Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

essay collections

I have written a collection (55k words) of memoir essays...sort of a memoir of unconnected chapters. I've sold some that have been published in large and small magazines.

I have queried a zillion agents without success and have concluded that unless the author has some celebrity, agents (and the large publishers) are not interested in this sort of thing. Just too uncertain to make enough money to justify the time and effort. I'm okay with that.

I am thinking I might try the small publishers directly. I am not interested in self publishing at all.

May I ask for any advice you might offer.


Unconnected chapters means there's no narrative arc. That means this book is a series of unconnected essays: so, what's it about? If you can't tell me what the book is about in 25 words or less, it's really hard to pitch it. And I don't mean just to me, I mean it's hard for me to pitch it to an editor, an editor to her boss, or to the acquisitions meeting, for sales to pitch it to accounts, for film guys to pitch it to producers, for subrights agents to pitch it to audio publishers and translation agents.

Personal memoir is often described as "tricky" which is a kind way of saying "no, not everyone has led a life that's interesting to other people." And by interesting to other people, I mean willing to fork over $16.00 to read all about it.

Notice I didn't say important and I didn't say it was dull, but face facts: people are generally interested in themselves, and books that will have resonance for them. One of the most crushing facts you learn in publishing is that No One Else Cares.

Unless you've been involved in some hitherto unknown aspect of a historically significant event, chances are your memoir isn't going to garner trade publishing interest.

Sure there are exceptions. They tend to be written by people who are bitingly funny: David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs; or by people with some significant writing credentials: David Carr.

There are exceptions to this of course, but they're rare. If you don't think they're rare it's because you don't see all the projects that DON'T get published.

I shopped two terrific memoirs in 2015, both of which I thought had real potential and neither got a nibble of any kind.

Smaller publishers can make money selling fewer copies it's true, but it doesn't mean they are less selective than anyone else. On the contrary, they're often MORE selective cause they publish fewer books than the bigs.

Without specifics about your book, remember I'm speaking in generalities here. You'd be wise to invest some time in a memoir writing workshop to get some advice from someone who's actually seen your work. Grub Street in Boston has a good one. There are others as well.

73 comments:

Colin Smith said...

Good tips here, Janet. Doesn't platform count for something if you happen to be one of the "exceptions"? You may not have a perspective on a major historical event, but you write about life and the world about you in a way that evidently others enjoy. That "evidently" is demonstrated by the fact you have a huge blog following, or you're a regular commentator on NPR, or millions of Twitter followers hang on your every tweet. Something about the author's memoir, or essay collection, has to tell the editor, "Lots of people will buy this."

Another crushing truth about publishing is, yes, they're in it for the money first and foremost. That seems harsh to us arty types who like being creative because that's who we are, and financial gain isn't paramount in our minds. But publishing's a business filled with people who want to feed their families, put gas in their cars, pay their bills, and maybe buy some nice things.

Thanks for asking your q., Opie. Good insights, Janet--thank YOU! :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie: that's also a problem in novels, having episodic chapters that don't have a larger "narrative arc" as Janet writes. Is there someway you can organize the essays so that there is an arc? A larger overall point?

I'm thinking of Chicken Soup of the Soul type books. What made them such a sell-out (are they still?)

Janet, are you able to share, in vague-protect-privacy language, what it was about the memoirs that you thought had real potential but received no nibbles?

Megan V said...

"No, not everyone has led a life that's interesting to other people."

^^

This is one of those things that I think we often forget about simply because it's an unpleasant reality. There are some people who have lives I'd love to read about—ahem...Julie Weathers...ahem—and others, like myself, who have led a life that people would not want to pay to read about.(not necessarily dull but not salable either)

Side note: I think many people think of smaller publishers as a sort of fallback, which isn't necessarily the best approach.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well hello, I could have been today's Opie but I am not.

My memoir collection (essays/articles/columns)connects to readers in a general sense as shared experience with insight. Some are funny, informative and quite moving. The book's arc and flow carries readers along my life/writing path from first published piece as, why I wrote what I wrote and what happened after.
And I have built a platform, of sorts, above my minnow in a mud puddle fame. A winner right?

Slams on brakes here.

Like you Opie, I have queried a bazillion times and the response from some agents has been very supportive and actually quite respectful and nice. Makes me feel as if writing the book was the right thing to do but not at the right time.

And that is because in order for a memoir like mine, and perhaps yours, to make it we have to do, at least, two things. Publish books that make people want to read about us the author OR write something that goes so viral readers clamor to know who we are and what we are about.

I have often called "query" a four letter word for all writers, but for essayists like us, "platform" should be spelled WTF.

Taking a memoir class helps, I did that. Everybody there had a story, some amazing, some self-serving, some just plain BS. But what I really learned was to ask myself, "the question":

What would make someone want to spend twenty bucks on your story? More importantly, why would someone spend a significant chunk of time out of their lives to read your essays?

If you can answer that you do have a winner.

Amy Schaefer said...

Opie, what are your writing goals? Do you want to be a essayist? If that is where you want to focus your time and energy, then writing for magazines (just as you have been) might be a better fit than trying to publish a full-length book. If you really do want to publish a beginning-to-end memoir, can you do what Lisa suggested and discover the red thread that connects your essays? Step back and show us the bigger picture.

Whatever you decide to do with your memoir, don't forget your other writing projects if you have them.

Lennon Faris said...

