Friday, October 19, 2018

"Is it time to pack up my publishing aspirations and slip quietly back to, say, crocheting?"

I wanted to thank you for your blog post addressing my question about ageism in publishing. There are a few examples of successful books that are one-offs by older folks, but as you say, a very hard sell in an ageist climate. So I just have to ask: What if the book is ABOUT the fact that you're older? My current WIP is a memoir about being an aging mom to two adult kids with disabilities. And service dogs. And not a lot of resources. Caught between the twin impossibilities of bringing them to a point of independent living, or magically living forever myself. I wrote about it for a couple of years for the online journal Literary Mama in a column called "Senior Mama," which is in itself a dead giveaway that I'm already past my sell-by date. 

I recently read a BBC article about "the phenomenon of continuing to throw good resources (time and money) after bad, hoping for things to improve when there's no good reason to believe they will." Not surprisingly, they conclude that's a bad idea. Your advice for writers always falls on the side of perseverance, but I wonder, in this case is it time to pack up my publishing aspirations and slip quietly back to, say, crocheting?

Well, I'm always looking for a comfy afghan when the winter winds begin to make themselves known again (47° this morning!), However, while lots of people can crochet, no one else can write YOUR book.

You'll hear "memoir is a tricky category" when agents and editors are asked about this.

They say that because many memoir writers focus solely on what happened. But, a compelling memoir isn't just what happened, it's why those events mattered, and more importantly, why they matter to people NOW.

And if you think it's easy to figure that out, please set up shop as a memoir coach and help the thousands of people who need it.

It's not a matter of will anyone buy your book, it's can you write a book that will be more than "I lived through this and survived."

Deb Vlock's book about parenting kids with mental health challenges could have been structured as a memoir, but we very specifically chose to make it prescriptive non-fiction instead; a guide to dealing with the problems mental health parents face, often told through the lens of Deb's personal experience.

One thing that helped us was to ask "what are the questions we want this book to answer?" Another was "who do we want to help?"

Example: "my kid just got sent home from school for saying s/he wanted to kill herself. What do I do now?"

Those questions, which you will need to really think about (Deb and I spent weeks on this) are a key element to "why should someone read this book now?"

A good place to start is asking yourself  who do you want to help?

Motivational and inspirational stories are important. I'm working on one of those now. Those aren't prescriptive. They give you hope, not a list of tips or strategies.

If your book is motivational or inspirational, you're going to need a really big hook if you want a trade publishing deal.

But let me say this again cause it's so very important: often the stories people tell about their lives are NOT suitable for trade publishing but they are essential candles in the dark. You don't have to sell 10,000 copies to be a life changer for a lot of people.

Smaller presses and self-publishing may allow you to reach the 500 people who are desperate to know how you managed challenges they are now facing.

Helping 500 people is nothing to sneer at.
Helping 10 people isn't either.

Only you know the answer to the question of whether you should keep on with this project. What brings you joy? Who do you want to help?

I hope you'll find your answers and see your path clearly.

Let us know, ok?


CynthiaMc said...

Never give up! Never surrender!

What if Grandma Moses decided she was too old to learn to paint?

Peter Taylor said...

My mother-in-law was born in outback Australia in 1924, and brought up on a vast sheep station/ranch. Her high-school years were spent at boarding school 600 miles away on the coast, but as WW2 raged, her father took her home and she never completed her education. When her husband retired at 65 and she was the same age, she returned to school to gain qualifications to enable her to study at University to read English and History for a BA, so that she could write her memoir well. It's now complete at 60,000 words and she's 94.

A publisher I met at a conference has read part of it, loves the voice and is eager to adapt it to be a picture book of 'early life on a remote farm' ...or maybe publish it as it is. At an Award dinner, I described it to another publisher who is also interested to read and consider it as a children's story. But m-i-l says she's only written it for her great-grandchildren. I'm still trying to persuade her to let me help offer it to the publishers...the interest is certainly there.

Kitty said...

