If that wasn’t lovely enough, 500 books flew out the door at four Seattle Costcos. Yup, sold out. In five weeks. Not bad, not bad.
Kristin, you rock…
If that wasn’t lovely enough, 500 books flew out the door at four Seattle Costcos. Yup, sold out. In five weeks. Not bad, not bad.
Kristin, you rock…
First off, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged since November! Where did the time go? Yikes.
Anyhoo, the months have passed by all too quickly, and I’ve been keeping myself off the street by working on this amazing book, THE CHICKEN WHO SAVED US – releases April 4.
I know I’ve mentioned it many times, but being in this business is such an honor because of the many outstanding people I’ve had the luxury of meeting. Kristin Jarvis Adams is just one such person.
I met Kristin at the fabulous Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference in Seattle. We had been trying to make contact, but her pitch sessions didn’t seem to coincide with mine, so I suggested breakfast. Oh, she was so nervous, and I really wanted to reach out and tell her that I’m the last person anyone should be afraid of. I’m fairly benign. Really. But she gulped and dug in. What came out of her mouth riveted me to my seat.
Her son, Andrew, was autistic. Being a teacher in a prior incarnation, I was well-familiar with the challenges of working with autistic kids, and their tough time with communication. If this challenge wasn’t enough, Andrew grew deathly ill, and he and his family were thrown into a decade-long quest to diagnose and find a cure. The only person (thing?) he would confide in was his pet chicken Frightful. To her, he spoke of his secrets and fears.
The long and short of it is that Kristin’s story is one that truly touched my heart. I’ve probably read the manuscript a dozen times or more throughout the production process, and I laughed hysterically and grabbed for my Kleenex box Every. Damn. Time. Yah, it’s that good.
But the message I hope to put across is how my authors humble me. They’ve had experiences drop into their laps that would destroy the souls of mere mortals. And that is why I hold all of my authors in such high esteem. It’s truly an honor to say, “Yah, I published their book.” Happy sigh.
If you find yourself wanting to read a riveting impossible-to-put-down story about a place where heroes wear capes, chickens talk, and miracles happen, then march thee to the nearest bookstore and pre-order THE CHICKEN WHO SAVED US. And if you live in the Seattle area, then be sure to catch many of Kristin’s upcoming appearances. Knowing Kristin is like a warm hug.
Many of the query letters I receive have this exclamation in it – meaning that friends and family who’ve heard the author’s personal journey punctuate their excitement and support by prodding the author to write about their experiences. On the surface it seems a great idea.
And yes, there’s always a “however.” It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of having people around you insist that your story is amazing enough take up residence on store shelves. But it may not be the reality, and it’s important that you know the difference.
The Friends and Family Bias
Your friends and family will love you even if you have spinach stuck in your front teeth, so they’re far from being unbiased. And that’s a good thing. You want to have good people surrounding you. However…agh, there’s that dreaded word again…they’re too close to you and not educated in the ways of all things publishy.
This is precisely why I receive an overabundance of addiction/cancer/midlife crisis/I-was-a-child-of-war queries. The author is pumped by their friends and family and they dig right in without realizing there is A LOT of ground to cover from, “Hey, you oughta write a book!” to actually being convinced you have a marketable story…and thy name is Research.
Competition: How many stories like yours are already on store shelves? If there are a gajillion cancer stories out there (and there are), then you need to know that. You need to be prepared if you’re writing in a crowded category, such as cancer, divorce, grieving, etc.
Why do you need to know? ‘Cos I’m gonna ask, for one. I want to know the three titles that compare most closely to your book – how they compare and contrast. Why? ‘Cos my sales and marketing teams are going to ask. Why? ‘Cos the genre buyers are going to ask. Whee! Dominoes.
READ: It’s not enough to look at store shelves to see how many other books like yours are in the marketplace; you gotta READ them. Why? ‘Cos you need to be able to speak to the unique elements of YOUR book. And this is where many queries/submissions fall down. I can tell whether an author has read her competition or not in the way she writes her query letter. She may use short examples to offer a frame of reference:
“My Inverted Belly Button is reminiscent of the popular 2014 adventure Inverted Belly Button Blues, however my story is specifically geared to college students, who are much more sensitive to having an inverted belly button than the general public.”
