One of my long-time students, Linda Zlotnick, recently published her memoir, Star Sisters. The core story is about the death of her twin sister from ovarian cancer. It was a many year journey to allow herself to process the loss on the page, then begin to watch the memoir take on other topics, unexpected ones.
Linda is persistent, and I admire that about her, because it took persistence to "blow apart" her manuscript each time she ran into a block. She is a professional astrologer but for many iterations, that wasn't a strong thread in the story, even though she'd used astrology to understand her sister's untimely death. "Three times, just as I thought I was getting close to having a finished book, I would get an insight or new understanding that would make me have to almost start over," Linda told me. Several of these breakthroughs came during the week on Madeline Island, at my writing intensive, and another at the winter retreat in Tucson.
Linda had started out writing the book in 2008. "Even though I was partnered and raising children, my sister's death left me adrift," she said. "I hoped that putting words on paper, having the structure of a class with assignments, would help me come to terms with something completely unexpected: not only was my sister dead, but the "strong" twin died first, and with her my other half, my longest friend and deepest intimate connection was gone." She began writing about the five months between diagnosis and death, chronicling every doctor's appointment, chemo treatment, hope and relapse. "It was cathartic," Linda said, "and at that time I thought it would be a medical memoir about how medicine had disappointed myself and my family."
But the book wanted to be something more. She began to take more writing classes, joined a writing group, and in her professional life, started working with what she calls "death charts." "I started a personal study of my twin's death chart," she told me, "a horoscope cast for the moment of death rather than birth. As a life-long astrologer I knew the stars could help me understand a larger cosmic perspective. And it did."
Death charts became the entrance to the real story of Linda's memoir--the exploration of her unusual knowingness and how it intersected with her twin's death. By winter of 2019, the book went out to seven beta readers who brought back probing questions. "They forced me to see gaps not only in the story, but in my telling of the story," Linda said. And that's when the book began to really reveal itself. "There were parts of my past I wanted to hide, and the book demanded the truth from me."
Fortunately, Linda was up to the challenge of such a demand for truth laid bare on the page, and her memoir, Star Sisters, is now out in the world.
One of my blog readers from Europe is preparing to submit her first book to agents and publishers. She has plans to attend the International Book Fair in Germany in October, but she wanted to study up before then. She asked for my best bets in books, blogs, and other resources.
I'm always delighted to share my favorites. I have to credit friends, colleagues, students, and other writers in the trenches of submission for most of these resources. Anyone who's been through it knows how challenging the whole infuriating, wonderful, discouraging, illuminating process can be. It helps so much to study up beforehand. Be not surprised or unprepared--you'll kick yourself and you'll probably lose any future chances with that particular agent.
So here's the best I've found, thanks to many helpers over the years. I've used all of these myself.
Do you know other great ways to get the info or get ready? Please go to my Facebook page, Your Book Starts Here, and share your favorites.
Here are mine, in no particular order:
1. Manuscript Wish List: MSWL# is not new but a lot of writers don't know about it. It's where agents go to post their wish lists--manuscripts they'd love to represent. You can get a great list of possible agents from browsing this. Get a sense of the agent's style, too, how they might be to work with. (www.manuscriptwishlist.com if the link doesn't work) Once you select a few who feel like good fits, be sure to check out their Twitter feeds as well.
2. Jane Friedman: My editor raved about Jane's e-newsletter and her books; since he doesn't often rave, I checked her out a few years ago and I'm very glad I did. She's the former publisher of Writer's Digest magazine and knows the publishing business well. Her newsletter offers good information about easing your writing life. I sat in on one of her publishing basics webinars through Writer's Digest and learned some good tips. Highly recommend her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, if you're submitting your first manuscript. (www.janefriedman.com)
3. Jeff Herman: Herman's guide to agents, editors, and publishers is an industry standard and very comprehensive. I recommend having Herman's book in your research library along with the annually released Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Both are useful, in different ways. You can do all the research online, of course, but I find it helpful to browse the pages of these guides and mark good fits, before I spend hours online. (www.jeffherman.com)
4. Agentquery is an online tracking program where writers post their query, submission, and response successes or failures with agents. You can search by agent and see the track record, use the site for organizing your own submissions, and get ideas from other writers. Free and paid subscription (the paid one has more search features). (www.agentquery.com)
5. Poets & Writers magazine has a great online list of literary agents. You can use it to start your search or to confirm your picks. (https://www.pw.org/literary_agents)
6. I used Writer's Digest interviews to search for new (hungrier) agents. New agents are more open to debut writers and often WD likes to run profiles on them. A good place to search for your agent's name and see what they say. (www.writersdigest.com/blogs)
5. Pub Rants. Nelson Literary has a wonderful series of blogs written by their small group of savvy agents. One of my clients turned me on to this and I subscribed. Great way to get educated about the other side of the industry and what agents experience. (https://nelsonagency.com/pub-rants/)
Many more resources out there, so be sure to email me your finds! This'll get you started at least. Happy hunting.