OP, the silver lining is, you had some of them published. So you know the writing isn't half bad and that other people actually enjoy your work. That is more than some debut authors know when they start querying! That narrows down what you need to work on. Sounds like everyone here has already pointed out what that might be! Good luck.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This is a tough position to be in. Even though OP is against it, my initial feeling was this was a tailor made case for self-publishing. However, I think others are much better informed on this topic. Carolynn, Lisa, and Amy made some excellent points. Good luck to you.

LynnRodz said...

OP, I think you may have a better chance if your essays are humorous in the vein of Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, or our own Julie M. Weathers. People's lives may not be as interesting as we ourselves would like to imagine, but if you can make people laugh that's a whole other ballgame. People will fork over the $16 for a good laugh on the first page even if no one has ever heard of you. Maybe I'm wrong, but I know I would. Good luck!

DLM said...

I feel awful for "saying this out loud" so to speak, but when I hear about a series of unrelated personal essays, I think that's a blog.

There is SO much of this sort of thing out on the internet for free, there has to be a seriously compelling reason to invest in the cost to produce it on paper (and/or e-book form), and for anyone to spend money on it.

A woman at my church self-pubbed, knowing how hard it is to sell memoir, but she has tirelessly supported her work and has had quite gratifying success with it. Like EMG, this sounds to me like a candidate for this kind of debut.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I guess my question would be what kind of 'no's Opie is getting. I would feel extremely nervous sending a collection of essays to a small publisher if I'd only been getting form rejections (of course, I get nervous writing emails to family members).

And what are your motives for wanting to be published, Opie? I'm little unpublished nobody over here, but what you want out of getting published might be achieved by alternative methods. I'm not familiar with publishing essays, but if they're largely unconnected, is there a particular reason you're aiming for a book deal as opposed to getting the essays published individually (as you have been doing)? If you can narrow down on the reason, you might be able to focus your efforts more effectively on a particular route.

But what do I know? Best of luck!!

nightsmusic said...

You know, I've led a seriously interesting life. I've done way more than the average person, know more 'celebrities', have had more experiences, gotten to do many, many things most women never entertain trying let alone doing. It's been a great, fun ride. But the bottom line is, who cares? Oh sure, maybe in conversation, I might mention something, but honestly, no one wants to read an unrelated series of events of my life because, I'm no one. So they don't care.

This sounds harsh, but it's true. OP, you have had the opportunity to sell some of your experiences. I have too. But an entire, $12 or $15 worth of unrelated life experiences when no one knows who you are is going to be an almost impossible sell. Now, if you could find a way to have a running narrative through them with a cohesive story, you could make it a work of fiction and that might sell it. But then you're faced with, what next? You've written your experiences, woven them so people are dying to read them and now, when you are expected to write the next book, what have you got?

If your heart is set on the essays of your life, continue to write them and find outlets such as magazines and such. If your heart is set on a book, imagine a concept/story that people can't put down and write that. Either way, be prepared for a lot of rejection before someone loves your work. If they ever do.

Craig said...

I think the tipping point here is the spot between successful writer and celebrity writer. A celebrity writer could pull it off because their work would get air time in many markets. A successful writer will only be able to reach those who have an interest in the genre they write in.

Pehaps Diane is right and these would make a good blog. Maybe it will become successful enough that you become a celebrity. There is only one way to really find out and that is to do it.

Donnaeve said...

"Unconnected chapters means there's no narrative arc."

Oh, that pesky fatal flaw, the words used when an editor read my first attempt at writing a book.

I like the advice given by Janet, and others here. Is the collection a lighthearted collection of humorous essays, ala David Sedaris? Is it more of a soul searching, been there done that, collection of experiences which could help others, ala Chicken Soup for the Soul?

Honestly. This is why I'd never attempt to write non-fiction - or a memoir. For one, I think it's got to be one of the hardest writing forms to do, and to do it well. Hello Betsy Lerner and THE BRIDGE LADIES. Then there was Cheryl Strayed and WILD. So many others.

Anyway. H.A.R.D.

If I could just veer OFF TOPIC a sec...

Julie Weathers - yes, there were quite a few children, and some of the names I ran across were Leanna Donner, Eliza Donner, Virginia Reed - who survived. Virginia Reed was 13 at the time. One of the Donner girls - only 4. I think the other, 11. Maybe they are the ones...?

John Frain - Jay Fosdick was believed to have been one of those cannabilized. Starved Camp was the actual name of one of the camps where some survivors wintered. Forlorn Hope was another camp and a phrase used to describe the current state of mind -even at the worst of it.

Timothy Lowe - thanks! And yeah, so many instances of this happening (more than we care to know...)

Thanks to all who took a guess or let me know they got it.

Back to the regularly scheduled program!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I’m breaking the rules today.
Thoughts on memoir class for an essayist.

There were fifteen of us sitting around a huge table. First meeting we went from person to person sharing why we were there. Of the ones I remember there were three cancer survivors, (scary), a best friend and spouse of two people who did not survive cancer, (sad), a wealthy woman who wanted to share her amazing life, (it wasn’t that amazing), a professional story teller who wanted to tell her story of being a story teller, (huh), a young girl who had spent a year in India and Nepal, (been there, did that but in another country) and me, my statement to the class:
“I met my parents for the first time after they died.” It certainly got the class and teacher excited. I even told them I was interviewed on national TV regarding the backstory of the pitch.
That was almost ten years ago, the memoir sits unfinished in a file drawer.

Of the fifteen, I became a columnist and the story teller has published 2 books.