This is helpful to me because I can quickly recognize an expansive and identifiable readership. This is a savvy author who understands the unique elements of their story compared to a popular book in the same category. This helps our sales and marketing teams a great deal.
Platform: Memoir/nonfiction is a tough nut, and authors need to have a platform in which to swim to the top. Ask yourself not how many people you know…but how many people know you? Are you the airline pilot who wrote about her cockpit experiences? Are you the mother of a desperately sick child who has done countless talks and seminars about this subject matter? Are you an expert in the topic you’ve written about to the point where media would call you for your input?
Platform wears many different faces, but I can tell you that authors who have a large footprint sell a lot of books. Those who sit on their hands either don’t get a good publishing contract, or they make their publishers very grouchy.
Writing Quality/Beta Readers: It sounds elementary, but it’s so often overlooked that it bears discussing. Your writing has to be solid, meaning an excellent command of the English language, artfully constructed, and engaging. Of course, writing style is subjective, so it’s tough to gauge. But this is where beta readers come in handy. These aren’t your friends and family (because they’ll never be honest), but instead, your writing group, or writing class. People who will be able to honestly tell you what did and didn’t work for them, and why.
Ask Yourself These Questions
As you can see, thar be lots to consider after some darling relative or friends yelps, “You oughta write a book!” The idea is to set yourself up for success, and that means having the ability to determine whether you really have a great story in your heart, or that your friends and family need to be committed.
It should be a no-brainer that anyone looking to pitch their story would do so in a mindful manner that would ensure they’re dealing with people who would be interested in their story. For instance, romance publishers will hardly be fascinated with a fantasy (unless said fantasy included some heavy breathing and talk of penetration). Likewise, horror publishers will give memoir a huge pass.
Okay, these are the “duh, Pricey” examples; others are a bit more subtle. For example, we publish memoir/biography/self help, but that doesn’t mean all types of memoir/biography/self help books will scratch our itch. If you have a sweeping Forrest Gump type memoir that encompasses someone’s life and all the happenings that take place over a twenty-five year span, it isn’t for us. We don’t do that.
Sure, I talk about what we’re looking for in our guidelines, but many authors see “Memoir” and stop thinking, and begin sending. Once I get it, I’ll immediately send them a rejection letter – which sucks stale Twinkie cream. It’s a rejection letter that didn’t have to happen if the author had simply done one thing…looked at our list of books. It’s called narrowing the field.
Agents have a much broader gauge of genre with what they represent. They’ll take all memoir/biography, or all fantasy and romance. They don’t narrow the field because they sell to a wide range of editors. Publishers, on the other hand, specialize. At least the smaller independent houses do, because that’s their expertise. They become known for it. If you’re looking for personal journeys, I’m your gal. If you have a saga, then someone else can better fit the bill.
If you’re ever in a quandry about whether a publisher is right for your work, simply go over to see what they’ve pubbed. Read the synopses. That way, you’ll get a better feel for who they are. Take a look at the description of what they’re looking for. Yes, this all takes time, but isn’t it better to query those who publish the exact kinds of books like the one you’ve written?
Work smart and hit a home run!
Of late, I seem to be the recent recipient of every addiction/abuse/life nightmare story ever written. I realize people have tragic lives, and writing about them can bring about a large measure of emotional release and comfort. And yes, I do publish memoir – so I understand I’m a non-moving target. But for crying out loud – so many of these stories are simply too horrendous, and I find myself reaching for mouthwash and eye bleach. Many of these, I simply want to unsee.
Many of these queries have no other purpose than to horrify (mission accomplished) and cluck one’s tongue about how gruesome humans are to one another. My concern about these stories is…do you have a point? It’s one thing to flood the market with “Read About What Ghastly Shit Happened To Me” stories before readers tire of the sameness of it all. It’s the literary equivalent of the National Enquirer…and sure, they do have a large readership, but where those stories are sandwiched between the covers of a known quantity, your Lurid Lucy story stands all by itself – without benefit of a ready audience. And the queries I’ve seen seem intent on out-grossing each other.