A great question, simple but important, this came my way from a former student who is working on the first draft of her memoir. When you construct chapters, when you look at the book as a whole, you do have the option to give the reader small moments of pause, usually created with a few paragraph returns and white space (in chapters) or a couple of blank pages (in the larger book).
What are the rules around doing this? How often, and why?
Let's talk chapter breaks first.
In nonfiction it's easy to know when to introduce white space breaks in a chapter: when you have a subhead to introduce a new section, you insert a white space break. In fiction and memoir, it's a little harder, more intuitive, but there are some guidelines, thankfully:
1. When you shift from frontstory to backstory, especially a backstory segment in scene (with dialogue and specific time and place), it's often helpful to the reader to get notice of the time change with a section break.
2. When a certain amount of time passes in your frontstory (you move to the next morning or a week later), it's helpful to use a section break.
Here's a good post on the topic from author Jill Williamson. (If the link doesn't work, search for her name and "section break.")
In the whole book, you have lots of options. At first glance it seems serendipitous. My student noticed that many books have three parts, each separated with a section break. Part 1, 2, and 3. Is three a good pattern to follow? Only if they serve the story. Here are some ways to decide, for your book.
Are you using multiple narrators (point of view characters) who have large sections of story? A classic example is A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, which uses three narrators and has a section for each, or similarly, The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. When the narrator's section ends, there's a natural break that designated by a blank page or two.
Do you switch eras? Some historical novels jump time by decade, so the reader needs a heads-up. It's given with the section break or a new "part" announced.
I played with these larger breaks when I had both narrator and time jumps. I found it useful in early drafts to orient myself--I could also work on each part (there were three!) by itself and feel some accomplishment as I did it. But as the book evolved into final revision, I ended up smoothing out the jumps, so I got rid of the breaks.
If you're contemplating breaks, consider this: it's a natural place for the reader to pause, but just as natural for her or him not to pick up the book again. Do you want that? If you go for breaks, make sure you end one on a very tense note, so your reader will have to read on.
Writers can become successes at any age--we know that, and we know it's the quality and timeliness of their work that makes that success come true. But older writers, many in my classes, often comment on how challenged they feel competing with younger writers who have decades ahead of them. "Agents want to know you have books in your future," said one of my students last week. "I'm not sure how many I can promise at sixty-five." Another worried about her appearance--was it current enough to promote if her book did well?
Recently I spent time in Santa Fe and visited the Georgia O'Keeffe museum. Although O'Keeffe was successful as an artist in her younger years, she really came into her own as a painter after she moved to Ghost Ranch. Most admirers of her work know her later pieces, the flowers and desert landscapes. Watching a film of her speaking about her artistic journey, I was reminded how much age contributes to any art.
I've genre-hopped most of my career, not really caring that I was fifty when I went back to school for an MFA in fiction because I wanted to learn the craft after decades of publishing in nonfiction. I didn't think of my age when I sold my first novel, or when I signed with my second agent, who only represents fiction. The agent asked what else I was working on, and I could've taken that as a subtle inquiry about what I had left to produce, but I didn't.
Recently I heard from Christina Kelly, a past student from my classes at Hudson Valley Writer's Center in New York. She's a good success story for publishing after fifty. So I asked her a few questions for this blog post.
About 2012, after Christina's husband retired, they moved to Savannah. "For us," she says, "retirement wasn't relaxing into an armchair of late middle age but a tornado of adventure. There's quite a lot of humor in the foibles of aging, the complexities of retirement, and the quirks of a long marriage, so I just started writing short scenes."