My point, well, I don’t have one other than we all have a story and that was 199 words of mine.

I still think Janet should have a 100 word memoir or essay contest.
Oops back to Carkoon for me.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

At the moment I'm listening to the audio book Between You and Me: Confessions Of Comma Queen by Mary Norris.

It's a memoir of unconnected life events BUT they are all woven together by Mary Norris' knowledge of the English language.

Perhaps the format is the problem. Trying to sell a collection of unconnected. As a reader I need to feel an emotional arc. How could you connect these stories and give the 55k words an overall emotional arc, an overall theme?

Colin Smith said...

Opie/NM: If you can find a way to hook your experiences into current events, that would be a great way to sell a story to a magazine. For example, "My pet Shih Tzu was a stunt double for Donald Trump's hair."

I've been tempted to write about my experience in exile on Carkoon, but there are two things against that:

1) "Carkoon" is owned by Disney (which, btw, the Carkoonians are very happy about. It seems, during the George Lucas regime, you could never be sure things were in the same place they were yesterday).
2) Janet might enjoy it so much, she'll send me back so I could write a sequel... 8-O

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I have a somewhat unrelated question: is a breathtaking writing style enough? If your collection of essays with no platform, a fantasy novel with a cliché plot, a literary novel with no solid story-arch, but the writing style is rich and engaging, is that enough?

Kae Bell said...

How refreshing the sentence "Crushing facts...No One Else Cares". A newbie to this blog, I've found it eye-opening to read after a year of rejections. We are forever optimists. Great quotation. "A man must love a thing very much to practice it not only without hope of fame or fortune but [also] without hope of doing it well." G.K. Chesterton

Opie - Good luck and hope you find that unique thread to weave a pattern into your work. Could it be risk, loss, lessons learned, the untold secrets of the color yellow, the benefits of growing older, or even 'why I drink whiskey at 8:00 AM'?

nightsmusic said...

Colin, you are too funny! But no, my experiences, while unique, have no real thread to tie them all together except that they belong to me. And I am unfortunately, not famous so no one really cares. Oh, people will express an interest when I mention something, but their interest wouldn't hold up once the stories started flowing because...just because. So I'll continue to work on my PNHistRom and see where that takes me. And if it goes nowhere, I can always fall back on something else though I would still write.

DLM said...

"In an unexpected turn in the US elections today, Colin Smith - not only a dark horse, but an Englishman, won Super Tuesday in a landslide. For both parties. Let's got to Chet for a breakdown of the numbers ..."

I quit, Colin's comment is the winner. See y'all on the other side of the returns!

Colin Smith said...

Hello, Kae!! *BIG WAVE* What a brave soul you are... uh... I mean, welcome to the blog comments!! Lovely to have you around. :D

Dena Pawling said...


Angie – I loved Between You and Me!

I've read David Sedaris. Another writer of collections of humorous personal essays is Jenny Lawson. I read about 3/4 of her first book. Yes, she's hysterically funny, but I lost interest just over half-way through and never finished. She does have a through-line of “life with mental illness,” but it wasn't enough to sustain me. Her blog is huge though, and she has two books, both of which are best sellers. So there's certainly a market for the humorous stuff.

Maybe OP can pick one set of essays that have some sort of through-line, and develop that set into a full-length single-topic memoir or maybe even a full-length novel.

You can always “become famous”. Try running for president. The field seems especially needy this time around.............

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Wait, wait, wait... Can I vote for Colin in both primaries? Finally, a candidate I can believe in - one that a) doesn't know he's running and b) one that we can exile to Carkoon should we all suddenly need to move to Canada.

Colin Smith said...

lol... "dark horse"! Don't forget, I'm of British stock. Thoroughly Western European genes. I'm so white, they could market me as sunscreen. I daren't go outside in shorts for fear of damaging people's corneas.

But I appreciate the sentiment. Y'all are too nice. :D

Mary said...

This hits home for me..I have one novel published, but my agent has been shopping my memoir around since October and I am getting that sinking feeling. Though it does have an arc, and *I* feel it is compelling, apparently the world does not. It's hard to face reality sometimes, but perhaps the essays can be reworked into a novel, or some other work, even a memoir if it is changed some. On the bright side, a friend of mine did just get her memoir published. So there is hope, it does happen! I will only say what I am doing: 1. File drawer. 2. Work on something else. 3. In six months, revisit file drawer.

Colin Smith said...

Whoops! I forgot to do newbie orientation for Kae!

Welcome to the comments of Janet's blog, Kae Bell. I hope your experience will be fun and rewarding, and not simply an extension of the pit of despair in which you currently reside, if you are a writer like the rest of us.

On the top right of the blog, you will find some useful links. If you want to understand some of the odd, seemingly meaningless words we like to throw around (e.g., "QOTKU", "Carkoon", "synopsis"), there is a glossary you can use for reference. If you wish to become further identified with the regular commenters, there's a list of Blog Commenters and their Blogs. Please contact me to be added to that list. Christina Seine has created a lovely Pintrest page you can be added to, and if you want us to know generally where you are in the world, you can add yourself to the map.

On behalf of my fellow commenters, and Mighty QOTKU herself, I hope your time with us is both pleasant and... um... educational.

You can find the Emergency Exit doors to the left and the right of the aircraft... oh sorry, wrong speech... ;)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Did somebody mention blogging?