“My story is about how I was abused at 7.”
“Oh yeah, well I’ll up that by telling my story about how I became a prostitute at 10 and addicted to cocaine.”
Oh dear GOD!!! Enough! I can’t handle it.
My problem isn’t necessarily what happened to these people (and my soulless heart breaks for them), but where they put the focus. If the nucleus is about detailing every inch of each horror, then what’s the point of the story? Is this violence for violence’s sake? Is it self therapy? Is it both?
I can appreciate anyone who comes through a tough life and finds unicorns and rainbows on the other side, but in order to get my attention, these stories have to have a point. A message. And that’s the problem with Gruesome Gandys…the messages always seem to be the same: Believe in yourself.
Never give up.
Whatever it is, it’s already been written about. A lot. And since there’s nothing unique about the message, it’s very hard to get readers’ attention, let alone an agent or publisher’s. The media and reviewers will invariably yawn because it’s a Been Thar, Done That kinda book.
Of course, some stories are very tough to read and a literary masterpiece. I think of our own book MOMMY, I’M STILL IN HERE. Kate McLaughlin unflinchingly writes about the ravages of bipoloar disorder that afflict two of her kids. I spent much of the book with my fist in my mouth. But I was also blown away because Kate never keeps the sole focus on the horrors – but about finding the light at the end of the tunnel and that bipolar disorder isn’t a death sentence, and people can go on to live happy, healthy, productive lives. I cheered. I huzzah’d. I jumped on furniture and fist-pumped the air. It was because of those horrors that I could rejoice in the sweetness of success. But the vital element was that the message was unique, and she had a clear point to make.
If you’ve had a horrid life, you have my blessings and hugs. If you want to write about those horrors, ask yourself why you’re writing it. Is it a form of therapy, or do you have a concrete message? If you have a concrete message, is it the same one that’s already been written about thousands of times already? If so, then how are you going to interest an agent or editor?
Lastly, the only way to know whether you have something that’s been done to ad nauseam or unique is to read books in the topic you’re writing about. You have to go from victim to analyst in order to determine whether you have a point, or whether you’re simply talking about your horrible life. And if it’s solely about your horrible life, please, please, please, don’t query me. I’m on heart medicine, yanno…
I appreciate a good story that says, “Holy crap, Pricey, wanna hear what happened to me?” But the operative is “holy crap.” It’s like when Barry Petersen’s wife, Jan, was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s while he was still CBS’ Asian correspondent. How do you care for the love of your life and still maintain your career? JAN’S STORY oozes “holy crap!”-itude…by opening a vital discussion about the unique problems of Early Onset Alzheimer’s – which include love, working, saying goodbye, all while trying to maintain a job. There’s nothing else like it on the marketplace and there’s a huge readership, so it’s easy to see why it’s a bestseller.
And I reject many, many other Alzheimer stories because they lack those qualities.
Now, I realize “holy crap!” stories are subjective, and what I perceive to be a “holy crap!”-tastic story and the author’s perception of “holy crap!”-tastic could be as far apart as my bank account and retirement. Since we pour time and gobs of money into each title, I have to depend on the marketplace. What’s already out there? Is what you’re saying unique? Will they buy it?
Using that as a litmus, I’ve been going through my latest round of query letters, and nearly all of them lack that “holy crap!” element that will merit the marketplace’s attention in numbers large enough to blip the reader radar.
I know – I can hear you screaming from here: “What the hell, Pricey, what makes a memoir “holy crap!”-worthy?? It’s all so subjective.” Well, here’s my take on it: We all experience life in a myriad of ways. Some get debilitating diseases or have the motherlode of Bandini drop in their laps. The thing with memoirs is that Life happens to us, not through us…and it’s how we choose to deal with that crap that makes a story.
Ye Olde Cancer/Addiction/Death/Divorce/Life Change
These are the members of the Unholy Cinquinity tribe – so named because there are 5 instead of 3 – get it (oh the cleverness abounds)? These are the hot buttons that usually melt my brain before I finish reading a query letter. Why? Because they’ve been Written. To. Death. Unless you have a huge platform or have an incredibly unique message, these books are next to impossible to market.