She also joined a writing group. "Meeting bi-weekly with four like-minded women was (and continues to be) invaluable," she says. "Having a deadline, even if it's just for my small group, is imperative, otherwise I would rework a chapter until there were nothing left but erasures. And, no, I never set it aside for more than a week at a time."
It took a while, but Christina's first novel came together when she understood what motivated her characters, she told me. "I had vague plot details mapped out, but until I really got to know who each character was and what he or she wanted, I felt as if I were sometimes writing in circles. The ending came quickly and was completely different (and stronger) than what I had envisioned. Instead of a hurricane, there's an alligator. Who knew?!"
Then she considered publishing. She'd written for magazines, so she says she understood the importance of a clean manuscript and a clear query letter. But since it had been years since she'd worked in book publishing [at Random House], she read several blogs and newsletters. Then the happiness began. "A friend of a friend who worked at HarperCollins offered to take a look at my agent pitch letter and synopsis," Christina says. "She read them, asked for the full manuscript, enjoyed it, and-miraculously-sent it to editorial. A few days later, an executive editor called to ask who my agent was. She told me she wanted to buy the book. Good karma, indeed."
I asked her about any advice she'd share with other debut writers.
"Understand the way that works for you and stick with it," she advised. "Don't give up. With some people it's pounding out a first draft at a crowded cafe. For me, it's writing by hand in a notebook--I know, so old-fashioned!"
Christina writes best in the early morning, so it certainly helps to have a supportive spouse who understands she won't be around for breakfast. And possibly lunch.
"Since I was 54 when Good Karma was published, I'm certainly not going to set any land speed records, but I really feel like I've found my own quirky voice and have stories about aging and rediscovery that need to be told."
And if you need more convincing, here are a couple of cool links to articles about writers who succeeded late in life. This one, from Mental Floss, has some surprising names (go to www.mentalfloss.com and search for the topic if the link doesn't work). And another one from Cheat Sheet.
This week, I'm sharing another great article--very different from the words of Ira Glass, last post, but equally inspiring for anyone writing a memoir and confused about structure.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has written a memoir not for the faint-hearted, about capitol punishment and her own difficult past, called The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. This article from The Rumpus interviews her about the structure of her book and how she wove the two threads of frontstory and backstory. Check it out here. (If the link doesn't work, go to www.therumpus.com and search for the book title or the author's name.) Thanks to Cherste for passing this on!
Something must be in the water this week. Maybe the air. I'm hearing from discouraged writers, at every stage. And by serendipity, I also came across the brilliant short film by Daniel Sax with Ira Glass speaking to this very problem. So this week's writing exercise is short and sweet. Watch, listen, take to heart these words. (If the link doesn't work, go to www.ThisAmericanLife/extras and search for The Gap).
And for those who want to read/see more, check out this wonderful article from Brainpickings based on Glass's wisdom. (If the link doesn't work, go to www.brainpickings.org and search for Ira Glass).
Blurbs are those snappy testimonials that line the front and back of published books, enticing readers to buy and read. Blurbs mean a lot to me as a reader--often I'll go for a new book because an author I respect has endorsed it.
Agents love when a writer approaches them with a few good blurbs in hand. It's normal for blurbs to wait until your book gets closer to publishing, but it's also good to begin your list of blurb-worthy authors even as you approach final revision.
When I was nearing final revision of Your Book Starts Here, I scouted for other authors who'd published writing-craft books I admired. I made a list of writing teachers I knew, even some I'd never met but we taught at the same schools. I sweated over my request emails and sent out 10. To my surprise I got 8 yesses and only 2 no's--amazing results. I thanked those who declined, and I sent a copy of the book, once published, to those who said yes.
Kate Racculia, whose third novel, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be released in October from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, told me that asking for blurbs has gotten progressively less daunting as her writing career has progressed--she knows more writers she's comfortable reaching out to and she better understands the essential ecosystem of the blurb. "Blurbs help," Kate says, "and we all understand the game: writers ask other writers for them, or editors ask on a writer's behalf; sometimes those writers can give a blurb, sometimes they can't. It's not necessarily personal (though of course, like everything involved in book publishing and marketing, it feels personal). A blurb is a kindness! A gift writers can offer each another; a gift that one is always grateful to receive."