To most of you Reiders and lurkers, your writing-world is, in overwhelming numbers, fiction, either in process or published. You non-fiction writers are immersed in fact and platform.
Essayists are different. We splay ourselves for the reader.

It’s not easy writing about that which defines who we are. Essayists are brave writers because we reveal that which others tuck away and hide behind make believe. To seek a national audience beyond a blog is courageous for essayists because the consequences of our reviews affect us personally.

Connecting the dots for writers like us is near impossible. Getting published in any form is God-damned hard. And I know that because every single one of you reading my words right now knows the game. That is why we are here.

Essayists are not simply bloggers we’re writers too.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Kae, what Colin is trying to say is there is No Exit. This is no fault of Jean Paul Sartre. You have entered the belly of the beast. Please try to keep your demons on a leash, but under no circumstances should you ever tame them. Tamed demons simply do not sell. Welcome to the shark tank.

Jennifer D said...

I found this question interesting, and it prompts a few questions for me, too (I'm usually a lurker here, commenting infrequently, but always gaining a lot from Janet's posts and subsequent comments from readers).

I, too, have a collection of essays. They aren't connected by a story arc either, but rather by theme. I suppose one could call it an unorthodox travel memoir--the theme is middle-aged woman traveling for a year in Europe, going from farm to farm, working and learning (beekeeping, wine-making, olive harvesting, etc), and examining our relationship to the land and to each other in this context. The essays range from quite funny to tear-jerking; foreign language struggles, culture clashes, to various people's experiences of war. I always try to find a way to tie it to the land, though.

I've done a lot of research for querying my novel, have thrown myself into the chum bucket, and have been querying widely. But I know almost nothing about querying memoir or travel essays--especially without the story arc Janet mentioned. I think my essays fall somewhere in between those two (i.e. memoir/travel). I'm wondering if the thematic core I've described here would suffice in the absence of a true story arc. Based on Janet's reply to the OP, I think humor might be the best angle I can offer, and could perhaps front-load the collection with those. But not sure.

It currently exists as a blog, but not one I've promoted at all; only among family and friends. Not all essays on the blog are suited for the collection, and others are still on my laptop, not the blog. But if any thoughtful reader here wishes to see it, you can click on my name here (I think?). I hope that's kosher--I'm not trying to do my own blog promotion here. I'm sincerely interested in feedback from this thoughtful group of writers about the viability or interest in such a collection. Perhaps it's only destined to be a blog for family/friends. If you send me a message through the blog form there I can point you toward the funniest or saddest or most poignant of the posts, rather than have you sift through all of them.
At the very least, I can promise you some pretty pictures and travel inspiration. (I'm happy to give you travel tips, too.)
But I'd be grateful for any thoughts about whether it would grab interest as a collection, and the best approach for querying, if so. Janet, I hope this is OK.

Kae Bell said...

Thanks Colin! I appreciate the guidance and the welcome!

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer D: Janet's link rule is that it's okay to post links as long as you aren't trying to increase anyone's bank account or naughty bits. Some of us (e.g., me) feel a little awkward posting links to our own blogs. But since you're not me (at least I don't think you are), here a link to your blog:

http://terroirblog.blogspot.com/

My initial thought from your comment is whether there's some way you can connect the various aspects of farming into a travelogue, or maybe pick a broad theme, maybe one of growth (e.g., learning through travel how the ordinary can be extraordinary) so you start of in the first chapter with one set of presuppositions, and end up in the last chapter with those presuppositions challenged.

Just some ideas. :)

Colin Smith said...

EM: LOL! OK. You're doing the next newbie orientation! ;)

Jennifer D said...

Excellent thought, Colin. I'll revisit the blog and the stuff that didn't get onto the blog, and see if that emerges as a possibility. Even if the growth theme doesn't seem to work (though there was certainly growth), perhaps another will fit with your suggested approach. Thanks for offering up the idea.

If you'd have seen my face before posting any mention of my blog, you might have laughed. I stopped just short of hitting "post" and sent an email to Janet to check if it was OK, because I didn't want to be That Asshole, as I said to her. I didn't know her rules about it, but I do now. Thanks. I only wish I'd had some "naughty bits" to add to the blog, alas my travel adventures were mainly G-rated, except for some swearing when I was attacked by a rogue bee at the apiary. So PG-13, I guess?

Dena Pawling said...


Jennifer D - Here's a list of memoirs/collected essays that came to me off the top. I think all but the first author already had celebrity and/or platforms, so if you don't have that, you might research what made the first one publishable and/or what was the "hook".

Gretchen Berg – I Have Iraq in my Shoe
Cheryl Strayed – Wild
David Sedaris – Me Talk Pretty One Day
Jenny Lawson – Let's Pretend This Never Happened
Mary Norris - Between You and Me
Stephen King - On Writing [of course I had to list this one!]

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin, I am far too impolitic to do the initial welcome. We would never have another newbie again if I did the welcome. Let's not frighten them away.

We need you to soften them up a bit. You make kale smell grand. Which is why you, and not I, are being elected president of the United States (or mayor of Carkoon) today. I get the two confused.

Back on topic, I must agree with Diane- a disjointed memoir has mostly evolved into blogs. Even my tiny blog of despair has become my own bit of memoir. I am sure that does make memoir without an arc or hook a harder sell. Although I am very interested in all the vignettes and memoirs here in the shark tank. I am always in search of new characters to shake up my fiction.

Colin Smith said...