I'm going to suggest something that may not be popular, but maybe you should pack up your publishing aspirations and write for yourself, at least for the time being. Take a breather from all that self-imposed pressure but continue keeping a journal. Collect all your Literary Mama columns into that journal and just keep writing them. Do it for YOU. Maybe several months from now, or a year from now, you'll see new possibilities. Never say never.

Brenda said...

Writing has advantages other than publication. What’s the worst thing that can happen? If my books never publish I’ll still have the catharsis of having written them.

Unknown said...

I mean, do you enjoy the process of writing? Sure I write with the goal of being published, but I also write because I just love the process of writing stories. I'll never view doing what I love as wasted time even if I never publish a word of it. I can't imagine existing in this world and not writing stories -- I actually feel really off if I end up going more than a few days without managing to work on whatever story I'm writing at the time. If you're doing this solely for the goal of being published and not because you love it, maybe it is time to give up. But if you love writing, I don't understand why you'd stop regardless of what the outcome may be.

Craig F said...

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Age gives us perspective, along with experience both human and physical. Do not let all of that fall because you feel tired of some perceived flight.

I am very tired right now. I would go to sleep for two or three days if I wasn't so hungry. I am just back from the edge of the Florida disaster area. The people there have their heads up and are willing to help others, even if they can barely put one foot in front of the other and don't remember their last hot meal, change of clothes or soapy shower.

Get motivated, age is only a number and a state of mind. Point that state of mind in the right direction and charge the dying of the light.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I'm going to share my writing journey as a success story. Has it been a big success? Nope. But I've received hundreds of letters from people expressing how my memoirs about our sanctuary changed their lives. Although my books are about horses (and other animals), the majority of the letters I receive are not from horse people. They are from people who were inspired by the way running this sanctuary has changed my life. I'm deeply humbled by that.

There are many reputable small presses, and that was the route I took for my nonfiction. I had a wonderful experience. There are also several small presses whose primary focus is on nonfiction and actively seek memoirs.

All the best to you, OP. Reach out privately if you'd like to talk more about this.

April Mack said...

Janet, I just want to say I appreciate you. Your blog posts are patient and kind in addition to helpful. That seems rare these days.

And boy do I wish you represented my category (YA romance). Your clients are fortunate to have you as their agent!

John Davis Frain said...

Huzzah! We sure picked a crazy, soul-sucking industry, didn't we OP? Looks so easy from the outside. Read a book, write a book. Simple enough, right?

But damn, that blank page. And the isolation. You really gotta love the writing part and possess a heaping tablespoon of misplaced confidence.

Good luck to you. I have no advice. Only you know your answer.

Sam Mills said...

If you want to write it, focus on writing it and worry about publication when you're done. As Janet and others have said, small presses and self-pub provide opportunities to reach a readership even if your work doesn't draw big press attention.

When I worked at a local history archives, we were frequently donated copies of self-published memoirs and biographies folks wrote about their ancestors. Some authors put these works together for sale to the public. Others put them together as keepsakes for their children. Either way, we were happy to add a copy to our library, and now that story will be available to researchers for the lifetime of the institution. Hopefully forever! You don't know when it will reach the right hands.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I couldn't join in yesterday and don't have a lot of time today to read all the comments (and no one will probably read this a day late) BUT I am also on the other side of the hill everybody says I'm over.

I cannot say this enough because Janet says it all the time,
do what brings you joy.
Do what brings you joy.

Paper or yarn, if it satiates your creative soul go for it.

Joseph S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph S. said...


I thought of you when I saw this extremely successful memoir on Goodreads.

"Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction"

by David Sheff. It's still # 1 in several categories on nine years after publication. Take it as an inspiration.

B.L. Pike said...

Long-time lurker and OP here. Like 2Ns I wasn't able to join in yesterday. And today I still don't know how to express my appreciation for the remarkable kindness and sensitivity that Janet embodies and that is echoed in the comments on this blog. Just, thank you. I will most certainly let you know.