But don’t despair…be aware.
For example, when Amy Biancolli’s lovely agent sent me her proposal over Christmas vacation – I wanted to reject it outright because it’s about losing her husband. In my mind’s eye Joan Didion already sailed that ship with THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. But her agent prodded me, so I huffed and puffed and committed to read the first chapter. Well, a few hours later I finished the entire manuscript because I couldn’t put it down. Not only is Amy’s writing some of the best I’ve ever read, but her story is unique when compared to all the other books of the same genre.
Of course, it details losing her husband, but it’s also about putting the pieces back and FIGURING SHIT OUT. It’s irreverent, poignant, honest – and carries the universal theme that we all have shit that needs figuring out, and we don’t always have to do it with dark-cloaked-respectful-whispers-knit-eyebrows seriousness. Sometimes gallows humor is the closest thing to sanity, yanno? I see Amy’s book as an inspiration for anyone wallowing in their own shit.
That is a “Holy crap!” story I know I can sell.
Conversely, I’ve rejected two other “death” books in the past two weeks that were, indeed, sad, but basically rode on Joan Didion’s coattails. Heartbreaking, yes, but there was no hook.
I feel horrible for all of these stories, but what makes it marketable? These same experiences have happened to many others, so I always have to ask mysel, “Who cares?” Sure, it’s cutthroat and heartless (I have no soul, remember?), but so is publishing. If you don’t have your Big Girl/Boy panties on and objectively pre-screen yourself, then you’re going to suffer a lot of rejection. Which sucks.
I see many stories that are more like therapy sessions than marketable books. They’re too personal, so I sometimes feel like a Peeping Tonya. Many times, the stories are a rehash of books that are already crowding store shelves, so the “holy crap!” elements already exist…in someone else’s book.
If you write in one of the Unholy Cinquinites, you have to be able to defend your story’s viability:
Writers of the Unholy Cinquinities who have a grip on these questions are in a better position to understand the “holy crap!”-ness of their stories and highlight those elements in their query letters so a heartless, soulless editor won’t reach for the bottle before hitting the Reject button.
Like I said, Don’t despair…be aware. Now go out and embrace your “holy crap!”-ness.
An agent queried me with a terrific sounding book. Then I read the two chapters she sent me. They were rough. The subject matter was a tug-at-the-heart-and-take-no-prisoners, yet the voice was distant and disconnected, almost like a journalist’s accounting for Dry As Cardboard Weekly.
I wrote back to the agent with my comments about the lack of emotional appeal, and asked if there were more chapters because the subject matter was so compelling. Alas, the book had only those chapters, however the author was in the process of writing more chapters, and would I be interested in seeing them in a couple weeks? Sigh.
The agent let the literary cat out of the bag too soon, and didn’t have anything to back it up. I’ve already seen the chapters and complained about them, so what makes me believe some hastily written chapters will change my mind?
There is nothing worse than having an interested editor and not being able to provide, and here’s why:
First Chapters Danger Zone
I know you’re eager, and it’s not at all unusual to sell a nonfiction work based on a few chapters, but there is so much that can go wrong, and this is what I call the First Chapters Danger Zone.
You’re asking three chapters to do a lot of heavy lifting. Everything hinges on roughly 50 pages, so those pages need to rock.
Blow any one of these, and it’s a rejection. Simple reason being, you haven’t given me enough to sink my teeth into, so it’s easy to give it a pass. I’m not invested enough to care.
Offer to Quickly Write More Chapters
Let’s say I ask for more chapters – as I did with the example above – and there aren’t any written, but you’re more than willing to write some quickly and get them to me. Depending on the strength of those first chapters, I’ll either say fine, or no thanks – and here’s why:
Lack of Faith: If your first chapters are pretty weak and don’t hit the criteria I mentioned above, then I don’t have faith that subsequent chapters will be any better.
