Memoirs: Answering the Tough Questions

August 5, 2013

Broken-Heart--1

The woman sat across the table from me. In between watery eyes, she pitched her memoir to me – a heartbreaking family story. She could barely choke it out, which had me vacillating between empathy and being really uncomfortable. I let her compose herself by looking around the large conference room at the 20-odd other agents and editors listening to pitches…and taking a deep breath myself.

Indeedy do…memoirs are very personal, but you need to have several degrees of separation from your story. If you’re still sobbing and emotionally wrought, then you’re still in Catharsis Land (July post). You’re not ready to answer the tough questions because you haven’t moved out of the grieving process. When I say grieving process, I don’t mean grieving over a physical death, but rather an emotional one.

Memoirs are borne from Life happening to us. Something momentous drops in our laps and offers us the opportunity to act. It’s that process of action that creates the catalyst for a memoir. And it’s not the mundane “my mom died,” because unfortunately, everyone’s mom dies at some time. Rather, it’s the out-of-the-box action you decided to take because your mom died, and the evolutionary process you experienced because of that event…hello LEARNING TO PLAY WITH A LION’S TESTICLES – which had author Melissa Haynes volunteering at an animal reserve in South Africa after her mother’s death. Her intent was to help the animals – only it ended up being the other way around. This twist is not only amazingly out of the box, but entirely out of the zip code. An excellent summer read that’ll have you laughing and sobbing.

Unfortunately, the author sitting across from me at the writer’s conference was far from laughing. She was sobbing by now. She definitely had Life drop in her lap, but I needed to know more because I suspected she wasn’t ready for publication, and here’s why:

What happened?

I know this sounds elementary, but I’ve been amazed at the number of writers who have a hard time pinpointing the exact catalyst because they’re so caught up in the emotional blowback.

“My husband left me.” Okay…um…so what? I don’t mean to diminish anyone’s pain, but lots of marriages end, so the “what happened” has to go deeper than simply being abandoned.

“My husband left me after finding out I was diagnosed with cancer. I lost my health insurance, and all I had was a rescue beagle to comfort me.” Ah. Now we have something more to hang our hat on because we can see the crisis in full bloom and the direction of this story.

The writer who can’t get past her husband leaving her isn’t ready to move on. She needs time to work through the grieving process.

What action did you take?

The writer sitting across from me was taken aback at this question, and I watched her shift uncomfortably in her seat as she groped for an answer. She concluded that she really hadn’t taken any action because she was still living in a hell of her own making and trying to figure a way out.

Ah. So she’s reacting rather than proacting. If the “main character,” which is presumably the author, is constantly reacting to situations around her, then she is taking a back seat to the unfolding events. They become bigger than the “main character.” A compelling memoir can’t be about stuff constantly happening to you – you need to take action at some point by being proactive.

Face it, it’s dull to read about a woman whose husband abandons her, her sons take financial advantage of her, her dog dies, and her car blows up after she gets fired from her job…and all she does is continually play the victim. That’s reactionary. As tragic and sad as it all is, who cares? Bandini happens to all of us. While we don’t want to be heartless to someone’s plight, we know that audiences won’t flock to a story where the protagonist talks about all the crappy things happening to her, but never takes action and fights back.

What was your evolutionary process?

“No gets out alive.” I love this because it hints to a much deeper meaning that challenges us to make the most of what we have in the time we have it. We have to decide how we’re going to move through life. I don’t believe we remain unchanged by the events that happen to us. Do we either become better, more thoughtful, patient, or tolerant, or do we become bitter, frightened, angry, or passive?

The author sitting across from me was stumped by this question. She had no idea how she had changed, which told me a) she hadn’t thought about it, or b) she was so deeply immersed in the victim role, that she hadn’t evolved yet.

An interesting memoir needs to speak to how the author has evolved. This is how readers become engaged with you and your plight. Your “character” must move from Point A to Points B, C, D, and E.

What is the resolution to this event?

There needs to be an ending to the story. Even if the situation is still ongoing, there needs to be a resolution. You may still be divorced or have cancer, but you’ve learned to stand on your own and take control of your future. Your sons may have robbed you blind, but you’ve tossed them out on the street and are taking control of your life by being a foster home to rescue dogs.

The author at this conference had no resolution to her story because she was still neck-deep in the situation. I suggested that perhaps she was too hasty in writing her memoir. She’s still so embroiled in the current situation that there hasn’t been any personal evolution or resolution.

Since she was still emotionally fragile, I suggested that she might be better served to consider her writing as a catharsis because crisis events tend to warp if they stay inside of us. We need to get it out in some way. Some jog, some work out, some eat, others write.

The important thought to consider is where are you in your memoir journey? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What happened?
  • What action did you take?
  • What was your evolutionary process?
  • What was the resolution to this life-stopping-jaw-dropping event?

Analyzing your answers to these questions may help you decide whether you’re still in Catharsis Land or you’re ready to move into the business of a writing career.


Who needs reality shows when you can read

July 8, 2013

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Who needs reality shows when you can read Behler books – unbeatable, unforgettable, soul-swelling memoir.