EM: Mayor of Carkoon?! I think not. You saw what happened last week when Janet tried to send me back there. I haven't had a query rejected that quickly! I'm persona non grata there--or I would be if they knew what that meant. For the record, I'm okay with that. I like it here. :D

Susan said...

Looking at this as a reader, from a humanist perspective, I think everyone's lives are incredible in their own ways, that everyone has a story to share. Just look at HONY, which is constantly proving this through the captions of their photographs. Some of the most moving and memorable moments come from people who are just living their everyday lives, that Brandon just happened upon and provided an outlet for. My life is richer for hearing some of these stories, and I hate to think how I might have missed them had such an outlet not existed.

But publishing is a business, and as others have noted, the primary goal is financial. Everything else--being able to touch people, move people, share your story--is a beautiful byproduct, but not the purpose of the industry.

I inherently disagree with it--as an artist and an idealist, I think everyone should have their voice heard and be able to tell their stories because everyone's lives are different and everyone has something to add to this living experience (and as Doctor Who likes to say, there's not one person in this world who isn't important. Yeah, I went there). But that's my own idealism, not the reality. As an industry, I understand and respect that the rules and standards are put in place for a reason--it's a business, and businesses need to make money.

But, Opie, you do have options. That's the great thing about today. HONY "broke the rules" by adding short, personal essays to his photographs. Other writers "broke the rules" by sharing their story via blogs, mixed media, self-publishing. If traditional publishing is your dream, absolutely go for it--find that thread and follow it to create a narrative and then keep querying. That narrative is vital to storytelling no matter what medium you're working in. But know that you have options, too, to share your voice and your story--it's just a matter of figuring out which one works best. Best of luck.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

In any non-fiction book proposal, one of the main questions to ask yourself is "Who would be my targeted audience? Not all readers in general, but who would feel compelled to buy my book?

Once I reached past 11 different sub-groups, I realized that I have a story; about living before, during and after a wildfire in a rural setting. Having a career in Forestry has given me training and resources that the average person would not have concerning prepping and wildfires. When I wrote about the fire on my blog, people actually blogged about taking note of what we did and applied it to their property, for where they were living. There is one group of the readers right there.

Also, we stayed on; not moving away and letting someone else clean up. No, the forest doesn't recover right away when the soil is burnt down to rock, and yes, the wildlife suffers from injury, lack of food and shelter for years afterward. My house burned over while I watched from my hayfield, my horses were let loose to fend for themselves, and then the aftermath of terribly burnt, blinded cows screaming until they could all be put down is something that needs to be written down for others to learn from.

That's why I am writing my story; there are who people want to know. Hopefully someone will want to publish it.

But I won't know unless I try.

Colin Smith said...

*hi-fives Susan for the Who reference*

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Kae, I'd say that we're more like The Hotel California, once you check in you can never check out. Jeez, I love the Eagles so much I could write an essay about them, but don't worry Reiders, I won't.

Here's the link. Colin if you could do the honors please...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrfhf1Gv4Tw

Susan said...

Colin: High-five back atcha! ;) I'm convinced DW should be required viewing, or part of a humanities curriculum, if only to keep reminding us of our humanity when the world forgets. That's the power of storytelling right there!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

OMG Janice, the cows. Makes me cry. Breaks my heart. I'd buy the book because my son-in-law fights wild fires when he's called upon to help.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: My pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrfhf1Gv4Tw

Susan: Who is the only reason to own a TV! :) Great storytelling has been a hallmark of the show, even when the budget couldn't make it as good as the writers imagined.

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

OP here. I've lurked here for a while and sincere thanks to Janet and to all the posters. Janet and you others pretty much confirm what I thought was the case. Particular thanks to 2Ns for her thoughts.

Unlike you guys I don't think of myself as a writer. It is something to which I never aspired. I'd like to think I am a storyteller but even that is something about which I am not so sure. My story is pretty simple.

In my late fifties, about a dozen years ago now, I sent my best friend a longish email recounting a recent experience. His reply surprised me....my story was so interesting and agreeably told I should submit it someplace for publication.

Of course I ignored him but a year or two later his earlier comments gave me the courage to submit a different story to a large print publication and I was pretty astounded when they bought it. Over the years I have been lucky enough to sell a number of stories to various print publications, large and small. ("Sell" is sort of a generous term to use when I get $10, but some have gone for three figures...)

Writing is an avocation for me. I enjoy pondering, recalling various events in my life, many in which I am more observer than participant, and to often gently explore the emotions they may generate.

No, there is no arc to these. Some are funny (I think) some serious, some in between. I just sit down and begin writing when something pops into my mind that I wish to think about or recall. A story about when I ran away from home at age eight all the way to my backyard or another about my mom's decades of dramatic accounts about her yearly perceived struggles getting ingredients for a dish served at a family dinner, ending when I reached my sixties.

So I really write for my own enjoyment. I do not need to have a book published to be satisfied. I guess I thought that since I had some modest success with individual stories and received some very nice comments from some readers I would look into seeing if I could get a collection published. (Sort of a Chicken Soup thing, I suppose, but without the excess emotion or inspiration and not with a single theme.)

Not at all an ego thing so I am not at all interested in self publishing. I don't show my stories to anybody unless they get published....except to that original best friend who, sadly, nears the end of a medical story from which he will not recover.



nightsmusic said...

1eye, I'm sorry about your friend. That's always so very hard to go through. (your name is way long so sorry, I shortened it) I'm thinking after your explanation that doing the essay route is, for you, going to be the best way to get your voice heard. And that's a wonderful thing!