Her advice for soliciting blurbs:
request them from writers "your work is in conversation with"--both from writing heroes and contemporaries. Specify why you're asking the writer to blurb this book--what about their work resonates with your own?
be clear and matter of fact-"ifyou're interested and available, I'd be honored if you considered writing a blurb."
even if you feel intimidated, don't apologize for asking! Most of the time, it's flattering to the writer that they're being approached for a blurb. And it provides an opportunity for the writer "to pay it forward, to champion new works or authors they're passionate about that need a signal boost."
But she reminds us that it's also a certain amount of work to read and contribute a blurb--so if a writer declines, or even accepts and ghosts, that's fine. "It can be disappointing, certainly; but again, it's not a personal slight,” Kate says. "It's part of the business of publishing and marketing."
Maren Cooper, whose debut novel, A Better Next, has just been released from She Writes Press, started her blurb list with writers she knew from years of writing groups and classes and others publishing with SWP. "Mine your memory and notes for the writers you learned with and network with them," she advises. "Some are already published authors now who will be approachable, and you already have a bond." Maren also scoured websites for authors in her genre who offered contact information and she wasn't shy to cold call or email those she wanted to blurb her book, customizing her pitch. "You never know until you ask," she says. She was able to secure five blurbs, from a mix of authors with multiple books to those with just a debut novel to date.
"All were so generous and kind," she says," and they made it easy to ask."
Rachel Moulton, whose debut novel, Tinfoil Butterfly, comes out from MCDxFSG in October, told me that her editor asked her to fill out an author questionnaire soon after her book was accepted. "It asked about influential people in my writing life and well-known writers and critics I might know. It was from this list that they would later get a sense of not only who I might know but who they might cultivate a relationship with in regards to my work," Rachel says.
Her publisher was specifically looking for blurbs from authors who were "currently successful in terms of sales and also might make sense in terms of how/where they are trying to sell my book," she adds.
Most recently Rachel decided to read a handful of novels her editor gave her--authors to which her work could be compared. "There were two authors out of this group that I fell in love with," she said. "I'm currently preparing notes to both that can be included with the publisher's ask for blurbs."
Three authors, different takes, but all successful in getting blurbs. Now for an agent's point of view: an excellent article by Kristin Nelson about the process agents go through requesting blurbs for authors they sign. (Thanks for the link, Kathleen West!) Just in case you think it's only hard for authors.
Many years ago, when I was starting the search for my current agent (after my former one retired), I took an online course on publishing. It was taught by an agent and her author. One of our coolest classes they led was a Q & A session. We got to ask them anything about publishing, about the process of querying, about what made agents say yea or nay to a manuscript. The agent was somewhat familiar with our work by that point in the class, so her answers were relevant and specific.
I was curious about comps: are they needed? Do agents require them? Do they help your book in any way when you are querying?
"Yes, absolutely," the agent told me. "We love comps, so try to include two at least within your query."
We asked why. "Comps help me know if I can sell your book," she replied.
Comps are short for "competitive" or "comparative" titles or authors. They are used by agents to pitch your book to publishers. If you've ever read the deals on Publisher's Marketplace, they all contain comps. A novel just sold to a publisher might be The Girl on the Train meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--two comps that immediately tell the buying public what this book is like (tense, probably a thriller, with a female protagonist).
So if you, the writer, are responsible for figuring out two to three comps for your manuscript, how do you start?
It takes research. It also takes knowing your reader's view of your book. So, first step is to get feedback from readers. Your writers group or writing partner is invaluable for this. How would they describe your book--what genre, first; then what kind of writing style? You're trying to match that style with published books in your genre to create a cache of comps.
My current novel is about three women in different generations who band together to fight an injustice when one of them is framed. So I knew my comps needed to have strong women characters who overcome great odds. I write lyrically (lots of imagery) so I also knew that writing style would be something to consider in finding comps. Finally, there's a thriller aspect to my novel, even though it's more about the female relationships. I gathered titles for comps that had a thriller plot with female characters. I had to research, read, and ask writers from classes I took or who were in my writing group for ideas. I came up with Liane Moriarty's Big, Little Lies for its female relationships and The Passenger by Lisa Lutz for a strong female protagonist in desperate straits. Both of these sold well, which is another consideration for good comps, and they are fairly recent. It doesn't work to use Jane Austen as a comp, no matter how much you love her, but that's probably obvious.
I believe it took me about a year to find comps. It's not that long, considering. Once your manuscript is with beta readers, you could begin with these steps, which I used. Or read the articles that follow, for advice from the pros.