Memoir: Going From Catharsis to Business

June 10, 2013

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I’m having one of those “In case of emergency, break glass” moments…however, between you and me, I think that box should contain a margarita dispenser instead of a fire hose, but I digress.

I’m seeking to put out a literary fire that’s trending in the Memoir genre, which is writing as a catharsis. Don’t get me wrong, I think writing as a form of catharsis is a wonderful, beneficial thing. But where I draw the line is when authors short-circuit the process and believe their work is ready for publication…hence my need to break glass because I do see this as an emerging trend.

Cathartic writing is the healing process of pouring out your heart and putting it to cyber paper. I so get that. If I’m really chewing on something and it keeps rattling around my brain, I take to my Word program and barf it out. That act of going from head/heart to cyber paper finally shakes whatever demons may be keeping me awake at night. It’s my form of catharsis. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready, willing, or able to hit the book stands.

Cathartic writing with the intent on publication is a wholly different thing. This is where the author must go from moving through her writing, using emotion as her fuel, to moving toward a business with conscious intent. And writing is a business. As a publisher who specializes in Memoir, I am inundated with authors who experienced something – be it illness, addiction, abandonment, unemployment, whatever – and decide to write about it. Their queries are almost template-like:

“When I was going through my (fill in the blank), I looked for a book that would help me. I couldn’t find any, so I decided to write this in order to help someone else.”

For starters, I see this paint-by-the-numbers explanation so much that my eyes glaze over. Reason being, rarely is this statement true. Cancer/addiction/abandonment/unemployment/divorce/etc. has been written about to ad nauseum. This kind of explanation tells me they haven’t done any research on their particular topic because their writing came from a place of healing.

In other words, they aren’t looking at their writing as a business. They’re writing because they’re wounded in some manner and want to write about it…and this doesn’t necessarily make for a marketable book. Hence, I write far more rejection letters than I do asking to see pages.

Define Yourself

Hobbyist or Hell-Yes-Katie-Bar-The-Door: Really, this appeals to all writers, not just those writing memoirs. Define your writing intent. Are you a hobbyist writer who loves the act of writing, but have no interest in going anywhere with it, or do you believe your story has merit and you’re willing to shift your thinking into doing what it takes to be a published writer? Honesty is the best policy here because it’ll save a lot of time and tears when/if you decide to query.

Expectations: In knowing how to define yourself, you need to be aware of publishers’ expectations. Publishers are professionals, and they look for authors who are equally professional. This means that you understand how the publishing business works, what is expected from you, and what you should expect from your publisher. It’s achingly hard to teach an author the rudiments of editing and promotion. Some catch on very quickly and embrace it. Others freak out and question themselves at every turn.

First off, be prepared to be edited to within an inch of your life. Editors will make editing suggestions (“I don’t understand the relationship between you and this other character.”), and it’s incumbent upon you to know how to make those changes. This requires the talents of a writer who’s serious about their craft. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to work with authors who have a good story but don’t understand the technique of writing.

If you’re serious about your writing being a business, then please make sure you don’t embarrass yourself by not having a handle on story organization, character development, plot structure, etc. This will ensure your editor’s head doesn’t explode.

Promo/Platform Talents: Successful writers are active with their promotion. A publisher’s marketing and sales teams can only go so far with distribution and marketing a memoir if the author chooses to remain uninvolved. First thing they ask is, “What’s the author doing?” If I say, “He’s sitting on his padunk-a-dunk playing Spider Solitaire,” then our sales teams are gonna be laughed out of their zip code.

Define your strengths. Some authors are great at writing articles for magazines, while others have discovered their inner hambone and enjoy doing seminars and talks. Does your memoir have topics from which you can pull that would make an effective seminar?

Whatever your strengths, it’s never too late to begin formulating that plan and putting it into action before you think about querying. For example, a friend of mine got a six-figure/3 book deal based solely on her platform. She’s not a household name, but she’s definitely out there, and a recognized expert in her field. Her agent had only the barest of an outline to pitch to editors, yet Penguin snapped her up like a hot potato. That’s because my friend treated her writing as a business. And since she is steeped in the business world, she didn’t want to rely solely on her publisher to make her success happen. She took control, and Penguin loved her more than life.

Reshape Your Thinking

Confidence: If you’ve defined yourself as a serious writer, then you need to reshape your thinking from writer to business person. Let’s face it, writing is a lonely, solitary endeavor, and you probably ask yourself if you’re worthy. This normally comes from a place of inexperience and lack of research of your competition. Sadly, this lack of confidence usually shows up in query letters or author/editor conversations.

Instead of asking yourself if you’re worthy, maybe it would be healthier to channel Stewart Smalley; “Of course I rock. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” But don’t forget that you have to have the goods to back it up, and that takes research of the very thing you’re writing about.

Research: My friend has been in the process of finding a new job. Each interview request she’s gotten, she’s done extensive research on the company, the management, and the person interviewing her because she wants to be fully prepared. But more importantly, she wants to stand out from everyone else the companies may be interviewing. There’s no denying that she knows her stuff, but if she knows the VP graduated from UCLA, then she can have some fun with him because she graduated from USC (major cross-town rivals). Is this brown-nosy? Depends on how you perceive brown nosy, I suppose. But the VP is human, and there’s nothing wrong with going off script a little in order to gain some memorable footing. She hopes he’ll remember her, and that speaks volumes when there are more people looking for jobs than there are open positions.

