Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Memoir Month #3

If you’ve been coming to the coffee shop regularly, you know that we are focusing on memoirs, this month. With all the nasty weather we’ve experienced, I almost wished that I’d chosen something a little cozier to snuggle up with during these cold, dark nights. As we’ve learned from Mary DeMuth, most memoirs, including her own (the newly released Thin Places) are not “cozy” books to read. Most of them contain experiences so difficult to read that one wonders how the author survived. Yet, the story of the ways God heals our brokenness is endlessly fascinating. So what do agents want in a memoir? What can get the attention of someone who can help sell it?

To provide insight to these questions, I have an excerpt from an interview with an agent. The interview was originally posted on
Guide to Literary Agents.

This excerpt features Laney Katz Becker of Markson Thoma Literary Agency. Laney was an agent at Folio Literary Management before she joined Markson Thoma. Prior to becoming an agent, Laney was an advertising copywriter and freelance journalist, as well as an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction.

Guide to Literary Agents (GLA) asks for three tips from Laney Katz Becker (LKB), but she generously gave twice that many.

GLA: You say you love memoir, and a few of your recent sales - Unsane Childhood and then First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria - are those great books writers love to see – i.e., memoirs written by people who are NOT celebrities or politicians. Give us your top 3 tips on writing memoir and catching your attention.

LKB: Love this question. Everyone thinks their story is interesting to others, but more and more publishers are worried about “platform,” which is why we see so many (too many!) celebrity books. But even if you’re not famous, you can do yourself a huge favor if you have some following/audience/readership. Whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, a blog, a regional radio show, a regular column in your local paper …something!

“When it comes to memoir, I’m a sucker for voice. I want it to feel fresh and compelling. I want to like you on the page. I also want a fresh story. I’m not interested in the dysfunctional family memoir, or the abuse (drug, sexual, etc.) memoir. I’m sorry, I truly am, but I feel like I’ve read that story too many times and I just don’t want to invest months of my life working with an author on a proposal if it’s a topic/story that doesn’t wow me. BTW: that’s another thing. I sell memoir by proposal only. And no, it doesn’t mean if you’ve already written the whole book it’s better. Proposal. Only. I also like a memoir that exposes me to a different culture or country. I like stories that allow me to walk in someone else’s shoes. In both fiction and memoir, I like racial stories.”

Information like this is extremely valuable if your writing goal is to publish a memoir. Make yourself a checklist from this excerpt that you can use to critique your own manuscript. Then take a chance and send Laney Katz Becker a proposal. What do you have to lose?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Memoir Month #2

According to the groundhog, we'll have six more weeks of winter, so I guess we'd better put down the spring seed catalogs, flip open the laptop, and write a few thousand more words. Before we do that, however, we might want to take the time to listen to Mary DeMuth's wise words on writing a memoir. So, sit back, take a sip of your latte, and give her your attention.

"I wrote Thin Places only after I gave myself permission to say it all. (More on that later.)

First, one clarification about memoir: no memoir can be 100% accurate. Every memoirist must recall, to the best of his/her ability what happened in the past. Only God knows what truly happened! And to protect the people listed in a memoir, I've changed names and distinguishing characteristics. That's allowable in a memoir, and is often expected.

To make a memoir work, it must be either:

  1. From someone famous or
  2. A story so strong and surprising, the story carries the book.

I'm of the latter category since I am by no means famous. But my story is raw and redemptive. And a bit out there. Find out more about Thin Places here.

The most important thing for a memoir is that it be memorable and beautifully written. If you don't have a platform, near perfect writing is a must backed up by an intriguing/surprising story. Think of a memoir as a novel with rising action, climax and denouement. Consider writing it as you would a novel, with characters, dialogue and a plot (even if the plot is your life!)

A great example of a memoir that tells an amazing story is Parting the Waters by Jeanne Damoff.

Even though the story is beautifully written, Jeanne shopped the story to every publishing house far and wide through her agent. Though it was a great story, she faced a lot of rejection.

Eventually, after much prayer and seeking wisdom, she decided to self-publish the book through WinePress. It's got a wonderful cover and is selling well.

Another amazing memoir is Startling Beauty by Heather Gemmen. Wow. It's one of the most beautifully written, achingly painful memoirs I've read.

It's not easy to write a memoir. I fear that some people are so afraid to do it because the people involved aren't yet dead. So they work on a fictionalized version. Is that really honest? What is the purpose of telling your true story if you make it fiction? Of course, you can take elements of your struggle and life and place that in fiction, but I've found that tacked on messages seldom make a book.