Janice, you made me cry. :(

I'm going off topic for a sec...

HOLY CRAP! SNOW!!!

Okay, that is all...

Lucie Witt said...

Jennifer D - one thing I do to see how essayists organize books on one topic but with very different essays is to see if there's a table of contents. Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist is a great example.

**off topic**

I'm recently returned from a trip to NOLA. I visited the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone, famous for all the famous writers who have stayed there over the years. I sipped bourbon and thought fondly of this group.

Lucie Witt said...

1eye (stealing from nightsmusic) I'm very sorry about your friend

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

1 eye, (I shortened your name too), you may not think of yourself as a writer but you certainly are one. Tack onto writer, words like record keeper, story teller and history saver. Your experiences are of value and it is wonderful that you have found a way to share them, even if it's for ten bucks.
When at a crossroads in my own writing, and to paraphrase something Janet said to me, (which I have shared here often), if what you are writing brings you joy, then you should continue on your path.

You and I both know, plus a few other Reiders here whose parents liked Ike know, there's a richness to what we have experienced in our lives that should be saved.

This is not to diminish the experiences of those living wonderful and enriching lives now, not to dismiss their struggles or difficulties, not to overlook the deadening burden of things like student debt and politics gone crazy, but if we don't do what you are doing, if we don't share what it was like to us then the foundation shoring up their future crumbles.

Okay I'm off my soapbox, have commented way too many times today. Breathe easy Reiders I'm off to work and out of your hair Janet.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns, 1I... love it! :)

Isn't it true that any sale to a magazine is noteworthy on a query, since not only does it say someone liked your stuff enough to pay money for it, but that it was critically assessed by an editor who was willing to part with cash for it? Clearly, the more prestigious the mag, the better it looks on a query. But even $10 is good--I wouldn't sneeze at it. :)

I'm commenting way too much. OK... sorry.

nightsmusic said...

Oh, 2n's. My parents liked Hoover!

We're all storytellers. Some of us tell real ones, some of us tell the ones in our minds, but we belong to a fraternal organization, mostly unorganized and with so many different branches, that is almost as old as time. It's a fine organization to belong to.

And it's still snowing! Supposed to get 9 inches by this evening.

Rena McClure Taylor said...

This is one memoir that you're going to want to read. It will be BIG.
It's written by a friend of mine. (No reflection on her.)
Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood by Drema Hall Berkheimer, http//amazon.com/0310344964, and other fine booksellers. Due for publication April 14.

I hope I got the Info correct. If I didn't, look it up--and the reviews.

Colin Smith said...

Here you are, Rena. Hopefully, since this isn't increasing *my* bank account, Her Sharkiness will permit it:

Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood by Drema Hall Berkheimer

Lennon Faris said...

1eye (1i?) - I'm sorry about your friend. That is hard. It sounds like he started something good, though. I would consider you a writer. Actually, you are technically more of one than me since I've only been doing this hard-core hobby for a few years and am not yet published. I think people on this blog come from about every background, part of the world, and present day situation. Best of luck with whatever you decide to do!

O.T. - did I hear Colin (or possibly a shih tsu?) was running for pres? Because I will vote for either one right now based on current candidates. OK, shutting up now...

Colin Smith said...

Lennon: There are rumors that Puddles the Stunt Dog might be running as an Independent. Do they allow write-in votes? :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I voted for both Colin and the Shih Tzu in the primary. Colin will make an excellent president and the Shih Tzu can do everything else

Randi Bacon said...

What a timely post this morning. My writer's group meets tonight, and "Why do we write?" is the scheduled topic. Because you have to get the story out of your own head, or get it into someone else's? To be published? Published for a sake of personal achievement, recognition, fame, money? Figuring out why I would write, have written, or should write, seems to be the key to knowing when I have been successful.

Thank you, guys and gals, for this blog, and your candid thoughts. Thoughts on ALL things, I've learned hanging out here!

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

2Ns...thanks for the kind words, and thanks to others as well.

I read a piece in the NYTimes a couple of years ago by Saul Austerlitz, "The Lost Art of the Condolence Letter" in which he says, "I write to remember and to be remembered." I thought that was pretty good. Yah, my kids have seen things I've written that get published but I have a lot more that has not been. I think one day I'll print it all out and put it in a file in a drawer for them to find a long time from now. Jeez, since I'm soon 70 perhaps I'd better get going!

Because I write my tales for my own enjoyment I follow my self imposed rules that anything I get published must be in print....something tangible I can hold (talk about being an old fart)...and I gotta get paid something, anything. No freebies.

kdjames.com said...

I self-published a compilation of essays (blog posts) back in Dec of 2011, titled "How Did This Happen? Lunch with Imaginary Friends and Other (mostly) True Stories." I described it as slices of life from the "empty nest" years that, it turns out, aren't so empty after all. I had very low expectations for sales and knew the only people who would buy it were friends and family. Because it's true, no one else cares.

The reason I did it was to see whether I could. At the time, I kept hearing how easy it was to self-pub and ALSO how incredibly difficult it was. I figured the only way to find out whether it was easy/difficult for ME was to try it. It wasn't all that difficult and I'm really glad I did. The most interesting feedback was from two of my nieces, and the most flattering was a reviewer who said it reminded him of Bill Bryson's writing.