1. Poll your writers group and writing partners and your beta readers. Ask who comes to mind when they read your story. Begin a list. Check out the books they mentioned.
2. Visit Goodreads and search for those books. Expand the "if you liked this, you'll like that" list. Do the same on amazon and other online bookstores.
3. If it's helpful, freewrite about your writing style and voice--what stands out about your writing, sentence structure, lyricism or minimalism, and other characteristics of you on the page? Use this information to narrow your online search.
3. When you get a list of maybe 10 titles that could be comps, read them. Or at least skim them. See if they are anything close to your writing style, voice, or topic.
And now, the pros share their advice!
Here's a great article on comps from the publishers at Penguin Random House. And another from Fuse Literary. And finally one from the Huff Post.
Your weekly writing exercise: Consider your comps. It's not too early to begin thinking about your readalikes.
My last post was about agents wanting more than good writing. This week, I'm going to give the other side of the story: why a special something called narrative voice matters a lot if you want to attract an agent's attention.
One of my students emailed me about a discouraging response she got from an agent she queried. The agent wrote back "the subject is so intriguing, but I just didn’t fall for the narrative voice as I’d hoped I would." Ouch.
So what does this mean? What is narrative voice and why would an agent need to fall for it?
Remember that most agents get hundreds of queries a week. One agent I spoke with said she got 10,000 a year. Do the math--that means overload of words and ideas. To catch their attention, yours must stand out.
There are a couple of good ways to stand out, in my experience. One is with an intriguing subject (a different plot or location, a specialty subject, characters who do something unique or are in an unusual situation). My student's manuscript evidently passed that test--it's likely that the agent's assistant put it in the "pass" pile during that first sift-through and it got to the agent herself. I'd say that was encouraging.
But the other aspect of a winning query and sample is the voice. Narrative voice, a fancy way of saying the tone or style the writer uses to convey the story. Sentence structure, pacing, lyricism or not (image-rich or sparse), choice of words, and such mechanical decisions go into making a unique narrative voice. I define narrative voice as the style of the writer; character voice as the way the character presents herself on the page (and each character's voice will differ). Not all agree with that--some believe the narrative voice is the character voice. But if you read one author across many books, you'll notice a certain tone, a certain style, that makes it easy to tell a Stephen King novel from one written by Andre Dubus, right? To me that's the narrative voice. It is what holds it all together.
So first step is to see how it feels in these books by your favorite writers. They probably have a narrative voice that you fall for. You get engaged in that voice, not just the plot or the people, but in the way the story is written. Why did that voice pull you in?
That should teach you the second step: falling for a narrative voice is totally subjective. One agent might love this writer's narrative voice; another might not. It has to do with what the agent loves to read, what he or she is attracted to personally, as well as what might sell well in today's marketplace.
The challenging part of querying is when you forget how subjective it all is. When you take it personally, thinking that one agent's rejection means your narrative voice either sucks or is nonexistent. You can't really bank on that from one rejection.
It's a long process, these days, querying. I think it takes about a year on average (and of course there are those who get yesses in a week) and 40-90 agents to get one interested one. At least that's the averages I've experienced and heard from others. One reason is the sheer volume of queries out there (read above to remind yourself of those numbers).
Here are two articles on narrative voice for your research this week. One has its own very lively voice (click here for the article) and the other is more informative (click here).
Many of my students and private clients are good writers. They've taken classes to hone their writing, learned to revise, are adept at choosing that perfect word or phrase to make the reader melt.
But there's a lot more to writing--and publishing--a book than just expert wordsmithing. In my classes, I teach the other side of books, the structure, because I've found it harder to learn and practice. It's not taught that much in schools or even MFA programs. Good writing is, but structure is not. But you know my concerns about (obsession with?) structure if you've followed this blog for any amount of time or taken one of my workshops. It just matters so much, if you want to publish in today's market.
Jane Friedman, one of my writing heros and former publisher of Writer's Digest magazine, puts out an excellent e-newsletter. Last week, she included a link to an article where two agents talk about what matters, beyond the good writing, if you want to publish today. Read it for this week's writing exercise.
Here's the link. Go to www.janefriedman.com if the link doesn't work or if you want to browse Jane's newsletters. Well worth the time.
This blog will be on holiday next week while I am writing by the ocean.