The same can be said about publishing. Do your homework and research your competition. Is your particular topic impacted, and if so, to what extent? If it’s been done before many times, then it’s your job to analyze what elements make your story unique. And it has to be a big “unique.” Your book about your family member’s Alzheimer’s doesn’t make it unique. However, if your book is about Early Onset Alzheimer’s, then you’re talking about a much smaller population of those kinds of books.

It’s hard to reshape your thinking because you’re entering unknown territory. You’re daring to go from writer of a specific experience to being a business entity who will help promote that experience, so you need to ask yourself how badly you want it.

Be Clear in Your Head: Authors are often wounded souls, and writing their memoir is often a catharsis. I’ve known many writers who have been penning their works for many years, yet they remain hopeful about eventual publication.

Writers taking that long to complete their memoir have mental hurdles that are preventing them from finishing their manuscripts. They’re not ready to let go. I’ve seen a number of queries that stated how the author had been working for eight years on their project, and voila…here it is! It’s a pass for me because I’m fairly certain they have no other books in them waiting to be written. They’re a one-book trick, and I’m looking for authors who have multiple books in them. A writer who looks at their writing as a business finishes the book in a timely fashion, or they stick it under the bed and start a new book. They don’t normally work on that one book for many years.

If it’s taking you years to complete your memoir, then you should ask yourself whether you’re ready to move on. If you’re still wounded and need help, then get it because you’re defeating your own road to success. You’ll never be able to move to Business Person because you’re still in the Cathartic Stage. What’s worse, is that you’ll never understand why you’re getting so many rejections, and this is where a lot of writers decide to self-publish.

It’s ok if you want to self-pub, but you must be very clear and knowledgeable about what self-publishing entails in order to enjoy any measure of success. Otherwise, you’ll disappear into the morass of other poorly thought out, poorly written books already populating the online stores.

In order to write, it helps to have a clear head. If you’re in the Cathartic Stage, then embrace it because it’s where your feelings are the most raw and honest. But if you’re serious about your writing, you need to eventually move and grow. Get clear and define yourself so you can move forward to the Business Stage, where the real success happens. Now go forth and be brilliant.


“No one will publish a memoir from a nobody.”

May 10, 2012

This is what an author told me the other day. What the what? I’m still not sure if this was the author’s cop out for not being published after a long try, but I can assure you that “Nobodies” are published all the time; and here’s why:

Memoir or (Auto)Biography?

First off, we need to get our story straight. Are you writing a Memoir or Autobiography? The terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference that writers should be aware of because it means a world of difference to editors.

Memoir:  These are autobiographies that focus on a shorter period of the writer’s life and cover a specific aspect of that time period. They have a message.

For example, Amanda Adams’ fabulous, educational, uplifting book HEART WARRIORS, focuses on Amanda’s son, Liam, and how his being born with half a heart turned her into a Heart Mom/Warrior. Same goes for Ann Meyers Drysdale’s new book YOU LET SOME GIRL BEAT YOU? which covers Annie’s life. The focus remains on how she never let anyone talk her out of her dreams; and because she fought hard to stay true to those dreams, she is one of the most well-known women basketball players of all time.

As you can see, Memoirs are often about something life-changing.

(Auto)Biography:  These cover the whole enchilada of the author’s life, or a large portion of it. There usually isn’t a particular focus other than the author’s life. This is fertile ground for well-known people. Readers gravitate to their story because they are in the public eye.

This is where unknowns have a harder time getting a bite from a publisher. As hard as this sounds, there is a “who cares?” factor. Because no one knows the author, where is the hook to reel in readers? Oftentimes, these books are lovely for friends and family.

Memoir/Autobiography is an important distinction that many writers don’t understand, and it’s the difference between “No thanks,” and “Please send me pages.”

A Rocking Story to Tell/Something to Say

Again, I look no further than our own authors. Each book has something valuable to say – something that inspires, educates, and invites introspection. There’s a distinct point to our authors’ stories, and I can define each of them in one sentence.

What about your book? Is there a message, a hook, that you can define in a single sentence, or does your story look more like a diary of “First I did this, and then I did that.” Those tend to be snooze-fests unless you’re famous.

If you can define your story’s hook, then it’s vital that you stay there; on point. It’s easy to veer off the railroad tracks because it’s hard to stay objective. After all, this is your life, and it’s so easy to talk about the time Auntie Janie got a bit tipsy and danced on the bar wearing little more than a lampshade and her Manolo Blahniks. Depending on your story, Auntie Janie’s evening with the grape may be appropriate. And that’s the operative: is it appropriate? It may be a funny story, but it may lack context with your subject matter.

Veering off course is easy to do, and I often suggest making a chapter outline so that you’re forced to stay on track. If you refer to that outline, you’ll know exactly what it is you want to say in each chapter, and you’re less likely to stick in extraneous stuff.