Anyway, the point is that there are many reasons, other than sales, for publishing a collection of essays. In your case, 1eye, there is incalculable value in passing on your stories to your children and generations to come. I wish I had realized when I was younger how much I would come to regret not writing down or recording the stories told by relatives who have since died.

And yes, you are a writer. Best of luck to you, whatever you decide.

Judy Moore said...

This post comes at a perfect time for me. Since mid-November I've sent out 14 queries (eight women, six men) for what I call a non-fiction book, and what others might call "memoir." It's funny, and in my query letter I said "...this is what happens when David Sedaris rewrites A Year In Provence." I have gypsies, a contractor who went to prison for manslaughter, an African princess, and title NOT to the apartment building I've renovated twice, but to the crappy little one next door.

So far, I've received requests for 50-100 pages from four agents, all of them women, and form rejections from the other four. So, some sort of reply from all the women. From the men, nothing. Not even a form rejection, which I've found really odd, since my husband plays a prominent role in the story. He's an Ivy League educated trial lawyer, I'm a college dropout from Iowa. We're quite different, and yet we're a perfect fit.

It's still out with one agent who requested pages. I received rejections from the other three, but they were the nicest rejections ever written: "You had me laughing from the first paragraph, no small feat at 5AM.", "I found myself longing to sit down with you over some liquor-infused champagne to hear all the details" and "I enjoyed your clever writing and, strangely, I suppose, your fraught adventure in France." And yet, all three said the same thing - books like this have become fairly hard to publish, it's a competitive market, and publishers want a "platform."

I'll cast the net wider, but I have a couple of questions: 1. Should I only query women? 2. Would changing my last name to Kardashian help?

whipchick said...

I'm also an essayist/memoirist.

If your essays are "literary," you will have the best luck with small presses with an artsy feel, like Heart and the Hand, Green River Press, Gray Wolf, etc, and university presses like the University of Georgia. It's also possible to get the attention of one of these presses by publishing in a literary magazine, or entering a chapbook contest. Chapbooks are often made up of an essay collection or short prose of some kind. You can find reputable literary magazines by searching for "Pushcart Prize rankings" - there are a couple of lists online of magazines ranked by how many Pushcarts they've won, and that is reasonably legit.

If your essays are not "literary," the best way to get your book published is to get an essay in a high-profile place like The New York Times' Modern Love, Motherlode, or Opinionator sections; Washington Post's Post Everything, or the personal essay column of a large newspaper like the Boston Globe. If your essay hits big, you'll get interest in your other work and agents may contact you.

But it sounds like the most important thing for you is to keep writing - so keep placing essays, and as you get more paying markets, aim for more prestigious markets, and that may provide the satisfaction you're looking for.

Good luck!

Theresa said...

No One Else Cares.

Boy, that has been going through my head all day. It's been kind of a gloomy day here, and I've been ruminating about how little I understand the publishing business. I read, read, read as much as I can about it, but always feel a bit out of synch.

OP, it's great that you are satisfied with your writing and with how it's been published.

Brittany Constable said...

If you can't tell me what the book is about in 25 words or less, it's really hard to pitch it. And I don't mean just to me, I mean it's hard for me to pitch it to an editor, an editor to her boss, or to the acquisitions meeting, for sales to pitch it to accounts, for film guys to pitch it to producers, for subrights agents to pitch it to audio publishers and translation agents.

Even beyond that, word of mouth (the single best way to expand your audience) is essentially one reader pitching it to another. When you ask a friend what they're reading and they go into a meandering monologue trying to explain it, you're probably gonna tune out before they've gotten very far. Whereas if I say "Cinderella's a cyborg" or "supervillains face off" you know right away if you'd be interested or not. This is why high-concept stuff is easier to sell, because it's simply easier to talk about. I dearly love some books that are difficult to explain, but those aren't the ones I tend to push on acquaintances.

Opie and the other essayists might look into Medium. It's a platform that seems well-suited to essays and long-form writing without the legwork of trying to get eyeballs on a personal blog.

Colin Smith said...

"Cinderella's a cyborg."

I loved the Lunar Chronicles. Just sayin'. Wonderful storytelling.

Shutting up now. Really. :D

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Putting on my dusty librarian hat:

There is a difference between an autobiography, a memoir and collection of essays. We shelve these in different places in the library. Biographies have their own Dewey Decimal classifications. Memoirs do not.

(Auto)biographies are about a person (ie, Dawn French's "Dear Fatty"). Memoirs are about a subject (theme, event) irrespective of the person (ie that beguilingly strange memoir about a mother who takes her ill little daughter to South America for an exorcism; how did that end up in our collection?). Essay collections tend to be given a subject, depending on what they're about, and shelved accordingly.

(hint for everyone writing a book of any kind: do you know what shelf it would go on in the library? You really need to know this, so you know how to pitch it to agents/editors/readers. For those who would say, "shelve it in fiction", do you know what genre sticker we should whack on it? Do you know which "If you enjoyed..." list we should put it on? You should. If you can't classify it, how can we?)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Commenting on the sly from the Day Job, as the home internet is down for the neighbourhood.

Bethany asked:
...is a breathtaking writing style enough? If your collection of essays with no platform, a fantasy novel with a cliché plot, a literary novel with no solid story-arch, but the writing style is rich and engaging, is that enough?

Almost. Very much almost. Sometimes so almost that some readers will forgive the gravest of sins if you can hook them with the writing.

Last year I read an indie Fantasy author whose permafree novel hooked me. His voice and style had good pacing. It promised so many, many things...

