of a memoir included.” My advice. Save the memoir for the next book. I always sense a problem when the proposal announces that the project “crosses genres.” Yes, there are some cross-genre books, but more often the author is just being lazy and is unwilling to choose what genre she really wants to write in. Publishers say they are looking for “fresh new approaches”, but if the approach is too fresh and too new, if the publisher can’t figure out what the book is about, if the bookseller can’t visualize what section the book will be shelved in, then they’ll just take pass on it. I know. I bought books at Cody’s for 30 years. When I couldn’t figure out where I’d shelve a book, I tended not to order it.

2. Is this a blog, not a book? Is this a long form article, not a book? I get a lot of rejection letters from publishers because of these concerns. A lot of us are blogging and we’d like to take our precious material and put it all together into something that will make us some money. There’s also the added benefit that the hard work has already been done, and it just needs a little slicing and dicing. Publishers don’t want books derived from blogs. Why would readers pay for stuff that is already available for free online? The question about whether the subject works better as a shorter journalistic piece is a little more complicated. But if your manuscript is less than 50,000 words, it probably is too short for a book. With e-books, publishers are exploring new formats and are doing projects with shorter word counts.

3. Who are my readers and what do they care about? A lot of writers don’t ask this question, but it is the single most important question that needs to be addressed in an effective book proposal. In the world of commercial publishing, the reader is sovereign. I once tried to sell a self-help book about how to deal with a variety of office injuries, written by an author with very good bona fides. It got rejected. Editors pointed out that readers who have back pain don’t really care about how to treat repetitive stress syndrome. The reader is selfish and self-absorbed. She wants you to speak to her concerns. That’s why she paid good money to read your book.

4. If there are no other books on this subject, is there possibly a reason for that? Most authors think that a great pitch is: “there are no other books out there like mine.” For publishers, this begs the question of “why aren’t there any?” And the answer for them is usually that there is no audience big enough to justify publishing on this subject. What publishers really want is a book on a subject that has been written about in other very successful books. But you need to prove that you have something special that will make this robust audience spend money to read what you have new to say.

5. How different is my book, really, from all the others on the subject? You need to ask yourself if the things which distinguish your book from all the others really make a difference to the reader. And this is important. You may have come up with an astoundingly original interpretation of Jefferson’s role in the expansion of the young American republic. And it may have led to much bloviation and vitriole amongst the Jefferson scholars at the convention of the American Historical Association. Publishers aren’t so subtle. Their evaluation of the proposal will probably begin and end with: “Sorry. We don’t need another book about Jefferson.” Or maybe something like: “Sorry. Barnes and Noble didn’t order our last book on Jefferson.”

6. Do I have “platform?” We have written at length about platform in this blog, because publishers are obsessed with platform in our media-driven age. In non-fiction genres, platform is very, very important. And publishers’ idea of platform is probably different from yours. I often tell audiences that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser (the latter is vastly preferable). Being a local tv personality with an audience of 500,000 viewers is not impressive platform. It’s “regional” unless your audience is in Manhattan. Then it’s national. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is good platform if your project is about the subject you won the prize for (and if it isn’t regional). A blog with 5000 views a month isn’t platform. A blog with 50,000 views a month also isn’t platform. Get the picture? Celebrities operate by their own rules. Nobel Laureates, presidential candidates, and Lindsey Lohan can write any nonsense they choose.

7. Wouldn’t this book make [a great profile in The New Yorker? ] [a great movie?] [a great subject for Oprah?] The answer is easy. “Maybe, maybe not. It probably won’t happen anyway, so stop dreaming and get realistic.”


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