Always ask yourself:  Does this scene fit the message to my book?

Is it Unique?

Memoirs have a specific focus, and many times that focus is far from unique. There are jillions of books that cover addiction, midlife crisis, divorce, cancer, mental issues, and editors tend to glaze over when we see another one of these memoir queries drop into our in box.

It’s ok to write in these subjects, but you have to make sure you’re saying something different from everything else already on the market. That means you have to read your competition in order to know that you have a unique story. The fact that it’s your story isn’t enough to send you to the top of the class.

Barry Petersen’s book, JAN’S STORY, fits this bill. There are tons of Alzheimer’s books already crowding bookstore shelves. But it’s a whole different story when it comes to Early Onset Alzheimer’s. And at that, the story has to have a definite point other than, “My wife/husband has Early Onset.” Barry’s book focused on watching his wife slip away from him while he was still in the throes of a very busy professional life as a CBS journalist, and how Early Onset robs people of their life when they are still very young – quite unlike Alzheimer’s.

Too many times, authors make no better argument for their story’s unique qualities other than, “Well, it happened to me.” Yes, you are special, but I’m in the business of selling lots of books, and as lovely as you are, that isn’t a selling feature because it lacks a hook. Know your competition and be able to advocate your book’s specialness.

Who is Your Audience?

Many authors write their books and don’t give a thought about who will read them, so it can be challenging when I ask who is their intended audience, and how/where do I find them. The more well-defined your book is, the easier it is to know how and where to find your potential readers.

Platform

I know, I know, there’s that naughty “P” word again. But it’s there for a reason, which is the ability to get the book widely read. It’s not enough to have a great memoir about being a Las Vegas detective who takes down a pimp who savagely beats his “girlfriend.” The wider issue is human trafficking and how it’s far more pervasive and deadly than anyone has ever known before. So it’s no small wonder that Chris Baughman is in high demand with the human trafficking/child trafficking conferences, going so far as to capture high praise of someone in the government.

If you’re writing a memoir, you must have a platform that establishes you as an authority on your subject matter. Minus that platform, you’re going to have a hard time selling your book to a good publisher. I can’t be any plainer than that.

Is There Some Conspiracy?

An author asked me this at a conference after a tough day of agent/editor advance readings. No one wanted her memoir.

The quick answer is no. Having read her advance submission, I could understand why no one wanted her book. It simply didn’t have anything to say, and she had zero platform. I understand that constant rejection can lead to acid reflux and the idea that everyone is out to get you. But it simply isn’t the case. Don’t look without…look within. If you’re getting constant rejections, it’s a clear indication that something is wrong with your memoir.

Now, do agents and editors discuss particular horror stories? Yes. We’re a gossipy lot, just like authors. But we also talk about the cool authors just as much.

Do they blacklist? Eh. Depends on what you did. If you threatened to kidnap an agent’s kids if they didn’t read your manuscript, then this would spread like wildfire. But do agents and editors go out of their way to blacklist someone? Who has that kind of time? In short, there is no conspiracy or secret decoder ring that belches out an author’s name.

Should I Fictionalize It?

I’ve been asked whether it’s a good idea to fictionalize a memoir if the author has had a lot of rejections. It’s impossible to answer this. How much are you fictionalizing? Is the story big enough to fill a fiction billing with a great story arc? Also, are you a good fiction writer? It may seem a silly question, but I’ve seen many authors whose nonfiction is lovely and their fiction…well…isn’t. The talents that go into fiction differ from nonfiction, so you have to analyze whether you have the stuffing to write great fiction.

There are plenty of books I’ve seen that have “Based on a true story” stamped on the cover, and this makes it easier to promote because the author is talking about their life, even though the book is fiction. There’s a natural bridge.

I’ve seen stories that were fictionalized and I wished they’d made it a memoir. It’s a tough call, and you have to go with your gut.

But the endgame is that ‘Nobodies” get published all the time, and if your memoir is unique, has a clear message, you have a platform, and defined audience, then chances are that you could be among those who are looking at a contract offer. Good luck to you!


Writing memoirs – meeting the burden of marketability

November 7, 2011

Memoirs are a tricky thing because, well, we all have lives that many of us believe would make for interesting reading. And I’m sure there are those who would find your life an interesting read, but as publishers we have to look for the largest common denominator. That means many memoirs and biographies are rejected.

Since memoir and biography are our main focus, I thought I’d share some of the elements that may help you.

The Art of Reflection – It’s All About Me

The most common queries that cross my desk are writers who live through some event, or reach an age where they reflect on their experiences and decide it’s worth putting to cyber paper. These writers tend to have tunnel vision and fail to consider whether they have a marketable story. And why would they? Most aren’t “writers.” They are people who want to tell the world about their lives.

As such, they lack the art of reflection, which means they more than likely haven’t read any other memoirs because hey, “It’s all about me!” I say that without ridicule or judgement because memoirs tend to be trickier than other genres for the simple fact that each story is unique, right?

Wrong.