Hurry Hurry Rush Rush: In the eleven years I’ve been doing this, I have yet to see many authors who could quickly crank out subsequent chapters that rocked. Imagine having your agent call you and tell you that an editor wants to see more. You don’t have more. Yikes! Bite your nails down to the quick…then grab your laptop, five gallons of coffee, and some chocolate laced with uppers, and begin writing.
The whole time you’re writing and foregoing sleep, that wicked voice is screeching like a banshee loaded on dexedrine: HURRY THE HELL UP! THAT EDITOR NEEDS THESE CHAPTERS YESTERDAY! SHE’S INTERESTED!!!!! YAHOO!!!!!!!!! CAN’T WAIT TO TELL MOM I SOLD MY BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FINALLY, I’M GOING TO BUY GREECE AND LIVE IN LUXURY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Is your writing at your literary peak under those circumstances? Experienced writers know what they’re capable of under most circumstances. Debut authors haven’t been in this position before, so they have a stronger tendency to send inferior chapters that end up killing the entire deal.
Long story short – nothing good comes from hurry hurry rush rush.
The Incomplete Manuscript Blues
The road of the incomplete manuscript is fraught with trolls and vampires…and snarly editors.
Not Planning Ahead: If you’re trying to sell a work based on a few chapters, you need to consider that an editor may want to see a bit more. Do have “more,” or will you have to barf it out in record time if someone asks?
Who Are You?: If you don’t have some sort of public presence, then I don’t have much to go on in terms of knowing how well readers may accept your book. Are you a debut author who doesn’t have any other books that I can read in order to see your complete writing? The less I know about you, the less willing I am to take a chance on you with a scant three chapters. How do I know the rest of your book will rock? How do I know you have what it takes to organize a book in an entertaining manner? We have no concrete way of knowing how your book will end. A detailed chapter outline only goes so far.
Publishers spend a ton of money, and they need as much of a sure thing as they can realistically get. If they’re on the fence about a three-chapter submission, it’s easier to say no than yes. Are you willing to gamble with your career like that?
Subsequent Problems With Selling a Partial
Tailor Made: An author sent me her first chapters and said she didn’t finish the manuscript on purpose so she could tailor it to my recommendations. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not an editor’s job to tell an author how to write their book. An editor’s job is to read a manuscript and make suggestions to make it better – nor does an editor have that kind of time. This is not a compelling justification for not completing your manuscript.
Underperformance: Over the years I’ve bought books based on a few chapters and a detailed chapter outline, and twice I ended up cancelling the project because the finished product simply didn’t live up to the first chapters. The rest of it fell apart. Since that time, I’m gun shy…and I’m not the only editor out there who is. We’ve all been disappointed at one time or another.
Time: Authors have oodles of time to spend on those first chapters that are slated to go out for query. They have tweaked and perfected to the point of fabulosity (we hope). If they’re a debut author of memoir, chances are they haven’t written a full-length book before, so no one really knows if they can or not. Now you have a deadline AND figuring out how/if you can write a book.
Writing against a deadline is daunting, and debut authors don’t realize this until they’re knee-deep in the process. It takes buckets of time, and they end up turning in what is basically their first draft because they were in a rush to meet their deadline. May I be honest here? First drafts suck stale Twinkie cream. First drafts are you telling yourself the story, and I would rather eat a rusty razorblade than edit a first draft. In fact, I won’t. A turn-in ready manuscript needs to have many revisions before it’s ready for human consumption…assuming editors are human, that is.
And face it, second and third drafts are pretty rough stuff, too.
Adding to the deadline pressure is that your editor has slated your book to release in a certain season, and all their marketing and promotion is based on that date. Changing that season is akin to melting granite, and I guarantee editors will drink engine grease if you turn in a rough piece of work that requires huge chunks of editing time and huge chunks of rewrites that threaten meeting that release date.
Been there, done that. It’s why my hair color comes out of a bottle and I mainline cheap gin.
In short, if you really want to sell your book, then why not finish it? Not letting the cat out of the bag too soon could be the difference between a yes and a no thanks.
Any of you have reasons for not finishing your book?
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:
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:
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.