...all of which the rest of the series failed to deliver. And that was a great big shame. If you look through the GoodReads ratings, you'll find quite a mixed bag of reactions. I read about three of his books in hopes that he'd pull a smerp out of a hat somewhere, but he didn't. Alas.

Janice L. Grinyer said...


Julie, I want to hug you! Thank you for understanding; I believe that is why it's important to write this book so that others can understand also. Living right in the middle of it as it happens gave us a perspective that not many have experienced.

Caroly2nns - Your son is one of my sub-groups :) thank him for his service - he has one of the hardest jobs on the planet.

Nightmusic - :( We had to force ourselves to look for the good. I remember the first time I laughed out loud afterwards - it was when I had a chipmunk with no ears show up on my doorstep for birdseed! I realized that if wildlife can tough it out, so could we :)

1eye- You are a writer - you were just busy collecting stories for awhile :)

Julie Weathers said...

Janice,

Well, my post made no sense due to my rearranging. Anyway, you need to write this book. People need to know. "Ah, I'll just burn this trash instead of paying to haul it off." 7,000 burned acres and hundreds of dead cattle and horses later, not to mention the personal property and someone would have gladly paid you that $15 to haul trash.

Don't give up on it. My dad was a fire watcher for years in the western Montana mountains out of Lincoln, MT. It's important for people to know. It's bad enough when you can't help it due to lightning.

John Frain said...

Judy Moore,

Since it's Super Tuesday (still fiscal Super Tuesday until everyone wakes up Wednesday) I'll cast a vote:

I strongly discourage you from changing your last name to Kardashian. Lots of baggage that'll come with that move.

That leaves your alternative: querying only women. I don't know the demographics of the agent profession (except they all grew up in Lake Woebegone), but I suspect you'll still have the vast majority to query.

If you allow write-in votes, I'd suggest that your sample size was too small and you try a few more males. If all else fails, self-publish and give it as a gift to that husband. I bet he'll defy the odds and accept it without even needing a query.

John Frain said...

Sometimes I wish I was a morning person so I could hang out here when the reef is crowded with Reiders.

But this is good practice for the lonely life of a writer. Instead I'll just remind y'all what a superlative line Michael Seese had during the most recent contest:

"They won't find her until spring, when the ice has grown weary of her, too."

Oh, that just dances on your tongue like a swizzle stick.

LynnRodz said...

John, look at the bright side. If you were around when the party was in full swing, you could spend hours here. It's a great place to be, but I decided sometime back, those hours could be spent writing. I leave a comment early and (most of the time) don't return until late at night if I have time. I miss a lot, but there are priorities and Janet's WIR covers some of the good stuff.

Judy Moore, I hate to say this, but timing is everything. Publishing is no exception. Ten, even five years ago, agents would've been all over your story. It sounds wonderful and like John said, perhaps you just haven't queried enough agents. If, however, you keep getting the same response "great writing, but hard to publish" you may have to save it for later.

Everything goes in cycles and perhaps in a few years agents will once again be looking for expat adventures. Good luck, I hope to someday read it.

LynnRodz said...

Or, I hope to read it someday.

Anywho, I was going to send you an email, but it seems like there's no way to contact you directly. (Janet wrote about this not too long ago.) I was going to tell you that I know an agent who is interested in anything that pertains to France. She might be just the agent you need to contact. I don't have that info on me (I'm typing all this from my phone) but when I get home I can send it to you.

Julie Weathers said...

(Completely out of order in case y'all are wondering what Janice is talking about. I couldn't stand the typos and had to get up in the middle of the night to fix them.)

Y'all are very kind in comments about a Julie Weathers, whatever it would be. Crazier Than A Peach Orchard Pig, But Mostly Harmless, by Julie Weathers. Yep, I can see that doing well.

This really is like the story I told about the lady in Surrey. She bemoaned no one wanting her "My man done me wrong story" when she was sitting on a fascinating story about giving it all up to go help in Indonesia after a tsunami and teaching women to make elephant dung paper for note cards to support their families.

Anything can sell if it's written well. A Southern Belle Primer: Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma is one of my favorite little essay books. I'm not sure how well that book sold, but it's hilarious and she's written other southern belle etiquette primers with fascinating stories.

Erma Bombeck.

Kae, welcome to the tank.

Original questioner, I don't know what the answer is. If you feel strongly about your project, find some way to publish. Life is short.

1eye. I'm glad you found your voice, but so sorry to hear about your friend.

Janice, I agree about the heartbreak of the fires. Every year we have range fires in west Texas. Everyone thinks, "Oh, what can burn out there? It's all sand. There's more out there than you think or there wouldn't be thousands of cattle. A train will spark a fire, lightning, many times some moron tossing a cigarette out of a vehicle, arson, carelessness.

Ranchers scramble to move cattle, open gates, cut fences, but invariably we wind up with one of them on the news the next day, wiping tears away, talking about neighbors coming in to ride pastures to put down burned cattle. We hear helicopters for days as everyone who has one sweeps pastures trying to locate crippled, burned, missing cattle. Every danged year.

Even if they don't look damaged, cattle suffer from smoke inhalation, burned feet that slough weeks later, and other damage. It's gut wrenching.

The first range fire of the season cranked off Feb. 1 and burned 1,700 acres near the LX Ranch in the Panhandle.

Good luck with the book. It needs to be written.

roadkills-r-us said...

Colin:

Too nice? Nonsense! We're desperate.