Since the writer hasn’t read other memoirs, he hasn’t given himself the luxury of comparison, of knowing what’s already out on store shelves. They write their cancer survivor story, blissfully unaware there are a gabajillion other cancer survival stories already jamming the marketplace – and no one is more amazed to hear there is nothing different about their story.

In their “It’s all about me,” the art of reflection failed them, and they had no idea whether they had a marketable story or not. The only way a writer can determine this is to read memoirs that cover the same kind of material. If you’re writing about cancer, a particularly overpopulated category, then you have to understand the elements that make your story different.

What’s the point? The “Who Cares?” Factor

This is a toughie because many writers don’t take a moment to ask this question. They’re invariably brand new to writing and are mired in “It’s all about me.” This is understandable because they don’t know how to think like writers selling to a marketplace. And we can thank Mr. Ego for that because he makes it tough to question our fabulosity with an objective eye.

In a word, we’re going in blind, so we may write something like this query:

I played the drums in orchestras and wrote some rousing tunes for them, learned to race cars, built and sailed a sloop, painted water colors, baked cakes, grew heirloom veggies outdoors and fruit trees indoors, built radios, ran a photo darkroom, taught myself to play the trumpet, made clothing, crocheted, learned the art of topiaries. Also a writer, I published a music textbook, two books of poetry as well as articles on home improvement, music and gardening. Oh, and I was a structural engineer, including the  patents.

There’s no focus to this query, nothing that pops out and makes me think I must have this book, or I’ll cease to live. Instead, it lacks focus. The author basically threw up his life on this page, then sat back and said,”So, how’s them apples? Cool, huh?”

Well…no. There’s no doubt this gent has enjoyed a fascinating, fruitful life, but so what? I’m not saying there aren’t memoirs whose stories focus on, “Hey, look what I did,” but those “somethings” have to be pretty pivotal. Creating penicillin, curing cancer, the life of a rodeo rider, astronaut, or celebrity food chef.

There’s a point.

Many of us are egged on by friends and family who tell us we’re so wonderful that we should write our memoirs. If we hear it enough, we may let our fingers dance along the computer keys and create what we think is a great story. Here’s a bit of advice: Friends and family are unreliable sources. We love them dearly, of course, but they are far from impartial.

So when looking at your life, honor yourself and your story by stepping outside of yourself to see whether you meet the “Who cares?” litmus test.  You can only do this by learning about writing, and learning the publishing industry. Shameless Promotion: Pick up a copy of Tackle Box…I wrote it just for you. If the gent above had done this, he may have decided that, yes, he had done a lot of interesting things, but maybe there really isn’t a story there.

“May you live in interesting times.”

We’ve all heard that, right? We think it’s something nice and positive. A blessing. In truth, its origins trace back to a curse and really means, May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life.

Gah. What a buzzkill.

However…it makes for interesting writing and some terrific memoirs. Why? Because it’s conflict, which is a vital tool in writing – be it fiction or nonfiction. If a story grabbles along all la-dee-da, where everyone is happy happy all the time, then I don’t see them living in such interesting times. It’s that disorder and trouble that make for interesting reading because we want to see how it all works out in the end.

For example, I’m currently editing a wonderful book by Ann Meyers Drysdale titled You Let Some GIRL Beat You? Annie is one of the most amazing women I’ve met in a long time because she put herself into the limelight – by no design of her own – because she simply wanted to play with the best, which turned out to be men’s basketball teams. This was during the 70s when women’s lib was rubbing up against the social mores of the time, so Annie’s exploits were played out in the media – much of it brutal. She simply wanted to play basketball with the best, and often outplayed the men. She had the nerve to shatter the iconic taunt of every childhood memory, “You gonna let some GIRL beat you??”  Well, yeah…and Annie did.

One could say that Annie lived in interesting times. She was unwittingly breaking a glass ceiling because she loves sports. All sports. And many powerful people were trying to keep her down. THAT is what makes an interesting story. Because she dared to put her head down and not let anyone tell her “no,” she became an inspiration to many who found themselves in the same boat – be it sports, life, or the workplace.

So if you’re considering your memoirs, ask yourself whether your story involves living “in interesting times.” If there’s no conflict – which is missing from the example I used above – then what is the glue that binds your story together in a fascinating fashion?

And by “time,” I don’t necessarily mean a physical time, but a metaphorical time.

  • You’re the mother of a child with a congenital heart defect (Heart Warriors)
  • You’re the wife of a man facing certain death if he doesn’t have a transplant, and the only way you can get through this is taking the tough lessons you learned from being on the Ski Patrol (The Next 15 Minutes)
  • You’re the detective who rescues victims of human trafficking, and your unique skills puts the perpetrators behind bars (Off the Street)
  • Your beloved wife has early onset Alzheimer’s and you’re traveling around the world covering breaking stories for CBS, and you grieve over how you’ll take care of her (Jan’s Story)

These are all wonderful examples of people who “live in interesting times.” They stepped outside “It’s all about me,” to reflect on the toughest question of all:  “Who cares?”

Platform

Platform, simply put, is how people know you and why they will listen to you.

