Archive for August, 2013

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!

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Nina Amir on How to Market Your Book

August 20, 2013

nina1-150x150Today we are going to interview Nina Amir who  will offer us  some tips on how to market your book on the  Internet.  Nina is  a writing  coach who motivates writers to  create   publishable  books and  to enhance their  careers as authors.

She is the  author of the bestselling How to Blog a Book: How to Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books). She is also a  nonfiction editor, proposal consultant, author, and blog-to-book coach with more than 34 years of experience in the publishing field. She is the founder of “Write Nonfiction in November”, aka National Nonfiction Writing Month. Her new book, The Author Training Manual, 9 Steps to Prepare You and Your Book Idea for Publishing Success (Writer’s Digest Books) will be released in February 2014.  You can get a free strategy session with Nina on blogging, blogging a book, writing a book, achieving results, or  editing at  http://bit.ly/NA15free.

A good portion of my time as an agent is taken up with crafting book proposals. As you know, a book proposal is a highly structured business plan for your project which will convince the publisher that your book is important and that you know how to reach your audience. Publishers require a “marketing” section of the proposal laying out how you intend to promote your own book. I’ve written some blog posts on the subject. Most of my clients are, at best, intimidated and usually flummoxed in writing this section of the proposal. .

Once the book is out, the author learns the hard truth that publishers never promote the book as much as they imagine and usually stop promoting it a month after publication.

Andy: Nina, thanks for coming here today. Do you agree with my assessment above?

Nina: Yes, I do. For some reason, aspiring and published authors seem to cling to the outdated idea that a publisher will do the hard work of promoting their book for them.  That’s why writers often want to become traditionally published. But that’s  not a good  reason to pursue this publishing route.  If you want your book to succeed, you will have to do the same amount of work to promote your book whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. And the work begins long before your book is published.   You need to start building your platform at least three years before publication date, if not longer.

Andy: When I do get the marketing plan from the author, it’s usually pretty predictable. He will put up a book website; he will blog (maybe); he will set up a page on Facebook and perhaps Twitter. Publishers aren’t particularly impressed by this. Can you give us some tips about each of these  social venues and tell us how to make them rise above the conventional.

Nina: Well, you can blog a book. Many bloggers with huge readerships have landed book deals because they unwittingly test marketed an idea for a book. Later, an agent or acquisitions editor saw the potential for a book based on the material in the blog.  They then decide to repurpose the content of the blog into a book.  But also you can blog your book—or a good portion of it—from scratch. By this I mean plan out your book and publish it post by post on your blog. If you gain a large readership or subscriber base in the process, you can prove to a publisher that you have a great idea for a book—and a built-in readership.

Andy: But Nina, one of the big causes of rejections that I get is that publishers are skittish about taking on material that is already available for free on-line. Can you comment on this?

Nina: Some publishers don’t want “previously published” works.  But many are happy to have material that has been test marketed successfully.  If you do this correctly—following the plan in my book, you will have left out some material so the publisher has about 20% or more unpublished material to include in the book. Plus, you will edit and revise what was on the blog to improve it. This makes it “new” to some extent. You can also point to the many “booked” blogs that have been best sellers, like Julie & Julia, Stuff White People Like, and so many more.

Andy: What about Facebook and Twitter?

Nina: Your Facebook page can be used like a forum, especially if you write nonfiction. You can create courses around your book and drive your class  participants to the page. You can offer tips and advice there and generate discussions—real engagement. Your Twitter account can be used for a Twitter chat of some sort or for a tip series.

In other words, you must use your social media, including your blog, as a way to build more than just a following. You need to build a community and a brand. There must be name awareness. You have to see yourself as more than just the author of a book, and all you do—your blogging efforts, social media efforts, speaking, etc.—must build your visibility into an author brand as well as a platform. What this does is show that you have business savvy. Publishers are looking for good business partners, not just authors. Business people know how to sell books; more often than not, authors do not.

Andy: Since publishers rarely have the time, inclination, or money to reach out beyond the usual sending out of press releases, what else can the author do at the time the book is released.

Nina: I highly recommend a virtual book tour. Everything you do on the Internet makes you and your book more “discoverable.”. That means when someone searches on Google, using some sort of keywords or search terms related to your book, he is more likely to find you on the first Google search engine results page. So write a series of guest blog posts for bloggers in your category or niche. This could include having them interview you or review your book. Do 15-30 posts over the course of the month when you release your book! And land some Internet radio shows or podcasts as well, so you aren’t just doing a blog tour but a true virtual book tour.

Andy: Nina, there are so many blogs online. Give me some practical tips on how an author can sort through them and select the ones that make a difference and avoid the “moms-at-home” blogs.

Nina: You can do research. Check a blog’s ranking at blogcatalog.com or at Technorati.com. Go to Alexa.com, where you will find a single digit page rank a well as a global rank that can be in the millions. You want to blog for sites with page of 3 or above and with a global page rank in the six figures. You can also do Google research; almost every category has had one or more sites compile a list of the top blogs on a particular topic.

Andy: What about sending out press releases?

Nina:  Definitely. You can send them out to online and print publications. And you can contact local radio  and televisions shows personally. If you write nonfiction, I like to use ExpertClick.com to highlight my expertise to journalists and send out press releases that reach them as well as the general public. It’s less expensive than some services. There is a yearly expense but you can send a lot of releases for one fee. (Use my name to get $100 off…)

Andy: What else should authors be doing at publication time?

Nina: Optimize your Amazon Author Central page. I go back every now and then to see what else I can add, and I’ve still not done everything possible. You can:

Add video,  add Twitter feed, add blog feed, share speaking events, create discussions, get reviews.

The last one is very important. Reviews can really help a book succeed.

Use Youtube and other easy video and photo options, like Instagram.  And don’t forget other social media, like Pinterest and Google+.

Andy: Should they be looking for a freelance publicist or consultant? Some of these people charge a lot of money.

Nina: I used a publicist and thought it was a waste of my money. But then I found  someone to help with one of my two blog tours, and that was well worth it.   That person found bloggers willing to either interview me, have me write posts for them or write reviews, so I didn’t have to do the research or contact them. She coordinated the dates and made all the arrangements. I just had to turn in the posts to the bloggers on time. This was much less work than doing it myself.

Andy: Thanks Nina. If you want to find out more about Nina’s ideas and how they can help you promote your book, you should buy: How to Blog a Book: How to Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time.