My best advice: obey God. Write what He tells you to write. If you're too afraid to write a memoir, then don't do it. Prayerfully consider whether your need to get it all out is, instead, a form of catharsis that no reader really needs to see. And if you add some of your story to the memoir, consider that story is the king. The story must support the rest of what you write."

Remember, one member of our community will be chosen in a drawing on February 28th to get a copy of Mary DeMuth's new book, Thin Places. (Note: Be sure to become a follower of our blog to be eligible for the drawing.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Memoirs Month #1

Hello, everyone! I hope you are making good use of this pause between winter storms. Coming out to spend some time with us at the coffee shop is the perfect opportunity for you to meet a friend of mine, Mary DeMuth. Mary writes both fiction and nonfiction. This month – today, in fact - her memoir, Thin Places is debuting.

I’ve learned that a good book needs both a premise and a story. The premise of Mary’s book comes from a Celtic belief. To quote Mary’s introduction: “The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. This describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a piece of vellum; where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal – not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond.” Mary laces her story into this backdrop.

This is a busy season for Mary, but she generously offered to tell us a few things about memoir writing. In this first installment, Mary talks about the way she tells her story.

“When I started my writing journey toward publication, I thought I’d always be a novelist. My agent at the time suggested I write parenting books, something I balked at for quite some time. I was a storyteller after all. And because of my upbringing, I suffered from deep wells of insecurity in my parenting. And yet, I sold three parenting books. I wrote them from a position of weakness, and I prayed other parents with struggles similar to mine would be encouraged that they’re not alone. One facet strung its way through all my books: story.

I can’t help but tell stories, whether they be fiction or nonfiction. As I brainstormed with my next agent and my editor about who I wanted to be when I grew up, we all came back to story. I am a storyteller. We decided it would be best for me to place my primary focus on novel writing, but keep the storytelling alive in nonfiction.

Two years ago, I sensed the need, urge, and desire to write a memoir. I’d come a long way in my healing journey, enough that I could write it without bitterness, with a view toward God’s intervention. Thankfully, my vision for a memoir fit well within the story idea, and Zondervan took a risk and bought the book.

I wrote the book much like I’d write a novel, with an inciting incident, some flashbacks, a rising action and a late climax. Of course, as memoirs go, I had more freedom to explore and meander through the story, but I kept the book mostly in scenes, written in first person present tense to create intimacy and immediacy with the reader.

It was difficult to create me as the main character, to place the potential reader into my own head, to play it out in a way that would woo the reader to turn the page. In doing that, I learned even more about myself, how I viewed the world (sometimes in a warped way!), and what possible impact my journey might have on fellow strugglers.

Though I knew well the landscape, setting, and characters of my life, it proved difficult to give myself permission to truly delve in deeper, to re-feel my pain, angst, joy, frustration, anticipation, and worry. Once I let myself go there, the memoir progressed. And my editor helped me shape the book more chronologically, something for which I’m deeply thankful.

The end result is story: mine. It’s the story of a little girl who faced sexual abuse, neglect, drug-using parents, fear, death of a parent, and a host of other malevolence. And yet it’s a hope-filled story, where the bright light of God’s climactic redemption outshines the dark places. It’s a story of God’s nearness when I thought I’d nearly lose my mind and will to live. How grateful I am for the beautiful love of Jesus, how dearly He chose frail me to shame the wise. It’s really His story after all.”

Mary DeMuth not only writes, she helps other writers. Check out her blog So You Wanna Be Published .
One member of our community will be chosen in a drawing on February 28th to get a copy of Mary DeMuth’s new book, Thin Places. (Note: Be sure to become a follower of our blog to be eligible for the drawing.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Second Book Blues

Oops, the wind caught the door. Give me a minute to get it completely closed this time. That blast of frigid air will cool the coffee in less than ten seconds!

Congratulations to Wendy Love. She won the (unannounced) prize for being the first member of our community to register with WestBow Press. I've never tried to ship a King Cake to Canada, but if I can do it, she will get one soon.

Marsha Moore joins us again, today. Her second book, 24 Hours Paris will debut in May. I asked her to tell us about her process for writing it. Thanks for stopping by, Marsha…

"Once all the excitement of having your first book published is out of the way and even the thrill of seeing your book in bookshops has faded slightly, it's time to sit back down at the desk and focus on your second challenge: Book Number Two.