Are you the detective who wrote Off the Street? Are you ski professional who wrote The Next 15 Minutes? Are you the Heart Mom who wrote about her child’s CHD? Are you the CBS journalist whose wife has Early Onset Alzheimer’s? Are you the Hall of Famer who wouldn’t let changing mores about women in sports prevent her from doing what she loved most?

These authors have platforms – meaning lots of people know them and will listen to them. They are unimpeachable. And because of their platforms, I am confident about selling lots of their books because the genre buyers are looking at those platforms as well, and order books accordingly.

So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that when I look at a query letter, my beady eye shoots straight for the author’s platform. After all, I’ve written about it enough. It needs to scratch several itches:

  • First of all, do they have a platform? This is one of the most common reasons I reject a book. It goes back to the fact that the author doesn’t understand the industry, and has no idea how books are sold. Instead, they live on Writer’s Island and write their book, believing that “if I write it, they will come.” Problem is, they rarely do.
  • Is the platform established? Lots of authors have a platform, but they haven’t done much to get it “out there.” I once had an author whose platform was that he was a high school principal. It fed nicely into his YA novel, and he sold huge amounts of books in his hometown. But outside his hometown, he was a blank slate. There was no question the author knew his subject matter, but he hadn’t established his platform beyond his town. This made it a tough sell in other cities. I suggested that he establish his platform by widening his scope, say, giving talks to parents about what kids are really thinking, which would have fed nicely into his book.
  • How big is the platform? Yes, size matters. I’ll use the example of Kim Kircher, author of the brilliant The Next 15 Minutes. I knew that her platform was that she is on the Ski Patrol at Crystal Mountain, an explosives control expert – meaning she tosses bombs out of her backpack or a helicopter and screams, “Bombs away!” – and had saved lives and seen a lot of sadness in her job. Unimpeachable. Yes, she has a platform, but my job as a soulless creature of the dark was to determine whether her platform would attract a large number of readers. The fact that her husband’s family owns a large number of resorts in the US and Canada, and their name is one of the most respected in the industry, convinced me that a lot of people know them and would want to read her touching, brave, gripping story.
  • Does the platform correspond to the subject matter? I call this “The Crossover Effect,” meaning that the author is known within a particular audience, but their book won’t necessarily appeal to them. I had a query where the author was well known in the home repair community, but his book was about addiction. I had to weigh his platform against the subject matter. Is his standing in the home repair community strong enough to where weekend home repair warriors would rush out to buy his book? Perhaps if it was Bob Villa. I concluded that his platform was too far a stretch to appeal to those who would be willing to listen to him. It would be a different story if he had written a book about the perfect way to plumb a door. I’d have felt that way even if his book was about how being bullied led him to home repair because I didn’t believe his core audience would find this appealing in large enough quantities to warrant publishing the book. Time will tell if I made the right choice.

The most important aspect of platform is one of timing. If your query letter runs along the lines of “I’m gonna..” meaning that once you have a contract deal THEN you’ll begin establishing your platform, then I have to tell you that you’re too late.

Establishing a platform takes time.

You don’t wake up one day and decide you’re going to become the darling of the Reiki community because no one knows who you are. And just because you THINK the Reiki community is your intended audience, it may turn out to be the exact opposite.

I found that out the hard way when I wrote Donovan’s Paradigm. It’s a no-brainer that most docs detest anything that has to do with alternative/complementary medicine. I knew that because I’d interviewed many at great length. Their opinions are what helped me shape the ever-adorable, swoon-worthy, doubting pain-in-the-ass Erik Behler (yes, the company is named after him…long story). Because of docs’ feelings, I felt they were the last community who would read my book.

As it turned out, the Reiki community, and the alternative medicine community at large, ignored my book. I couldn’t catch a cold with these guys. It turned out, they want to read nonfiction. But guess who came in to save the day…yep, the medical community. Knock me over with a feather. Because I had talked to so many docs, word spread about my book. So while my platform didn’t include being a doc, many thought I was, and wrote me to ask what kind of medicine I practiced. Feather, knock me over again, please.

So a word to the wise, it is never too early to establish your platform. True, my book is a novel, so the parameters are different – but the sentiment is the same.

Believability

Hello, James Frey and all the other inverted navels who pulled one over on the buying public. Because we have writers who play fast and loose with the truth, I’m wary about being sucked into someone’s story. I’ve had all kinds of queries that purported to be “the only witness” to crimes committed by government agencies, court cases, espionage, and family dealings.

Many of them sound so fantastical that even the beagle raises an eyebrow. The problem isn’t only believeability, but the problem with verification. If someone tells me they were a groupie for The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, and The Beatles, and their book is a “tell all,” I’m gonna need some proof…which they can’t provide because, hey man, it was the sixties, and who kept records. But I was invited to contact Paul McCartney or Charlie Watts for verification.

Right. Let me get right on that.

In closing, Memoirs are fabulous things because we enjoy reading about the cool things someone did or lived through. They’re often inspirational, amusing, educational, and thought-provoking.

If you take the time to reflect on:  why you’re writing your story, asked yourself, “Who cares?”, your story took place in “interesting times,” your story is believable, and you have an established platform, then I daresay you’ve met the burden of marketability. Now go out and be brilliant!


Memoirs – will anyone care?

October 16, 2010

I’ve been playing catch up with my query Inbox this weekend, and I’ve received a large number of memoirs. Out of the 26 I’ve read, I’ve asked to see pages for one. The rest were rejected.

Folks, memoirs are tough. Period.

We all think our lives are fascinating and worthy of being between covers. But the harsh facts are that most of us are pretty dull and we lack the objectivity to realize that. Instead, we whup out our trusty laptops and begin banging out our “I was born in a log cabin on a cold and lonely January morn…” Blah blah blah.

Memoirs are literary Peeping Toms, and that means you need to have something worth taking a peek through the window. So what if you married a man with seven toes on one foot and who had mommy issues? What’s the freaking point?

Memoirs require a BIG STORY.

Here’s what I found myself uttering this weekend:

The “Who Cares” Factor/What’s the Point?

You need to ask yourself the point of writing your story. I look at these “reality” shows on TV and want to gag because they blather on without a point. Each one works overtime to have the biggest sleazoid factor because producers know that we’re simple-minded ocelots, and sleaze sells.

-“Hey, my looooser husband and I sneaked into a White House dinner!”
-“Oh yeah? Well my hubby is a mafioso and even though we’re in foreclosure, I blew a fortune taking my family to Italy!”

Good holy looserville, Batman…have these people no shame? And really, why should they? They sell, sell, sell because TV is a medium where you can take any lowlife and turn them into moneymaking enterprises because we’ve all lost our minds.

Thankfully, literature is a bit more discerning and the “hey, lookee at me!” memoirs are pretty much relegated to movie stars and prepubescent rap singers. They don’t need a point.

But you do.

And that’s because you’re a “nobody.” You probably don’t have the huge platform that will launch a thousand ships…sorry…books. Face it, you’re selling your life, so you gotta have a point. A purpose. Something that makes people care. Ask yourself very honestly if you meet the “Who Cares?” factor.

Let me give an example. A number of years ago, I spent 17 bug-filled days in the Peruvian Amazon with a medical team to do research on a book I’m writing. From time to time I’ve amused my family with a few of the sillier/poignant/tragic stories of my time over there. Mom, whose my biggest fan, dontcha know, told me to write about those experiences. Eh, sez me, what’s the point? Heck, Ma, I’m a nobody.

Sure, it’s an exotic locale that most right-thinking people would avoid like the beagle avoids sobriety, but what’s my hook? Insane writer goes to Amazon with medical team? So what? However, I could dig deeper and explain that while I went to the Amazon so I could write a book, I never expected how it would change my life. Maybe it would be an Eat, Pray, Love a la Amazon. And don’t snigger, Lizzie Gilbert is stinking rich!

I dunno…maybe Mom is right and there is a story in there.  God knows I had the mosquito bites to show for it. But I have to think about who would care and why they’d care.

Who Are You?

As I’ve said before, movie stars and talentless hacks who don’t even shave yet can break wind, and it’ll get them a book deal. But why would anyone care about you? Who are you? What do you bring to the party? The memoirs we publish all have a raison d’etre – whether it’s a woman renewing her faith through some of the toughest family issues or a tough ad man who thumbed his nose at Madison Avenue by creating some of the most memorable ads in America.

They did something extraordinary and meaningful.

What did you do? Who are you?

Have You Read Your Competition?

The reason I ended up tossing nearly all the memoirs is because it was very clear the authors hadn’t read any memoirs. A classic mistake. I maintain that it’s hard to know whether you have a story unless you’ve read the other stories that are already on the marketplace.

This is the nice version of “know thy self, know thy enemy.” Remember, you have to justify why your memoir is worth reading, so you have to be able to speak to what’s out there. Surviving cancer was a fabulous memoir at one time. But now there are gajillions cancer memoirs out there. Unless you have something unique to say, you’re going to have a hard time selling it. And you won’t know if you have something unique unless you’ve read your competition.

One of the saddest moments was when I was working with a woman who wrote a cancer memoir. I told her there was nothing unique about her story and recommended that she read her competition and analyze what made their stories worth reading. Three months later she wrote back to tell me that I was right – she had no story. Being right never felt so crappy.

I’m the last one to denigrate anyone’s life, but I have to look for what I know I can sell.

Is It Complete?

Many authors feel that since a memoir is nonfiction (unless you’re James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces), they don’t have to complete the book. So I’ll get queries that consist of a prologue and a couple chapters.

This. Is. Wrong.

First off, debut authors don’t have a readership or track record. Secondly, they’re writing about their life. I have no idea how it ends because they’re unknown, and I have very little idea how they write. So I’m left with very little. This isn’t a promising beginning upon which I’m willing to offer a contract.

If your life is that amazing,then write it. It shows that you’re committed to your story.

Unless you’re a public figure, like Barry Petersen or Stan Chambers, a memoir is far different than writing about, say, a true crime, something where we know how it turns out. And at that, both gents’ books were complete.

Keep in mind that an unfinished memoir is easy to reject because there are too many unknown variables.