 You'd think it would be easy. After all, you've already got something out there in the market. You've done it once, now you just need to do it again. That's the challenge – now you have a benchmark to live up to, something to match expectations, if not exceed. If you've been lucky enough to have had your first book well received, then the task becomes even more daunting.

Those thoughts flashed through my mind when I sat down to start writing 24 Hours Paris. Due to be published in May 2010 with distribution in the UK, Europe and Australia (and through Amazon in Canada and the US), the book follows much the same format as 24 Hours London: breaking down the day hour by hour and providing the best of what's on offer at any given time.  

Before I sat down to write, I thought through the following:

 What did I do well in writing my last book (i.e., what research techniques were useful; what would I use again)?

When you start researching a city as big as London or Paris, it's often difficult to stay on top of all your research. Using an Excel spreadsheet and labeling each column with specific times and activities enabled me to sort the information according to my requirements.

What could be improved (i.e., number of words written each day; fact checking; chapter structures)?

With listings like opening hours, telephone numbers and post codes, fact-checking can become a nightmare. Focusing on one item at a time  (for example, checking only post codes) allowed me to ensure the information provided was accurate.

What feedback had I received (i.e., what did people like, and what didn't they)?

Many people commented they liked the information boxes we'd scattered throughout the chapters, so with 24 Hours Paris we made sure to include those again.

What created the best environment in which to write (i.e., timelines, work structure)?

To work efficiently and to meet the deadline, I set myself a target number of listings each day. If I exceeded the listings on a particular day, then I knew I could 'take it easy' the next day. In this way, I was in control of my workflow and I knew exactly how much more I needed to do at any given time.

 Once I'd made a note of all of those factors and set up my writing schedule accordingly, I was ready to write the best book I could – and to have fun doing it. All I needed to do was stay focused on the task and not let those annoying subconscious voices question if I (or the book) was good enough.

 Second book blues? No way!"

Monday, February 1, 2010

Community Spotlight 3

Hello, friends! It's Mardi Gras season in New Orleans. That means everyone is eating King Cake – no matter what diet they follow the rest of the year. Since you may not have had the pleasure of trying one of these over-the-top sweets, I brought a large one for us to share. It's my favorite style, filled with cream cheese. Pass these slices around the table until we all have one. You may want to check it before you take a bite. One slice will have a tiny plastic baby inside, so don't break a tooth. Traditionally, whoever finds the baby brings the next King Cake to share.

We are celebrating, today, but not Mardi Gras. We are celebrating the first corporate support for our community blog. Let me introduce WestBow Press.

Michael Marcus has been telling us about self-publishing, one of many options available to writers, today. WestBow Press represents another option, what the industry is calling "indie" (for independent) publishing. For writers who have neither the time nor the energy to become as knowledgeable as Michael or Sunny Carney, another self-publisher who has visited the blog, indie publishing is one alternative.

This option will likely be more expensive for a writer than self-publishing, but having professional help and getting a book published within 90 days may be worth the extra costs. It certainly was for me. (I'll write more about that in a later post.)

You may be familiar with the term "affiliate program." In an affiliate program, a person refers a potential customer to a company. The company pays the person doing the referring a fee for customers who buy something. WestBow Press has an affiliate program where the person who refers others receives $5.00 for each person who links to their web site (and registers on the site) just to check out WestBow Press and $100 if someone who has registered buys one of their publishing packages.

What we have is a modified affiliate program. By linking through the WestBow Press icon on our blog, registering on the site and using the promotion code WBPAW20101 (also shown with the icon), you get the $100 as a discount. That's right. I don't get the money, you do. This discount will apply on top of any other promotions or special offers they have on the web site. No matter how many publishing packages you buy, the discount always applies when you link through our blog, register on the site and use the promotion code. (Note: WestBow Press also offers other services, such as marketing, and the discount does not apply to them.)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with WestBow Press, here are a few basic facts. WestBow Press is a division of Thomas Nelson Publishing. Thomas Nelson is a top-rank traditional publisher in the Christian market. As a part of their business model, they decided that WestBow Press will publish books of all genres – any subject matter – as long as they contain Christian morals, inspirational themes and family values. The company has editorial standards that reflect their Christian worldview. Check them out. WestBow Press may be just what you need.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The WestBow Press icon is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link to their site and register there, I will receive an affiliate commission of $5.00. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."