Do Your Homework

So you can see there are a lot more factors that go into a successful memoir than initially meets the eye. The best gift you can give yourself is to do your homework. Figure out why your story is important. Know your competition. Figure out who you are and what you bring to the party. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll be miles ahead of the folks who received rejection letters this weekend.


Memoirs: What’s your hook?

April 28, 2010

Remember that show called What’s My Line? Ok, I’m dating myself as part of the Early Dawn of Man, but I loved that show because they always had great guests whose odd occupations made it easy to stump the stars [also because half of them were buzzed].

Well, writing a memoir is much the same thing. What’s your line? Or really, what’s your hook?

Many memoirs that cross my desk aren’t marketable because they lack a hook. The #1 reason for that is because the author is too close to his own story. Most of us lead interesting lives [well, except me, of course, where I live out my existence chained to a desk with a boozy beagle who refuses to file or answer phones] and think our lives or experiences would make a great book. As a result, I see a lot of the:

  • “I grew up on a farm and milked a cranky cow”
  • “I survived cancer by eating pecan pies”
  • “I went to Tibet to study Buddhism”

These are  “so what?” stories. They aren’t interesting because they lack a hook. While they may be mildly entertaining to the author’s family and friends, agents and editors are looking for something that knocks us out of our chairs.

How do I know if I have a hook?

Funnily enough, most authors don’t stop to ask themselves this question when it comes to a memoir. They just sit down to write about their lives with no particular direction.

And that’s the key: Direction. Where are you going with your story? What’s your point? Is this a story with no road map? If so, how are you going to know when you’ve reached your destination? And if you do, will anyone care?

There has to be a purpose, a direction to your story. That is your hook. Let’s look back at the “I went to  study Buddhism in Tibet” example. So what, right? An agent or editor may think it’s another story of seeking spiritual or religious enlightenment. But what if the author says, “Going to Tibet to study Buddhism was less about spiritual awakening than it was in my relentless pursuit to get laid.”

Wha’? Ok, that makes me sit up and take notice because the two ideas are so contrary. That’s a hook. Now whether that hook is marketable is another issue, but at least it got my attention.

Categorize me!

There isn’t a “Mindless Wandering” category in the bookstores or any place in publishing, so what do our sales teams say when pitching to a genre buyer? The first thing they need to do is give a category. Look at your memoir; does it have a category?

  • Inspirational?
  • Educational?
  • True crime?
  • Travel essay?
  • Humor – a la Erma Bombeck?
  • Family issues?

Yes, yes, authors HATE to be categorized, but really – get over it. First thing anyone asks is, “what’s your book about?” It’s a lot easier to explain if you’ve pigeonholed yourself because now we have a frame of reference.

Have a Message

Memoirs of famous people have their own hook by the merits of their fabulosity [yes, I know it’s not a word]. But most of us walk with both feet on terra firma and breathe the same air, so I look for a memoir that says something, has a message. This is meat I can sink my teeth into.

Look at the list above and decide where you fit. Then ask yourself whether you have a message. You can have a travel essay, but what is the message? If your story is about buying a house in Rangoon and discovering it’s infested with pygmy mice, then what is the message about your travel essay?

Readers are looking for a story that makes us think long after they’ve finished the book, makes us care, so you want to consider whether your story makes an impact. And the way to do that is to have a message. I love a good memoir that forces me to look inward, to look at my own life with a different perspective.

Example

For instance, my dear mother married my dear father and discovered too late that he had this crazy side that said things like, “Hey, darlin’, Parsons Corp. has a jobsite starting up in Baatman, Turkey. Let’s go!” Now this is in 1953-ish, so there’s no town, no hospital, no school, no nuthin’.  But Mom, good soldier that she is, sez, “sure, sweetie.” Mind you, they have three small kids [I’m not quite a glimmer in anyone’s eyes yet].

Now what kind of brain slippage does it take to say yes to this adventure? But they went and had an incredible experience. They tell stories that make my sides split – like my brother drinking Mom’s perfume – her last vestige of civilization – and he didn’t have the good grace to even barf it up. Or the time Mom, who was forever fishing my sibling’s toys out of the toilet and sink, reached into the toilet to retrieve a dropped frog, only to discover it was real. I’m sure she left a dent in the ceiling.

Then there are the poignant stories about how my father gave money to a village so they could grow crops  and survive. For hundreds of miles, villages knew of my dad, and would always make sure they were safe and always protected. When my sister got scarlet fever, people traveled for miles to make sure “the American girl” was ok. Still chokes me up.

All told, Mom is an incredibly good sport, and I love her adventurous spirit and love for my dad that she’d say yes to something that would have most people grabbing for a Xanax. Her experiences of Alice stepping through the Reality Glass with three young kids are great fodder for a memoir because there are so many elements that create the hook, the category, and the message.

Hook: “Stick with me, kid, I’ll show you the world!”
Category: Travel essay
Message: True happiness is how you handle life when it spills its guts in your lap.

Take another look at your memoir and ask yourself three basic questions:

What’s my hook?
What’s my category?
What’s my message?

As for Mom, I think she’s certifiable, but I do adore her more than anything.


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